J Muthukrishnan wrote in his last Facebook post: “when equality is denied, everything is denied”. Photo: Facebook
J Muthukrishnan wrote in his last Facebook post: “when equality is denied, everything is denied”. Photo: Facebook

The suicide of a student at one of India’s top public universities has once again raised the ugly issue of widespread social and economic discrimination in Indian higher education.

J Muthukrishnan, 28, a PhD student at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), comes from a impoverished group traditionally known in India as “Dalits” and grew up in poverty in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Dalits, who form a quarter of India’s population and come from varied religious backgrounds, traditionally have occupied the lowest social status in Indian society. Historically known as “untouchables”, Indian society places them, because of their birth, outside of the caste system. Education of any level, until recently, was impossible for them.

Muthukrishnan wrote in his last Facebook post before his death “when equality is denied, everything is denied”. In earlier posts he had spoken of the discrimination faced by students from socially deprived backgrounds during the admission process to doctorate and other programs at JNU.

The university, considered one of India’s elite public institutions, sits 13th in the nations university rankings and, by mandate, has to award places to less advantaged students via a national quota system. Known in India as the “reservation” policy, it attempts to provide a counterbalance to the rigid caste system that still orders and governs Indian society by giving disadvantaged groups public sector jobs and places in publicly-funded colleges.

Many have argued that because the quota systems allows for lower entry requirements for students from these socially deprived backgrounds, they are looked down upon by wealthier and more privileged students and also, academically, they struggle to keep up. Both factors have been said to lead to feelings of extreme alienation.

Muthukrishnan had previously studied at the University of Hyderabad where Rohith Vemula, 26, another PhD student and also a Dalit, committed suicide last year after he was expelled from a university hostel. Vemula had been targeted by university authorities after leading a protest against the execution of Yakub Memon, who was charged over involvement in the 1993 Mumbai terror attacks.

Muthukrishnan was a friend of Vemula Rohith and participated in the ‘Justice for Rohith’ movement which went on to spark nationwide protests.

Muthukrishnan, who hanged himself at the home of a Japanese friend in Delhi on Monday, was, according to figures from Indian news platform catchnews.com, the 24th Dalit in a decade to commit suicide while studying in an Indian higher education institute.

This issue has been widely debated in India, with student bodies arguing that successive governments have largely ignored the 2011 proposals made by a high-level panel – led by eminent economist and JNU professor emeritus, Sukhadeo Thorat – that called for widespread institutional changes to the way universities treat India’s underprivileged minorities.

Commentators have suggested that the recommendations were pushed aside by the federal government simply because it views elite public universities like JNU as centres of anti-patriotic extremism.

On Wednesday, Muthukrishnan’s suicide led to acrimonious scenes in Parliament with a federal minister assuring parliament that the incident will be thoroughly investigated.

Federal minister Nirmala Seethraman, who is an alumna of JNU, assured lawmakers that future steps will be taken that will help minority students integrate themselves into campus life and allow them to excel academically. Seethraman also promised to consider a request by Muthukrishnan’s parents to find jobs for his two sisters. The parents have also said they suspect foul play and have asked authorities to investigate their son’s death.

Delhi Police have since opened a case of “abetment to suicide against unknown persons” – meaning they are investigating whether somebody else was involved in the death – while the All India Institute Of Medical Science has set up a five-member board to conduct an autopsy after announcing that they believed Muthukrishnan died of asphyxiation and stated there were no injury marks on his body.

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