Like Rohith Vemula, I am a Dalit researcher and have contemplated suicide. I think it is the despair, a very dark place that haunts us when we begin to understand the ways in which casteism operates. If that does not make us want to kill ourselves, it is the scepticism and hostility of non-Dalit friends and colleagues. I remember an episode from my alma mater, India’s premier institution for legal education, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore.
I had appeared for this highly competitive entrance exam in 1993, and like all my classmates, we were allocated roll numbers based on our positions in this exam. These positions were arranged in serial order and there were four sub-categories to it: First came the “general category” or the “merit list”, then the “reserved category” of those who belong to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), then the students who are foreigners, followed by the students who were “waitlisted”.
We had four classes in a day, one after the other, and our names were called out at the beginning of each class, in the order of our roll numbers. This was done to mark attendance. We were so habituated to hearing our names in this order that many of us remember our roll numbers even after 17 years of graduating. At the time, and amidst other coding that was inherent to its categories, these roll numbers declared SC/ ST students in a separate category, and this declaration was made day in and day out — four times.
The NLSIU’s daily rehearsal of roll call was a rehearsal of its “merit” and casteism, amidst other forms of biases that were inherent in the institution. It permeated into student evaluations. There was no system of “blind marking”. We were required to mention our full names and roll numbers for all our examinations and written assignments. Some students would complain, mildly and in private, that the faculty is biased against them. These complaints were not taken seriously. The poor performance of SC/ ST students was considered to be an obvious outcome of their unworthiness to be in law school, that if it were not for reservations they would not be there at all. And now that they were there, their poor performance was only to be expected — this oddly and perversely justified the system of “merit”. For this “merit” to prevail and defend itself, it was necessary for the SC/ ST students to fail. A greater proportion of SC/ ST students failed compared to non-SC/ ST students. Nobody thought this might be a failing of the faculty and its prejudices. This went on for more than 10 years and nobody thought anything was wrong.
Our roll numbers normalised and institutionalised the bias based on “merit”. It was so routine that it did not seem odd or out of place to most people, much less to me at the time. Surely, the faculty was older and wiser, but even they seemed unaware of the ways in which our roll numbers became tools of institutional bias. It was not until later, well after graduating, and when I began working on social justice issues, that I began to reflect on the injustices of these roll numbers.
I was more conscious of this when I went back to the NLSIU for a reunion in 2008. Somebody had the clever idea of starting the reunion with a roll call, just like it used to be. We gathered in our first-year classroom and a faculty member called out our roll numbers. This was in jest but I was paralysed with indignation. I sank into my chair and I was horrified with this rehearsal, wrong in its origin, wrong in its practice, and wrong even in jest. Every name that was called out was a celebration of the NLSIU’s investment in “merit” and casteism. I grimaced and sank lower into my chair. I barely answered my roll call. This was a terrible start to a supposed celebration for me. I did not protest because I did not want to disrupt this celebratory moment of the reunion. I did not want to be a killjoy and I knew that the majority and popular sentiments would favour this rehearsal of roll call and see nothing wrong with it.
I saw this happening again with the preparation for the NLSIU’s silver jubilee in 2014. A seemingly innocuous registration process on Facebook required alumni to mention their roll numbers. I decided to raise a voice this time and requested the organisers to stop using the roll numbers. This invited a string of abrasive messages from other alumni. There was a clamour of voices that wanted to uphold “meritocracy”, deny any talk of discrimination, and celebrate the silver jubilee — without any self-reflection on anything that might have gone wrong with the NLSIU’s past.
More deafening than this cacophony of opposition was the silence of SC/ ST alumni. There was not a single SC/ ST voice that affirmed or denied the systemic discrimination. There was one brief comment from an SC alumnus and it was promptly self-censored and deleted. A few other SC/ ST alumni wrote privately and agreed with me, but they would not talk openly. There’s a stigma to SC/ ST status and it continues to silence us.
Rohith’s death is a tragic wake-up call. We must wake up, break the silence and put an end to casteism.