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Caste and Meritocracy Keep India’s Top Institutions Running. At What Cost?

Caste and Meritocracy Keep India’s Top Institutions Running. At What Cost?

IIT Kharagpur. Photo: IIT-Kg official website

Trigger warning: Mentions of casteist abuse and suicide

In April 2021, videos surfaced on the internet that showed Seema Singh, an associate professor at IIT Kharagpur, hurling abuses at students of marginalised castes and/or with physical disabilities during an online class. Her tirade was allegedly a response to a student not standing up for the national anthem and not saying “Bharatmata ki jai“.

Another video shows Singh responding publicly to a student’s email asking for a few days’ leave after her grandfather had succumbed to COVID-19. In her response, Singh calls the request an example of “non-application of the human mind”, among other things.

In both videos and others, Singh also talks about how omnipotent the faculty members of IIT Kharagpur are.

Note that these scenes played out during classes for a preparatory course at IIT Kharagpur. All IITs offer this course to willing students from SC, ST, OBC and PD backgrounds who make the cut-off but don’t get a seat. Students who successfully pass the course can be admitted a year later, and the students’ success in turn lies in the teaching faculty’s hands.

The videos caused quite a stir. The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) in IIT Bombay condemned Singh’s violence and demanded that she be sacked. The group also asked that Singh be booked under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and that IITs set up anti-caste-discrimination to deter such blatant casteism. Many anti-caste activists amplified these demands. Over a thousand IIT alumni and another 25 women alumni also wrote to the IIT Kharagpur director Virendra Tiwari registering their disgust towards Singh’s remarks and asking for her resignation. #End_Casteism_In_IITs began trending on Twitter.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes took suo motu cognisance of the matter and asked IIT Kharagpur, the Union education ministry and the Government of West Bengal to respond.

In response to a complaint lodged by Nagsen Sonare, national president of the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar National Association of Engineers, Tiwari said a fact-finding committee had been established and that the institute would take appropriate action once the committee submits its findings. The Life of Science[footnote]With which the author is affiliated[/footnote] has a copy of Tiwari’s response.

Seema Singh apologised a few days later, blaming her behaviour on stress due to COVID-19 and her being socially isolated.

At the time of writing this article, Singh had been suspended. She wasn’t terminated or booked under the SC/ST Act. IIT Kharagpur also hadn’t responded to the APPSC’s demands.

‘Get out of the class’ is not new

A view of the School of Physical Sciences building, JNU. Photo: JNU

Caste plays both covert and overt parts in India’s higher-education institutions, and impact the lives of students and faculty members from marginalised castes at many times and in many ways. (To understand how caste- and casteism-driven exclusionary mechanisms operate in these institutions, The Life of Science organised a live discussion on May 8, 2021. This article articulates the points of view presented in this discussion.)

While the Seema Singh episode received a lot of public attention, it is neither the first incident of its kind nor the first to draw so much interest. In 2014, for example, Aniket Ambhore, a Dalit student at IIT Bombay, fell to his death. It wasn’t clear if his death was intentional or an accident, but his parents alleged that caste-based harassment had driven him to suicide.

After this incident, IIT Bombay set up a three-member committee to examine the circumstances of Ambhore’s death. The committee’s findings were never made public, although Indian Express reported that the committee concluded that the cause of death wasn’t the result of caste-based abuse but of Ambhore’s “internal contradictions”.

Interestingly, the committee conceded one point: “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.”

Then, there was the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the Central University of Hyderabad in 2016. Vemula and his friends were evidently victims of caste atrocities meted out by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad at the university and by the university administration. Vemula left behind a heart-rending note that said, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.”

After Vemula’s death, many more horrible instances of caste-based discrimination in India’s top campuses have come to light. The deaths of aspiring medical student S. Anitha, resident doctor at B.Y.L. Nair Hospital Payal Tadvi, JNU research scholar Muthukrishnan, graduate student at IIT Madras Fathima Latheef, and the disappearance of JNU graduate student Najeeb Ahmed are some examples.

At India’s top educational institutions, reservation policies exist on paper even as the institutions have often been found guilty of violating them. For example, of the 31 departments in IIT Delhi and 26 in IIT Bombay, 15 and 16 departments respectively didn’t admit a single SC student in their doctoral programmes in 2020.

These violations aren’t the preserve of ‘elite’ institutions, of course: they have been reported from places like the University of Hyderabad and JNU as well. There is clearly a deep chasm between the mandatory reservation and the actual number of students from marginalised-caste backgrounds who are admitted.

In 2020, a parliamentary committee found that only about 4% of faculty members in Delhi University (DU) were OBC; the reservation policy mandates 27%. And none of those in the 4% were associate professors or professors.

A view of Delhi University. Photo: PTI

Anti-reservation sentiments

The anti-reservation sentiment at Indian academic institutions and its Savarna stakeholders is nothing new. In 1990, the implementation of reservations according to the Mandal commission report led to a series of protests across India, including by students from universities like DU. One of them, Rajiv Goswami, even immolated himself.

History repeated itself in 2006 when the then Indian government tried to implement reservations for people from OBC backgrounds in Indian higher education institutions. Students and faculty members of the various All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and IITs organised protests. The Supreme Court upheld the reservations in 2008 – although it excluded the OBC ‘creamy layer’ (people whose annual family incomes exceeded Rs 4.5 lakh) from the reservations.

In 2007, a committee formed under the leadership of Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, then the chairman of the University Grants Commission, investigated, and found, caste discrimination at AIIMS. The Thorat committee report offered many recommendations to mitigate casteism at AIIMS – including the formation of an equal opportunity cell and for the health ministry to monitor the implementation of reservations. These are yet to be implemented, even as students belonging to reserved categories continue to suffer discrimination and humiliation.

During The Life of Science discussion, Subhajit Naskar, a faculty member at Jadavpur University, said his students from marginalised-caste backgrounds suffered severe access and affordability issues in attending online classes during the pandemic. According to Naskar, students from marginalised castes scored poorly in admission interviews even after doing very well on the written tests.

Riya Singh, a PhD scholar and founder of Dalit Women Fight, recalled the irony of receiving a low grade on an assignment about writing about her own caste experiences. She also cited anecdotes about how marginalised-caste students are consistently demotivated in seemingly liberal and progressive academic spaces.

The hypocrisy of IIT Bombay’s administration – freely allowing Savarna Hindus to celebrate their festivals with pomp on campus but posing undue hurdles when students from marginalised castes wished to commemorate something of importance to them – grated at Tejendra Pratap Gautam, a PhD scholar and member of the APPSC.

Vaishali Khandekar, an anthropologist at IIT Hyderabad, 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.”

Indeed, only weeks after Singh’s videos turned up, Koushal Kumar Mishra, the dean of social sciences and a political science professor at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, mocked doctors from marginalised castes and B.R. Ambedkar in a Facebook post. The university has distanced itself from his remarks and the local police has filed an FIR; both entities have promised investigations.

Banaras Hindu University. Photo: PTI

What keeps casteism alive?

Gautam and Naskar both recalled Ambedkar’s maxim of ‘educate, agitate, organise’. But thanks to Savarna individuals gatekeeping academic spaces and knowledge, students from marginalised-caste backgrounds often don’t even make it to the first step: getting educated.

The panellists discussed multiple gatekeeping mechanisms. They can be organised into three broad categories, although the way they sustain casteism in higher education space can vary in form.

The first method is the increasing depoliticisation of higher education campuses. The second and third concern the representation of people from marginalised castes in institutions and the control that Savarna academicians maintain on the means of knowledge production and dissemination.

Rehnamol Raveendran, who teaches political science at Delhi University, said depoliticising campuses perpetuates casteism – especially in elite institutions like the IITs, where students are passively fenced off from any kind of political organisation.

Students who actively engage with politics on campuses are threatened with dire consequences, while the ones who don’t are promised higher rewards.

Students from marginalised communities are also more vulnerable to punitive action from the institution’s administration. And depoliticisation ensures that these students don’t engage critically with the mechanisms that run higher education spaces, don’t raise their voices against injustice and don’t unionise. This in turn leads to students becoming isolated from marginalised communities.

The authorities also use examples of what happened to “political students” to deter others from engaging with politics. On top of this, the political representation of people from marginalised communities, like Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities, is already abysmal. Politics in India continues to be dominated by Savarna people who are often not sensitised and/or concerned about the oppression that members of marginalised castes face.

And working together, these forces maintain feelings of isolation and helplessness in students from these communities, and propagate powerlessness.

In scientific and science-dominated institutions, these forces are more pronounced. Rachelle Bharathi Chandran, an independent researcher, said that science students who call out casteist professors may be looking at the end of their careers. Why? Because the science community is closely knit and because science as a discipline is often unforgiving.

These conditions are exacerbated by the fact that science imagines itself to be an objective discipline, respecting only the arbitrary notions of merit and excellence. In the public imagination, politics can only besmirch science, explaining why the major push for the anti-reservation protests in 2006 came from people in science institutions, including a resolution signed by 2,500 students at IIT Roorkee.

In reality, science is not free from social and political biases. Studies and analyses have shown how the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru – infamous for being dominated by Brahmins – thrive on casteism.

The faculty hall at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Credit: mapbox/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The faculty hall at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Credit: mapbox/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The second mechanism is concerned with the representation of people from marginalised castes in higher-education spaces. There is no doubt that Savarna people are over-represented in India’s higher-education system. Journalist Dilip Mandal stressed on 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 by The Wire found that fewer than 3% of all faculty members at the IITs are from reserved categories.

Such dominance has far-reaching consequences. It leads to Savarna impunity: Savarna people know that they are not likely to be held accountable for casteist actions. Seema Singh’s confidence to say and do whatever she wants in her class is a case in point. Singh also boasted in the videos that nobody – including what she called the “minority commission” – could do anything to her.

It impacts the composition of equal opportunity cells and committees formed on campuses to investigate and deal with allegations of caste-based discrimination. Riya Singh, of Dalit Women Fight, said that these committees often have few people from marginalised castes, who themselves are under extreme pressure and scrutiny from the administration to play the role of a ‘neutral pacifier’ instead of a ‘truth-finder’.

Moreover, as journalist Makepeace Sitlhou and University of Hyderabad PhD scholar Shalini Mahadev said, people from marginalised-caste backgrounds have to walk miles to ‘prove’ that a particular discrimination was of a casteist nature, making the whole process very slow – and quite traumatising. It also doesn’t help that the composition of such committees and their reports is rarely made public. Even in the Seema Singh case, IIT Kharagpur hasn’t said a word about who is sitting on the committee looking into her remarks.

The third way in which our higher education institutions sustain casteism is through the perceived notion of merit, which creates dogmas on who can produce and disseminate what kinds of knowledge. Instead of seeing reservations as a form of affirmative action that improves access to education and employment for people from marginalised-caste backgrounds, the widespread belief is that it dilutes meritocracy.

There are strong arguments and evidence that merit itself is an arbitrary and discriminatory criterion, but this is usually ignored. According to Khandekar, both covert and overt casteism manifest through the “questionable merit of a Dalit scholar”, leading to an epistemic and systemic erasure of anti-caste scholarship in Indian education.

Also read: They Decided To Debate Women’s Leadership Skills. Then It Got Worse.

For example, despite his many progressive and reformatory ideas and theses, all of which are pertinent even today, Ambedkar’s contribution to the formation of modern India has been reduced in school textbooks to “father of the Indian constitution”. Discussing anti-caste literature is important for students from marginalised-caste backgrounds and will help them, as Khandekar said as well.

Another University of Hyderabad student, Prajwal Gaikwad, who is also the general secretary of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), said students from marginalised castes are discouraged from engaging academically with disciplines and scholarships that don’t concern caste. This sort of gatekeeping – of knowledge – limits the opportunities for these students to contribute to other disciplines, and furthers the stereotype that students from marginalised castes are only capable of talking and writing about caste.

The panellists also agreed that there is a paucity of legislation and jurisprudence to guide punishments against and provide protection from caste-based discrimination on campuses. Students have demanded that the Indian government draft a ‘Rohith Act’, following Vemula’s death, for just this reason. They said they were dissatisfied with the perfunctory approach to emancipation of students from marginalised caste backgrounds.

A prime example of this is the one-year preparatory course in IITs, like the one that Seema Singh taught. According to Sitlhou, these preparatory classes are not designed to help students from marginalised communities – but are the product of Savarna people’s self-perceived generosity, and a self-serving act. Sitlhou recommended baseline and endline assessments of students taking the preparatory course to judge how well if the course really served a purpose.

‘We are not here to die’

Rohith Vemula, B.R. Ambedkar and Payal Tadvi. Photos: Facebook and Wikimedia Commons

Mahadev said something during the discussion that struck a chord with everyone: “We are not here to die.” She and the other panellists suggested ways to improve the situation, instead of persisting with delusions that caste-related problems are wicked and intractable. A summary of their suggestions follows:

1. We must create more Bahujan networks in campuses for solidarity and empowerment. Student groups like the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), ASA and the APPSC don’t just fight for the rights of students from marginalised-caste backgrounds. They’re important spaces where solidarity and support is available to students from marginalised castes.

2. There should be a larger and stronger focus on properly implementing reservation policies.

3. Legal and administrative mechanisms should be in place to handle cases of caste-based discrimination and abuse on campuses. In this regard, it’s crucial that the government formulate and implement the ‘Rohith Act’. 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. We need to gather more political power for people from marginalised castes, and promote more political parties following Ambedkarite, Phuleite and Periyarite ideologies.

5. Conversations around caste and casteism should be encouraged in spaces of higher education.

6. Mainstream media and journalists should report on caste and casteism even when stories don’t involve the deaths of students from marginalised backgrounds.

7. We should establish SC/ST/OBC cells, composed fully of people from marginalised caste backgrounds.

8. We should encourage solidarities between different marginalised communities.

9. We should encourage solidarities at the global level, 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 large body of work by Savarna people on caste and casteism, it is high time that they started evaluating their own Savarnality.

The author would like to thank Bishal Kumar Dey, Vaishali Khandekar, Prajwal Gaikwad and Shalini Mahadev for discussions that helped compose this report.

Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective, and tweet at @queersprings.

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