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LITTLE else exposes the hollowness of our claims of being a tolerant nation/society, wedded to the principles of social inclusion and mutual respect, than the existential situation of the ‘reserved/quota’ category students in our institutions of higher learning. Way back in the 1980s, Giriraj Kishore, then Registrar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, brilliantly captured the travails, despair and despondency of SC/ST students trapped in an unfamiliar, demanding and hostile environment – treated with derision by the faculty for their inability to cope with the rigours of the course and socially ostracized by fellow students for having ‘sneaked’, courtesy reservations, into a space hitherto occupied by those from a more privileged social and economic background who saw themselves as meritorious.

Those plagued with a long memory may recollect that IIT Kanpur was at the time ‘infamous’ for the troubling incidence of student suicides. Three decades on, a plethora of affirmative action programmes has undoubtedly resulted in an increase in the number of students from ‘depressed classes’ making it to these hallowed precincts. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the social prejudice, hostility and ghettoization faced by these students has not declined, possibly even increased, as the competition for scarce seats has intensified. The 2007 report of the Committee to Enquire into Allegations of Differential Treatment of Students in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences by Sukhadeo Thorat, then Chairman, University Grants Commission, makes clear that the situation portrayed in Giriraj Kishore’s novel, Parishishta, still obtains. And S. Anand, commenting on the recent suicide of Anil Kumar Meena (3 March 2012) in the 16 April issue of Outlook points out, this was the 19th case of student suicide in our premier education institutes in just the last four years, and the second in AIIMS.

Anil Meena, an adivasi medical student, the son of a poor farmer from Baran, Rajasthan, had scored 75 per cent in class 12 and secured second rank in the AIIMS entrance test. Yet, an unfamiliarity with English (he was a Hindi medium student in school), combined with an unhelpful, if not uncaring, faculty and hostile fellow students, resulted in his failing the first year exams. Unable to cope with the stress of ‘failure’, he decided to end his life. But more than tragic, what is disturbing is the concerted attempt to explain away the suicide as ‘individual failure’ and ‘psychological problems’, as if the case, like previous ones, had nothing to do with institutional and societal problems.

Ironically, pushed on the backfoot by the negative publicity following Meena’s suicide, Sukhadeo Thorat has once again been asked to now examine the implementation of his previous recommendations. Even as we await the report, it can be safely asserted that the findings will reveal that none of the Thorat Committee recommendations – starting a remedial course in English; setting up a formal system of consultation between SC/ST students and the faculty; ending the exclusion and ghettoization of SC/ST students in the hostel; and so on – have been acted upon.

Unlike many of us from more privileged social and economic backgrounds, most Dalit and tribal students who make it to these prestigious institutions are often first generation graduates in their families, or even communities, usually from poor families who have helped them come this far at great personal cost. Usually they have studied in non-English medium schools and lack the social capital necessary to survive in a demanding environment. Yet, instead of admiration for their grit in struggling against great odds, and creating enabling structures of support, they continue to face resentment and hostility from both faculty and students, seen as ‘illegitimate’ interlopers in and a drag on a merit-driven environment – ‘beneficiaries’ of a system of reservation.

Unfortunately, even as the privileged strata continues to seethe in resentment, erroneously convinced that the quota regime has ‘robbed’ them of their rightful due, both the government and institutional authorities continue to persist with ill-conceived policies, believing that mere reservation without well-functioning support structures is sufficient to combat entrenched social prejudice. All this does is to further convince the elites that affirmative action is a nonstarter. Barring rare initiatives, such as by the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode in collaboration with the National Institute of Advance Studies, Bangalore to run a one year orientation and skill development programme for students from SC/ST/OBC backgrounds, the situation in most institutions remains dismal.

It is instructive that even after 60 years, our higher education institutions continue to flout the constitutional mandate for reservations. Little surprise that the diversity profile of our students remains so skewed, and that the few who do manage to break through, remain seeped in despair, sometimes preferring to end their lives.

Harsh Sethi