21 March 1999
The Times of India
Dalit students battle prejudice and violence
By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service
NEW DELHI: Vikram Ram, a Dalit student at the University
College of Medical Sciences (UCMS) in east Delhi, got a rude
shock when he sat down for his first meal at the hostel mess.
``Bloody Shaddu'', he was told fiercely by a group of upper caste
students (using an abusive term for Scheduled Castes), ``you
cannot eat with us''. Hurt and bewildered, he made his way to the
row of tables where the Dalit students normally sit.
According to the Dalit students, even the hostel has de facto
been ghettoised, with most of them on two floors. When Rakesh
Kumar, an SC student, was assigned a room elsewhere, a
neighbour said: ``We will not let you stay here, Shaddu. Your
kind of person cleans our toilets.'' Faced with the prospect of
constant harassment, he asked to be shifted.
When this reporter asked some upper caste boys at UCMS
about the term `Shaddu', they denied the word was ever used,
except during arguments. After some prodding, one student,
Anand Bakshi, said: ``It is only a pet name.''
As for separate dining and living areas, the upper caste students
this reporter spoke to say there is no such policy. ``If at all they
eat and live together'', said Sudhir Kathuria, ``it is because they
like sticking to their own community''.
Today, Vikram, Rakesh and several other Dalit students are on
dharna. After years of discrimination, they say they have had
enough. The last straw was the violent attack on them by some
upper caste students on February 22. UCMS authorities insist it
was a run-of-the-mill fight between students but the fact is several
Dalits were badly beaten. The hostel PA system was used to ask
all `general category' students to assemble. The turban of Dr
Jaswant Singh, a gentle, small-built Dalit, was pulled off and he
was punched and kicked. Another Dalit intern, Balwinder Bhatti,
hid himself but the mob ransacked his room.
When this reporter went to talk to the Dalit students, they were
suspicious. It was only gradually that their complaints poured out.
Stubbornly, reluctantly. More than anything, it is the perceived
discrimination from the faculty that rankles. A tall, intense
twenty-something, Vikram had topped his school and had never
before experienced casteism. ``My parents say `thoda seh lo;
but become a doctor at any cost','' he said, wistfully twisting his
stethoscope this way and that.
The son of a driver, Vikram hasn't graduated despite being at
UCMS for eight years. Like many SC students, he has frequently
been made to repeat exams. If the intake of reserved students is
22, only four graduate on time.
``We study as hard as anyone else but it is the faculty's casteism
which is holding us back,'' said a Dalit student. Ram Das, a final
year student, had just appeared in an exam. ``The first question
the examiner asked was `Are you a bania?'. When I said no, he
said `Then what? Are you from reserved category? What is your
``If an exam begins like this'', said Ram, ``we get demoralised,
nervous. How are we supposed to cope?''
(The names of the students have been changed.)