Discrimination, apathy, missing forums & caste in Indian Higher Education
Students from across the country point out that casteism is rampant on campuses of educational institutes
The institutional caste discrimination at India’s top higher education institutes and universities has been making headlines in the last couple of weeks, since Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old BTech student at Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), died by suicide. Students from across the country point out that casteism is rampant on campuses of educational institutes. However, they also say that support from institutions is missing and the SC/ST Cells on campuses are often “dysfunctional”.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has made it mandatory for the universities, deemed to be universities, grant-in-aid institutions and inter-university centres receiving central assistance to establish special cells for scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). However, students from different major HEIs and universities, while speaking to Indie Journal, expressed that many SC/ST students often do not have any idea of the presence of such a cell on campus.
The Invisible SC/ST Cells
“There might be an SC/ST Cell in our university, but I do not know much about it. Even if I do not know about it, imagine how the Cell must be functioning,” says Somnath Nirmal, a student of Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) and Maharashtra President of the Students Federation of India (SFI).
As per the information given by a student at IIT-B on condition of anonymity, while the institute does have an SC/ST Cell, it does not have a clear mandate for its functioning, almost six years after its inception. In fact, no SC/ST Cell existed at IIT Bombay, one of the premier educational institutes in the country, until 2017, 59 years after the institute was established.
“The SC/ST Cell still does not have a mandate. In fact, the Cell is directly under the purview of the director. A professor is its convenor. But there is no written mandate as to how the cell is meant to function. There is no annual review of its work,” the student said.
He added that for years, students did not even know that such a cell existed, nor did the Cell have a proper list of the SC/ST students.
“Since last year, the APPSC members have been working with the Cell. We have drafted a mandate for the Cell, but it has not yet been implemented,” the student added.
Aadhit V Sathvin, a student at Film and Television of India (FTII) in Pune says, “There is an SC/ST Cell at FTII. However, it is not very functional or active. It does not take up any issues or conduct any kind of sensitisation or workshops on campus. In fact, even when there are any issues concerning students from marginalised backgrounds, there is no practice of going to the Cell. We directly go to the administration. Most of the students are not even aware of the existence of this Cell.”
A few months ago, FTII students had alleged irregularities in the admission processes saying that the institute has left a few seats as well as waitlist positions in the OBC, SC and ST categories vacant, citing reasons of ineligibility. However, Sathvin says that even that issue was not taken up by the SC/ST Cells.
“The SC/ST Cells are dysfunctional,” says Varkey Parakkal of SFI Delhi.
He adds, “Forget about the SC/ST Cells for a second. But such institutes must have centres for students to seek counselling, considering the pressure that these students face on campus on a daily basis. Unfortunately, even these counselling centres are dysfunctional. Students often end up taking their lives due to the pressure.”
Speaking on the issue, Prof. Ajinkya Gaikwad, who teaches at a Mumbai-based HEI said, “I believe that these Cells do address the basic issues of the SC/ST students on campus. They might also take up serious issues. However, I doubt if they take smaller, subtle caste-related issues into consideration. Their mandate is very limited. I do not think they address casteism in day-to-day life.”
Solanki’s family and peers have alleged that the caste discrimination that he faced at the institute was responsible for his death by suicide. While IIT Bombay initially denied any such possibility, it was later revealed that the SC/ST cell conducted two surveys last year, which showed that students definitely faced multiple kinds of caste-based discrimination, which also impacted their mental health.
“From around April to June last year, the SC/ST Cell conducted these two surveys. They said the surveys were meant to improve their work. But the problem was that the results of these surveys were never made public. They kept those to themselves,” the student added.
Yesterday, in the mail to students, the director of @iitbombay claims that they cannot comment on the death till the report is ready but in the public statement released 4 days ago, they openly declared that there was no discrimination. #JusticeForDarshanSolanki pic.twitter.com/kkHZTqrRxY— APPSC IIT Bombay (@AppscIITb) February 18, 2023
The student further added that the members of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) learned about the results when they were involved in a caste-related course as Teaching Assistants (TAs).
“It was then that we got access to the survey results. We found out that many students had in fact reported discrimination and some also said that they were suicidal. But the institute just sat on these results. As the results were not made public, there were no deliberations over them. The institute had all the information. It should have taken action,” the student said.
He further said that the APPSC tried to persuade the institute to pass a mental health code after getting access to the report, but nothing happened. However, as per the students, this is not the first instance of IIT Bombay’s apathy towards the issue of caste on campus.
Saarthak Dulgaj, PhD Scholar at the School of Physics, University of Hyderabad, said that student organisations on campus often have to pressure the SC/ST Cells itself to take up issues.
“Whenever any cases such as those of caste discrimination, sexual harassment are filed, the student organisations on campus act as vanguards to the victims. They approach students, protest if their issues are not addressed and also pressure the Cells to take up the issues. The Cells tend to be hesitant,” Dulgaj added.
Casteism in India’s HEIs
“Having to endure casteist slurs pertaining to reservation, academic proficiency is very common in universities and institutes. Students are mocked relentlessly. Most departments usually have upper caste professors, which does not help the situation further. It becomes very difficult for students to handle this pressure. Along with instances of suicides, the number of marginalised students dropping out mid-course because of discrimination among other reasons is quite high as well,” Nirmal explains.
The approach of students towards reservation is often one of the major reasons behind caste discrimination on campus, according to the students.
“What I have observed amid 18-19-year-old students applying at institutes at IIT, AIMS etc. is that their parents often feed them with poison that you are not getting a seat because someone who has lesser marks than you is getting that seat. This reflects in the behaviour of the students. It creates constant pressure on students from SC/ST/OBC backgrounds that they have to perform better. They have to justify their position, and at the same time, they have the pressure to hide their caste every day. This acts as an attack on mental health,” Dulgaj says.
However, caste discrimination on college campuses is not always open, Pof. Gaikwad says.
“When we think of discrimination, things like casteist slurs come to our mind first. However, most of the time, casteism is subtle. The identities of the upper castes are imposed upon the marginalised. Sometimes they are alienated. Groupism is common in colleges, but when the groups are made on the basis of caste, it is tragic,” he said.
As per Varakkal, apart from casteism, all kinds of misogyny, xenophobia, discrimination tend to exist on campuses.
Discrimination is a multilayered issue. Marginalised students also face financial struggles, often stemming from the institution’s policies. For example, while DU has around 2 to 3 lakh students, it provides accommodation to only around 2,000. It creates a big housing crisis for students. Central universities that are considered the backbones of our country openly do caste discrimination. The issue is even serious in those that do not allow student politics,”. Parakkal said.
Image Credit: Sabrang India
Need for politically aware campuses
“Let me explain to you the difference between institutes like IIT and the University of Hyderabad,” says Dulgaj, who is also an alumnus of IIT Roorkee.
“IIT, NIT, etc. do not allow political organisations, democratic discussions on campus. At universities like the University of Hyderabad, there are political organisations, faculties are more democratic, there are pressure groups like teachers' associations, student organisations, unions, groups working for different minority groups, etc. The pressure of casteism still exists at these places, but it gets more difficult to discriminate openly,” he explains.
As per Sachin Manvadkar, a student of Mumbai University and President of the Ambedkarite Students Association (ASA), even if there are cases of discrimination and harassment, student organisations often follow up on those until the authorities take notice.
“These organisations serve as a platform for students where they can raise issues. SC/ST Cells, women’s cells, counselling services are the forums that student organisations fought for and gained. But the fight is not over. Discrimination does not happen in isolation,” Parakkal adds.