Mumbai: In 2012, when Riya was pursuing her Masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, she had an assignment to write about her experience with caste discrimination. She scored four out of 10. “I don’t understand how I could get my own experience wrong. So I applied for revaluation and my score changed to 4.5,” said Riya, who now works as a research and advocacy officer at Dalit Women Fight, a group led by Dalit women for supporting survivors of caste atrocities. “The forms of caste discrimination we see now are more subtle and largely of everyday nature. It is a part of the classroom. Caste practices or behaviours, which are discriminatory in nature, are in the form of humour or subtle insults,” said Riya on Saturday during a webinar titled “Get out of the class”: Caste and casteism in our top institutions.
The webinar was held after a series of videos of a professor verbally abusing students from marginalised communities went viral. On April 25, video recordings of Seema Singh, an associate professor from the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT KGP) emerged on social media. In the videos, which are now under review of the institute, Seema can be heard verbally abusing students purportedly belonging to scheduled caste (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) communities and those with physical disabilities during a preparatory class. The institute has now set up a fact-finding committee with senior faculty members on it. “The committee has submitted its report and we are in the process of acting on the recommendations of the committee,” said Tamal Nath, registrar, IIT Kharagpur.
While the videos have led to an uproar among the student community, alumni networks as well as academia, students and experts interviewed by HT said caste discrimination was rampant in college campuses in more subtle forms.
In 2013, Mahesh, then 17 years old, reached his dream destination– the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, to pursue an integrated Master’s course in the Electrical Engineering department.
Happy to have been admitted to one of the oldest IITs, he looked forward to meeting like-minded students from all over the country, where his identity as a Scheduled Caste wouldn’t matter. His actual experience, however, was very different.
In the first couple of years, Mahesh scored poor marks in some subjects. “I blamed it on myself and even considered that I was not as sharp as others here. Although, by third year I realised that many others with as many marks as I got were clearing subjects and getting promoted, but I was being held back.,” said Mahesh, who was subsequently categorised as an ‘academically weak’ student—a tag that cost him two years of his academic career.
“I felt more disappointed in myself. The ‘weak category’ tag appears on all academic information and soon you realise that a majority of the students in these categories belong to SC/ST/OBC/PD. There are no special classes/ tutorials/ help arranged to guide or teach these students. They are just marked out,” said Mahesh.
The institute limits the number of credits per course that students, who are academically weak, can go for, unless authorised by the administration. Mahesh’s plea for extra credits, required for his course completion, was turned down six times, despite his parents making a plea with the institute. Without those extra credits, Mahesh couldn’t register for all required courses that he had to complete to get his degree. Due for graduation in 2018, Mahesh eventually graduated in 2020.
“Students with equal or lower grade points were allowed to take extra credits. Most of the students disallowed from extra credits were from marginalised communities,” said Mahesh.
Many students from SC, ST and Other backward classes (OBC) communities find themselves in the academically weak category and struggle to clear exams. Unable to handle the pressure, many drop out before they can complete their course.
According to data revealed by the ministry of education in 2019, almost 48% of students dropping out of IITs in 2017 and 2018 were from reserved categories.
“What was your rank in the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE)?” is a question that is an essential part of introduction among students. “The first question that fellow students or seniors ask during introduction is what’s your JEE rank. As students admitted to reserved category seats have relatively lower ranks, it is very easy to deduce that we are from marginalised communities,” said an alumnus of IIT Bombay, who managed to complete his dual degree a year later than the due date.
“I would often get into debates with my peers, who told me they respected me less because I had been admitted through the quota. They would tell me that I had taken up the seat of a meritorious student instead,” said the alumnus, who now works as a software engineer.
“In most leading academic institutions, language becomes a prominent marker for merit. Merit is determined on your fluency in English,” said Avatthi Ramaiah, chairperson – Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, at TISS.
It is the subtle and systemic discrimination that is worse, according to Varun Singh, an alumnus of IIT Guwahati. “It took me five attempts to pass a subject. The colleagues that I helped prepare were able to clear the paper, but I wasn’t. On my fourth attempt, I asked the institute for my answersheet and I was denied the same. My professor, unprompted, told me that I shouldn’t worry about fudging of marks because of my caste. It hadn’t even occurred to me until then that my caste was a factor,” he said.
“The current education system permeates discrimination in the name of merit. The idea of merit doesn’t take into account the social, emotional, academic, cultural and intellectual gap in students coming from diverse backgrounds,” said Govardhan Wankhede, former professor and dean, School of Education, TISS.
For the first two years of her five-year integrated Master’s programme at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, the student from Kozhikode, did her best to remain invisible on campus.
She became the first college goer in the family when she secured an admission to IIT Madras in 2012. “It was an intimidating experience. The campus is huge. Even as I was recovering from culture shock, one of the early learnings for me was people made fun of the way I talked. My peers made fun of my accent when I spoke in English,” said she said.
Soon, she started to avoid social events altogether. “The casual remarks and the pressure to fit in started to become too much. I felt alienated. My anxiety started to peak and I was unable to hold conversation with people,” she said, adding she had to seek professional help to manage her anxiety. “In my experience while navigating or pursuing cases of caste discrimination, the war we fight is largely about endlessly explaining what just happened qualifies to be casteist, and why. What we get in return is denial,” said Riya.
Students and alumni members that HT interviewed said they were often mocked for their language, clothes and eating habits. They emphasised on an urgent need for sensitising students of all castes and classes towards what constitutes discrimination.
“Those who are born in higher caste and class are inherently in a position of social power. This power is used to discriminate. It is therefore necessary to teach students what is discrimination, how it happens, what happens when one makes a discriminatory remark. Students must be made aware of the social and legal consequences of discrimination for both the victim and victimised,” said Wankhede, who served as the liaisons officer for SC/ ST students for two decades.
“Students, who raise their voices against discriminatory jokes or remarks, also accused of being ‘too sensitive’. Unsurprisingly, we end up making friends who are from SC and ST categories,” said the student from Kozhikode.
“Systemic discrimination at the hands of teachers and friends affects the mental health of students coming from marginalised backgrounds, most of whom are first generation learners. We have seen how students are driven to suicide,” said Ramaiah.
In 2016, the death of Rohith Vemula, a student at University of Hyderabad, allegedly by suicide, led to nationwide protests at campuses. In his suicide note, he accused the university’s administration of discrimination. At IIT Bombay, Aniket Ambhore, an SC student, died by suicide in 2014. While Ambhore’s parents have alleged that he was stressed owing to discrimination, a committee at the institute ruled out caste-based discrimination. More recently, Payal Tadvi, a second-year medical student at BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai, died by suicide allegedly following discrimination at the hands of three colleagues.
Students at IITs in their first year take a course in social sciences, but caste is not necessarily a part of these courses. “In the first year, it is necessary to teach students about caste privilege through a compulsory course,” said Ramaiah.
*In 2019, data released by Ramesh Pokriyal Nishank, in a written reply to the Parliament, showed that of the 2,461 students, who dropped out of IITs in 2017 and 2018:
– 371 were from the Scheduled Caste category
– 199 from the Scheduled Tribe category
– 601 from the Other Backward Classes category,
*The government of India’s (GoI) norms require 10% of all seats to be reserved for students from economically weaker sections; 27% for OBC students; 15% for SC students; 7.5% for ST students; and 5% for students with physical disabilities.
“Teachers are required to be upholders of the value system in our society. Through the teachers we prepare tomorrow’s citizens. When a teacher fails miserably, as it was in the recent case, it really hurts the system in the worst possible way and it takes a very long time to heal the wounds of hatred. As a teacher, I am ashamed of this incident at my alma mater,” said Subhasis Chaudhuri, director IIT Bombay.
Courtesy : Hindustan Times