Ex-IIT-M faculty alleges casteism in special recruitment drive

The recent resignation of Vipin Veetil from IIT Madras brings to light sophisticated ways of subverting affirmative action in the IITs.
By | Published on Feb 21, 2022

When V Kamakoti took charge as Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), on 17 January this year, he told The Times of India that IIT-M is devoid of caste discrimination, and if such discrimination is found to happen, it will be dealt with severely. Vipin Veetil, an IIT-M faculty who resigned on the same day this year alleging caste discrimination at the hands of senior faculty at the institute, contradicts his statement on both grounds.

According to Vipin’s February 3 letter to Dharmendra Pradhan, the current Minister of Education in the Government of India, “predominantly Brahmin senior faculty” at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (DHSS) are attempting to “sabotage the ongoing special recruitment drive for SC/ST/OBC faculty members”. 

The letter, a copy of which TheLifeofScience.com has seen, alleges that the faculty recruitment drive is being manipulated to exclude people from marginalised caste backgrounds by advertising openings for areas that are too niche and excluding disciplines that may interest individuals with anti-caste politics.

Vipin, who hails from a marginalised caste (OBC) background, resigned from his position as Assistant Professor of economics at DHSS after allegedly facing continued casteist discrimination from senior Brahmin professors at the DHSS and the IIT administration. 

Since his resignation in January, Vipin has been speaking to members of the parliament and the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) for recourse. He also wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 3, in which he has requested that the Government of India form a special committee to investigate his allegations of senior professors at the DHSS sabotaging the special recruitment drive. He has also requested that NCBC independently investigate the caste violence he has faced in the institute. 

Special recruitment drive

On November 24 last year, the Supreme Court directed all IITs to follow reservation policies in faculty recruitment. The court’s direction came in response to a petition that highlighted the violation of reservation policies by IITs.

According to the current reservation guidelines, 15% of teaching positions in IITs are supposed to be reserved for candidates coming from Scheduled Caste (SC) backgrounds, 7.5% for candidates belonging to Scheduled Tribes and 27% for candidates belonging to OBC backgrounds. Moreover, 10% of positions are supposed to be reserved for economically weaker sections (EWS) of society.

However, several sources indicate that IITs have long violated the reservation policy. For example, a 2021 report from The News Minute talks about how the teaching faculty composition at IIT-M has only 2.7% people from SC backgrounds, 0.5% from ST backgrounds, and 10.4% from OBC backgrounds.

As a result of the petition, IITs have been forced to conduct a special recruitment drive to fill reserved posts that are vacant since September 2021. Vipin believes that this drive is being purposely “sabotaged”, a step that is, in his view, consistent with the casteist reality at IIT-M. 

As per Vipin, this is being done by not advertising areas where there is a possibility anti-caste individuals to apply, despite recommendations that such an area be advertised from faculty in the institute. For example, Vipin’s letter states, “Field experts at the Department had recommended ‘Dalit Studies’ as an area to be advertised. But the Institute advertised ‘Indian Writing in English’ instead of ‘Dalit Studies’.” He points out in the letter that ‘Dalit Studies’ was an area that could have attracted applications from candidates who are likely to threaten the caste structure from within IIT Madras.

A snippet from the IIT-M special faculty recruitment drive advertisement showing the areas advertised by the department of humanities and social sciences.

Moreover, Vipin’s letter also states that faculty at the DHSS had recommended that “political science” and “economics general” be advertised for hiring of new faculty. However, the institute advertised “political theory” and “applied economics”. “The areas advertised by the Institute are considerably narrower than the areas recommended by the field experts,” Vipin’s letter continues, indicating that this narrowing of the advertised area will invite fewer applications, which in turn would decrease the probability of candidates from marginalised caste backgrounds being recruited.

Vipin claims that in response to the advertisement, “several faculty members (all non-Brahmin) wrote to [Bhaskar Ramamurthi], former Director of IIT Madras, in November 2021”. However, Ramamurthi reportedly did not to respond to the complaints.

Following a week of silence from Ramamurthi, Vipin complained to the Ministry of Education, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (NCSCST), and the NCBC. After this escalation, the IIT-M administration responded with clarifications which Vipin has refuted in his Feb 3 letter to the education ministry.

According to Vipin, the IIT-M administration’s clarification said that the department consultative committee (DCC), a decision-making body in the DHSS, had recommended “Indian Writing in English” rather than “Dalit studies” because the former “is broader”. They said, “candidates who specialise in the area proposed by faculty are also eligible to apply against the decided area”. 

Vipin sees this as an explicit attempt at discouraging applications from individuals who work on questions of caste. Such individuals would now have to compete with individuals working in several other areas and run the risk of being excluded in the selection process.

Similarly, the administration clarified that the DCC had picked “Political Theory” instead of “Political Science” which was suggested by the faculty members because the former was somehow more relevant to the research requirements of the department.  The administration insisted that candidates with expertise in political philosophy, political sociology and political science would be able to apply for the position.

According to Vipin, there is no clarity on what the said ‘research requirements’ are, and even so, weren’t the experts among the faculty who had recommended “political science” best placed to understand what the research requirements of the department were? Moreover, he says, “if candidates trained in ‘Political Philosophy’, ‘Political Sociology’ and ‘Political Science’ can apply, then the area advertised ought not to have been the narrow field of ‘Political Theory’, but the broader area of ‘Political Science’”. Vipin alleges that such narrowing of fields advertised will reduce the probability of finding a suitable candidate, leaving the positions vacant.

Ankit Kawade, a graduate student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the author of the article “The impossibility of Dalit Studies” told TheLifeofScience.com that the dropping of this field from the advertisement indicates that the “DHSS, IIT-M, is quite sophisticatedly casteist in nature”. 

Ankit pointed out the contradictions in the administration’s own logic – “while it was okay to advertise for narrower sub-fields of ‘applied economics’ and ‘political theory’ rather than the broader fields of ‘economics [general]’ and ‘political science’ in one case, when it comes to Dalit Studies, these professors suddenly became concerned about the alleged ‘narrowness’ of this field.” Further, he also asks why Dalit Studies is not bring considered an academic sub-field worthy enough to be advertised in the recruitment advertisement.

Ankit disagrees with the DCC that “Dalit Studies” is a narrower field than “Indian Writing in English”. In fact, according to him, “practitioners of Dalit Studies in India mostly come from multi-disciplinary backgrounds, whose academic training has occurred in the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, History, Political Science, Economics, etc.” This is because there are very few Dalit Studies departments in Indian universities, which means that scholars of Dalit Studies anyway have to equip themselves with “specialisations in established disciplines if they want to have a viable chance at the job market,” he said.

Tactics of elimination in special recruitment drives

Ankit also pointed out the lack of institutional accountability in these special recruitment drives. While he appreciates the judiciary for stepping in to fix the underrepresentation of marginalised caste backgrounds in the IITs, he also mentioned that without any punitive action against institutions that constantly violate the reservation criteria, the situation will not improve. “Without institutional accountability, these special recruitment drives may be easily subverted by cunning tactics like Not-Found-Suitable” (NFS) – tactics that have been used with impunity by dominant-caste professors in the past,” he told TheLifeofScience.com.

TheLifeofScience.com also spoke to Ravikant Kisana, a faculty member at Flame University, who is a vocal anti-caste activist and cultural studies researcher. According to Ravikant, the very fact that the judiciary has to intervene in the matter tells a story of caste discrimination. 

As per Ravikant, it is established that increased diversity in educational institutions correlates to increased academic excellence. Then, the elite IITs should ideally be actively bridging disparities that exist in their faculty and student demographics. But instead, they are subverting processes like special recruitment drives. This reflects their intention to actively exclude people from marginalised caste backgrounds, Ravikant remarked, adding that “it should be an absolute embarrassment and shame that the court has had to step in to point out the lack of diversity in IITs”.

Further, Ravikant also pointed out that these mechanisms of exclusion are not limited to faculty recruitment alone. Even in the case of PhD admissions, the number of people from marginalised caste backgrounds who make it through the admission processes is very low. Ravikant sees this as “a way of killing the future pipeline [of scholars from marginalised caste backgrounds].”

Ravikant also drew attention to the changing fabric of hiring in Indian education institutions. He mentioned that a foreign PhD degree has now become a standard for hiring faculty in these institutions, especially the elite ones. “Then, who is going overseas?” he asked.

Ravikant pointed out problems with the National Overseas Scholarship, a scheme established by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment of the Government of India. The scheme was established to assist people from marginalised class and caste backgrounds to pursue higher education at the post-graduate or the PhD level abroad. However, as has been previously reported, there are several problems in the implementation of the scheme, including delayed disbursements of promised scholarships, and confusing red tape that deters several eligible candidates from accessing the benefits of the scholarship.

Therefore, according to Ravikant, the case of IIT-M attempting to sabotage the special recruitment drive cannot be seen as a case of “one bad apple”; rather, it has to be contextualised within the systematic elimination of scholars from marginalised caste backgrounds in Indian academia.

“A lack of merit”: Vipin’s experience of casteism in IIT-M

Vipin’s allegations of casteist sabotaging of the special recruitment drive are not the first allegations of caste-based discrimination at IIT-M. In 2019, Fathima Latheef, a post-graduate humanities student at the institute died by suicide, allegedly due to religion- and caste-based discrimination. Also, IIT-M mathematician Vasantha Kandasamy has long been drawing attention to casteism in hiring and promotions at the institute. Vipin’s own experience as a young faculty member at the institution seems to reaffirm that the ethos of IIT-M is casteist.

Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com that he wanted to teach a new elective course in the first year of his joining (he joined the institute in March 2019). However, he was discouraged by the then head of the department, Umakant Dash, and VR Muraleedharan and Suresh Babu, two other professors in the department. While Umakant and Muraleedharan allegedly told Vipin that the reason behind this discouragement was that no faculty is allowed to teach a new course in their first year, Vipin recalled Suresh Babu suggesting that his desire to teach a new course “reflects [Vipin’s] likely inability to teach existing courses”; Vipin identified this comment as a questioning of his merit. He also said that a Brahmin faculty who joined after him was allowed to teach a course within the first year of his joining.

When other faculty reportedly asked Umakant Dash for the reason for the double standards, he responded by saying that there is no rule that forbids new recruits from offering new courses, contradicting what he had earlier told Vipin.

Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com that as a person from a marginalised caste background, he felt demeaned by this incident. “You’re walking into the same office space, you walk in the same area and you recognise that they have shown you your place in that society,” he said.

“These [administrative] decisions are…spoken about and made within a caste nexus, after which they are given an administrative veneer, where various laws and rules are evoked,” – Vipin V. Veetil

When his complaint to the IIT administration in June 2021  did not receive a response, he forwarded it to the NCBC in the following month. In response, NCBC ordered IIT-M to investigate Vipin’s allegations, after which a fact-finding committee was constituted with Thillai Rajan, a professor and the OBC Liaison Officer at IIT-M, as the chair of the committee, along with professors Ravindra Gettu and K Murali.

The committee’s report, a copy of which TheLifeofScience.com has seen, mentions that the committee not only met Vipin, but also met other faculty at DHSS to investigate the allegations. Vipin had requested in the meanwhile that Jyotirmaya Tripathy, the head of the department, step down until the investigation is complete, which the committee refused as it “felt that the Head’s continuance would not in any way influence what the faculty members disclosed to the committee”.

The key finding of the committee, as mentioned in the committee’s report, is as follows:

“The committee did not find evidence of the decisions [about not letting Vipin teach his elective course in the first year of his joining] being biased due to caste discrimination especially since most of the department faculty members had hardly interacted with Prof. Vipin and he had not even specified in his application that he belonged to the OBC community. It is plausible that most faculty members were unaware that he belonged to the OBC category and had learnt about his grievances only upon reading his emails and later through press reports”.

The report does, however, mention this: “Nevertheless, it is possible that many could have guessed that he was not a Brahmin, which he [Vipin] feels is the main cause of discrimination against him”.

In his letter to the NCBC and in conversation with TheLifeofScience.com, Vipin rejects the finding of the committee that the department faculty members ‘hardly interacted’ with him. “After I joined the institute, I made it a point to visit the offices of many, if not most, of the faculty members of the Department,” he said, pointing out that this was the same amount of interaction as any of his colleagues. However, he pointed out that ever since he began facing discrimination at the hands of senior Brahmin faculty, junior faculty started distancing themselves from him and his interactions with other faculty decreased over time. He, therefore, says that if interaction between him and other faculty members was less, this was a result of caste discrimination, and so there is no sense in the committee using this as proof of no discrimination.

Would it be sensible, Vipin asks “to claim that caste-Hindus do not discriminate against those they refuse to touch because the refusal to touch, dine, and befriend reflects the fact that the two groups ‘hardly interacted’”?

Regarding the committee’s statement that he did not reveal his caste identity in his job application, Vipin emphasised that caste discrimination was not contingent on whether one reveals their caste identity. Moreover, revealing one’s marginalised caste identity may decrease their chances of finding a job. 

“Proving” caste discrimination is not easy. While the committee might be looking at caste discrimination as something that occurs only through the use of caste slurs, Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com that “in more sophisticated settings, discrimination takes much more nuanced forms”. This is consistent with what several anti-caste voices have suggested in this webinar on casteism in higher education in India.

Vipin was discomfited to note that while the then-Director Ramamurthi never even acknowledged his email, he (the Director) had no qualms about socialising with the people he complained about during religious festivals and holidays  “These [administrative] decisions are…spoken about and made within a caste nexus, after which they are given an administrative veneer, where various laws and rules are evoked,” Vipin said, pointing to a need for better caste diversity at the higher levels of administration.

While the IIT-M fact-finding committee report denies caste discrimination against Vipin, it does state that the department leadership was aware of Vipin’s views on caste and caste discrimination even before he joined IIT-M. Further, the report opined that the department could have acted in ways that made Vipin more comfortable, instead of accentuating his apprehensions: “Instead of assuaging his feelings with affirmative action, that would have made Prof. Veetil welcome, the proceedings in the department accentuated the apprehensions of Prof. Veetil”. It goes on to suggest some changes such as introducing mentorship of new faculty at DHSS, better email etiquette, etc.

Vipin is unhappy that the NCBC decided to ask IIT-M to investigate his allegations rather than investigating the same independently. In his letter to NCBC, Vipin writes, “an individual writes to the NCBC because he has lost faith in the grievance redressal mechanisms of the organisation within which he works”.

“IIT-M is booting me out”

Vipin’s ordeal continued even after the committee concluded its investigations. Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com that after the committee’s report was out, the then-director and the head of the department started issuing show cause notices to him, asking him to justify his contacting the MoE and the NCBC without consent of the HoD/Director. Vipin claims that many of these notices were stuck on his faculty quarters at the IIT-M campus, in the presence of witnesses. In his letter to NCBC, he writes, “These punitive administrative actions were pursued with renewed vigour after my complaint about the sabotage of the ongoing special recruitment drive of SC/ST/OBC faculty members”.

Needless to say, the fiasco significantly hampered Vipin’s research work. He resigned from his position first last July, but rejoined the institute later in September. However, owing to the incessant harassment, he once again resigned from the institute on January 17, giving two months’ notice. However, he told TheLifeofScience.com that his notice period was not respected and he was relieved on January 19 itself.

He was asked by the head of the DHSS, Tripathy, to vacate his office by the end of January. According to Vipin, his request to retain access to his office until the end of February was denied for no apparent reason. 

Vipin was initially allowed to retain his IIT-M quarters until February 28. However, according to an office order sent to Vipin on February 10, a copy of which TheLifeofScience.com has seen, this provision was cancelled. The order was reportedly a response to Vipin’s intention of staging a “Dharna” on campus, which the institute claims to have knowledge of from media reports. Vipin had been asked to vacate the quarters by February 18 – TheLifeofScience.com is following up for updates on this. A visibly worried Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com, “this administration is actively booting me out”.

Next steps

Vipin has been communicating with several members of the parliament and the NCBC since his resignation. In his letter to the NCBC, he has requested that the NCBC investigate his allegations independently. Moreover, he has requested once again that Tripathy, the current head of DHSS, and Muraleedharan, now a member of the Board of Governors at IIT-M, step down from their positions until NCBC concludes its investigations.

Member of Parliament Senthil Kumar from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has also taken note of Vipin’s concern. On February 11, he requested the Minister of Education to form a committee to probe into Vipin’s concerns, both with respect to the alleged sabotaging of the special recruitment drive and the caste discrimination faced by Vipin during his time at IIT-M. In an email to TheLifeofScience.com, Vipin said, “I have been treated with far greater dignity, respect, and humanness by the Members of Parliament I have met so far than by any bureaucrat at IIT Madras”.

In an email dated February 16, Vipin told TheLifeofScience.com that an eviction notice has been stuck on his door. He has also written a letter to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, a copy of which TheLifeofScience.com has seen. In his letter, he requests Stalin to intervene in the matter and ensure that he is not evicted from his quarters until the end of February. “Without your serious intervention, I see a grim future for the non-Brahmin faculty and students in the IIT Madras,” Vipin writes.

Emails from TheLifeofScience.com to V Kamakoti, Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Umakant Dash (now the director of the Institute of Rural Management Anand), Suresh Babu, VR Muraleedharan and Jyotirmaya Tripathy did not elicit a response at the time of writing this report. Thillai Rajan asked that TheLifeofScience.com redirect its email requesting for clarifications to the Dean of Administration at IIT-M, Koshy Varghese. At the time of writing this report, Varghese has not responded to the email. This report will be updated as and when responses are received.

Addendum

Vipin is currently raising funds to pursue the case of caste discrimination in court.  To be a part of Vipin’s fight against caste discrimination, contribute to his Milaap fundraiser here.

About the author(s)
Sayantan Datta
Sayantan Datta

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

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