Guest post by SRIJAN DUTTA
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility.”
The line quoted above is from Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s ‘last’ letter, discovered after he was found hanging in his hostel room in January 2016. The letter had exposed how caste-based discrimination is used as a medium of oppression against Dalits and other minorities. Casteism serves both as an ideology and as a means for exploitation by the upper castes and upper classes of the Indian society.
Recently, a complaint has been made by a second year Masters student of the Department of Library and Information Science in one of the hotbeds of Bengal student politics, Jadavpur University. Jadavpur Uiversity is also a premier institution of higher learning, with a well deserved reputation. Raja Manna, a student belonging to the ‘Scheduled Caste’ category, has revealed that he has been facing a lot of harassment and discrimination at the hands of his dissertation guide, Prof. Udayan Bhattacharya, an upper caste Brahmin.
Clearly, these are not isolated instances. We have also recently heard of Payel Tadvi, a junior doctor at BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai, who was found dead in her hostel room on 22 May 2019. She belonged to a Muslim tribal community and complained of severe caste discrimination and harassment by three of her Hindu upper caste colleagues.
Rohith Vemula’s letter had given us a lot to reflect upon. It explained the deep-seated malaise the Indian society suffers from: widespread inequality, the marginal representation of ‘lower’ castes in education and employment, upper caste bias against reservation and use of caste-based violence for silencing dissenters. The grip of Brahminical hegemony over the entire society is so tight that a human being is degraded to a mere identity and on the basis of that identity one’s upward mobility is restricted for good. The individual has to live in conformity with the implications of one’s ascribed social position or otherwise face immense humiliation at the hands of the upper castes.
Raja Manna’s ordeals began in January this year, when he was deprived of his right to choose an optional paper granted under the CBCS system. Out of 19 students in his class, Manna alone was not allowed to choose the paper and was clear evidence that he was targeted by his professor. There are reasons to believe that this was related to his being dalit as he often had to face ridicule that invoked his caste background. Since the perpetrator himself was the HoD at that time, Raja reached out to the Dean of Arts through a letter demanding that the issue be resolved. The Dean reassured him that the issue would be addressed immediately but no action was initiated by him. Meanwhile, Raja Manna’s letter to the Dean of Arts had enraged the accused, who alleged started threatening him in April. According to Manna, Prof. Bhattacharya tried to intimidate him by threatening to teach him a lesson for complaining to the Dean of Arts and ruining his career by not giving him proper marks.
Raja Manna suffers from serious health problems and because of that he had not been coming to the university regularly for some time. After resuming attending his classes daily, he was troubled again while giving a presentation in front of the former HoD, Prof. Bhattacharya.
As the frequency of such incidents increased to a matter of routine occurrence, Raja Manna wrote another complaint letter, this time to the Vice-chancellor of the university, Prof. Suranjan Das. However, Arijit Das and Arindam Sarkar, two research scholars of the erstwhile HoD, also wrote two letters describing Manna’s claims to be false. The Vice-chancellor took no notice of Raja’s first complaint and he wrote two more letters seeking justice.
In the last week of May, Raja Manna along with a few student activists of the campus visited the Vice-chancellor’s office. But, instead of changing his dissertation guide, the VC insisted that hecontinue to work under the accused professor. Moreover, the VC and the Dean of Arts requested Manna not to pursue his demand for the formation of an investigation committee. According to the student activists present, excuses such as “Raja’s future will be ruined,” or “lack of trust on part of the student for his professors” and “student-teacher relationship is not an antagonistic one” were put forward by the authorities to discard the demand for the formation of an investigation committee.
A meeting of the Executive Council of the university took place on 28 May, following which the authorities have stated that an investigation committee will be formed by the SC/ST Cell. The appointment of a new dissertation guide is still on hold and will be addressed in a meeting of the Board of Studies of the Library and Information Science department.
Although all student organisations in the university have rallied behind Raja, the TMCP and the SFI, student wings of the present and former ruling parties in West Bengal, have remained passive so far. The SFI leadership has refused to intervene despite having a majority in the Arts Faculty Students Union.
Those who have taken up the cudgels on Raja’s behalf point out that such instances of caste-based discrimination in isolation has restricted us from understanding the upper caste Brahminical hegemony over the larger society. Considering these cases to be scattered issues of caste-based discrimination has facilitated their normalisation in the society. Such issues of injustice often escalate to unfortunate cases like the ‘institutional murder’ of Rohith Vemula and will continue to do so if the students do not raise their voice against caste discrimination in educational institutions.
Raja Manna has shown remarkable courage by disclosing over social media the details of the kind of discrimination he faced at the hands of his professor. From being socially isolated in the department to getting taunted by PhD scholars, Raja went through a lot of mental harassment.His professor did not miss a chance to ridicule him in class, whether the reason was Manna’s hairstyle or his academic performance. Prof. Bhattacharya always managed to connect everything to Raja’s caste identity. The accused allegedly threatened Raja that he would “break his back” after he had filed the complaint. According to the victim, Arijit and Arindam, the two PhD scholars had also remarked that they would strip Manna during his examination and conduct a search on him. On 8 June, a MPhil student of the same department unexpectedly visited Raja Manna’s house and tried to convince his mother that demanding a probe would turn out to be detrimental for Raja’s career. But, all this trauma and intimidation could not suppress him because of his determination to fight back against caste-based discrimination. Amidst all the uncertainty that lies ahead regarding his future, Raja Manna waits in hope for justice and wants others to join the fight.