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Caste-Based Discrimination in Higher Education Intensifies; Calls for Urgent Reforms Increase

Students confront systemic caste-based discrimination in higher educational institutions across the country. In this story we speak to victims of such discriminatory practices.

By Sweekriti Agrawal
New Update

Caste-based discrimination in higher education

Caste-based discrimination in higher education | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“I faced caste-based discrimination for many years. Stipends were denied to me. I was thrown out of classrooms and labs. At times, I didn't even have a place to sit. When I raised my voice against this, a case was registered against me. I am still fighting the case in the Kottayam sessions court. The police initially did not register an FIR. Finally, after a decade's battle, the court issued a summons to the professor who harassed me. I am eagerly awaiting the next hearing,” says Deepa Mohanan, a Dalit PhD scholar. She has been battling caste discrimination in higher education for over ten years while studying at the International and Inter University Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (IIUCNN) in Kottayam, Kerala.

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Deepa is just one of countless other Dalit students who have faced caste-based discrimination in higher educational institutions. The rising number of IIT suicides in recent times is a testament to the challenges these students encounter. Apart from caste-based discrimination, financial adversities were only a part of the challenges Deepa faced during her educational journey.

“The real battle was confronting the prejudiced attitudes within the university,” says Deepa. Despite securing admission, she and two other students have alleged that they were subjected to discriminatory practices. "The faculty often remarked that students from Dalit communities, like us, were 'good for nothing' and ‘unworthy of responsibilities’," Deepa recalls. Such incidents, including being unjustly evicted from classrooms and laboratories and the ensuing lengthy legal battle, significantly extended Deepa’s Ph.D. timeline.

“Despite a two-member committee from the university confirming the truth of my allegations against Professor Nandakumar Kalarikkal, no action was taken against him. I raised my voice for years, and when nothing changed, that's when I decided to embark on a hunger strike, demanding justice,” shares Deepa.

Deepa undertook an 11-day hunger strike to protest against caste-based discrimination by the Director of IIUCNN. For many years, she has been tenaciously fighting against the university for discriminatory practices. Throughout this time, she has sought help from various avenues. Her pleas were directed to her college, university, local police, the state's women's commission, human rights commission, the SC/ST commission and the judiciary. 

Deepa Mohanan on a hunger strike in 2021 against caste-based discrimination in higher education

Deepa Mohanan on a hunger strike in 2021 against caste-based discrimination in higher education | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

“After reaching out to the Kerala State Women’s Commission, they summoned me for inquiries on four occasions but never called him even once. Their report merely stated that they had tried to contact him, but he didn't respond, and subsequently, the case was closed. Now, my hope lies with the court, and I am determined to fight until the man who tormented me faces consequences,” asserts Deepa.

Another student, pursuing his PhD from the Department of Political Science at Delhi University, also works as a guest faculty for postgraduate students. In both roles, as a student and a teacher, he has confronted caste-based discrimination. "After completing my graduation, master's degree, and MPhil, I decided to pursue my PhD. After entering these higher educational institutions, now I fully comprehend the layers of discrimination. Students and research scholars like me encounter multiple discriminations, especially because we hail from the Dalit community and dream of pursuing higher education. I've personally endured this. My earlier education was primarily in Hindi, so transitioning to an English medium institution intensified the discrimination. Such biases are also evident in the realm of university employment today."

He points out the intricate relationship between language and caste-based discrimination. He believes the English language becomes a significant barrier in higher education. "Those from non-English educational backgrounds are often marginalised and left out of mainstream knowledge avenues. In contrast, students from English-medium institutions generally wield more influence over their vernacular-educated peers, both inside and outside the classroom. Being from a lower caste, I encountered discrimination at various levels.” 

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He adds, “Even in my capacity as a teacher, I'm frequently questioned about my caste. The moment I identify as a member of the Dalit community, social distances are visibly enforced. I've witnessed how teachers from upper castes disengage from conversations with me. On one occasion, there was a subtle suggestion that individuals like me should occupy a different room. Whether you are in the role of a student or a teacher, if you are from the Dalit community, the sad reality is that discrimination is prevalent. It's a bitter truth many prefer to ignore".

The rising number of caste-based discrimination and suicides in these institutions is deeply concerning. The HRD Minister recently revealed that over 19,000 students from SC, ST, and OBC categories withdrew from central universities, IITs, and IIMs between 2018 and 2023. According to government data, there have been 33 student suicides in IITs across India since 2018. Among the three premier educational institutions – the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the National Institute of Technology (NIT), and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) – IITs witnessed the highest number of student suicides.

Sannaki Munna recently earned his doctoral degree from the University of Hyderabad. He, too, states that caste-based discrimination is the ugly reality in many higher educational institutions in India today. "Many of us hail from rural backgrounds, and we might lack refined language and behavioural skills. However, we are often ridiculed for these shortcomings. I've encountered discrimination, with derogatory terms like 'mannerless' or 'cultureless' used against me. From the very start, once the university learns of our caste, our names are marked with specific symbols during the admissions phase. Those in the general category have no symbols, while OBC students get hashtags. SC students are marked with one star, ST students with two stars, and physically disabled individuals receive three stars. This labelling sets us apart and creates a perception that we lack merit or are only there for food and other benefits. The entire duration of our course is marred by this systematic caste-based discrimination."

N Sukumar, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delhi, is also the author of "Caste Discrimination And Exclusion In Indian Universities." His book sheds light on the pervasive caste-based discrimination within the Indian higher education system. Professor Sukumar emphasises that, without significant reforms, the nation will continue to witness a rise in tragic incidents, much like the series of IIT suicides.

"Masters students and research scholars encounter distinctive challenges. From unfair grading practices to fostering a hostile classroom environment, the issues are manifold. Other concerns include faculty not endorsing fellowship forms or allocating adequate time for student interaction. It's disheartening to see that many academic opportunities presented within the classroom are often denied to Dalit students. Once a teacher becomes aware of a student's reservation background, their attitude shifts dramatically. I'm familiar with countless instances where teachers target, insult, and openly malign these students," Sukumar elucidates.

He further adds, "I recall an incident in a state university where a Dalit student was made to perform menial tasks, like cleaning and fetching vegetables, under the instruction of his university supervisor. Some of us are trying to apprise the judiciary about the gravity of the issue. Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi's mothers had filed a PIL in 2019. We recently sought the court's permission to present additional data, as the PIL dates back to 2019. Subsequent studies, including my own where I interviewed over 600 students, have unveiled the extensive caste-based discrimination in higher educational institutions. It's crucial for the Supreme Court to recognise that such incidents don't occur in isolation."

Caste-based discrimination remains a deeply entrenched issue in India's higher education system. Even with legal frameworks and institutional safeguards, the problem persists in various manifestations. “Through your platform, I urge the government to conduct a comprehensive social audit of premier institutions like the IITs, IIMs, Indian Institutes of Science, and other major higher educational establishments. Without robust data, it's challenging to implement effective policy changes. The pressing need of the hour is a meticulous social audit encompassing these universities. Additionally, we require legislation to curb caste-based discrimination in higher education. The current SC/ST cell, intended to address these concerns, unfortunately is a toothless body. It's imperative that these cells be empowered further,” states Prof Sukumar. 

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