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India education: Dalit student suicide

Caste-discrimination is undermining India's efforts to uplift the oppressed through quotas in higher education.

Many Dalit students excel despite the obstacles, of course. But the obsession with so-called "merit" — as defined by standardized tests that are biased in favor of wealthier students — obscures the fact that most quota students are fighting their way out of small towns. Their parents have no money for expensive prep courses. And despite attending 10 years of school in a regional language, they're expected to make the transition to English without extra help.

"We want to break this myth of merit," Kumar said, referring again to Balmukund Bharti, whose parents are destitute laborers from one of India's poorest regions. "For us, the real merit is that a student from such a backward area and such a backward family, through working hard, made it to AIIMS at all."

Apparently, the university officials who would sympathize with that point of view are few and far between, suggests a health ministry-mandated investigation into discrimination at AIIMS led by Sukhadeo Thorat, a Dalit academic.

The Thorat Commission report found that the institute had not established legally required measures like a grievance cell for discrimination complaints or remedial programs to help low-caste students overcome language problems and other academic difficulties. Noting that half of a students' grade is based on "internal assessment" by instructors, the commission also found that Dalit students said their examiners made sure to inquire about their caste background, then made themselves inaccessible and spent less time with them than with their upper caste classmates.

AIIMS later formed its own committee to investigate the Thorat Commission's findings, and refuted them out of hand, filing suit in the Delhi High Court against the health minister, his secretary and three members of the Thorat committee, demanding around $10,000 in compensation for alleged defamatory remarks.

So it's not surprising that the institution has implemented few, if any, of the Thorat Commission's recommendations, according to a source close to the situation.

But the Insight Foundation is not going to let the issue lie.

Fresh out of meetings with an official from India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment — which is tasked with the fight against religion- and caste-based discrimination — Kumar said that the group is pushing the government to act, and plans a nationwide protest next month if it doesn't move swiftly enough.

Time could well be of the essence. When the government compelled GMC (Chandigarh) to get an independent group of professors to recheck the exam that Jaspreet Singh had failed, he passed with flying colors.

But a posthumous medical degree isn't worth much to his devastated family.

"We are still trying to get justice. We are still fighting in court," said Singh's sister. "[Professor] Goel should be dismissed and put behind bars so no other student faces something like this."