Search This Blog

Friday, June 3, 2011

33 - 30th Nov 2007 - The IISc suicides: Where is the scientific temper?- India Interacts

Suicides by two research scholars in a short span of three months at the Indian Institute of Science,(IISc) Bangalore is sure to once again highlight the academic pressures at this premier institute. Yet to assume that these tragic deaths were due to the stress of a rigorous research programme could amount to missing the core problem. While academic performance related stress might be a reality at IISC, both Ajay's suicide on August 27 and Chaitra's suicide on November 19 point to other causes not directly connected to academics.

In Ajay's case specifically, though the Institute has tried to project his inability to cope with the course as the cause of his suicide, his brilliant academic record, his diary and the voices emerging from dalit students' networks, indicate that caste related harassment was one of the factors that led to his death. Is it possible that a dalit student in IISc today actually encounters stigma and hostility from colleagues and teachers?

The facts are that every educational or other modern institution in our country is a microcosm of larger Indian society where caste lines are reproduced. IISc is no exception. In fact, given the historical advantage that upper castes have enjoyed in terms of access to quality higher education especially in the sciences, their over representation among students and faculty in institutes like IISC is no accident. Their domination in terms of numbers, suggests that upper caste attitudes as well as pre-conceptions and myths about inferior intellectual abilities of scheduled castes, pervade these institutions. Such a setting could be tremendously intimidating for young dalit students. They have to cope with the various pressures that most students face including homesickness, tensions in the teacher-student relationships and the sense of alienation in a English speaking setting .In addition they also deal with an additional dimension of subtle or overt caste prejudice alongside expectations from dalit families who are the first generation in such institutes.

In a study by the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation in 2003, Shobna Sonpar who has looked at the various dimensions of casteism in IIT Delhi, highlights the sense of being "academically 'outcaste', inferior and 'not entitled' to these highly coveted seats."' She also elaborates on how academic stigma inside IIT reasonated with the caste stigma that they have carried throughout their lives to the extent that even minor incidents (not necessarily caste-related) triggered overwhelming feelings of shame and anger. The report describes how these students have coped with a sense of being ignored or looked down upon by lying low and remaining at the margins of institutional life and by associating mainly with others from similar backgrounds. In such a context, any attempt at understanding Ajay's death needs to take into account all these above nuances.

In the case of Chaitra, what comes across is that her being 32 years old and unmarried was a source of great stress for her family who were pressurising her to "see" boys they had lined up for her. Whether Chaitra was averse to getting married in the near future or wanted to marry someone her parents could disapprove of is not yet clear. Yet, the immediate trigger for her suicide was the fact that parents were arranging her marriage. The manner of her suicide, by consuming poison just before boarding the bus to her hometown, suggests she simply did not want to reach home alive.

Here again the gender bias in our society, the non acceptance of the un-married woman and the lack of autonomy young people have in choosing when and whom to marry form the backdrop for this tragedy.
That a young woman scientist being trained in Nano-Materials Engineering should find it so difficult to assert herself in the face of societal pressure says a lot about our families and our educational institutions. It also implies that even high level of science education does not equip one to deal with such a strain. It's a cruel irony that despite Chaitra having spent 3-4 years in IISc, instances of women successfully defying such familial pressure, had not become part of her worldview.

In both instances, the disturbing issue is that neither the campus composition nor the campus culture at IISC could provide a counter point or role models or a platform to help these two brilliant young people to confront the oppression they were facing. Is this unique to IISc or is this the scenario in our institutes of higher education? Do scientists and science Institutes in India extend their scientific temper to questioning social mores, structures and traditions?

Surely, the very essence of science has been the exploration of reason and the rejection of blind beliefs in the name of tradition, culture and religion. And that is what one expects from the scientific community. Yet we find religious fundamentalism, cultural dogma, astrology, Vedic creationism and obscurantism among our scientific community even today. Rocket scientists performing Poojas for the safe launch of rockets and a DNA scientist attempting to prove that his tribal wife had a different DNA from his caste are only some of the outrageous incidents that hide a larger malaise. Of late, attempts by Hindutva forces to portray the Vedas as science have come to the fore once again blurring the lines between what is scientific and what is sacred. The marginalisation of women and the exclusion of dalits could therefore be given scientific sanctity!

Thanks to Meera Nanda and others who have been writing about the philosophy and sociology of science, we are now more aware that science in India is worshipped as a tool of progress and production, but not used to challenge prejudice or create a more rational or just society.

Attempts have been made at IISC to set up counselling systems for students in distress due to academic strain. The question here is, will these be gender blind and caste blind or will these counselling mechanisms be sensitive to the role that caste, gender, language, religion and class play in student's stress levels? Is IISc ready to address fundamentals in terms of the sociology of the Institute and the institutionalised hegemonies of caste and gender that are operating insidiously? So far there seems to be a total denial on this score and a tendency to place blame wholly on individuals. In fact denial of oppression is the worst form of subjugation as it takes away any avenues to even name what is happening, let alone provide spaces to deal with it.

More recently special attempts have been made at IISC to recruit and fill at least the "reserved quota" posts and student seats. Will this really make a difference? Shobna Sonpar's study about IIT Delhi and the Thorat Committee Study at AIIMS reveal that faculty and students from socially advantaged backgrounds carry an exaggerated sense of their entitlement to study/work at IIT/AIIMS claiming superior intellectual ability. They also carry a sense of disentitlement towards SC/ST students whom they feel do not deserve these seats. Filling up vacancies through Special Drives would amount to merely cosmetic changes, if these students and staff are not going to feel any sense of belonging and inclusion in these institutions. And more tragedies like Ajay and Chaitra could be lurking beneath the surface.