It may seem like justice was swift and the CPI(M) government delivered on its avowed progressive agenda, but Deepa's fight did not start only on October 29, 2021, writes the author.

Deepa Mohanan
Voices Opinion Friday, November 19, 2021 - 11:06

It was a difficult sight to behold: Deepa Mohanan — a brilliant PhD scholar, a Dalit intellectual, and my dear friend — on a hunger strike for 11 days, demanding justice from the Kerala government and authorities of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.

The strike received nationwide attention and forced Pinarayi Vijayan’s government to intervene and sack the senior professor who had been tormenting Deepa because of her caste.

To those unfamiliar with the case, it may seem like justice was swift and the CPI(M) government delivered on its avowed progressive agenda. However, Deepa's fight did not start only on October 29, 2021, and the so-called progressive party is no stranger to this issue. 

It took ten long years for the wheels of justice to finally turn in her favour and that too only after she started her hunger strike. 

Before this, the university management did not budge even in the face of multiple court orders against the accused, Nandakumar Kalarickal – Associate Professor and Director at the Inter University Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (IIUCNN).

One can gauge the power of this man by how openly he harassed Deepa. Nandakumar Kalarickal stopped her from entering the university lab, which prevented her from accessing the chemicals and polymers that were critical to her research. He denied her seating at the workplace. He also worked towards blocking her stipend. He even locked her alone inside the lab on one occasion.

Read: Braving casteism to being beaten by cops, Deepa Mohanan recounts fight for justice

All this could not have happened without the knowledge of those around. Let’s not forget that MG University is a stronghold of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), which is affiliated to the CPI(M).

Her decade-long battle to complete her studies in the face of casteist harassment stands testimony to the institutionalised bigotry at MG University and the Brahmanic mindset of the academics and student activists there. 

It also raises questions about the communist party’s commitment to providing a safe environment for academics from marginalised communities. 

Deepa scored 87% in her MSc and 80% in  MPhil. Today, her Ph.D. is much delayed and her future is at a crossroads.

Who is going to compensate Deepa for her lost decade? The person who was supposed to have finished her research by now and become a scientist has been moving courts one after another and finally had to resort to a hunger strike. The entire government machinery, within which the university is just a tiny part, is responsible for this atrocity. 

This is not just an issue between two individuals, but between a woman from an oppressed community and a man who bears all the markers of Brahmanic privilege.

Deepa’s research should have ended in March 2019. During her protest, she expressed confidence that she would finish her research in six months if proper access to the lab and other facilities are provided. It is this conviction that finally brought Deepa victory in her fight against oppression.

In a way, this victory of Deepa’s was snatched from the jaws of Kerala’s most powerful political force. Her protest site, right in front of MG University, raised several questions about the Left political establishment of Kerala.

The Dalit girl did it with the backing of the Bhim Army, and not a powerful political party. It says something about the changing political iconography in Kerala that the protest site was adorned with pictures of Dr BR Ambedkar and Rohith Vemula, not Marx and Lenin. 

A nationwide problem

For students from socially excluded communities, education is the only means of social progress, the only route to achieving cultural capital. Alas, the campus, too, is a part of the same social structures that these students attempt to escape through education. 

Numerous research scholars – from marginalised communities – in our colleges, universities, and IITs are in such a state that they cannot even publicly talk about the constant mental torture they are subjected to. They quit instead of speaking out. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. We cannot miss a single opportunity to remind the world of the lives these casteist campuses have consumed.

When Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad, died by suicide on January 17, 2016, protests erupted across the country. Was Vemula the first victim of casteism in higher education institutes? Without a doubt, no. The death of those who went before was silently accepted or hushed up.

Read: 4 years after his death, Rohith Vemula lives on as the face of dissent in universities

Rohith Vemula’s case has still not reached a logical conclusion. What happened to the case of Ajay Srichandra, the Dalit biologist who died by suicide in 2007 at the Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore? What of Balmukunda Bharati, the Dalit MBBS student at AIIMS who died in 2010, and Chuni Kotal the Adivasi scholar who died in Left-ruled Bengal in 1992? And Jaspreet Singh, the Dalit student at the Chandigarh Government Medical College, who died naming a faculty member as his tormentor in 2008? 

The picture is no different in Kerala

Things are no different in Kerala, no matter how progressive it appears on the surface to those who are not from here. We are living in a society that preserves extreme caste practices under the shroud of the so-called ‘progressive Kerala’.

Casteism is never openly visible in Kerala as it is in other southern states. It is like a silent river, a heart-to-heart code that connects some people and leaves out others. On campuses, Dalit and Adivasi students who get harassed are most often those who manage to break from this web of caste and explore new political options, particularly Ambedkarism. 

At the same MG University where Deepa faced trouble, a brilliant Dalit boy named Vivek Kumaran was attacked and abused by SFI members in January 2017 for holding a meeting with like-minded Dalit friends. This incident led to the formation of the Ambedkar Students Association on campus.

In March 2016, Avinash, a Dalit student of Nattakom Government Polytechnic College, was brutally ragged by senior students who were members of the SFI. Avinash had suffered a serious injury to his kidney in that tragic incident. The seniors allegedly thrashed him saying that he had turned the hostel into a “pulayakudi” (colony of Dalits). 

At the Calicut Central University, four Ph.D. scholars had their fellowship blocked by casteist administrators during the COVID-19 lockdown. They claim that no relief was offered to them and they were left penniless during the pandemic, despite a ruling in their favor from the university syndicate as well as the SC/ST commission. These students did not want me to mention their names here as they do not want to further antagonise the university management. 

There are good reasons for them to prefer anonymity while sharing their hard experiences. Research under a guide opens up all possibilities of power play. As far as the researchers are concerned, the relationship with their guide is absolutely critical. The guide’s attestation and reference decide not just the future of their research but their very existence in academia. This is why they choose not to be identified. Another Dalit girl Athira who joined the College of Engineering Thiruvananthapuram (CET) was branded mentally ill and severely discouraged from continuing her BTech education in 2017 after she spoke out against caste discrimination.

This is the face of casteless and classless Kerala which Leftists in the state and their supporters in the rest of the country boast about. What makes Deepa Mohanan’s win historic is that her protest exposed the true face of Kerala’s communists and the state's so-called progressive society. 

Views expressed are the author’s own

Maya Pramod is a Malayalam author and a PhD scholar at Christ (Autonomous) College, Irinjalakuda in Thrissur.

Translated from Malayalam by Sruthi Paruthikkad.

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