Is Depression just Depression?

— The NotA Collective

This was originally written as a talk to be given at an event, which eventually didn’t happen, on mental health on campuses.

In his last letter, Rohith Vemula, the Ambedkarite scholar, wrote,1

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get seven months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that.

Even as all of us were moved by the sheer force of Vemula’s last words, this banality — where he had to make a request to collect the outstanding scholarship amount that was due to him — best explains why we are losing more and more students from marginalised communities to Indian academia. Consider this: In a public university like JNU, deemed number one in humanities, research scholars run from pillar to post, to get their scholarship forms processed. The process starts with the pink form. Students cannot fill it without attaching a copy of the office order. This order arrives in the first week of the month, days after the mess bills are issued. When the order arrives, students collect a copy and submit it along with the filled-in pink form to the supervisor. The supervisor may or may not sign. We say may or may not because the supervisor can choose to procrastinate or delay this process if they are not happy with the student (they may call it “performance”). But for now, let us not go down that route. Let us imagine the best case scenario. The supervisor signs and the student is now at the last phase of this process. Their forms are now at the doorstep of the admin building. As they slowly make their way to the scholarship office, they see a pile of pink forms stacked on the desk. The student’s form is placed at the bottom. The student leaves hoping that the form will be processed in due time. Days go by and there is no intimation of money being deposited. The student visits the admin office. They are told that the form is lost. Please repeat the process. Two weeks have passed since the office order came. There are bills to be paid, food to be eaten and things to be bought. One could argue that the scholarship is worth it. After all, isn’t the State paying students to conduct research? Not really. The time and energy expended on this process amounts to a measly stipend of Rs 5000 for non-NET MPhil research scholars and Rs 8000 for non-NET PhD research scholars.

We start with this basic description of an ordinary day in a research scholar’s life at a public university to highlight a few concerns. In 2016, when Rohith passed away leaving us with the legacy of a letter, several student organisations protested against the State. They pointed fingers at the university administration as well as the government for being the cause of the tragic death. But, in mainstream columns, a certain Manu Joseph, asked2

Can’t a Dalit activist be clinically depressed? …We can believe that people with no suicidal tendencies can be driven to suicide in the face of great atrocities or deep loss. Young women whose sexual acts have been recorded and shared on the internet have killed themselves. A woman in Mumbai, who had killed her infant in a fit of rage, killed herself […] As unpleasant as this question may be, did Vemula face such an extraordinary atrocity or tragedy? […] Rohith Vemula, from all evidence in sight, is a depression story, not a Dalit story.

Joseph’s need to find the extraordinary trigger that led to the suicide or his insistence in claiming that caste is not the cause tells us why MH is still grossly misunderstood as an illness that has nothing to do with the State or the caste society that we are in. We are told from day one that we are abled-bodied/abled minded humans who must at all cost work hard and propagate the myth of meritocracy. Thus the lone student from a marginalised community who scores high is celebrated as a PR story while reports on student suicides particularly from marginalised communities are ignored as depression stories. This false binary of separating depression from oppression/of suggesting multiple causes to depression shows how the State and this society is only interested in washing their hands off.

In Joseph’s story, we are told that depression is just… depression. Since Rohith had not mentioned names of perpetrators and had not pointed fingers, Joseph thinks that caste cannot be the cause of his depression. This insensitive take to Rohith’s story stands in sharp contrast to a profile that Sudipto Mondal wrote,3 days after his death. In this profile, we see how Rohith’s discrimination by caste had significant repurcussions on his schooling and education. We see how Rohith and his family were expected to do labour in return for living expenses. Thus for Rohith, his life as a PhD scholar, was tied to his need to fight and not succumb. What will a seven month delay in scholarship mean to Rohith and his family? What will the suspension trigger?

In 2008, a student at Government Medical College, Chandigarh, committed suicide because his openly casteist teacher refused to pass him in a course, prohibiting him from even becoming a doctor.4 An external committee reviewed his paper and judged that he had passed, but by then he had already passed. Surely, if this had got the kind of attention that Rohith’s story had gotten, Joseph would have blamed mental illness here as well. In the book Those Who Did Not Die, activist and author Ranjana Padhi documents how farmers and agricultural labourers who have lost everything sink into a deep depression; in some cases, they stop talking altogether. Mr. Joseph would surely advise mental health counselling in this case also.

Mr. Joseph’s piece here exemplifies two dogmas of how mental health must be discussed, which we call individualism and bio-essentialism.5 The first dogma states that mental health is a problem of individuals living their lives, and must be dealt with at that level. Imagine telling an agricultural labourer who has lost his livelihood, or a bright young student who has used his family’s entire savings on education to learn that he will never pass college, that what they need is counselling. The second dogma complements the first dogma; it states that the cause of the mental health issue is not the social structures that oppress individuals, but chemical imbalances in the brain.

And this is how the more “progressive” administrations and journalists deal with these issues. More commonly, we just hear outright dismissal; that individuals need to “buck up” and take responsibility for their own lives instead of wallowing in their depression. In response to a spate of suicides, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) recently decided to… get rid of ceiling fans in hostel rooms. The acceptable range of solutions, then, goes from ignoring the issue to dealing with something else entirely to pretending it is a problem of individuals.

But, as we have pointed out here, these solutions will all fail, in very obvious ways. The only solution is to actually build a truly equal society. To actually empower our students to tackle caste discrimination, gender discrimination, etc. To actually make it so that access to education is available to all, and doesn’t require students to use up money that they usually don’t have. This real solution is unacceptable to the human resources departments and ruling class journalists that shape the conversation and the policy around mental health. They will refuse to deal with it, because dealing with it requires the annihilation of the power structures they work to preserve. The problem of mental health in our university campuses can only be solved when we take back the university and build a campus that is actually dedicated to learning and upliftment of the oppressed. The problem of mental health in our society can only be solved when we take back control and build a society that is actually attempting to uplift all who have been oppressed.

  1. Vemula, R. (2016, January 19). Full text: Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide note. The Times of India. ↩︎

  2. Joseph, M. (2016, January 25). Depression or oppression: What led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide? Hindustan Times. ↩︎

  3. Mondal, S. (2016, January 27). Rohith Vemula: An Unfinished Portrait. Hindustan Times. ↩︎

  4. Deshpande, S., & Zacharias, U. (2016). Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education (1st ed.). Routledge India. See chapter 6. We have written a short invitation to this book at The NotA Collective. (2021a, September 7). An Invitation to Beyond Inclusion. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  5. The NotA Collective. (2021, October 14). On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

No Pedagogy for the Oppressed: Caste (in) Academia

– Deepti Sreeram

An upper-caste Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad once told me that EFLU would have been better off if it was still a private institution.“It wasn’t disruptive and crowded back then. The campus was peaceful,” the Professor told me.

He was referring to the political unrest on campus. Between 2010-12, the campus was in the middle of the Telangana movement1. Despite the absence of a fully recognised student union, organisations like the Telangana Students Association (TSA) and the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA) were at the forefront of various student-led agitations in Hyderabad. At one of the student protests at EFLU, the then acting Vice-Chancellor of EFLU had insulted a Dalit student leader for speaking in improper English. The leader graciously dismissed the remark even though there were legitimate grounds for public outcry.

When Rohith Vemula left us with a heart-breaking note, students across campuses protested against the ruling government. Left-wing student organisations included Jai Bhim in their slogans and held Ambedkar study groups. Academics across universities wrote articles, academic papers, think pieces and solidarity statements that critiqued the relationship between caste and academia and called for justice. None of these attempts made any discernible difference. The number of marginalised students forced to take their lives due to institutional apathy has only increased since then.

I recall these seemingly disconnected but pertinent events because of the changes that higher education in India has undergone in recent years. Public universities like UoH, JNU, Jamia Milia, DU and EFLU have experienced unprecedented levels of State-sponsored violence. Student activists who participated in agitations have been suspended or rusticated. Some of them were photographed2 and barred from taking the PhD entrance exam. Others were charged with the draconian UAPA3 for their protests against the State. At several public universities, reservation policies were flouted4 while research scholarships were delayed.5 This had a significant impact on the lives of marginalised students who attended these institutions. In the meantime, several new private universities flourished.They expanded their academic programmes, collaborated with international universities to create ‘institutions of excellence’ and become the preferred choice for Liberal Arts over public universities.

So what do these changes mean for the marginalised student?

Indian-style Ivy-leagues for the upper-castes

Until 2012, Public universities such as JNU, HCU, EFLU were the best universities offering social sciences and humanities in India, even with the proliferation of several small-scale private universities such as Amity, Christ etc. The progressive atmosphere, faculty, thriving student politics, reservation policy and the subsidised fee made these campuses an ideal space for liberal arts. In addition to this, students at public universities were more often at the helm of political movements. In 2000, when a special committee headed by Mukesh Ambani met the then government to discuss private investment in education, the committee described education as a “profitable market.”6 They also called for a ban on “any form of political activity on campuses… including student union activities.” Thus, in 2005, the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR)7 was implemented to ensure that political activities did not “disrupt education.” LCR ensured, among other things, that the university administration reserved the right to dissolve the union if circumstances warranted such a decision. The implementation of LCR and the coming of the new government in 2014 changed public universities for the worse.

The birth of ivy-league-like universities like Jindal, Ashoka and Krea (2012 onwards) during this period is significant. Unlike public institutions with poorly funded facilities, these universities have access to cutting-edge research and a liberal space where students can freely express their love and dissent as long as these ideas do not draw public attention.8 Students can also access networks of well-known authors, academics, business owners, and entrepreneurs and get mentored by them. Eventually, upon graduation, students get admitted to universities abroad or placed at well-paying companies.

However, securing admission to one of these universities is not an easy task. Unlike small-scale private universities that insist on meeting admission numbers, these universities have a rigorous admission cycle that prioritises “quality over quantity.” Undergraduate students, for example, are required to take an aptitude test similar to the SATs or write the SATs and submit the scores at the time of admission. They should also write application essays that would showcase their reading and writing skills. These admission hurdles are similar to the policies adopted by universities abroad, especially those located in the US and the UK. Because private universities do not have a reservation policy, the founders are keen to provide fee waivers or scholarships under the diversity quota. Under this quota, recruiters select a handful of meritorious students from economically poor backgrounds. The emphasis on merit justifies scholarships/fee waivers provided to some students who would not have been able to afford an education at these universities otherwise. The outcome of these policies is the creation of a homogenous upper-caste student population across institutions. According to this study,9 at least 84% of the Young India Fellowship cohort from the 2018 Ashoka batch came from a four-wheeler vehicle-owning household. 40% come from families with an annual income of more than 30 lakhs, and an astounding 80% come from upper-caste families.

Who gets to read and write better?

I had to write a 3000-word academic paper at the end of my first semester of post-graduate studies at EFLU. I remember how this had intimidated me so much that I had switched disciplines – Linguistics over Literature- to avoid academic papers. Similarly, some of my Bahujan classmates who struggled with English chose courses from the English Language Education department, which was popularly understood as an easy department. These choices inevitably divided the batch into two groups. Students (predominantly Savarna) who took courses from the Culture Studies/Literature/Film studies department were seen as intellectual students while students who opted for other disciplines particularly English Language Education (ELE), were looked down upon. ELE has generally occupied a similar marginalised position compared to the other disciplines in India. It is often seen as a means to knowing English as opposed to a potential space that could help navigate the systemic differences in the university. University administrations would therefore never consider dedicating resources to having an English Language Teaching (ELT) centre and would rather appoint poorly trained faculty to teach English.

When I joined Ashoka as a writing tutor, I was amazed to see the scale and architecture of the writing pedagogy at the university. The university had an undergraduate writing programme (UWP), a centre dedicated to writing and communication and an English as a Second Language (ESL) programme specifically designed for students who struggle with English. Similar support systems are also available at other ivy league like universities such as Krea, Jindal, SNU and Flame. In contrast, public universities like JNU, EFLU, HCU and colleges under DU saw academic writing as a skill that students learned without training. Though there were a handful of workshops targeting research writing skills, these were hardly a match compared to what was on offer at the ivy-league like universities. This approach to academic writing was similar to what was taken towards ELT. There wasn’t a need to dedicate resources when the savarna student did not require it.

Since the establishment of universities like Ashoka, Jindal, Krea, academic writing has received attention as a discipline in Indian higher education. My colleagues who teach academic writing at these universities have argued10 that the new writing movement that emerged from these institutions will usher in a meaningful inclusive future in Indian academia. They also argued that a pedagogy of care is essential in the university classroom and how more care11 would have helped students like Rohith Vemula who experience alienation at the university.

As an Other Eligible Communities (OEC) student, I could pursue my higher education because of the subsidised fee structure and reservation policy at public universities. But these policies did not really make me stay at the university. My struggle with writing made me leave academia for good in 2014 and then it took me nearly six years to summon confidence, save money and apply for a PhD at a private university like Ashoka. This is when I was far more privileged than students like Rohith Vemula and Rajni Krish who had to work menial jobs and secure funds for their university expenses. How can then students like Rohith Vemula access care when it is only available at ivy-league like institutions?

In April, a video showing12 Seema Singh abusing students from marginalised backgrounds attending a preparatory English course, went viral. The course was primarily designed as a gateway course which would help students from Dalit, OBC and Adivasi backgrounds secure admission at IIT. It is inside this English language classroom that the Professor had unleashed abuses and threatened students. While the incident unleashed outrage from all quarters, excluding statements from alumni, no institution in India came forward with a statement condemning the incident. But consider this. When the BLM movement took off in the US, several writing centres,13 ELT programmes14 and universities published statements15 of solidarity. They professed their commitment to following an anti-race pedagogy and put up statements declaring the same. Though these may be dismissed as tokenistic, the absolute inability in acknowledging caste in our universities suggest that we are far far behind our contemporaries.The critical pedagogy that we promise or espouse is still designed for the cause of the savarna student and this is true for both public and private institutions. Until we overhaul this, there is no pedagogy and certainly no care given to the marginalised university student in India.

Deepti Sreeram is a first year PhD student at Ashoka University.

  1. EFLU students divided into two groups. (2010, December 24). The New Indian Express. ↩︎

  2. Ragesh, G. (2017, February 20). EFLU doesn’t allow 2 Keralite girls to write entrance, their crime – seeking justice for Rohith Vemula. OnManorama. ↩︎

  3. Express Web Desk. (2020, August 25). JNU PhD scholar Sharjeel Imam now arrested for Delhi riots. The Indian Express. ↩︎

  4. Teja, C. (2020, October 18). The News Minute | Telangana. The News Minute. ↩︎

  5. rishna, A. (2021, April 26). COVID-19: Students struggle for months without fellowship during pandemic. Careers360.Com ↩︎

  6. We have discusses this before at The NotA Collective. (2021, June 18). They Did Not Know We Were Grass. Notes on the Academy. ↩︎

  7. Sreeram, D. (2015, November 6). Right To Education: Denied. Tehelka. ↩︎

  8. Chopra, R. (2017, January 28). Lone teacher to sign Kashmir petition quits Ashoka University. The Indian Express. ↩︎

  9. What We Know About Diversity at Ashoka: A Look at the YIF Programme – The Edict. (2019, March 12). The Edict. ↩︎

  10. Dasgupta, A., & Lohokhare, M. (2019, June 24). Guest-Editorial – Building the Boat While Sailing it: Writing Pedagogy in India. Café Dissensus. ↩︎

  11. Dasgupta, A. (2019, June 24). The Writing Self and the Work of Care in Critical Writing Pedagogy. Café Dissensus. ↩︎

  12. Shocking Incident in IIT Kharagpur where a Professor is openly abusing students on record. (2021, April 27). [Video]. YouTube. ↩︎

  13. Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Action: First Steps. (n.d.). Columbia University Centre for Teaching and Learning. ↩︎

  14. Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning. (2018, July 11). NCTE. ↩︎

  15. Statement and Actions for Black Lives, Anti-Racist Commitment. (2021, February 11). CU Engage. ↩︎