Unhealed Wounds

The suicide of a Dalit student at India’s top medical college reveals an institution bitterly divided over caste and reservations.

01 July, 2012

ON A SATURDAY EVENING in the first week of March, Anil Kumar Meena, a first-year student at the elite All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, reluctantly joined his friends for a weekend game of cricket on the campus lawns. Anil was a little lost on the field—he fumbled with the ball, dropped catches, and his throwscame in late. At times, he wistfully watched the ball roll across the boundary.

“He was depressed,” his friend Rajendra Meena, a second-year student at AIIMS, recalled. “I had to drag him forcibly from his room to play.” But after they lost the match, Anil went over to Rajendra’s hostel room to watch an episode of the popular comedy show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Rajendra’s computer. The two boys, who had both made a long journey to India’s most prestigious medical school from impoverished Dalit families in remote, rural Rajasthan, shared a good laugh before Anil returned to his own room to study.

When Rajendra went downstairs to Anil’s room a few hours later to borrow a packet of biscuits, he found his friend sitting on a chair with his head lowered, staring anxiously at the floor. An anatomy textbook was lying open on the desk, but Anil was turned in the other direction, facing his bed. “The sheets were rolled up like a rope,” Rajendra said. “I asked him, why are your sheets like this, and he said he had to wash them.”

Rajendra was well aware of Anil’s woes. Both had come from government schools where they were taught in Hindi; at AIIMS, classes were only in English, and they barely understood the lectures. “It’s a different world,” Rajendra told me. “We were toppers in Hindi, now we are failures.” The AIIMS students struggling with the transition to English tend to study on their own—meticulously going through textbooks with the aid of a dictionary—and seek assistance from older students from similar backgrounds, rather than attending lectures they can’t follow. Anil had spent much of the previous year in his hostel room, translating his way through the course materials, sentence by sentence, to prepare for his exams. But shortly before the test, in June 2011, Anil was told he wouldn’t be allowed to sit the exams because his class attendance was below 50 percent. This was an unpleasant surprise: the rule was not a new one, but it had rarely if ever been enforced before. In August, he appeared for the supplementary examinations instead, but—to his surprise—failed in all three subjects. Since then, he had been trying to meet with senior faculty members to request that his papers be reevaluated; he believed that a last-minute change in the assessment process had prevented him from passing in at least one subject, but nobody seemed willing to listen.