Abuse & Discrimination Blacken India’s Institutes of ‘Higher Learning’

Written by Bhumika Jain | Published on: August 9, 2019

Caste discrimination continues to blot the environs of prestigious institutions of higher learning in India, rendering Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian Constitution hollow. That India, seventy plus years after it was born as a republic has failed to address the issue of abuse and discrimination tells a bitter and sorry tale.

caste based discrimination

Two months ago, it was the turn of the Rabindra Bharati University to join institutions across the country with this black mark. In June 2019, there were reports of an assistant professor of Rabindra Bharati University being subjected to casteist taunts by some Trinamool students' union members after she refused to increase their marks in the post-graduation examination.

As reported in both the Indian Express and The Telegraph, students ‘shamed’a professor of the institute –who happen to belong to the one of the Scheduled Castes (SC)--for her caste, skin color and gender. A special fact-finding committee was set up by vice-chancellor Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri after the professor complained about this acute harassment. However, it was 22 days before the committee held its first meeting. Worse, the meeting didn’t result in any concrete action against the accused students which compelled the heads of four departments and the directors of three schools of advanced studies of the university to resign from their posts. Contrary to what actually transpired, State Education Minister  Partha Chatterjee tried to explain this away , “We will not tolerate such treatment to teachers by any student. The guilty students will be punished no matter which group they belong to. I have informed chief minister Mamata Banerjee about this incident and she has asked me to keep her informed about the probe.... I have requested the teachers to withdraw their resignations and resume work.”

This recent incident in West Bengal becomes the last in a long line of such sorry ones. Sabrangindia has carried an in-depth analysis of how deep the caste-ist attitudes go in so-called progressive Bengal. [“Calcutta University worshipping the Chandal” was the vicious campaign carried out in 1921, when Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee appointed Mukund Behari Mallick, a Pali teacher, in the University.] This article may be read here:

1. Saraswati Karketta, most recent victim of institutional, caste based intimidation at Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta

2. How caste is alive and kicking in Bengal

This discrimination is not limited to teachers; even students belonging to the marginalized sections are subjected to harassment and torture by the seniors, the batch mates as well as the professors, so much so that many of them are forced to commit suicide. To give an instance, a 30-year old medical student of the Rohtak Medical College in Haryana committed suicide after the HoD refused to sign his thesis. Omkar Baridabad, a resident of Hubballi, was found hanging in his hostel room on the night of June 13. Omkar’s batchmates claimed that HoD Geeta Gathwala had abused him when he requested her to sign his thesis on the last date of submission. It's said the HoD had not signed his thesis for a long time and at the last moment once again spoke about he being a reserved candidate.
Suicides by Dalit and Adivasi students:

1. Payal Tadvi
Dr. Payal Tadvi (26), practicing at BYL Nair Hospital and pursuing her post-graduation committed suicide on May 22, 2019, in her hostel room in Mumbai. A person belonging to the ST, Tadvi faced continuous harassment by her upper caste (Savarna) colleagues and roommates. Despite repeated complaints to the authorities, no action was taken eventually forcing Tadvi to commit suicide.

2. Rohith Vemula
Suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on January 17, 2016 sparked a controversy across the nation and resuscitated the issue of caste-based discrimination in universities of our nation. Vemula, a Dalit student and a PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad, was a victim of institutional murder, often inflicted on Dalits and marginalized like him. His heart-wrenching suicide note read, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.”

3. Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham
Dalit research scholar, Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham (27), was studying at the eminent Jawaharlal Nehru University. He met a similar fate like that of Rohith Vemula and committed suicide in March 2017 in a friend’s room. Just a few days before his death, in his last public post, he wrote, “There is no Equality in M.phil/PhD Admission, there is no equality in viva–voce, there is only denial of equality…”

4.  Delta Meghwal
Delta Meghwal (17) from Barmer in Rajasthan, was pursuing a teacher training course in Nokha in Bikaner. During her course, she was forced to clean the hostel premises and regularly faced casteist slurs by the authorities. In March 2016, she was instructed by the hostel warden to clean the PT instructor’s room where she was raped. Her body was found the next day in the water tank of the hostel.

5. Aniket Ambhore
Aniket Ambhore was a Dalit student in IIT Bombay who was discriminated against on the basis of his caste. He committed suicide in 2014. His parents had submitted a 10-page testimony to the Director of IIT Bombay, elaborating the kind of caste discrimination he faced in his life. An enquiry committee was set up; however, its findings were never made public.

6. V Priyanka, E Saranya and T Monisha
V Priyanka, E Saranya and T Monisha, all 19-year old, studying Naturopathy in SVS Yoga Medical College in Kallakurichi, near Villupuram, committed suicide in 2016 to escape the torture they faced at the hands of the college chairperson Vasuki Subramaniam who was also accused of charging an exorbitant fee. In their suicide note, the girls said that the students had filed several complaints against Subramanian, but to no avail. Citing “torture” by the management, the girls hoped that their suicide would finally force authorities to take action against the chairman.

7. Anil Meena
Anil Meena belonged to a tribal family of agriculturists, and had qualified the entrance exam to the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). However, in 2012, within two years of his stay, he committed suicide at the age of 22. Anil Meena along with other students from the SC/ST category were not allowed to write the exams as they fell short on attendance. However, the same rules didn’t apply to the general category students, evidently showcasing a caste bias. Students like Anil Meena were deliberately neglected by the teachers and authorities in AIIMS because they belonged to the reserved category.

8. Bal Mukund Bharti
Bal Mukund Bharti was another victim of caste discrimination at AIIMS, who also chose to take his life than bear the brunt of a society based on caste hierarchy. A final year student of MBBS in AIIMS, Bal Mukund had attempted suicide a day earlier but was saved by his friends. He repeatedly faced casteist prejudices by the faculty members in AIIMS who felt that a Harijan or Adivasi did not deserve to study medicine. He committed suicide on March 30, 2010.

9. Senthil Kumar
Senthil Kumar belonged to a sub caste of Dalits named ‘Panniyandi’, and was a student of Hyderabad Central University. He was one of the first to pursue a doctorate from his community. However, because he was from a reserved category, Senthil faced severe discrimination to the extent that he wasn’t even allotted a supervisor. Depressed with the incessant institutional discrimination, Senthil committed suicide in 2008.

10. Manish Kumar Guddolian
Manish Kumar Guddolian, a Chamar (Dalit), was studying in the Department of Computer Science and Technology of IIT Rourkee. Manish was subjected to constant torture and casteist assaults by his classmates and the hostel warden which even forced him to live out of the campus. Unable to tolerate the agony, Manish committed suicide at the age of 20 in 2011.

11. Jaspreet Singh
Jaspreet Singh was a fourth-year medical student at the Government Medical College, Chandigarh. A Dalit by caste Jaspreet was humiliated by one of the professors who threatened to continually fail him in his papers. “Do whatever you can do, I will make you to do your MBBS all over again,” taunted Prof N.K. Goel, Head of Department, Community Medicine. Due to this harassment, Jaspreet committed suicide in 2008 and named the professor in his suicide note.

These are just a few incidents wherein the students belonging to the marginalized sections of the society chose death over humiliation.

SC/ST representation in higher education:
The University Grants Commission (UGC), a statutory body charged with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education, have 903-degree awarding universities/institutions under it. However, college to student ratio is poor with only 28 colleges per lakh population. Not to forget, most of these institutes are located in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities making them inaccessible and unaffordable for the marginalized sections. Further, historical discrimination against the SCs and STs has led to their under-representation in majority of areas. A miniscule proportion of them manage to reach to the higher level of education, however, they continue to face caste discrimination, compelling them to drop out or take their lives, as mentioned in the previous section.

According to the Higher Education, All India & States Profile, 2017-18, of the 3,66,42,358 students in higher education, only 14.41% are from the SC and 35.02% from the Other Backward Class (OBC). The condition of STs is the worst amongst all, with representation of a mere 5.22%. Females belonging to these categories are subjected to a double whammy with a representation of around 47% across each category.

UGC Guidelines on caste discrimination:
Though India has in place, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which was enacted to tackle institutionalised and often violent caste based denial and discrimination (amended in 2015),  we have done little to engender a just application of this law. Or to create ‘Discrimination Committees’ within institutions that address the problem. Much like the Sexual Discrimination at the Workplace issue, this is still an issue still evolving within India. Owing to the rising cases of discrimination, UGC had formulated guidelines in 2011 to prevent caste discrimination in higher educational institutions, which were amended in 2016 to include “discrimination on the basis of colour, caste and race” in the anti-ragging regulations. This also followed the findings of Thorat Committee report appointed by the UPA II government.

The 2011 guidelines read:

UGC had again sent a reminder to the universities in 2013 to send action taken reports as mentioned in the 2011 guidelines.

The 2016 amended guidelines are as follows:

Despite repeated guidelines, universities across India have failed to take any action against the increasing caste discrimination on campus. As a result, a month ago UGC warned of coming down heavily on colleges and universities that are not complying with its guidelines on putting in place a mechanism to address caste-based discrimination on campuses. The warning came in the backdrop of Dr. Payal Tadvi suicide case.

“We will first make a list of colleges and universities that are not complying with our guidelines on caste-based discrimination and ask them to immediately do so. We will be sending out a circular to the institutes in a day or two and appropriate action will be taken against the erring institutions,”  said Rajnish Jain, secretary, UGC. “There is a need to be more sensitized and institutes affiliated under the UGC need to deal with such (caste-based) cases more sensitively. We would be writing again to the institutes emphasizing on implementation,” UGC chairman DP Singh told Economic Times.

Pretty words, however do not substitute sincere action. The Hyderabad Central University (HCU) that will historically be remembered for taking the life of bright and energetic Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, was also manipulated by the Modi.1 government into re-installing Appa Rao Podille, the notorious Vice Chancellor, to whom Vemula had addressed two letters (December 18, 2015 and January 17,2016). Brazen against the mounting criticism the Modi 1.0 regime one step further. Appa Rao had been first suspended when Vemula’s death caused a nationwide uproar and protests erupted. Within weeks however, with armed police to protect him, he was brought back even while protesting students and professors were not only beaten up but subject to a spate of malicious proescutions.

Rubbing Salt on Dalit wounds further, the Modi government then appointed Vipin Srivastava as Pro VC, a man who was allegedly held responsible for Dalit Scholar Senthil Kumar Death in 2008.

These moves by the Modi 1.0 government had been also accompanied by slashing of UGC scholarships and fellowships, earlier available to Dalit, OBC and minority students. A gross 20,000 such were slashed each year of the previous government.
According to a recent survey by a group of researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), BITS Pilani and Christ University, many universities have yet to implement the recommendations made by the UGC to address caste-based discrimination. Less than a third (42) of the 132 institutes surveyed had any information that could enable students or faculty to access the Equal Opportunity Cells (EOCs) or SC-ST Cell or lodge a complaint. Only 4 of the 15 institutes (deemed as ‘institutes of excellence’), 4 of the 13 IITs (that were established before 2008), and none of the 6 first generation IIMs had this information, the survey revealed. “Some of these institutes claim to have a cell on their websites but there is no information available as to how one could lodge a complaint or approach the committee. They are supposed to make such information publicly available,” said Sumithra Sankaran, research associate at IISc.

In 2007, a committee was set up by the central government, headed by the then UGC Chairperson Sukhdeo Thoratto investigate allegations of harassment of SC/ST students at AIIMS. The committee found out that there was rampant discrimination against SC/ST students. It found evidence of informal segregation in the AIIMS hostels, with SC/ST students being forced to shift into certain hostels following harassment, abuse and violence by dominant caste students. SC/ST students reported that they faced social isolation in dining rooms, on sports fields and at cultural events. Students also told the Thorat committee about discrimination by teachers, which took the form of “avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, and discouragement and differential treatment.” 84% of the SC/ST students surveyed said examiners had asked them about their caste directly or indirectly during their evaluations. Despite an extensive report with recommendations to curtail the discrimination, it continues to exist till date with students committing suicides as the last resort.

All in all, UGC has failed to take any penal actions against the erring universities till date. Interestingly, as per section 5 of the UGC Act, 1956 which talks about the composition of the commission, there is no provision for including a person from the SC/ST category in it. The 12-member commission, consisting of the chairman, vice-chairman and 10 other members are to be appointed by the central government and must include people who have knowledge or experience in agriculture, commerce, forestry or industry; who are members of the engineering, legal, medical or any other learned profession. However, if the representation of SC/ST students in higher education is so poor, one can comprehend the negligible possibility of the marginalized sections to reach the highest rung and be a part of the commission.

‘Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas,’? The slogan of the regime rings hollow.

Related Articles:
  1. Caste-igated: How Indians use casteist slurs to dehumanize each other
  2. Lessons Unlearned: Nine years after the Thorat Committee report
  3. They Chose Death over Humiliation
  4. Appa Rao Must Go, HCU Admin Guilty of Conflict Leading to Rohith’s Death: Scientists
  5. Rohith Vemula's Colleagues Appeal to President of India to sack "Dalit-hating" HCU vice-chancellor Podile Appa Rao
  6. To Live & Die as a Dalit: Rohith Vemula
  7.  Rubbing Salt on Wounds: Modi Regime appoints Anti-Dalit Prof as Pro VC, HCU
  8. Why Appa Rao is more Important to the BJP than Rohith Vemula
  9. Rohith’s death: We are all to blame