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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 ...

He says such exchanges have a direct effect on his performance: “You feel dehumanized and you forget everything you want to say. They are saying, ‘Okay, you are a reservation-category student and you don’t know anything.’ You’re marked from that moment.”

In 2006, a series of protests by Dalit and aboriginal students at AIIMS complaining of discrimination prompted the central government to appoint Sukhadeo Thorat, a prominent academic from a Dalit background, to investigate.

His three-person commission found dorms segregated by caste, students subjected to open hostility by their teachers and even physical attacks by dominant-caste students on those they considered inferior.

The Thorat report said these students consistently reported having less time with oral examiners, and being asked their surname in unnecessary situations. It faulted AIIMS for failing to provided language support to students coming from Hindi- language schools and for relying heavily on subjective assessments rather than more objective tests.

Also, in a grim foreshadowing of the experience Anil Meena would describe a few years later – the report criticized cases of sudden rule changes that had a disproportionate impact on reserved-category students.

In Mr. Meena’s case, the weight given to one assessment was changed to 50 from 25 per cent, seemingly arbitrarily, after the exam had been conducted. This caused him and many other students to fail – almost all reservation students, said Mahinder Meena, an intern at AIIMS (also from the Rajasthani aboriginal community) who helped organize protests after the suicide. The Thorat report recorded a pattern of such incidents.

AIIMS’s administration rejected the report “in totality,” calling it biased, although under public pressure it did increase its language-learning support.

In the wake of Anil Meena’s death, the administration acknowledges only that he had been depressed about failing an exam and was struggling with English.

“This was a tragic event,” says Rakesh Yadav, AIIMS’s subdean for academic issues. “No institution wants that.”

The school did offer financial compensation to Mr. Meena’s parents. But Dr. Yadav rejects the idea that the university’s conduct had any role. “It is absolutely not true. All support any [medical] student needs is provided – the faculty and the administration is always there to help out.”

Dr. Yadav will agree that the area of language support might be insufficient – that an hour a day might not be enough to get a unilingual Hindi student through a medical curriculum. “It’s basically a language problem.”

Beyond that, however, he says there was “no discrimination” in AIIMS. “If you say faculty are doing the discrimination – it’s too much. … They assess students based on marks.”

As for bias, he adds, there are processes to prevent any individual professor from vindictively undermining a student, but clinical skills, for example, must by definition be evaluated in person: “To modify it to be 100 per cent objective – it’s not possible.”

However, after Anil Meena’s death, AIIMS contacted Prof. Thorat again and asked him to return to the school to investigate, which he considers a major improvement over the hostile reception to his last inquiry.

“This time there is an attitude to do something about the problem they face,” he says. “I have a feeling that because of these two suicides … it shook the faculty and teachers.”

Jagram Meena hopes so. He points out that his friend Anil placed 400th in the all-India medical entrance exam, far higher than most of the general-category students at AIIMS. They both certainly struggled in their first year – they had to consult the dictionary 10 times to read a single page of their textbooks – but Anil was managing.

He played Bollywood music loudly to relax, or joined friends – mostly from his caste group – for cricket in the courtyard. His father and brother were taking loans to send him fees every month. He was coping, Jagram says, until the rules kept shifting.

“We’re in no way lower than the general-category students,” says Jagram, sipping tea at the canteen outside the student dorm.

“One day,” he says – when the public schools that prepare Dalit and aboriginal kids are as good as everyone else’s – “we’ll all be one category.”

But Mahinder Meena cuts him off, demanding to know how change like that could come as long as it’s almost impossible for Dalit students to succeed.

“Our fear about his suicide,” Mahinder says, “is that it will change nothing.”

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent based in New Delhi.

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