India has one of the highest rates of suicides among people between the age of 15 and 29 years. Many of these are young adults in college and university who belong to marginalised communities. Between 2007 and 2017, 20 Dalit students committed suicide in India’s most premier institutes like IIT, IIM, AIIMS, and the University of Hyderabad. Now India’s most politically vibrant campus Jawaharlal Nehru University is also on the list with the recent suicide of a Dalit M.Phil student who hanged himself on March 13. His death leaves us dumbfounded as we seek explanations and reasons as to why he chose to end his life. Many have written about it, blaming the institution for this; many, including several student activists, found it a cowardly act. They proudly refer to Ambedkar, Birsa, Phule, Periyar, Marx and who fought the fight. Such activists perceive life in binaries: cowardly and brave; bourgeois and proletariat class; exploiter and exploited; upper and lower caste. Either you become a Gandhi or a Bhagat Singh. A middle path does not appear to be an option.
An important social psychologist and sociologist Eric Fromm (1947), believes that “people are born with definite personalities, which may be limited by life and it is part of the analyst’s job to know what the client was meant to be – to help him find the disassociated part of himself”. Well-being may mean “the restoration of his specific personality” (Funk 2009: 30). How should we understand a society characterized by hierarchies, where an individual’s surname is more defining than his first name or who he becomes? What do we feel when we read Rajini Krish’s last words, “When equality is denied, everything is denied”? Fromm suggests that a society’s mental health cannot be assessed in an abstract manner but must focus on specific economic, social, and political factors at play in any given society and should consider whether these factors contribute to insanity or are conducive to mental stability (Brennen 2006:10). In the Indian context, Dalits as one of the most vulnerable sections of society face prejudice, humiliation and stigma in their everyday lives which leads to low self-esteem, stunted self confidence and even self-doubt and depression. How do caste-based assaults impact emotional and mental well-being (Jadhav, Mosse and Dostaler 2016)?
We must remember that JNU is one of the few liberal campuses in India where there are sizable numbers of Dalit and OBC students due to the tireless efforts of students unions who ensured the fulfillment of reservations in admissions. Yet the faculty remain for the most part, Brahmins. A Dalit professor cites the discrimination many lower caste students face: “Many Dalit students come to me and complain that they are not accepted by their upper caste supervisors. They take me as their co-guide to continue as a student and complete their research”. As a matter of fact there are only handful of Dalit faculty in the School of Social Sciences which has more than a dozen centres with hundreds of faculty members. Unlike the student quotas, the reserved quotas for faculty in JNU have not been filled, which raises some serious ideological questions on the part of Left wing students and the teachers’ union who have been ruling the campus for more than four decades. In short, who can Dalit students turn to if they face any problems with their supervisors? Talking to Krish’s friends and other senior students, I discovered that, academically, Krish was struggling with the fact that he was not allotted the supervisor he had hoped for – an eminent professor in his centre. As for personal matters, one can only speculate if they factored into his decision to end his life.
My analysis is limited to my observations as well as my interactions on campus. I focus on “emotions” to explain Rajini Krish’s suicide. Emotions can make the difficult and unnatural appear easy and natural. Emotions are non-rational but at the same time, they are not irrational. They fuse self and other, subject and object, the ontological and epistemological (Berezin 2001: 93). When we analyse such cases of suicide, society generally ignores the emotional struggles of an individual at a particular age, in this case, the survival of a first generation learner in an elite university campus. The sensitivity and impressionability any newcomer faces in a university is great – the desire to express emotions and connect with peers, to feel accepted and part of a group, is priceless. The university campus is the space which helps in shaping one’s identity. It provides the space to experiment and explore. Yet for first generation learners, the university experience can be overwhelming and alienating.
Fromm suggests that as people become alienated, they lose their dignity and their understanding of themselves and do not see their experiences as being based on their own decisions, judgments, and actions. Rather than existing as unique productive individuals able to use reason to relate to the world, alienated individuals crave approval from others and fear being considered different because they see it as a danger that threatens their sense of security (Brennen 2006:10). Yet, can this alienation be filled with emotions of love and affection among members of society? Muthukrishna Rajini Krish was also friend of Rohit Vemula; both were first generation learners and Ambedkarites, therefore led rather socially active lives. One can only assume they lived with a dream for an equal and just society but left this world with emptiness inside.
Brennen, Bonnie (2006) Searching for the ‘Sane’ Society: Eric Fromm’s Contribution to Social Theory, Javnost- The Public, 13 (3) p. 7-16.
Fromm E. (1947) Man for Himself. Greenwich, CT.: Fawcett Premier Books.
Fromm E. (1962) Beyond the Chains of Illusion. NY: Trident Press.
Jadhav, S; D. Mosse and N. Dostaler (2016) Minds of Caste-Discrimination and its Affects, Anthropology Today, 32(1).
Rainer Funk (ed). (2009) The Clinical Erich Fromm, Rodopi.
Dalit students’ suicide in country’s premier institutions in last decade:
- M. Shrikant, final year, B.Tech, IIT Bombay, 1st Jan 2007
- Ajay S. Chandra, integrated PhD, Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore – 26 Aug, 2007
- Jaspreet Singh, final year MBBS, Government Medical College, Chandigarh, 27 Jan 2008.
- Senthil Kumar, PHD, School of Physics, University of Hyderabad – 23 Feb 2008
- Prashant Kureel, first year, B.Tech, IIT Kanpur, 19 April, 2008
- G. Suman, final year, M.Tech, IIT Kanpur, 2nd Jan, 2009
- Ankita Veghda, first year, BSc Nursing, Singhi Institute of Nursing, Ahmedabad, 20 April, 2009
- D Syam Kumar, first year B.Tech, Sarojini Institute of Engineering and Technology, Vijayawada, 13 Aug, 2009
- S. Amravathi, national level young woman boxer, Centre of Excellence, Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh,Hyderabad, 4th Nov, 2009
- Bandi Anusha, B.Com final year, Villa Mary College, Hyderabad, 5th Nov, 2009
- Pushpanjali Poorty, first year, MBA, Visvesvaraiah Technological University, Bangalore, 30th Jan, 2010
- Sushil Kumar Chaudhary, final year MBBS, Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University (formerly KGMC), Lucknow, 31 Jan, 2010.
- Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, 3rd March, 2010
- JK Ramesh, second year, BSc, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, 1st July, 2010
- Madhuri Sale, final year B.Tech, IIT Kanpur, 17th November, 2010
- G. Varalakshmi, B.Tech first year, Vignan Engineering College, Hyderabad, 30 Jan, 2011
- Manish Kumar, IIIrd Year B.Tech, IIT Roorkee, 13 Feb, 2011
- Linesh Mohan Gawle, PhD, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, 16 April, 2011
- Rohith Vemula, PhD. Univeirsty of Hyderabad. January 2016
- Muthukrishna, Rajni Krish, Jawaharlal Nehru University, March 13, 2017
Gaurarv J. Pathania researched student activism in Indian university campuses for his doctoral thesis in Sociology of Education at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. Currently, he is a research assistant for the UK-India project Discrimination, Distress and Higher Education in India.