Students Sacrifice Selves to Protect Caste Privilege : India: Scores of middle-class youths have committed suicide to protest opening more jobs to the poor.


Monica Chadha, a 19-year-old student, looked up from her morning newspaper, which described a rash of protest suicides by Indian teen-agers, and announced that she was going to kill herself.

Monica “told us she was going to burn herself to death--just like that,” her elder sister Sonia recalled the other day.

“I told her, ‘Monica, come on, you’re joking.’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not a joke. I am very serious. If all these other boys and girls can sacrifice themselves like this to shout down the policies of this prime minister, then I will sacrifice my life as well.’ ”


A few minutes later, Monica kept her word. As her family went back to their breakfast and a lighthearted movie on television, she went out to the terrace, poured gasoline over herself, lit a match--and turned so she could be seen by those, including her father, Gulshan, who were attending a nearby political rally against Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

It took Monica Chadha 10 days to die. But as her life ebbed away Wednesday night, she mumbled repeatedly: “Today, I want to teach a lesson to V. P. Singh. I am proud of what I have done.”

Monica Chadha is just one of more than 150 middle-class Indian students and teen-agers who in the past month have attempted to kill themselves by immolation, poisoning or hanging. Nearly half have succeeded.

All have done so with the stated purpose of protesting Prime Minister Singh’s controversial policy of altering India’s ancient Hindu caste system--a “positive discrimination” order that dims the future for high-caste families like the Chadhas by reserving 27% more government jobs and university placements for India’s downtrodden lower castes.

The order has touched off mass demonstrations that rival anything seen in New Delhi since the assassination six years ago of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Repeatedly, police have opened fire on demonstrators.

“Only V.P. Singh is responsible for my death,” wrote one student, Sushil Kumar, before he swallowed a lethal dose of insecticide in Haryana state. And in the state of Punjab, Narinder Kaur hanged herself and left a note in which she donated her eyes to the prime minister “so that he can see better for himself the misery ‘the report’ has brought upon the student community.”

The 900-page report she referred to was drafted more than a decade ago by a commission headed by B. P. Mandal, a member of Parliament. Although it was written while Indira Gandhi was prime minister, neither she nor her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, could muster the political consensus or will to implement its findings.

According to unconfirmed reports, Indira Gandhi wrote on her copy of the Mandal report: “If these are implemented, there will be civil war.”

Not until the renegade politician Vishwanath Pratap Singh came to power a year ago, at the head of a minority government promising a new political order, was any action taken to carry out Mandal’s proposal for a quota system.

On Aug. 30, Singh put the system into effect, declaring that it was time the upper castes surrendered some of their power and prestige to what are officially called “Other Backward Classes.” These are the lower castes, estimated to number 3,743, that are officially identified in the Indian constitution.

The quota concept is not new. For four decades, since the present constitution was adopted, 22.5% of all government jobs and university slots have been reserved for India’s Untouchables, the non-caste Hindus whom Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi renamed harijans in his campaign to liberate them from centuries of oppression.

But Singh ordered that the quotas now would apply to low-caste Hindus as well, a step that in effect more than doubles the number of beneficiaries. This sent shock waves through the emerging middle- and lower-middle classes, which are dominated by the three Hindu groups considered upper caste--the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas.

What is more, the new Mandal quotas came amid a rush of consumerism, materialism and unprecedented pressure for upward mobility in the middle class, which is believed to account for 20% of the population and which relies heavily on government placements to build their fortunes.

Instantly, the protests began. Student leaders at New Delhi University quickly formed the Anti-Mandal Commission Forum and took to the streets in demonstrations that often ended in bloody clashes with police. And the protests spread rapidly to other states where the upper castes are dominant in a spontaneous, though largely uncoordinated, national movement.

Few politicians were willing to take up the cause. Privately, most of Singh’s opponents and independent analysts alike have charged that the prime minister’s order was a blatantly political attempt to build personal support.

They note that the lower castes affected by the quota system account for 52% of the Indian population, and they emphasize that Singh, now dangerously close to losing key coalition partners that keep his minority government in power, needs this power base to remain in office.

“V. P. Singh, by these reservations, has created for himself a very large majority vote almost overnight,” said Lokesh Chandra, a Hindu scholar who heads the International Academy of Indian Culture.

“It’s a political masterstroke, and if a few children have sacrificed themselves, what does it matter? It sounds cynical, but in reality no politician can speak out against the Mandal commission and survive.”

Bharat Wariavwalla, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies, agreed, saying:

“For whatever reasons V. P. Singh has taken this step, and I agree they were probably cynical ones, the fact remains that it is the most important and symbolic assault on the caste system since Mahatma Gandhi staged his fast until death on behalf of the harijans in 1931.

“And today, for the first time, no one--absolutely no politician with any ambitions for the future--can appear to be anything but committed to the reservations system in the Mandal report.”

Wariavwalla likened the quota system to the quotas for blacks that were introduced amid similar controversy during the civil rights campaign in the United States. Now, he said, Singh must take harder and more fundamental economic steps, such as land reform and liberalization of the private sector, if the move is to be more than symbolic.

Public pressure on Singh to implement such sweeping economic reforms is not likely to ease in the coming months. For while the politicians have been silent, the increasingly vocal middle class--students and parents--have not.

It was the first teen-age suicide attempt that ignited the students’ flagging movement, on Sept. 19, at a rally in New Delhi. When it appeared that the politicians were ignoring the students, Rajiv Goswami, 19, suddenly doused himself with kerosene and set himself ablaze. As the flames licked around him, he whispered that his motive was to rekindle a movement that “would have died out . . . without this sacrifice.”

Goswami lived, although he is still listed in critical condition in a New Delhi burn ward. But scores of teen-agers who followed his example have not.

In what Indian psychologists describe as a series of copycat suicides, boys and girls throughout north India have joined in at a rate of two or three a day.

Most have been upper-caste, middle-class students, but psychologists and others insist that the quota system is merely one small piece in a mosaic of frustration brought on by the wave of consumerism and capitalist ambition.

In many ways, Monica Chadha was a prime example. Her family of nine lived in Greater Kailash Colony, one of Delhi’s most posh neighborhoods. But she and her sisters were crammed into the one-room tenement that doubles as her father’s place of business.

Monica’s father, who with his parents fled Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947, owns an antique shop that caters to the diplomatic community. And he dabbles in politics, serving as block chairman for the opposition Congress-I Party. He concedes that this takes him away from his family at times, as it did on the morning of his daughter’s suicide.

The Chadha family was not unfamiliar with personal tragedy compounded by official neglect. Two years ago, another of Gulshan’s daughters, 7-year-old Sulekha, was run down and killed by a government bus. The eldest Chadha daughter, Sonia, was injured in the accident, and she wrote a letter of complaint to then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

“I never did receive a reply,” Sonia said during the interview this week.

She said she shared with her sister Monica a growing sense of frustration in being unable to affect a system that appears increasingly stacked against them.

“Before she set herself on fire,” Sonia said, “Monica kept talking about this girl who had just killed herself in Haryana, saying if she could sacrifice her life to change things, so could Monica.

“I told her that I agreed with what she was saying, but that it was wrong. ‘Why burn yourself?’ I kept asking her. ‘You’re just hurting yourself.’ There have been so many of these burnings, and they’ve made no difference to V.P. Singh at all.”

Her parents interrupted, presenting dozens of newspaper clippings that mentioned their daughter’s suicide prominently.

“You see, these children look at their future and all they see is darkness,” Gulshan, the father, said.

“It’s education that’s important,” Malti, the mother, added. “It’s the only way to survive in India, and this is what V.P. Singh is taking away from us.”

Sonia, 20, listened quietly for nearly an hour, then picked up where she had stopped.

“Even after Monica burned herself, she was talking,” she said softly. “I was with her in the hospital every day. And she did not feel she had done a wrong thing. She kept remembering the girl from Haryana, saying, ‘Sister, do not cry. I have donated my life, and you donated yours.’

“Then she turned to me and told me, ‘Sister, don’t be angry. I have done this because, inside my heart, something said I should donate my life, that somehow it will mean something now. And now, I’m proud of myself.’ ”