In 1992, Chuni Kotal’s death by suicide created a political uproar in West Bengal. Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi had made public Kotal’s life story in an article for the Economic and Political Weekly journal. Outrageous and shocking in equal measure, the casteism that plagued every corner of Kotal’s life was not very different from many others in the marginalised communities of India. More than two decades later, in 2016, 26-year-old research scholar Rohith Vemula of the Hyderabad Central University was cornered to the same fate. It was a rude awakening of how little had changed for Dalits in India.
Kotal was the first woman from the Lodha Savaras tribe to graduate (in anthropology from Midnapore’s Vidyasagar University in 1985) and was an idol for the new generation of Dalit Adivasis and women. But despite her outstanding credentials, she struggled to find work and eventually had to settle for a job as a social worker at the Integrated Tribal Development Programme in the Jhargram office, where she was asked to survey local villages.
During the colonial period, the British had labelled Kotal’s community as criminals, continuing the societal indifference and discrimination that exist even today. It is believed that it was the everyday struggles from the stigma that drove Kotal to take her own life at the age of 27.
Struggles of Kotal’s life
If her childhood was tumultuous, her life during and after graduation was even worse. As recounted by Mahasweta Devi, when Kotal once brought her unwell father to the Rani Shiromani SC and ST’s Girl’s Hostel in Midnapore, where she was working at the time, an official there accused her of “entertaining men”.
Beyond these incidents, Kotal faced discrimination due to her social background on a regular basis. From inhumane working conditions to the painstakingly tedious process to take a leave of absence, Kotal’s life was fraught with oppression. Her countless pleas and complaints fell on deaf ears.
The hostel she was working in was meant to empower girls from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and, by extension, all disadvantaged communities. But even there, she faced insult and discrimination, which reportedly crushed her spirit.
In 1987, when she decided to return to her alma mater, Vidyasagar University, to study anthropology for her Master’s degree, little did she know that her academic achievements would not guarantee her even courteous respect. On the contrary, her challenges were two-fold — one being from a marginalised community and second, being a woman.
Some dominant caste professors would heckle and hurl abuses at her and her community. One of the professors even made remarks saying that Kotal had “no right to educate herself” due to her “low-born” status. She was often marked absent despite being in class. This led to insufficient attendance, denial of eligibility for examinations and loss of an academic year. The year after that was no better. The harassment and prejudiced behaviour by dominant caste professors and colleagues continued and she could not complete her post-graduate degree.
On 16 August 1992, she was found dead.
Her spirit lives on
The West Bengal government set up an inquiry commission to investigate her death, but the truth never came out. In 2019, 27 years after her demise, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress announced that it would transform Kotal’s hometown Goaldihi in West Midnapore into a model village.
Kotal’s death opened the doors for conversations on casteism in educational institutes. International scholars such as Professor Nicolas B. Dirks from Columbia University and Professor Jan Breman from the University of Amsterdam also mourned the unfortunate death of Kotal.
Besides penning down several articles, Mahasweta Devi also talked about Kotal in The Book of Hunters while highlighting the grave inadequacies perpetuated by Bengal’s caste system.
Twenty-four years after Kotal’s unfortunate death, research scholar Rohith Vemula took his life, bringing attention to the continuing discriminatory practices at universities. “For some people, life itself is a curse… I am not hurt at this moment. Not sad, just empty… That is why I am doing this” — Vemula wrote in his suicide note. Had Kotal left a note behind, she perhaps would have said something similar.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)