reportage

Unhealed Wounds

The suicide of a Dalit student at India’s top medical college reveals an institution bitterly divided over caste and reservations.

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 1 July 2012

ON A SATURDAY EVENING in the first week of March, Anil Kumar Meena, a first-year student at the elite All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, reluctantly joined his friends for a weekend game of cricket on the campus lawns. Anil was a little lost on the field—he fumbled with the ball, dropped catches, and his throwscame in late. At times, he wistfully watched the ball roll across the boundary.

“He was depressed,” his friend Rajendra Meena, a second-year student at AIIMS, recalled. “I had to drag him forcibly from his room to play.” But after they lost the match, Anil went over to Rajendra’s hostel room to watch an episode of the popular comedy show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Rajendra’s computer. The two boys, who had both made a long journey to India’s most prestigious medical school from impoverished Dalit families in remote, rural Rajasthan, shared a good laugh before Anil returned to his own room to study.

When Rajendra went downstairs to Anil’s room a few hours later to borrow a packet of biscuits, he found his friend sitting on a chair with his head lowered, staring anxiously at the floor. An anatomy textbook was lying open on the desk, but Anil was turned in the other direction, facing his bed. “The sheets were rolled up like a rope,” Rajendra said. “I asked him, why are your sheets like this, and he said he had to wash them.”

Rajendra was well aware of Anil’s woes. Both had come from government schools where they were taught in Hindi; at AIIMS, classes were only in English, and they barely understood the lectures. “It’s a different world,” Rajendra told me. “We were toppers in Hindi, now we are failures.” The AIIMS students struggling with the transition to English tend to study on their own—meticulously going through textbooks with the aid of a dictionary—and seek assistance from older students from similar backgrounds, rather than attending lectures they can’t follow. Anil had spent much of the previous year in his hostel room, translating his way through the course materials, sentence by sentence, to prepare for his exams. But shortly before the test, in June 2011, Anil was told he wouldn’t be allowed to sit the exams because his class attendance was below 50 percent. This was an unpleasant surprise: the rule was not a new one, but it had rarely if ever been enforced before. In August, he appeared for the supplementary examinations instead, but—to his surprise—failed in all three subjects. Since then, he had been trying to meet with senior faculty members to request that his papers be reevaluated; he believed that a last-minute change in the assessment process had prevented him from passing in at least one subject, but nobody seemed willing to listen.

The following morning, Rajendra called Anil to invite him to breakfast, but his phone was switched off. When Rajendra knocked on Anil’s door later that afternoon, there was no answer. “I thought he might have been studying all night and sleeping through a Sunday afternoon,” Rajendra told me.

A day later, on 5 March, as Rajendra walked past Anil’s room in the morning, he saw a newspaper tucked in the door handle and another lying on the floor. He knocked, and knocked again harder. Anil still did not answer. Alarmed, Rajendra went outside and set up a ladder so he could peer into Anil’s first-floor window, but found the curtains had been drawn. After asking several other students if they had seen Anil in the past two days, Rajendra went to get the hostel guards. When the guards broke the hinged window above the door, they saw Anil’s body hanging from the ceiling fan.

Within a few minutes, a group of students, teachers and police had gathered outside Anil’s door; that day’s newspaper was still stuck in the handle. A carpenter broke open the door. Anil’s face had turned blue, and his mouth was flecked with dry white saliva. Rajendra burst into tears: Anil was still wearing the same clothes Rajendra had last seen him in—a blue T-shirt and light brown capri pants. He had hung himself with the rolled-up bed sheets Rajendra had noticed in his room two days earlier. Several moist eyes watched as the police officers untied the knot around Anil’s neck and took his body off to the hospital’s mortuary. While doctors were conducting the postmortem, students lit candles in the courtyard to bid Anil farewell.

A few hours later, most of the students had returned to their rooms—apart from a small group of Dalit students who stood outside room 63, shocked and distraught, trying to understand how their friend had cut his life short. One of them called Mahinder Meena, a postgraduate
doctor at -AIIMS who often counseled the students from lower castes, and he came quickly to Anil’s room. He asked the students about Anil’s academic record; they told him Anil was brilliant, a topper in his school who had come from a barren, poor village to the country’s leading medical college. When the students described Anil’s struggles with the first-year exams—his inability to sit the first exam, and his failure in the supplemental exam—Mahinder felt sure this was yet another case of discrimination at an institution already polarised by caste divisions.

Mahinder phoned several Hindi and English newspapers to tell them another talented Dalit student had committed suicide, and then wrote a circular that he distributed around the campus, arguing that Anil’s suicide had been caused by the administration and faculty’s indifference to the problems of lower-caste students admitted through reservation quotas. When journalists began to arrive at the hostel in the afternoon, the situation quickly became tense. Mahinder started to give interviews to the media, describing Anil’s suicide as a consequence of pervasive caste prejudice at AIIMS. The president of the student union, Tugnish Bansal, came to the scene along with several other student union leaders and faculty members, and they took Mahinder aside to argue that caste had not been a factor in Anil’s death. Bansal believed the administration bore considerable responsibility for its failure to provide support and assistance to a struggling student, and he convinced Mahinder that the union would fight for a full investigation of the circumstances that had led to Anil’s suicide, but without reference to caste. Mahinder agreed. “We decided that if the student union will raise the issue, and if it is willing to get justice for Anil, we don’t have any opposition,” he told me.

That night, the students began an indefinite strike to protest against the administration: a few hundred students marched from the hostels to the campus residence of the director of AIIMS, RC Deka, chanting slogans and demanding his resignation.

The strike continued the next day, but signs of mistrust among the students quickly emerged: the lower-caste students believed the student union leaders were insufficiently concerned about Anil’s suicide and eager to press other unrelated claims against the administration; the upper-caste students felt the campaign had been “hijacked” by pro-reservation faculty members and become yet another instance of divisive caste politics at the medical college. “Every person who was coming to me, talking to me, I felt they had their own motives,” Bansal told me.

On 8 March, only three days after Anil Meena’s body was found, the student union called off the strike, to the great dismay of the lower-caste students. That night, Rajendra Meena returned to the campus after traveling to Rajasthan with Anil’s body, and gathered with a handful of Dalit students on the roof of their hostel, where they watched a video Rajendra had taken on his mobile in Anil’s village. When they saw the footage of his family’s crumbling, decrepit house, all his friends began to cry.

WHEN I FIRST VISITED AIIMS in April, a month after Anil’s suicide, there were few remaining traces of the short-lived agitation carried out in his name. The grounds of the hospital buzzed with hushed activity, as people walked hurriedly, and often grim-faced, between the large rectangular concrete buildings spread across the campus. Amid the bustle, one sometimes sees a shrouded body ferried out to a waiting vehicle, or hears women wailing in the corridors. Away from the rush, the students can be seen sipping coffee in the small courtyard behind the main building, buying stationary from the shop, trading money with the juice maker. Wearing white jackets and with stethoscopes dangling from their necks, the students mostly trot between this tiny community market and the three-floored hostel buildings, all white in colour. On the notice board in Hostel 2, a tattered poster read: “We will always remember you, Anil."

Inside the hostel, I met Mahinder Meena in his room. The air conditioner was on, and the tiny room was freezing. A photocopied portrait of BR Ambedkar was pasted on the cardboard covering the window, and quotes from Malcolm X had been scribbled on the walls. A paunchy man whose shoulders seem to have a slight but permanent shrug, Mahinder was quiet but edgy; for him, the bitterness of Anil’s death and the events that followed had not faded.

When Mahinder joined AIIMS as an MBBS student in 2006, the campus was boiling with caste conflict, stoked by intense anti-reservation protests. Some upper-caste students called freshmen from the reserved category to their rooms and taunted them, Mahinder said, with lines like “Give me ten reasons why you need reservation, why you don’t deserve to be at AIIMS.” Those that didn’t cooperate were beaten or locked in their rooms; one reserved-category student’s door was defaced with graffiti that said, “Fuck off from this wing—bastard leave this wing.”

The son of a doctor from Lucknow, Mahinder had learnt as a child about the abuses visited on his grandfather and great-grandfather, but he was raised to believe that was all history. His father, he said, never talked about the oppression of Dalits; he raised his son to become a doctor and serve the country. Until he arrived at AIIMS, Mahinder said, he saw caste prejudice as a remnant of the past. But when anti-reservation protestors barged into his hostel room on his very first day and demanded he take sides—with them or against them—he turned back to his roots.

“I became a Dalit when I came here,” Mahinder said, shaking his head in solemn affirmation. “It was strange. All of a sudden I was someone with an identity I had never thought of.”

He had arrived at AIIMS at a moment when the medical college was the principal battleground in a new war over reservations. The central government had introduced 27 percent reservation for Other Backward Class (OBC) students at central institutions of higher education, and a new students’ group called Youth For Equality, with AIIMS students among its founding members, launched an agitation against reservations. On 14 May 2006, slightly more than a month after the government’s announcement, protesting residents and students at AIIMS announced an indefinite strike. The hospital quickly became a crucial pressure point for the protestors—a highly visible institution in the capital whose continued functioning was critical for health and emergency services. The majority of the hospital’s doctors joined the protests as well; the Faculty Association of AIIMS (FAIIMS) backed the protestors, and announced a “mass casual leave”, stepping up the pressure on the government to scrap the OBC reservations. The protests continued to grow, while the situation became more hostile by the day: patients were reportedly left unattended; lower-caste students were threatened if they didn’t stand with the protestors; and several outspoken pro-reservation doctors alleged that they had been beaten and prevented from entering the premises.

The strike finally came to an end in early June, when the Supreme Court ordered the doctors to “end the stir in the interest of patients”, but the agitation left the faculty and administration deeply polarised. The doctors began to divide themselves along caste lines, and the students naturally followed suit. Lower-caste students reported that the divisions ran so deep that even sports were split along caste lines: basketball was for the upper castes, volleyball for the lower. The lower-caste students moved en masse to the upper floors of two adjacent hostels, segregating themselves in solidarity against perceived harassment. “We started feeling safe,” Mahinder said. “And slowly our relationships with general category students started getting better.”

With the passage of time, the bitter memory of the Youth For Equality protests began to fade among the students, as older batches passed out and new batches entered. Gradually, students from opposite sides of the reservation conflict managed to reconcile with one another; several younger students told me that the lower-caste students hosted their upper-caste classmates at Sunday lunches and dinners cooked in their hostel rooms, while the upper-caste students began to invite lower-caste students to their weekend parties.

But the bitterness remained among the faculty and administration, with both sides mired in vicious conflicts over reservations in hiring and promotion, which in turn coloured the classroom atmosphere. Lower-caste students continued to report incidents of harassment from upper-caste faculty members, along the lines described in the 2007 report of the Thorat Committee, which had been formed by the government to investigate casteist abuse in the wake of the anti-reservation agitations. Most of the lower-caste students interviewed by the committee reported facing discrimination in teaching and examinations, citing instances where professors had made remarks or asked questions about their names and castes during examinations. (Among many upper-caste professors, there is still considerable disdain for Thorat’s report, which they characterise—along with most references to caste at AIIMS—as politically motivated.)

The bulk of the Thorat Committee’s recommendations were in any case uncontroversial: remedial coaching in English, greater dialogue and consultation between faculty and lower-caste students, a grievance redressal cell for complaints of harassment, and other support measures designed to reduce “social isolation” and improve student welfare. None of these measures were implemented, a fact that came under new scrutiny in March 2010, when Balmukund Bharti, a Dalit fifth-year MBBS student, was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his hostel room. After failing in community medicine, Bharti had stopped meeting his friends, and tried to kill himself with an overdose of medication. He failed in his first attempt, but the administration did not intervene, according to several students and doctors. Two weeks later, he was dead. “Such a sombre guy,” Mahinder said, recalling his friendship with Bharti. “He was one year senior to me and I always consulted him for academic suggestions.”

In the past six years, 19 lower-caste students have ended their own lives at various professional colleges across India, and Mahinder seems to have the details of each case committed to memory. His computer is filled with innumerable reports, lectures, essays and newspaper clips chronicling incidents of harassment and intimidation of Dalit students at India’s elite universities; his closet is stacked with papers from court judgments in favour of Dalit students who have filed petitions against university administrations. He is quick to push the print button and thrust papers into the hands of visitors.

For Mahinder, there was no question about the reasons for Anil’s death; in his words, Anil was “pushed to commit suicide”. It was this conviction that impelled him to react aggressively in the days after Anil died—he felt he had seen this before; he was sure that there was no way the upper-caste professors had given fair treatment to a struggling Dalit student.

Though the other students were unanimous in their anger at the administration, Mahinder was soon isolated, along with a few other Dalit students, in his conviction that caste was the obvious issue. The student union had asked him to stop speaking to the media one day after Anil’s body was found, and he was given a new role, writing press statements and keeping the students’ anger focused on constructive, non-violent protest. The students had an early victory in their campaign, in Mahinder’s view, when they united to force the director, RC Deka, to face them in a meeting.

Deka was accompanied by two of his senior colleagues: Rani Kumar, the dean of academics, and Rakesh Yadav, the sub-dean. The students were visibly angry, and the meeting was tense from the start. Mahinder asked the director to hand over the office files pertaining to Anil’s academic record and any decisions relating to the evaluation of his examinations; the students echoed the demand, roaring in unison, “Produce the files! Show us the truth!” Deka asked the sub-dean, Yadav, to get the documents, and when Yadav returned with a thick file in his hand, Mahinder grabbed it and immediately photocopied its contents.

Upon quick examination, the records appeared to show that the administration had changed the rules for evaluating the supplementary examination one day before the results were announced. Previously, students appearing for the supplementary examination after failing the initial attempt were assigned 25 percent of their score from internal assessments conducted by professors, and 75 percent from the results of the written examination. Because Anil and several other students had been barred from sitting the first examination, it was decided that their scores would be weighted equally between the internal and the exam—which seemed to have made the difference between passing and failing for Anil in at least one subject. “He could have passed in anatomy and physiology,” Mahinder told me. “Both are difficult subjects—some students take years to clear these two exams. This certainly would have boosted his confidence, and he might not have taken such an extreme step.”

Mahinder showed the files to the students, arguing that they proved Anil had “become a victim of academic injustice”. Their anger swelled, and several began shouting abuse at the director. “Tum khooni ho, behanchod!”, one shouted—you’re a murderer, sisterfucker!

Rather than defending the faculty’s decision, Deka quickly placed the blame on his subordinate, Rani Kumar. “He said, ‘the one and only person who committed this blunder is the dean. Ask her why she did it,’” Mahinder told me. (In keeping with his zeal for documentation, Mahinder has video recordings of all the meetings and demonstrations.) The situation was so chaotic, Mahinder recalled, that he feared the students were about to attack the faculty members. The meeting ended in a stalemate, as the administrators walked out. But the episode revealed the immense rift between Deka and Kumar, and hinted at a deep dysfunction in the management of the college. This, in fact, may have played the most significant role in Anil Meena’s suicide—but the causes of the dysfunction, like so much else at -AIIMS, were themselves rooted in caste.

"I BELONG TO A KHATRI CASTE. Our forefathers used to be warriors,” Rani Kumar told me, with just a hint of pride, in her spacious office at -AIIMS. “But I never believed in such things. It is here I learnt that there is something called caste.”

A small saree-clad woman with a golden chain around her neck, Kumar has been a doctor at AIIMS for the past 41 years; when we met in April, her retirement was only one week away. Photographs of the union health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit hung on the wall behind her desk.

Kumar is personally opposed to the reservation policy; she believes that admission to universities should be solely on the basis of merit. “We are a free country for 55 years, and it’s strange we still have forward and backward class,” she said. “This reservation issue is just politics. Politicians use it as a political tool. They win the elections on the basis of caste, and then we have to degrade the quality of our institutes because of their irrational policies. If the government is so serious about giving equal rights to everyone, why aren’t they strengthening the schools in villages and ending the rural-urban gap in education?”

“I don’t think there is any caste problem in AIIMS now,” Kumar told me. “It was there before, I know. But things have changed.”

As a dean, she gives the impression of having seen many problems come and go while watching pessimistically from a distance. “I have always supported weak students, they come here and my doors are always open,” she told me. For students from poor, rural and lower-caste backgrounds, “we should give them a few more chances to do well,” Kumar said. “So I think there should be proper counseling, proper orientation. We don’t have that in AIIMS.”

Kumar was familiar with Anil’s case, but she insisted, contrary to Deka’s claim, that she had done nothing to harm his academic prospects. “Because I was never allowed to function,” she explained. “I have no power to change anything here. If I had powers, I would never have allowed anything wrong to happen.” She said Anil had come to see her “at least ten times”, desperate to have his papers reevaluated and to reverse his failure. “He told me that he had tried four times to meet the director, but the director refused to meet him. I told him, ‘My dear, I can’t do anything—the director doesn’t even meet me.’”

“They called me when the body was found,” Kumar continued. “They said, please come and handle the situation, and I said, why should I? I was never allowed to work, I am dean just for the sake of having a dean. I told them, it is your director who does the wrong things. Why should I come?”

Her voice had become louder, and her face stiffened. “I am sad that this happened, this should not have happened,” Kumar said. “But the director is responsible for Anil’s death, he should accept it honestly.”

When I asked Kumar why Deka had sidelined her, she gave a curt reply: “To dictate. He wants to control everyone.” She repeated an allegation I had heard from several other unhappy faculty members, that Deka had only become the director because he had staunchly defended the reservation policy during the Youth For Equality Protests; newspaper reports from the time feature Deka’s claim that anti-reservation activists had assaulted him as he tried to attend to ailing patients.

“The funny part,” Kumar said, her eyes glowing with sarcasm, “is that he lied and said he comes from an OBC background. The truth is, he is not an OBC—he comes from the general category. But he used this fake identity to get into the good books of the health minister.” Several other doctors made identical allegations. Deka refused to be interviewed for this story, directing my inquiries to the sub-dean, Rakesh Yadav, who said only that Deka “has never used reservation”.

The story of Deka’s ascension to his current post, which occurred in the wake of the most bitter episode in AIIMS’ recent history, was duly recounted—and bitterly—by many of the doctors I interviewed. Each side in the conflict over reservations tends to blame the other for having introduced the divisive matter of “caste” to AIIMS, as if it were a virus, but doctors from both camps rarely had a positive word for their director.

The common understanding is that during the 2006 anti-reservation agitation, Deka was the closest ally on campus for health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, an ardent supporter of reservations. At the time, the majority of AIIMS administrators and doctors—including the institute’s director, P Venugopal—were fiercely opposed to Ramadoss and the new OBC reservations, and Deka became known as the minister’s man on campus.

Ramadoss and Venugopal had been quietly at odds from the beginning of 2005, when Ramadoss took office. But their eventual clash—which exploded into the open against the inflammatory backdrop of the anti-reservation agitations—moulded the shape of all the conflicts over caste and reservations that followed.

Venugopal had been close to the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushma Swaraj, whom Ramadoss had replaced at the health ministry. According to a senior doctor who worked closely with Venugopal, Swaraj gave him a free hand at -AIIMS, rarely challenging his decisions; colleagues described Venugopal as confident and stubborn, uninterested in suggestions from doctors and health ministers alike. (“He had a huge ego”, as the senior doctor put it.) A 1959 batch graduate of AIIMS, he was a highly respected cardiologist; he had done thousands of heart surgeries and performed India’s first cardiac transplant. He had risen through the ranks at AIIMS, from student to postgraduate to professor to dean; he was both proud of his intimate knowledge of the institute’s workings and possessive of his authority.

When Ramadoss, who is also a doctor, came to AIIMS to inspect the emergency ward in early 2005, he took the liberty of suggesting changes to the medicines prescribed for a few patients. A doctor who was there remembers Venugopal’s acid reply: “You’re not even half the age of my experience. Please don’t teach me.”

From this point onward, Ramadoss appeared determined to push the director out, and the anti-reservation agitations seemed to provide an opportunity. When the Youth For Equality protests began, Ramadoss ordered Venugopal to eject the protestors from the campus and get the hospital running again. But Venugopal made no such effort—and in fact lent not-so-tacit support to the protestors; Ramadoss publicly accused him of insubordination and claimed he was “secretly approving discrimination against OBC and SC/ST [Scheduled Caste / Scheduled Tribe] students in -AIIMS”. After the protests, Ramadoss dispatched the Thorat Committee to AIIMS; Venugopal refused to cooperate with the investigation, and attacked the committee’s report as soon as it was released.

The spat continued, tit-for-tat, until Ramadoss spied an opening in 2007. Venugopal had broken with tradition, and displeased a few professors, when he set aside seniority to nominate his former roommate, HK Tiwari, as dean of academics in 2004, though Tiwari was junior to 12 other professors.

When Tiwari’s tenure came to an end three years later, Ramadoss spied an opening, and lobbied to make his ally RC Deka the new dean, bypassing 24 more senior faculty members.

“As a dean,” one lower-caste professor at AIIMS told me, “Deka worked to build a lobby against Venugopal. He focused on SC/ST and OBC doctors and instilled anger toward Venugopal.”

With Deka in place, Ramadoss made his move: he introduced the AIIMS amendment bill in Parliament, granting the health minister the authority to replace the institute’s director. A day after it passed with wide support from Ramadoss’s fellow ministers, he promptly fired Venugopal—who challenged the bill, successfully, in the Supreme Court, and had himself reinstated within six months.

By the time Venugopal’s tumultuous tenure came to an end in 2009, Deka had built his own base of support, particularly among OBC professors; with little opposition, Ramadoss appointed Deka, his loyal ally, as the institute’s new director.

For the doctors who had staunchly fought the OBC reservations, Deka’s elevation was another example of unsavoury caste politics. “He never would have been director if Ramadoss wasn’t a casteist politician,” said Manoj Kumar, the president of the faculty association FAIIMS, which opposes reservations. “Deka’s appointment is purely political.”

Today, Deka is the most hated figure on campus. Doctors and faculty members from lower castes say he lacks the spine to stand up against the dominant upper-caste doctors. Those same upper-caste doctors, however, hold Deka responsible for his lobbying against Venugopal and his support for reservations—and allege he has strengthened his own control by installing loyal OBC doctors in senior positions. “Deka exploited the reservation issue,” a senior doctor opposed to reservations told me. “He would always say, I am doing a lot for lower castes. But he would put a man from OBC in the examination department, the dean, the sub-dean. Just to be secure, he is planting all these OBC people.”

“There are doctors from reservation who get handsome salaries from here,” Kumar complained. “How do they get reservation when they apply for a senior position? They are already paid the same salary as the general category candidates—how can they be counted as backward? Our director is promoting the doctors from OBC category, and we are asking, ‘How can you do it—because reservation cannot be applicable to higher posts.’”

Meanwhile the pro-reservation doctors believe Deka’s advocacy for lower-caste students and doctors was clearly insincere. “He followed the caste line until he achieved the director’s post,” said one senior professor, a Dalit who initially welcomed Deka’s appointment. “Then he changed his line. He is very cunning: he worked with us, and he would show so much enthusiasm for lower-caste students. Now he doesn’t even meet us. It is the bad luck of this institute that he is the director.”

The two camps among the faculty have dramatically incompatible perspectives on the role of caste at AIIMS—though both sides are united by the passionate conviction that their own jobs and promotions are at stake. For upper-caste professors, caste seems never to be an issue at the institute until a lower-caste doctor or administrator deploys it as a clever strategy to rise through the ranks. They regard inquiries like the Thorat Committee, or the investigation into Anil Meena’s suicide, as crass political maneuvers. For lower-caste doctors, these allegations—like the memories of 2006—only confirm the pervasive atmosphere of prejudice at the institute, and reiterate the need for reservations in hiring and promotion.

In fact, there is a long history of attempts by the AIIMS administration to circumvent reservations in the hiring process, stretching back to the early 1990s. Shortly after the implementation of reservations for OBCs in central government jobs in 1993, the faculty association FAIIMS petitioned the Delhi High Court to challenge the reservations. For the next decade, while this court case and others were ongoing, AIIMS did not conduct regular faculty selection—but the administration bypassed reservations and filled more than 150 vacancies on an “ad hoc” basis, almost all from the general category.

Sunil Chembur, a Dalit surgeon who joined AIIMS as a student three decades ago, told me that caste discrimination was prevalent when he arrived, long before the anti-reservation agitations in the 1990s and 2000s. “The practice of casteism doesn’t need to happen every minute of the day,” Chembur said. “I was a topper in my school. But when I came here, I suddenly realised what kind of animosity there was among the students. Because I applied in SC category, I became an SC. From the moment I entered—the clerk of the academic section asked me, ‘How can you enter this college?’ We were unwanted.”

In 1992, AIIMS had five vacancies for surgeons. Chembur applied for the post through the reservation quota and was selected. But a week before he was to join the faculty, an ad hoc surgeon petitioned the Delhi High Court challenging Chembur’s appointment, arguing that since he had been working at AIIMS in an ad hoc capacity for more than a year, he had greater qualifications than the other applicants. In view of the reservation policy, the court scrapped his appeal, but ordered the AIIMS administration to re-examine the candidates for the surgeon posts. Chembur went through another interview so he could be hired once again for the job he had already obtained. “For nine months my posting got delayed,” Chembur said. “And it was a very difficult phase because a lot was happening against those who came from reservation.”

When the decade-long hiatus in formal selection ended in 2003, the administration advertised 170 posts, but filled at least 130 with ad hoc doctors who had been hired over the previous decade, most from the general category. Now the lower-caste doctors appealed to the High Court, alleging that the institute had once again violated the government’s reservation policy. The war over the recruitment policy has carried on for more than a decade, with no sign of ending: one lawsuit follows another, and acrimony between the two sides becomes more entrenched. While the battle rages on, it’s little surprise that students get caught in the crossfire, like easy targets for the simmering resentment of their professors.

In autumn 2011, a Dalit first-year student at AIIMS named Pankaj Meena was delivering a PowerPoint presentation in class on the functioning of the human kidneys. When he got to the fifth slide, Pankaj said, the professor interrupted and told him to go back to the very first slide. Then he asked Pankaj, “What is the most interesting thing in this introduction?” Pankaj looked at the slide, puzzled, and found nothing. The professor answered his own question: “The most interesting thing on this page is Meena, his caste.”

“After that I forgot everything,” Pankaj told me. “I just wanted to leave the classroom.”

FROM A DISTANCE, in little villages and big cities across the country, admission to AIIMS represents the pinnacle of success. Every year, roughly 80,000 students aspiring to become doctors take the AIIMS entrance exam, in the hope of qualifying for only 77 seats. Out of those 77 students admitted each year, very few come from the most poor, isolated and rural regions of the country. In 2010, one of these was Anil Kumar Meena.

Anil’s village, Pipliachowki, is perched on a barren, rocky hinterland at the eastern tip of Rajasthan, near the border with Madhya Pradesh. After a four-hour journey by car from Kota, the road comes to an end roughly five kilometres from the village; from there one proceeds on foot over a track of brown sandstone rocks. As I neared the village, I encountered two young men who warily watched me approach; when I asked about Anil’s house, they greeted me warmly and shepherded me to the tiny village, a sparse collection of small clay-roofed mud houses and cowsheds, whose population consists of only 25 Dalit families. The village largely survives on wheat farming and unskilled manual labour: in its history, only five people have completed their undergraduate degrees; the rest have either dropped out of school, or never read a word. When Anil cracked the examination for AIIMS, the village celebrated for an entire week. They gathered money, bought plenty of food and sweets, and invited people from nearby villages for pujas and feasts. Journalists from national dailies like The Times of India arrived in the village to interview Anil, and a local newspaper carried a story with the headline “Gaon Key Laal Ney Kiya Kamaal”—A Son of the Village Did Well.

Far from Delhi—far from doctors and deans and battles over reservations—a sadness still hung over the village two months after Anil’s death. A group of about 20 people had gathered around his house when I arrived. Made of mud and stones, with one portion in ruins, the tiny house has a mouldy clay roof and two small rooms to shelter a family of five: Anil’s parents and his three brothers. Since Anil’s death, the family has scattered: his mother, suffering from serious depression in the wake of the suicide, has returned to her family’s home in a village a few hours away. Anil’s younger brothers, 12-year-old Shubham and 16-year-old Nitesh, live with their maternal uncle in the village; the oldest, Deepu, 18, is an undergraduate at a college in Kota. The only one left in the house is Anil’s father, Suraj Mal Meena.

A lean, dark-skinned man in his mid-40s, Suraj and I met on the dirt road leading to his house. Clad in a tattered undershirt and dusty white trousers, the shy and soft-spoken in Suraj said he earns about R1,700 per month, if the farming season isn’t shortened by drought. When the money runs out and there’s nothing left to eat, he earns a few hundred rupees at a time doing manual labour in nearby villages. When Anil was younger, Suraj couldn’t afford to pay for his education; his maternal uncle funded his schooling. But when Anil passed out of 12th grade, Suraj secretly borrowed R65,000 from relatives and friends to send his son to Allen, a private coaching institute in Kota. He had hoped that in a few years’ time, Anil would be a successful doctor, earning enough to help pay off the debt.

“Who knows what happened to him,” Suraj said hesitantly. “In a big city like Delhi anything can happen. He was fine—he called me two days before all this happened, he said he would give me R15,000 from his scholarship money. He also said he was planning to buy a laptop.” Suraj paused, almost in a daze. “I felt happy. I thought, he is doing well.” In Pipliachowki, Anil’s suicide feels almost unreal: a tragedy happening far away, whose causes are unknowable.

The family has hidden the things that remind them of Anil. A year-old portrait, taken in Delhi, with Anil in a brown T-shirt, smiling for the camera, has been put away in a wooden box. Suraj doesn’t want to think back on memories of his son: since Anil grew up at his uncle’s house, Suraj said, he doesn’t remember much of his son’s childhood. What he does know is that Anil was hard-working and brilliant. “All I remember is him sitting in this corner, reading under this lamp,” Suraj said, pointing to the only electric bulb in the house.

Anil’s brother Deepu, who was visiting from Kota, strode swiftly into the room, smartly dressed in a skintight shirt and tight tapered jeans. He remembered Anil’s anxious anticipation a few years earlier, while waiting for the results of the AIIMS entrance exam. One evening, Deepu said, Anil scattered a bunch of chits and asked him to pick one. The one he chose had ‘AIIMS’ written on the other side. “He kissed my cheek, and said he would buy me a watch if it would really happen,” Deepu told me. “When I asked him why he was obsessed with AIIMS, he said ‘the Indian government spends six crore rupees on each of its students. Its doctors are world famous and its teachers are excellent.’”

Deepu opened up a rectangular tin box that was filled with Anil’s old textbooks. On the cover of each one, Anil had written out his future with a blue ballpoint pen. “Get success in AIIMS exam.” “My target for AIIMS.” “AIIMS—the No.1 medical college of India.” “Dr. Anil Kumar Meena is a student of AIIMS.”

From primary school onward, Anil’s grades were outstanding. He scored 85 percent marks in his higher secondary school exam. In the Rajasthan state entrance examination for medicine, he topped the ST category. But his only goal was admission to AIIMS, and on the day he finally found out he had been accepted, he walked barefoot for hours to a temple so he could thank Lord Hanuman for his success.

“We felt like someone finally lit the candle in this village,” Tola Ram, Anil’s neighbour, told me. “His success became an example and our children took their studies seriously.”

In December 2010, when Anil was visiting his parents, he heard that his childhood friend Rakesh Meena had failed in the higher secondary school examination, and that Rakesh’s father had decided he should become a full-time labourer. Anil met Rakesh’s father and convinced him to let Rakesh try again. “My father respected him a lot, he still does,” Rakesh told me. “He couldn’t say no to Anil.”

A year later, Rakesh passed the examination, and he called Anil to seek further guidance. Anil asked him about his scores in each subject. Rakesh had done well in history, and Anil suggested he should pursue an arts degree with a major in history. “All the eyes were on him,” Rakesh said. “It is hard to accept that he killed himself.”

Anil’s success had raised many hopes in the village. His upward mobility had encouraged the other members of his community, who saw him as someone becoming part of modern India, someone who could rescue his father from increasing debt, whose future success might bring new opportunities to the entire village.

He had promised his parents and his brothers that he would take them away from their hard and barren life in the village. “He told me he will take us to Delhi first,” Sulochana Bai, Anil’s mother, told me. “Then he wanted to take us to America. If I knew this will happen to him, I would have never sent him away.”

I met Bai at her brother’s home in Kandi village, about 40 kilometres from Pipliachowki. It had been more than two months since her son took his own life, but Bai was still almost unable to walk: she spends every day laying on a charpoy, almost motionless. Her weakness is the result of a self-imposed starvation. She has lost 10 kilograms since Anil’s death, and her brother Dhanraj spoon-feeds her small quantities of vegetable soup to keep her alive. When I asked her about Anil, she simply covered her face and cried.

“To see him as a doctor, everyone dreamt of it,” Dhanraj, the uncle who had paid for Anil’s schooling, told me. “But all of a sudden it broke. Nothing is left now.”

NOBODY WILL EVER KNOW why Anil Meena committed suicide: he didn’t leave a note, or confess his intentions to friends or family, and he is no longer here to participate in the debate that raged after his suicide, about whether caste had played a role in the administrative decisions that fed his depression, and whether the administrators could have done more to prevent him from taking his own life.

In the view of the AIIMS administration, however, Anil’s suicide was simply a consequence of his academic failure—and they leave no scope for questioning the circumstances which led to that failure.

When I requested an interview with the director, RC Deka, one of his staffers replied that Deka would not speak to me, but that he had ordered Rakesh Yadav, the sub-dean, to field my questions about Anil’s suicide.

Yadav, a tall, broad-faced man in his 40s, told me that a few students commit suicide in professional colleges across India each year. “It is a national problem,” he said, leaning back on a sofa in his office. “In IIT this happens every year.”

A cardiologist, Yadav comes from an OBC category, but he wants to leave his caste behind. When I asked him whether he had obtained any benefits from reservations, he said he belonged to the “creamy layer of OBC”, which means his father had a stable and decent income. Yadav said he was neither anti-reservation nor pro-reservation, and proudly said he had never used his caste to gain any advantage.

“You have to understand one thing,” Yadav said, adopting an authoritative tone.  “Reservation is not caste—it is the reservation of your knowledge. It is for the students who are not as meritorious as general category students.” The students who gain admission through reservations, Yadav seemed to suggest, are by definition less qualified than those who come through the general category; otherwise they would not need to use the reservations. “Take your horse and an Iranian horse,” Yadav said, leaning forward to emphasise his analogy. “If you make them race, your horse will always lose.”

In Yadav’s opinion, the slower horses who come to AIIMS through reservations will invariably run into academic difficulties as a result of their lesser qualifications. He therefore regards the notion that caste discrimination played even a minor role in Anil’s suicide as ridiculous. “People from SC/ST fail in examinations,” he said.

Yadav is confident that nothing is amiss in the administration of the institute; nor does he believe there are any divisions or conflicts over caste. The incidents of the past—like the Youth For Equality protests, Balmukund Bharti’s suicide—are in his words just “unfortunate events that can happen anywhere in the world”. “The administration has shunned caste differences long time ago,” he said.

Eventually our conversation returned to Anil’s suicide, but Yadav wouldn’t entertain any speculation as to its causes. I mentioned that many of the students, from upper and lower castes, believe Deka’s refusal to meet Anil deepened his depression, and perhaps led to his suicide. Yadav smiled slightly. “Suppose I say I want to meet the prime minister four times or I will commit suicide,” he replied, raising his voice to suggest these accusations were patently absurd. “But how can I meet the prime minister?” He insisted that the other allegations made by Mahinder Meena and the student union, regarding changes in academic policy over attendance requirements and the scoring of the supplementary examinations, had no bearing on Anil’s case: even if the exam score had been weighted differently, Yadav said, Anil was failing. “The sudden change in rule has not failed him,” he said.

Yadav responded to nearly every question by insisting everything on campus was fine. But at the same time, he suggested that if anyone was responsible for Anil Meena’s suicide, it was Rani Kumar. “It is the dean’s responsibility to sort out the problem,” Yadav said. “If she can’t, she should have gone to the director and said I cannot do it.”

When I put Kumar’s own complaint to Yadav—that she was not allowed to function in her job—he brushed it aside. “If I say I am an incompetent person and the director has not made me competent, it is my fault then,” he replied with evident satisfaction.

For Yadav, the prevailing account of Anil’s death—that his academic struggles led to depression, which led to suicide—is merely “a hypothetical situation”. If this had indeed been the case, Yadav argued, why hadn’t Anil made a complaint to the student union? Why hadn’t he written to the administration?

The concept of student welfare at AIIMS presumes that any student suffering from academic or psychological issues should submit his case to the administration in writing, so that an official judgment can be issued after careful evaluation. But for a student suffering from depression, mired in hopelessness, writing a formal letter to the administration seems like an unlikely response. Even when students don’t take such steps, Yadav insisted, “the majority of the teachers are top-shot professors who can see in class if someone is under depression, so they would give us feedback.”

Maybe Anil was simply unlucky, and no top-shot professor managed to diagnose his psychological difficulties. Or maybe he just needed a few words of optimism, some signs of support. But even though those things hadn’t happened, Yadav still insisted that everything was running smoothly. “We are doing proper counseling,” he said. “We are doing everything. We have stress management system. We have all the systems.”

And yet, I observed, two of his students, Anil and Balmukund Bharti, had committed suicide in a two-year span. Yadav was quick to answer. “Bharti was under depression.”

I pointed out that he had just finished arguing that Anil had not been suffering from depression, and he took a different tack, suggesting that the administration could not be expected to prevent depressed students from taking their own lives.

“The unfortunate events only occur when something wrong is going on, that is the human psyche, human philosophy—if I get a heart attack, it means I have some problem in my heart. When it is a heart attack I will collapse and die,” he said.

I asked Yadav for any data that had been gathered about student welfare during counseling. “That data I cannot give you,” he said, almost in a shout. He paused for a moment to calm down. “That data, there is no available data. We have no figures available.”

Yadav’s patience had already worn thin, and he suggested I should speak to the president of the student union if I wanted further information. Before I left his office, he delivered his final argument. “We didn’t do anything wrong to him,” he said. “The decisions were made for his goodness only.”   

ON A SATURDAY EVENING in the first week of March, Anil Kumar Meena, a first-year student at the elite All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, reluctantly joined his friends for a weekend game of cricket on the campus lawns. Anil was a little lost on the field—he fumbled with the ball, dropped catches, and his throwscame in late. At times, he wistfully watched the ball roll across the boundary.

“He was depressed,” his friend Rajendra Meena, a second-year student at AIIMS, recalled. “I had to drag him forcibly from his room to play.” But after they lost the match, Anil went over to Rajendra’s hostel room to watch an episode of the popular comedy show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Rajendra’s computer. The two boys, who had both made a long journey to India’s most prestigious medical school from impoverished Dalit families in remote, rural Rajasthan, shared a good laugh before Anil returned to his own room to study.

When Rajendra went downstairs to Anil’s room a few hours later to borrow a packet of biscuits, he found his friend sitting on a chair with his head lowered, staring anxiously at the floor. An anatomy textbook was lying open on the desk, but Anil was turned in the other direction, facing his bed. “The sheets were rolled up like a rope,” Rajendra said. “I asked him, why are your sheets like this, and he said he had to wash them.”

Rajendra was well aware of Anil’s woes. Both had come from government schools where they were taught in Hindi; at AIIMS, classes were only in English, and they barely understood the lectures. “It’s a different world,” Rajendra told me. “We were toppers in Hindi, now we are failures.” The AIIMS students struggling with the transition to English tend to study on their own—meticulously going through textbooks with the aid of a dictionary—and seek assistance from older students from similar backgrounds, rather than attending lectures they can’t follow. Anil had spent much of the previous year in his hostel room, translating his way through the course materials, sentence by sentence, to prepare for his exams. But shortly before the test, in June 2011, Anil was told he wouldn’t be allowed to sit the exams because his class attendance was below 50 percent. This was an unpleasant surprise: the rule was not a new one, but it had rarely if ever been enforced before. In August, he appeared for the supplementary examinations instead, but—to his surprise—failed in all three subjects. Since then, he had been trying to meet with senior faculty members to request that his papers be reevaluated; he believed that a last-minute change in the assessment process had prevented him from passing in at least one subject, but nobody seemed willing to listen.

The following morning, Rajendra called Anil to invite him to breakfast, but his phone was switched off. When Rajendra knocked on Anil’s door later that afternoon, there was no answer. “I thought he might have been studying all night and sleeping through a Sunday afternoon,” Rajendra told me.

A day later, on 5 March, as Rajendra walked past Anil’s room in the morning, he saw a newspaper tucked in the door handle and another lying on the floor. He knocked, and knocked again harder. Anil still did not answer. Alarmed, Rajendra went outside and set up a ladder so he could peer into Anil’s first-floor window, but found the curtains had been drawn. After asking several other students if they had seen Anil in the past two days, Rajendra went to get the hostel guards. When the guards broke the hinged window above the door, they saw Anil’s body hanging from the ceiling fan.

Within a few minutes, a group of students, teachers and police had gathered outside Anil’s door; that day’s newspaper was still stuck in the handle. A carpenter broke open the door. Anil’s face had turned blue, and his mouth was flecked with dry white saliva. Rajendra burst into tears: Anil was still wearing the same clothes Rajendra had last seen him in—a blue T-shirt and light brown capri pants. He had hung himself with the rolled-up bed sheets Rajendra had noticed in his room two days earlier. Several moist eyes watched as the police officers untied the knot around Anil’s neck and took his body off to the hospital’s mortuary. While doctors were conducting the postmortem, students lit candles in the courtyard to bid Anil farewell.

A few hours later, most of the students had returned to their rooms—apart from a small group of Dalit students who stood outside room 63, shocked and distraught, trying to understand how their friend had cut his life short. One of them called Mahinder Meena, a postgraduate
doctor at -AIIMS who often counseled the students from lower castes, and he came quickly to Anil’s room. He asked the students about Anil’s academic record; they told him Anil was brilliant, a topper in his school who had come from a barren, poor village to the country’s leading medical college. When the students described Anil’s struggles with the first-year exams—his inability to sit the first exam, and his failure in the supplemental exam—Mahinder felt sure this was yet another case of discrimination at an institution already polarised by caste divisions.

Mahinder phoned several Hindi and English newspapers to tell them another talented Dalit student had committed suicide, and then wrote a circular that he distributed around the campus, arguing that Anil’s suicide had been caused by the administration and faculty’s indifference to the problems of lower-caste students admitted through reservation quotas. When journalists began to arrive at the hostel in the afternoon, the situation quickly became tense. Mahinder started to give interviews to the media, describing Anil’s suicide as a consequence of pervasive caste prejudice at AIIMS. The president of the student union, Tugnish Bansal, came to the scene along with several other student union leaders and faculty members, and they took Mahinder aside to argue that caste had not been a factor in Anil’s death. Bansal believed the administration bore considerable responsibility for its failure to provide support and assistance to a struggling student, and he convinced Mahinder that the union would fight for a full investigation of the circumstances that had led to Anil’s suicide, but without reference to caste. Mahinder agreed. “We decided that if the student union will raise the issue, and if it is willing to get justice for Anil, we don’t have any opposition,” he told me.

That night, the students began an indefinite strike to protest against the administration: a few hundred students marched from the hostels to the campus residence of the director of AIIMS, RC Deka, chanting slogans and demanding his resignation.

The strike continued the next day, but signs of mistrust among the students quickly emerged: the lower-caste students believed the student union leaders were insufficiently concerned about Anil’s suicide and eager to press other unrelated claims against the administration; the upper-caste students felt the campaign had been “hijacked” by pro-reservation faculty members and become yet another instance of divisive caste politics at the medical college. “Every person who was coming to me, talking to me, I felt they had their own motives,” Bansal told me.

On 8 March, only three days after Anil Meena’s body was found, the student union called off the strike, to the great dismay of the lower-caste students. That night, Rajendra Meena returned to the campus after traveling to Rajasthan with Anil’s body, and gathered with a handful of Dalit students on the roof of their hostel, where they watched a video Rajendra had taken on his mobile in Anil’s village. When they saw the footage of his family’s crumbling, decrepit house, all his friends began to cry.

WHEN I FIRST VISITED AIIMS in April, a month after Anil’s suicide, there were few remaining traces of the short-lived agitation carried out in his name. The grounds of the hospital buzzed with hushed activity, as people walked hurriedly, and often grim-faced, between the large rectangular concrete buildings spread across the campus. Amid the bustle, one sometimes sees a shrouded body ferried out to a waiting vehicle, or hears women wailing in the corridors. Away from the rush, the students can be seen sipping coffee in the small courtyard behind the main building, buying stationary from the shop, trading money with the juice maker. Wearing white jackets and with stethoscopes dangling from their necks, the students mostly trot between this tiny community market and the three-floored hostel buildings, all white in colour. On the notice board in Hostel 2, a tattered poster read: “We will always remember you, Anil."

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Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.

READER'S COMMENTS

32 thoughts on “Unhealed Wounds”

Sad to know that after 60 years, we still do not have a system to train and ensure students understand the professional course of study with the language they have been strange for long time, it is time that english is widely taught and not to consider superior to know english nor not knowing inferior, the current government should make english as compulsory language in all classes of educations and proficiency test should be conducted from time to time.

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