Deepa Mohanan had gone on an 11-day hunger strike, demanding the removal of Professor Nandakumar Kalarickal who had hindered her research work for years at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala.

Deepa wearing a white dress stands with a bag in front of the MGU entrance, behind her is a red archway, grills and red flags
Delve Interview Friday, November 19, 2021 - 13:07

Between spells of rain, the campus of Mahatma Gandhi University looks wet and beautifully green. Signboards on garden corners announce the eco-friendliness of the university that sprawls across acres in Kottayam’s Athirampuzha. Emerging from a corner building is Deepa P Mohanan, with a paper in her hand. Dressed in printed white, she contrasts the colours of the campus, as she trudges towards the gates of the university. 

Outside, under the red archway of the vast entrance, Deepa had camped without food for 11 days, only weeks ago, asking for her right to study without hindrance. A fundamental right she has been denied for years, because of the interference of one man, she said to anyone who listened. After 11 days, and two rounds of hospitalisation, her demands were finally met: she could continue her research with all the facilities she required, and the man who stood in her way was thrown out.

“The first thing I did upon ending the strike last Monday (November 9) was to take care of my health,” Deepa says in an interview with TNM. “I had always been anaemic and needed medicines every day. But since I was not eating, I couldn’t take the medicine. My haemoglobin level went down to 7.3, and there was variation in my ECG – I have been a heart patient since birth. So straight after the strike, I went to rest, to have food and take my medicine,” Deepa adds. In her hand, she holds a copy of the university’s order accepting her demands.

First, among the demands met, was the removal of Professor Nandakumar Kalarickal from the Inter University Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (IIUCNN), where Deepa has been trying to do her PhD for the last seven years. Her fight began much before, in 2011, when she joined the centre to do her M.Phil.

To Deepa, the reason for his prejudice and countless acts of discrimination against her is very clear: casteism. She belongs to the Malayan community, a Scheduled Caste in Malabar region, and comes from the Kelakam village of Kannur. She grew up near the Pookondu colony in Kannur district, inhabited by members of the Paniya tribe, which falls under the Scheduled Tribes in Kerala.

“The roots of my desire to do higher studies go back to living in the colony I come from. In Kannur where I live, in my colony, no one – boy or girl – has studied beyond Class 10. I badly wanted that to change,” Deepa says, during a late lunch at her favourite food joint outside campus, near the Athirampuzha church.

Life had not been easy before her Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) days either. She remembers facing discrimination while pursuing a degree at Kannur University. But it got much worse when she moved to Kottayam and joined MGU.

First acts of discrimination

“When I joined MGU in 2011, there were three Dalit students in my batch, including me. All three of us were kept away from a six-month project in other campuses, which is part of the M.Phil. course, while other students were given opportunities. One of the Dalit students, a man, had a health problem and went to a company to do the project on his own and not through the university. Another woman and I had to do it on our campus and they made it difficult for both of us,” Deepa says.

Deepa was in microbiology and Nandakumar in physics, but he was one of the two professors who had to approve her thesis presentation for her M.Phil. Sabu Thomas, the other professor, approved it, but Nandakumar did not. “When I came for my presentation, Nandakumar said in front of the examiner that my thesis was not approved and I was bringing it in my own interest. Just because of his stubbornness, my thesis was rejected, there were hardly any corrections in it. In fact, the examiner liked my presentation, gave me 8.5 on 10, and even said that it should be published in an international journal. The presentation was therefore accepted, but because of Nandakumar’s prejudice, the thesis was rejected. I had to rework and present it again,” Deepa says.

According to Deepa, it was worse for the other woman student. She was not even allowed to present her thesis. Instead, she was made to present it six months later, against the university guidelines, which would have required her to do the presentation only a year later, along with the next batch. “All of this is to put pressure on you till you tire out and leave. She didn’t even have the family support that I had. It had badly affected her. With the support of friends, she somehow finished M.Phil. but after that she couldn’t do a PhD like she desired,” Deepa claims. This was due to the delay in issuing the M.Phil. certificates. It took a few years, and by then the student had to find an alternative course. “Luckily, I had cleared GATE and I could apply for a PhD in 2014,” she says.

PhD days

She had thought life would be easier even though she was joining the same centre for her PhD. Nandakumar was in a different department and she wouldn’t have to interact with him. Her guide and co-guide were Sabu Thomas and Radhakrishnan, respectively – two names that would feature later in her story. “But Nandakumar had to approve the release of work materials and he asked them not to give me any. When funds were allotted, they’d ask all scholars about the materials they needed. I made my request but without giving any reasons, I was not allowed any. I was the only Dalit research student,” Deepa says.

She borrowed material from her friends to do the work and submitted her reports. The next big insult came when it was time for her work presentation. Her PhD topic – wound healing applications using nanobiotechnology – was a continuation of her work from her M.Phil. She used her M.Phil data for the presentation. “There, in front of 50 others, Nandakumar claimed that I stole the data from another student called Robin Augustine. I understood later that Robin, Sabu Thomas, and Nandakumar published an article in an international journal using my data, and without giving me credit for it. I complained to the university, and to the police. But no action was taken. It was political pressure. He has the support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M), the party leading the Left government in the state,” Deepa claims.

After the incident at the work presentation, Deepa found herself quite literally without a seat to sit and work from. She temporarily sat with the junior students but even that was soon not allowed. Nandakumar asked her to get up and go away, Deepa says. Afterward, she began doing her work in the library.

Casteist insults, locked in lab

The first time Nandakumar directly used a casteist insult against her was during an international conference in 2014, Deepa says. This was when she was put on duty to collect funds. “A few senior students, also on duty, had not done the work properly. But Nandakumar called me and said SC/ST students have no competence and cannot be given responsibilities. This was in December. Hardly a month later, a horrible incident occurred,” Deepa says.

On January 10, 2015, Deepa was doing her microbiology work in the lab. It was a Saturday and as scholars do, she sometimes worked on the weekends, taking prior permission. “That day,  Nandakumar came to the lab and asked me to get out. He called the lab-in-charge, who told him that I had taken permission. But he still wouldn't allow me to work. I called Sabu sir (Sabu Thomas) who was then the director of my centre. But when he came, Nandakumar was adamant that I should not be allowed to work and Sabu sir let him have his way. So I had to stop my work. But when I went away to remove the gear – gloves, mask, and coat – they locked the office door, locked the grill, and went away. I was locked inside. Luckily, I had my phone and I dialed the police. They came and got me out. But that evening, my guide Radhakrishnan called and asked me not to give a police complaint. And I didn’t,” she recalls.

 

 

After this incident, Sabu Thomas and her guide promised her that there would be no more interference from Nandakumar in her work. But even then she was not issued work material and she had to continue with borrowed stuff. Two months later, Nandakumar was again in the picture. “He sent a student called Praveen to ask me to get out of the lab. I had no other option than to go ahead and make a complaint. With the knowledge of my guide, I gave a complaint to the university. Sheena Shukkur was then the pro-vice-chancellor. In my presence, she called Nandakumar on the phone. There was also a Syndicate member there. Sheena madam told us Nandakumar’s response – he told her that if she did favours to Dalit students, the centre would lose its discipline,” Deepa says.

This was yet another instance of Nandakumar directly making a casteist remark. The university, convinced of Deepa’s case, ordered the centre to provide her work material and a seat and to not allow any interference from Nandakumar.

‘Nandakumar has political support’

“But whatever was done, as long as Nandakumar was in the centre, he would try and stop my work. That is why, six years after the Mahatma Gandhi University order, I still could not do my research work. He created many difficulties, including cutting off the water supply in the lab. I had to approach the High Court in 2016-17, filing a writ for my rights. The High Court gave the vice-chancellor the responsibility of letting me complete my work. But the VC did nothing. I understood there was a lot of political pressure. Even KK Shailaja (MLA, former Minister of LDF) called to ask me to withdraw from the case,” Deepa claims.

There was a syndicate investigation against Nandakumar, which found him guilty. The university lodged a complaint with the police asking for a case against Nandakumar under the SC/ST Atrocities act. Nandakumar had then lost directorship but was later reinstated.

“During my recent strike, the university had at first cited technical reasons that prevented them from removing Nandakumar. They claimed a High Court order had asked to reinstate him. But that’s wrong. No court has given him a clean chit. He had approached the High Court to quash the FIR against him. The first investigating official had stated to the court that there was proof against him but this officer was then transferred. The new official in charge gave a report in favour of Nandakumar. The HC had to close his petition but didn’t give him a clean chit. The case was registered at the Ettumanoor court and later shifted to Kottayam sessions court. It is still ongoing. I followed this up with an RTI in March 2017,” Deepa says. “But when I went to the SP’s office in Kottayam, women police officials beat me up and filed a criminal case against me,” she further claims.

She had to be hospitalised because of the injuries from the beating but she refused to sign the FIR with charges against her. A magistrate then visited her at the hospital and took down her complaint on a piece of paper. “Then and there, the magistrate took a suo moto case against the police. I am saying that they even tried to send me to jail,” Deepa adds.

‘Hunger strike was the only way’

After this, she tried to get her course going, visiting the office of Sabu Thomas – who had become vice-chancellor by then – several times. It was when nothing else worked that she began her hunger strike on October 29, 2021.

Read: Kerala PhD scholar Deepa Mohanan’s hunger strike is about casteism in academia

“In the first round of discussions to broker peace, the University said that they will arrange all facilities for me like it was a favour to me. But I stood firm on my demand that Nandakumar had to be removed. They tried to break the strike through mediators but I stuck on, with the help of organisations like Bhim Army Kerala, other Dalit organisations, some political parties like the Congress, the RMP, the SDPI, the Welfare Party, and even the CPI (an ally of the Left government). In the second round of discussions, they agreed to all my demands,” Deepa says.

Amid her strike, posts that Deepa had put up during the time of Rohith Vemula’s suicide cropped up. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research student at the Hyderabad University and member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, had died by suicide in 2016 after he was suspended following a clash between the ASA and the ABVP – students’ wing of the BJP. Rohith’s suicide had triggered national protests and discussions against the discrimination of Dalit students on campuses. Deepa’s posts at the time appeared critical of Rohith Vemula.

“I was not against Rohith, but his act of suicide. Suicide is never the answer, you need to fight for your rights,” Deepa says when asked about the posts.

That’s what she will continue to do, she says, fight for her rights. Not only for her sake but for many others facing such discrimination.

Also read: Deepa Mohanan's win exposes true face of the Left and Kerala's 'progressive' society

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