Twenty-five years after he set himself on fire, Atul Aggarwal still struggles to understand why he took the extreme step. “It was certainly not an agitation against reservation,” says the 37-year-old as he recalls the Delhi of 1990, when several young, upper-caste students attempted self-immolation in protest against the then VP Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendation to reserve 27 per cent public sector jobs for Other Backward Castes (OBCs).
Aggarwal was then a 12-year-old Class VII student and “had no idea” what reservation was. “It had something to do with child psychology,” he says, sitting in his one-room flat in Noida.
Aggarwal had moved to Delhi in 1989, after living for four years in Bhutan, where his father, a junior clerk with the Ministry of Health, was on deputation. In the capital, he “felt unhappy and out of place”. A year later, the city was awash with anti-reservation protests and Aggarwal “got carried away”. “Everywhere, people were only talking about the Mandal report. Rallies were being held, roads were blocked, youngsters were killing themselves. As a child, I felt I should be part of this movement though I did not understand what it stood for,” he says.
On October 8, 1990, after his Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Vivek Vihar shut prematurely for the day because of the protests, Aggarwal hitched a ride on a scooter to head to his home in Shahdara. “I was squeezed between two men who were talking about self-immolations by anti-Mandal agitators. That was the trigger,” he says. When he reached home, he took a can of kerosene, ran to a narrow alley, still in his uniform, doused himself and lit a match. “I noticed I was burnt till the belt of my uniform, and was still alive. I poured more kerosene on myself, because I wanted to die. But police took me away to Safdarjung Hospital where I was admitted in the ICU,” he says.
Aggarwal suffered 55 per cent third-degree burns in his upper body, and lay unconscious for a month during which he was administered 25 bottles of blood and 125 bottles of glucose. He would stay another three months in hospital, and be given 1,800 antibiotic injections. Over the next year, he underwent four operations, each lasting about six hours, during which skin from his thighs and legs would be grafted onto his arms and neck.
His physical recovery was quick, and he was able to resume school for the next session. But the “psychological damage”, he says, was done. “For months, I would walk with stiff arms and neck. The scars were quite visible. Once, one of my classmates puked at my sight. Many others simply avoided me. Some called me a coward. Onlookers in buses would give me pitiful looks,” he says.
Aggarwal adds that he suffered from a “deep-rooted inferiority complex” and decided that the only way to “be on a par with others” was to get into IIT and IIM. He immersed himself into studies, cracked the IIT-JEE, and studied mechanical engineering at IIT-Kharagpur. He then applied for CAT and got through IIM-Calcutta, where he specialised in marketing. Over the next five years, till 2008, he worked for four different companies till he decided to retire from his “futile corporate life”.
The next two years, he spent “in contemplation” in the Himalayas, and in 2010, he took a room on rent in Noida, away from his parent’s home in south Delhi as he “prefers solitude”.
Now working as a maths teacher at a centre of the Super 30 IIT coaching institute, Aggarwal, a bachelor, says he has “no regrets” about his self-immolation bid. “I am living a perfectly normal life,” he says.
So, does he have a view on reservation now? “It’s bullsh*t. Give free education and financial assistance to disadvantaged castes. Why punish someone who was born into an upper-caste family?” he says.