Casteism keeps our top institutes running

An online discussion between Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi journalists, academics and activists revealed how casteism thrives in and defines modern Indian academia.

By Sayantan Datta, with inputs from the TLoS team

Trigger warnings: Mentions of casteist abuse, suicides

In April, videos surfaced on the internet that showed Seema Singh, an associate professor at IIT Kharagpur, hurling abuses at students from marginalised castes and/or with physical disabilities during an online class. This was allegedly in response to a student not standing up for the national anthem and not saying Bharatmata ki Jai during an online class. Another video shows Singh responding publicly to a student’s mail asking for a few days of leave due to her grandfather’s death from a COVID-19 infection; in her response, she calls this an example of “non-application of the human mind”, among other things. In the videos that have surfaced, she also mentions how all-powerful faculty in IIT-Kgp are. She says, “You cannot do anything to me.” It is important to note that these above-mentioned activities happened during online classes for the preparatory course at IIT-Kgp; this preparatory course is offered by all IITs to willing students from SC, ST, OBC and PD backgrounds who clear the cut-off but do not get a seat. Students who successfully pass the course can get admission a year later, but the power to judge the success of the student is in the faculty’s hands.

The videos elicited strong reactions from various anti-caste groups and IIT alumni. IIT Bombay’s Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) publicly condemned Singh’s violent acts and demanded her termination. They also demanded that Singh be booked under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA act) and that anti-caste-discrimination SC, ST and OBC cells be set up in IITs to counter and deter such acts of casteism. Over 1,000 IIT alumni wrote to the director of IIT-Kgp registering their disgust towards Singh’s remarks and asking for her resignation. #End_Casteism_In_IITs started trending on Twitter, and many anti-caste activists amplified the demands put forth by APPSC, IIT-B. Twenty-five women IIT alumni also wrote to the IIT Kgp director.

An apology from Singh surfaced in a few days, where she blamed her behaviour on the stress caused by her being COVID-19 positive and socially isolated.

At the time of writing this report, Singh has been suspended and booked under the PoA act. However, it is important to note that she has not been terminated, and there is no response from IIT-Kgp on other demands raised by APPSC, IIT-B.

Caste and casteism play in both overt and covert ways in Indian higher-education institutions, impacting the lives of students and faculty from marginalised castes many times and in many ways. To understand and highlight how caste- and casteism-driven exclusionary mechanisms operate in Indian higher educational institutions, TheLifeofScience.com organised a discussion in the form of a live webinar on May 8, 2021. The full webinar can be watched here.

A non-novel phenomenon

“Though these modes of exclusion were ever present in these universities, the novel part of the Seema Singh incident is that it happened online. The words that she said or the sentiments with which she has presented her views are not novel at all.” – Vaishali Khandekar, Anthropologist

While the Seema Singh instance has drawn attention, it is important to remember that this is not the first time that an instance of casteism in an institution like an IIT has happened. Vaishali Khandekar, an anthropologist at IIT Hyderabad, astutely observed, “Though these modes of exclusion were ever-present in these universities, the novel part of the Seema Singh incident is that it happened online. The words that she said or the sentiments with which she has presented her views are not novel at all.” Just weeks after the IIT-Kgp incident, Koushal Kumar Mishra, the Dean of Social Sciences and a political science professor at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), put up a Facebook post mocking doctors from marginalised-caste backgrounds and BR Ambedkar. An FIR has been filed and the matter is currently under investigation.

During the webinar, all panellists painfully referred to the institutional murders of several students from marginalised backgrounds who have been lost to caste-based abuse and discrimination. Aniket Ambhore, a Dalit student in IIT Bombay, fell to his death in 2014. While it is not sure if Aniket’s death was intentional or the result of an accident,  his parents alleged that caste-based harassment led him to take the drastic step of suicide. Following this, a three-member committee was initiated by IIT-B to look into the circumstances of his death. The findings of the committee were never made public, but according to a report by The Indian Express, the committee concluded that the cause of death was not a result of caste-based abuse but due to “internal contradictions” that Aniket had. The committee, interestingly, did concede this: “There is a possibility that students entering through the SC/ST quota could face difficulties in the hostels and in the departments because of hardened attitudes against the reservation policy of the government.”

Aniket’s case is one of many. A more familiar episode is the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) in 2016. Rohith and his friends were evidently victims of caste atrocities and social ostracisation from members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)’s HCU wing as well as of the university administration. Rohith left a heart-wrenching suicide note that said, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.” Following his case, multiple other horrendous instances of caste-based discrimination in India’s top campuses have come to light. The suicides of S Anitha (aspiring medical student), Payal Tadvi (resident doctor at BYL Nair Hospital), Muthukrishnan (JNU research scholar), Fathima Latheef (masters’ student at IIT Madras), and the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed (MSc student at JNU) are some other incidents. Makepeace Sitlhou, a journalist who has covered caste discrimination in top educational institutes, appealed to people in media: “Don’t just report deaths. Don’t just wait for people to take their lives because that’s the last endpoint for someone to reach that point of desperation. Do the follow-ups,” she said.

Subhajit Naskar, the moderator of the webinar and a faculty member at Jadavpur University, put forward the ‘polite’ incessant way in which caste discrimination plays out in modern times and otherises students from SC/ST backgrounds. He also brought up the severe access and affordability issues being experienced by his students from tribal areas in attending online classes during the pandemic. He also pointed out that students from marginalised castes are given poor marks in interviews during admissions, despite scoring outstanding marks in the written exams. Riya Singh, PhD scholar and founder of Dalit Women Fight, recalled the irony of receiving a low grade on an assignment involving writing about one’s own caste experiences. She also cited anecdotes that showed how marginalised-caste students are consistently demotivated in seemingly liberal and progressive academic spaces. Tejendra Pratap Gautam, a PhD scholar and member of the APPSC at IIT Bombay, highlighted the hypocrisy of the administration in freely allowing Savarna Hindus to celebrate their festivals with pomp and show on IIT campuses, but posing undue hurdles when students from marginalised castes come together to organise lectures relevant to anti-caste movements.

Rehnamol Raveendran, a faculty at Delhi University, put forth the potential of reservations to go beyond job creation and representation. “It makes the institutional structure or the academic environments more democratic. We need inclusive representation where Dalit-Bahujan people occupy administrative and powerful positions in institutions so as to facilitate an environment that is liveable and favourable for Dalit-Bahujan students,” she said. Despite the in-principle existence of reservation policies, top institutions have continuously been guilty of violating them. For example, out of 31 departments in IIT Delhi (IIT-D) and 26 in IIT-B, 15 and 16 departments respectively did not admit a single SC student in their doctoral program in 2020. Violation of the reservation policy is also observed in central universities like UoH and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). A parliamentary committee has also found that only about 4% of faculty in DU were OBC, while the reservation policy mandates 27% of faculty positions to be reserved for OBC people; among these 4% faculty, there was no associate professor or professor.

In 1990, the implementation of reservations according to the Mandal-commission report led to a series of protests all across the nation, and this included students from universities like DU. Notably, Rajiv Goswami, a student from DU, self-immolated in protest. History repeated itself in 2006 when the then Indian government tried to implement reservations for people coming from OBC backgrounds in Indian higher-education institutions. Students and faculty from AIIMS and various IITs organised nationwide protests against the move. The Supreme Court upheld the reservations in 2008, although it excluded the OBC creamy layer (people whose family income is greater than Rs. 4.5 lakh) for availing reservations. In 2007, a committee formed under the leadership of Sukhdeo Thorat, the then UGC chairman, investigated caste discrimination. The Thorat committee report came up with various recommendations to deal with issues of casteism at AIIMS; among other things, it recommended the formation of an equal opportunity cell and maintained that the Ministry of Health should closely monitor the implementation of reservations in AIIMS. As we await implementation of the Thorat committee recommendations, students who come from reserved categories continue to suffer discrimination and humiliation.

What keeps casteism alive in our top institutions?

“In IITs, students from Dalit and Bahujan backgrounds don’t have a place where they can reach out and get some relief; [the] only thing left to do is suicide or dropout. We need Dalit-Bahujan organisations within Indian campuses to create a solidarity between students from our own communities, so they can stand up together to solve their problems collectively instead of taking it as a individual challenge.” – Rehnamol Raveendran, Faculty at DU

What keeps caste and casteism flourishing in Indian higher-education institutions? As Tejendra and Subhajit reminded, Ambedkar had said, “Educate, Agitate, Organise”; but the gatekeeping of academic spaces and knowledge by Savarna individuals ensures that students from marginalised-caste backgrounds cannot make it even the first step in the process of emancipation, i.e., getting educated.

The panellists discussed a range of mechanisms responsible for this gatekeeping. It is possible to categorise these into three (very) broad methods, although the way they support the sustenance of casteism in Indian higher-education campuses can vary greatly in their form: The first method is the increasing depoliticisation of Indian higher-education campuses. The second and third concern representation of people from marginalised castes in higher-education institutions, and the control that Savarna academicians maintain on means of knowledge production and dissemination, respectively.

Rehnamol emphasised how depoliticisation of campus spaces perpetuates casteism. This is especially stark in elite institutions like IITs, where students are forbidden from any kind of political organisation. Students who actively engage with politics on campuses are threatened with dire consequences, while the ones who do not are promised higher rewards. Moreover, students from marginalised communities are more vulnerable to punitive action from university/institution administration. She said: “In IITs, students from Dalit and Bahujan backgrounds don’t have a place where they can reach out and get some relief; [the] only thing left to do is suicide or dropout. We need Dalit-Bahujan organisations within Indian campuses to create a solidarity between students from our own communities, so they can stand up together to solve their problems collectively instead of taking it as an individual challenge.”

In science and science-dominated institutions, the above phenomenon is exaggerated. Rachelle Bharathi Chandran, an independent researcher, pointed out that science students who call out casteist professors may be looking at the end of their careers. This is because of how closely knit the science community is and how unforgiving as a discipline science is. This is compounded by the fact that science imagines itself to be an objective discipline, respecting only the arbitrary notions of merit and excellence. In public imagination, science cannot be marred by politics—this explains why the major push for the anti-reservation protests of 2006 came from people in science institutions, including a resolution signed by 2,500 IIT-Roorkee students. In reality, science is not free from social and political biases. Studies have shown how science institutions, like IITs and IISc, thrive on caste and casteism.

The second mechanism concerns representation of people from marginalised castes in higher-education spaces. It is inarguable that there is an overrepresentation of Savarna people in India’s higher education system.  Journalist Dilip Mandal stressed the fact that while classrooms today may have a small fraction of students from marginalised castes, staff rooms are still dominated by Savarna individuals. A report on TheWire.in shows that less than 3% of all faculty in IITs are from reserved categories.

Such an overwhelming dominance of Savarna people on campuses has far-reaching consequences. It leads to Savarna impunity—Savarna people know that they would not be held accountable for their casteist actions. This explains Seema Singh’s confidence to say and do whatever she wants in her class. She boasted in the videos that nobody, including what she calls the “minority commission”, can do anything to her. It also impacts the composition of equal opportunity cells and committees that are formed on campuses with the goal of investigating into or dealing with alleged cases of caste-based discrimination. Moreover, as mentioned by Makepeace and UoH PhD scholar Shalini Mahadev, people from marginalised-caste backgrounds have to walk miles to ‘prove’ that a particular instance of discrimination was of casteist nature, making the whole process extremely slow and traumatising. It does not help that the composition of such committees and their reports is rarely made public. Even in the IIT-Kgp case, the institute remains tight-lipped on the composition of the committee investigating the Seema Singh incident.

The third mechanism by which our higher education institutions remain casteist is through the perceived notion of merit, which creates dogmas on who gets to produce and disseminate what kinds of knowledge. Rather than viewing reservations as a form of affirmative action that enables people from marginalised caste backgrounds to have access to education and employment, the widespread belief is that it dilutes the meritocracy of institutions. There are strong arguments and evidence that merit itself is an arbitrary, biased and discriminatory criterion, but this is usually ignored. According to Vaishali, overt and covert forms of casteism manifest through the “questionable merit of a Dalit scholar” and this has led to an epistemic and systemic erasure of anti-caste scholarship in Indian education. An example of this is how, despite seminal revolutionary works that are pertinent even today, Ambedkar’s contribution to the formation of modern India in school textbooks has been reduced to his “father of the Indian constitution” figure. Discussing anti-caste literature is important for students from marginalised-caste backgrounds and would help them, Vaishali affirmed. UoH student and the General Secretary (in-charge) of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) Prajwal Gaikwad added that students from marginalised castes are actively discouraged from engaging academically with disciplines and scholarships that do not concern caste. This kind of gatekeeping of knowledge limits the potential of students from marginalised castes to contribute to other disciplines, furthering the stereotype that students from marginalised castes are only capable of talking and writing about caste.

There was also an agreement among the panellists that there is a lack of legislature and jurisprudence to guide punitive action against and provide protection from caste-based discrimination on campuses. The “Rohith Act” was demanded in the aftermath of Rohith’s death for this very reason. They expressed dissatisfaction with the perfunctory approach to the emancipation of students coming from marginalised caste backgrounds. A prime example of this is the one-year preparatory course in IITs, brought to the spotlight now after the Seema Singh incident. According to Makepeace, the preparatory classes are not designed to help students from marginalised communities. Rather, it is a result of Savarna people’s self-perceived generosity and a self-serving act for Savarnas. Makepeace recommends a baseline and end-line assessment of students taking the preparatory course to judge its effectiveness.

“We are not here to die”: The way forward

A phrase uttered by Shalini during the webinar left a mark with everyone. “We are not here to die.” She and the rest of the panellists went on to suggest ways to improve the situation, and these are summarised below:

  1. It is important to create more Bahujan networks on campuses for solidarity, support and empowerment. Student groups like Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), ASA or APPSC not only fight for the rights of students from marginalised-caste backgrounds, but also are important spaces where solidarity and support are available to students from marginalised castes.
  2. There should be a larger and stronger focus on the proper implementation of the reservation policy.
  3. Legal and administrative mechanisms should be in place to handle cases of caste-based discrimination and abuse on campuses. The formulation and implementation of the Rohith Act in this regard is crucial. Equal opportunity cells that cater to students from marginalised castes should be in place and administrative officers from marginalised-caste backgrounds should be appointed to oversee their functioning.
  4. There is a need to gather more political power for people from marginalised castes. Political parties following Ambedkarite, Phuleite and Periyarite ideologies need to be promoted
  5. Conversations around caste and casteism should be encouraged in spaces of higher education.
  6. Mechanisms of mass media and journalism should focus on reporting about caste and casteism without waiting for the deaths of students from marginalised backgrounds.
  7. SC/ST/OBC cells should be established. These cells should be completely composed of people from marginalised caste backgrounds.
  8. Solidarities between different marginalised communities should be encouraged.
  9. Solidarities at the global level should be encouraged. We need to internationalise the issues of caste and casteism, and garner global support.
  10. Savarna people should question and critically examine their privileges. While there is a massive body of work by Savarna people on caste and casteism, it is high time that they start critically evaluating their own Savarnality.

Acknowledgements

The author thanks Bishal Kumar Dey, Shalini Mahadev, Prajwal Gaikwad and Vaishali Khandekar for conversations critical to writing this report.

Appendices:

  1. A multimedia transcript for the webinar is in preparation and can be accessed here.
  2. Akshay Johri, a Dalit research scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, is working on the intersections between caste, gender and mental health. Please help them by filling this survey pertaining to their research: https://qtrial2014az1.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eakU2OlqZL7ZFae

Question and answers

Due to the paucity of time, we could not take up questions at the end of the webinar. Here are our attempts at getting them answered.

How is the Rohith Act different from the PoA act? What does the Rohith Act add over PoA act? Institutions being Savarna dominated, how does one make sure the Rohith Act is implemented in the spirit of justice?

Rehnamol Raveendran: The Rohith Vemula Act is exclusively for dealing with harassment in educational spaces, unlike the PoA act. Latter will be larger in scope as it is not confined to a particular public space. Challenges in the effective implementation of the Rohith Vemula Act will be the same as the enactment of the PoA act. Despite the challenges, the PoA act has been proved to be successful in halting the atrocities to some extent. In a similar way, the Rohith Vemula Act could be successful despite the Savarna domination in different spaces as it penalises harassment and discrimination by Savarna faculties.

One of the key elements that emerged from interviewing several students from SC/ ST categories is the insensitivity of fellow peers. They talked about the importance of sensitising their upper-caste colleagues on caste and what constitutes casual discrimination. How can institutes incorporate such a sensitisation drive?

Rehnamol Raveendran: Initiating discussions on gender and caste in educational institutions are far more important. The silence on issues of caste and gender exacerbates the malaise of discrimination. Unlearning caste and gender binaries from classroom spaces is found to be minimal. Discussions on gender and caste need to be made compulsory within classrooms and promoted outside through institutional initiatives, various student study groups within campuses and other student organisations.

How do we curb institutional murders? How to make Indian institutions more inclusive for minorities and backward groups?

Prajwal Gaikwad: Almost all the institutional murders show how the marginalised students have been denied any kind of assistance by the institutions. Rather, they all together work to not call these acts “caste violence” and constantly keep them out of any agencies for redressal. The individuals are pushed to solitude, the institutions wait till they erase themselves from the institutions, either by dropping out or by getting killed. The proportion of faculties and staff from marginalised sections in higher-education institutions remain substantially low, where the upper caste gatekeeping and caste solidarities remain unchallenged in the position of power. Hence, we need to ensure that reservation policies have been properly implemented. While depending on the institutions whose orientations remain inevitably casteist, marginalised students should organise in study circles, student collectives, and so on, to work as pressure groups and also to ensure that no marginalised student is excluded from the campus community.

It’s been observed that the key positions are occupied by upper-caste individuals, such as HC judges, SC judges, and Governors and Deputy Governors of banks; the same is observed in educational institutions. Has reservation in promotion as stated in Article 16 been fruitful?

Prajwal Gaikwad: Promotion has always been used by caste Hindus to keep marginalised communities out of positions of power. It can be observed from the state secretariat of all the states that the number of SC/ST bureaucrats in the secretariat are always limited to the number of reserved positions and are given positions that deprive them of bringing any fruitful changes in the society. If reservation in promotion was not in place, it would be difficult to say if caste Hindus will ever let marginalised communities hold any such prominent positions. The increasing attack on the reservation in promotion by Brahminical forces itself denotes that it stands as a challenge to their hegemony.

As a person who comes from a Savarna household, I am at a loss of ideas as to what is my role in this entire struggle or as mentioned the ‘over-representation of Savarna’ in academic institutions. How would the panellists envisage the progress of this struggle to start addressing this issue at academic institutions? And, how would you like to situate the people who come from Savarna background within this struggle? I know these are not easy questions. but some thoughts would be really helpful.

Prajwal Gaikwad: Unfortunately most of the people from upper-caste backgrounds, who want to be part of the struggles of marginalised groups, forget their own struggles—their struggles to battle the inhuman caste practise of their own people. While marginalised groups are the most desired subjects in academia, why not the upper-caste people who practice such irrational practices and hold undeserved privilege? Why is there not much study on Brahmin households and their practice of caste and patriarchy? Savarnas in any marginalised struggles are outsiders, who have been mostly seen as either appropriating or diluting our struggles. The major flaw in these I understand is the Savarna attitude of sympathy which comes from uneven social locations. Caste in their research has been always used to build their careers; however, they remain consciously silent on their position as an oppressor. This should make every Savarna ally understand their limitations in community building and should rather work to resource our movements by their access to privilege. They should acknowledge the caste practises in them and should organise their people to unlearn them!

I have seen solidarity among Brahmins to support ABVP on the JNU campus, irrespective of claiming themselves to be liberal. Left parties are dominated by Savarnas at the decision-making level and give Dalits office positions just for tokenism. Despite this, I have seen Dalits supporting left parties to an extent rather than giving undoubted support to BAPSA. So, I feel there is a need to politicise the Bahujans regarding the need to come together for a larger political bargain. What’s the take of the panel regarding this?

Prajwal Gaikwad: Upper-caste people can organise themself in any organisation irrespective of ideologies. Though it is unfortunate to see Dalits working in such organisations despite their open casteist orientation, our politics stands over self-realisation. As people in academia, our role should be concentrated on building our own language of resistance and creating as much discourse over the systemic caste oppression perpetuated by the caste society (which includes such organisations of caste Hindus).

Reading list

  1. The Writings and Speeches of BR Ambedkar: https://velivada.com/2020/02/29/pdf-40-volumes-of-babasaheb-ambedkars-writings-speeches-books-hindi/
  2. An interview with Anand Teltumbde (scholar, writer and civil rights activist): https://issuesofconcern.in/articles/caste-in-india-evolution-and-manifestation-an-interview-with-prof-anand-teltumbde
  3. Yashica Dutt, the author of ‘Coming out as Dalit’, writes about IITs and the otherisation of students from marginalized castes: https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/the-iits-have-a-long-history-of-systematically-othering-dalit-students/193284/
  4. Renny Thomas’ work documenting caste and casteism in IISc: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963662520903690
  5. Vaishali Khandekar and Shalini Mahadev in conversation about the museumization of Dalit experience in academia: https://thelifeofscience.com/2020/11/12/museumization-dalit-experience/
  6. Ajantha Subrahmaniam’s essay on caste and casteism in IIT-Madras: https://openthemagazine.com/essays/open-essay/an-anatomy-of-the-caste-culture-at-iit-madras/

Editorial note: A previous version of this article was edited by Vasudevan Mukunth, editor of The Wire Science and published on TheWire.in here. Translations of this report can be found in Hindi and Malayalam.

About the author(s)
Sayantan Datta
Sayantan Datta

Sayantan (they/them) is a queer-trans science writer, journalist and communicator.

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