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From left: Mahendra Meena and Pankaj Meena were medical students with Anil Meena, who died by suicide in March. (Lana Slezic For The Globe and Mail)
From left: Mahendra Meena and Pankaj Meena were medical students with Anil Meena, who died by suicide in March. (Lana Slezic For The Globe and Mail)

BREAKING CASTE

Why there's an alarming rash of suicides among Dalit students Add to ...

The university quickly released the explanation that she was distraught after being caught cheating on an exam – but her uncle, her home state’s chief minister, who had personally enrolled his niece at the high-priced school, called that claim preposterous.

He registered a complaint with the National Commission of Schedule Castes and Tribes, saying she had been driven to suicide by harassment at the college.

India has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, especially in the age group of college students. But these deaths stand out because of the clear connection, often described in suicide notes, with the discrimination the victim endured.

The issue goes to the heart of a story that India wants to tell about itself these days: that traditional guarantees of privilege – wealth and caste – are losing power in favour of merit.

But if that is at all true, it is thanks largely to the program of “reservations” – a form of affirmative action under which all publicly funded educational institutions must reserve about 40 per cent of their seats for aboriginal (or “tribal”), Dalit and “other backward caste” students.

A percentage of jobs in government institutions are also reserved, as are political seats in municipal government.

The education reservations were set out in the Indian constitution adopted in 1950, although it was decades before there was more than a handful of such students who even reached the point of applying, and uproars from dominant-caste students and their families were a consistent drag on the program’s full implementation until recently.

Today, there is a politically incorrect tint to complaining about reservations, but many dominant-caste students still resent them.

India is desperately short of higher-education institutions. The Ministry of Human Resource Development says the country needs at least 1,500 more – 520,000 students wrote the entrance exam for the IIT this year, competing for fewer than 10,000 spots.

A degree from one of the elite engineering or medical institutes is a ticket to a life of comfort. But the competition for seats, combined with the reservations, means the admission cutoff – the minimum grade for acceptance – for non-reserved students hovers in the high 90s.

Dalit students are perceived as taking seats that should go to students who scored higher. Indeed, there are thoughtful critics, such as the leading New Delhi public intellectual Gucharan Das, who point out that inequality in India today does not always follow traditional lines – some in the “other backward caste” groups are prospering, but they pressed to be included among the reservations, while other poor people are left out.

But those are the exceptions. Anoop Kumar, who runs the Insight Foundation, says most of the backlash against reservations comes from an (often deliberate) misunderstanding of the principle. “People are defining merit strictly in terms of marks in the entrance exam, and that conveniently discounts all the other factors affecting the performance of the students,” he says.

“So a student from an urban, upper-caste, upper-class background who has both parents literate and studied at a an elite, private [English-language] school is considered more ‘meritorious’ when he or she has 85-per-cent marks, than a reservation-category student who goes to a terrible government school in [Hindi] and has no one in the family who is literate but still scores 75-per-cent marks.”

Yet their dominant-caste peers still grouse that the reserved-category students would never make it if they had to compete on an open field. Their professors often share that view: As Ms. Barge points out, the faculty in these prestigious institutes is overwhelming made up of people from the dominant castes, since only a single generation of Dalits really has had the chance for a professional education.

“They have this idea rooted in their psyche that tribal and Dalit students ‘don’t have the merit and can’t match up to us,’ ” says Ajita Rao, a Dalit medical doctor who studies discrimination in professional education. “That’s the hidden thing.”

Dr. Rao says that resentment, hostility and isolation – rooted in the idea that Dalits and aboriginals are “unclean” – permeates college life. They are shunned in dining halls and dorms and mocked in classes, ever reminded of their marginalization.

This has a debilitating effect on students who always thought of themselves as achievers.

“You go for [an oral examination] and they ask you your name and where you are from, and you say Meena from Rajasthan – they say, ‘ Oh, okay,’ ” says Jagram Meena, 20, who was a close friend of Anil Meena’s (but no relation – their surname is given to all in their caste group).

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