Professor Sukumar is also the author of “Caste Discrimination And Exclusion In Indian Universities”, which details deep-rooted caste-based discrimination within Indian higher education system. Sukumar narrates the story behind the suicide of Senthil Kumar. Senthil, a Dalit research scholar from Tamil Nadu, chose the University of Hyderabad to pursue his PhD after obtaining an MPhil and an MSc.
Professor Sukumar sheds light on the deeply entrenched caste-based discrimination prevalent within IITs. He highlights how these institutions often perceive the implementation of reservation policies as a dilution of their cherished standards, disregarding the need for inclusivity. One manifestation of this discrimination is observed in the language courses imposed on scheduled caste students, regardless of their linguistic proficiency. This assumption belittles their academic and linguistic abilities, relegating them to preparatory classes and earning them the derogatory label of “preppies”. Shockingly, even during simple introductions, students sometimes are asked to share their ranks and discrimination seeps in as their peers start categorising and treating them differently based on their rankings.
Prof Sukumar notes that the discriminatory practices extend to hostel allocations, with reserved category students systematically placed in specific wings, reflecting a troubling pattern of caste-based segregation. Furthermore, hostels categorised by food habits inadvertently perpetuate caste identities, while disciplinary discrimination further compounds the challenges reserved category students face, particularly in civil engineering. Within these disciplinary divisions, instances of caste-based discrimination also persist, further exacerbating the plight of marginalised students.
Devan highlights a disconcerting observation: “We’ve noticed that official communications from the institute regarding these suicides avoid mentioning the term ‘suicide’. By sidestepping the gravity of this issue, the institute administration appears evasive, hindering the resolution of students’ academic and non-academic difficulties. The need to address this serious matter head-on is paramount.”
Suicides are becoming the new normal in these institutions. Recently, the HRD Minister stated that over 19,000 students from SC, ST, and OBC categories dropped out from central universities, IITs and IIMs between 2018 and 2023. As many as 33 students at various IITs across India committed suicide since 2018, as per the government. Out of the three institutes of higher education - the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the National Institute of Technology (NIT), and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) - the IITs accounted for the maximum number of student suicides.
“The IITs don’t value human life. They value only knowledge, but they don’t value the source of that knowledge: the human brain because when the brain dies, it is the death of knowledge too. It is time the IITs cultivate a culture of empathy and understand that discrimination is unacceptable,” asserts Professor Sukumar.
Despite the existence of reservation policies designed to provide opportunities for underprivileged communities, SC/ST students often find themselves at the receiving end of discrimination and prejudice. Being labelled as beneficiaries of affirmative action, they become targets of negative stereotypes and face marginalisation from their peers. This exclusionary behaviour extends beyond social interactions and pervades various aspects of campus life, including hostels and classrooms. Thorat highlights that SC/ST students are not only isolated within their peer groups but also face discrimination within the very classrooms where they seek knowledge. Teachers, who play a crucial role in shaping students’ educational experiences, contribute to this alarming pattern of mistreatment.
Prof Thorat explains, “The primary objective of these regulations was to end discriminatory practices and ensure that educational institutions had mechanisms to prevent and address discrimination effectively. As part of this initiative, I advocated for the appointment of anti-discriminatory officers and encouraged colleges and universities to establish dedicated equal-opportunity cells. These cells would serve as vital resources, supporting students who faced discrimination and providing them with remedial coaching, particularly for SC/ST students”.
The Way Forward
According to Professor Sukumar, addressing caste-based discrimination and its tragic consequences requires recognising caste as a stark reality. To combat this problem, he emphasises the need for comprehensive measures. Firstly, conducting an audit of all higher educational institutions is crucial to understand the extent and nature of caste-based discrimination prevalent within these settings. Additionally, strengthening SC/ST cells within these institutions would provide dedicated support systems for marginalised students, helping them navigate the challenges they face. Furthermore, the implementation of an anti-discrimination law specifically targeting caste-based discrimination is essential to establish legal protections and enforce accountability.
Professor Thorat, on the other hand, explains four key suggestions to address and curb discrimination within the IITs and higher educational institutions.
- Enact an Act to Criminalise Caste Discrimination: Thorat proposes the implementation of legislation that would criminalise caste-based discrimination. Such an Act would serve as a strong deterrent and reinforce the commitment to equality and social justice.
- Offer Sensitisation Courses on Inequality and Discrimination: To foster awareness and empathy among students, it is imperative to introduce courses that delve into the complexities of various forms of discrimination, including caste, gender, race, and others. These courses would promote a deeper understanding of social inequalities and encourage students to actively work towards creating an inclusive society.
- Provide Remedial Coaching in Core Subjects and English: Recognising the disparities in educational opportunities, the provision of remedial coaching programs must be started for marginalised students. These programs would focus on core subjects and English language skills, helping bridge the academic gap and ensuring equal access to quality education.
- Establish Equal Opportunity Cells and Appoint Anti-Discriminatory Officers: Thorat proposes the establishment of Equal Opportunity Cells within educational institutions. These cells would serve as dedicated platforms to address discrimination instances, support affected students, and promote an inclusive campus environment. Additionally, appointing anti-discriminatory officers would ensure the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination measures and provide a recourse for students facing discriminatory practices.