Muthukrishanan’s death must bring attention to the systemic discrimination against students from marginalized communities.

Just days before he hanged himself to everyone’s shock and surprise, Muthukrishanan, a Dalit MPhil scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, had told the world through his Facebook page, “There is no Equality in M.phil/phd Admission, there is no equality in Viva – voce, there is only denial of equality.” (sic)

The reason Muthukrishanan took this adverse step is not known, and may not ever be known fully, though various conjectures will emerge in the next few days. But in those final words of his, lies a story that needs understanding, whether or not it contributed to his decision.

Muthukrishanan’s journey to JNU, which he described in a Facebook post last year, is an incredible story of severe hardship and resolute determination. In that post, he described how he wrote the entrance exam for the MA programme at JNU thrice, the entrance exam for the MPhil/PhD programme twice, and attended the interview twice. And how he wrote his MPhil proposal 38 times, before finally making it into the course that he had worked “many menial jobs… Saved money like ant” for.

His post, which described poignantly the difficulties that he faced as a first-generation graduate with no experience or ease with the English language, highlights one of the most undemocratic processes in the selection of candidates to JNU’s and other universities’ research degrees – the Viva Voce.

Students applying for the MPhil/PhD programme at JNU are put through a two-stage admission process – a written exam that tests the student’s knowledge of the discipline, followed by an oral viva voce, which is supposed to test the student’s knowledge of his or her proposed research area.

Until last year, JNU weighted the written exam and the viva voce according to a proportion of 70:30 of the final result. This weightage has continued despite a longstanding demand of the Students Union and the student body that the weightage for the viva voce be reduced to only 15%.

To make matters worse, in December, JNU adopted the UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil/ PhD Degrees) Regulation, 2016, which converted the written exam into only a qualifying exam, and made the viva voce the final determining process for a student’s entry into an MPhil/PhD programme. Following protests, JNU clarified that a weightage of 80:20 would be maintained, though the issue still remains unresolved.

What is the Viva Voce problem?

For believers in “meritocracy” – whatever that means, the UGC’s new proposal, and JNU’s long-standing proposal may not seem like much of a problem. Yet, there is credible evidence that the viva-voce has always been a significant barrier against which the dreams of many students from marginalised communities have shattered.

Muthukrishanan’s post highlights the obvious disadvantage that many of these students face, as compared to elite students from metropolitan backgrounds for whom thinking and speaking in English is an advantage so deeply bred that it seems practically instinctive.

But behind this obvious distinction lies a much deeper problem of the Viva Voce process. Unlike the written exam, which is a generally impersonal process, the Viva Voce has always been one in which the social backgrounds of candidates become clearly visible. And being an improvised, subjective process, as every oral interview is, the viva voce also allows for different modes and standards of interview to be applied to different candidates.

And so, it serves as an efficient institutional mechanism for weighting the process against candidates from Dalit, Bahujan and Tribal communities, and in favour of the “General” (read Hindu, Upper Caste) candidates.

This is why the JNU Students Union has been demanding that the weightage for the Viva Voce be reduced. But lest one thinks that this is just “liberal, pseudo-secular prejudice” against hardworking upper caste Hindu candidates, there are even the numbers to prove it.

A recent survey of the selection process at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies in the School of International Studies, for instance, showed that out of the 92 students who participated in the Viva Voce, over 92% of the students who did not qualify belonged to SC, ST and OBC categories. Out of 37 students who received only one or two marks out of a possible 30, 36 students were from these categories.

But, one might object, this could just be an aberration at this centre, or it could reflect the low standards of candidates from these backgrounds applying to this centre. Consider then, an earlier survey that the JNU Student’s Union had reported from 2012. That survey found numerous examples across centres in JNU, of students from SC, ST and OBC categories who had scored average to above average marks in the written exams and scored very low in the viva voce. It also found examples of candidates from the General category who had scored average to below average marks in the written exam but scored very high in the viva voce.

Across centres, this survey found, students receiving between 21 and 30 marks in the viva voce were almost entirely from the General category, while students who scored between 0-12 marks were disproportionately from SC, ST and OBC communities.

Indeed, an overall pattern emerged where students were clustered between the 0-5 marks at one end or 25-30 marks at the other, with a few scattered in between.

Muthukrishanan’s death, irrespective of whether it was linked to the undemocratic practices in our universities, must bring attention to the systemic discrimination against students from marginalised communities, and it is about time we reform higher education.