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Caste On Campus: Have Higher Educational Spaces Become Death Traps For Dalit Students?

Despite various judgments upholding the legitimacy of reservations, academic institutions have not fully complied with this constitutional obligation, indicating a failure on the part of the state not only to fulfil a constitutional obligation but also to utilise a key instrument to uplift the most disadvantaged sections of society, writes Virendra Kumar.

Caste discrimination remains an issue on campuses despite constitutional and legal safeguards
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The recent increase of suicides among Dalit students in higher educational institutions has once again drawn attention towards caste-based discrimination in such spaces. While the country last year celebrated 75th year of Independence and the government is busy promoting catchy phrases such as Amrit Kal, Dalit and adivasi students are driven to suicides or drop out of these academic institutions due to the oppression they face. 

The problem of discrimination was often raised in the Parliament, such as an incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) last year in which a faculty member allegedly gave SC/ST/OBC students lower marks in the PhD entrance viva exam, causing them to fail. After much outcry, the JNU administration was compelled to release an official notification. This case is just one example of discrimination in one of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

In academic institutions, caste discrimination is a harsh reality and young Dalits are facing oppression from the so-called savarnas and others. In the past one month, three student-suicides have shocked us. The biggest irony is that all the three victims were from Dalit backgrounds. 

The first of these three cases was that of Darshan Solanki, a B Tech student at IIT Bombay. The next case was of Dr Preethi, a scheduled tribe (ST) student from Hyderabad who died by suicide after being subjected to ragging. The third case was also of a medical student. Scheduled caste MBBS student Pamposh died by suicide in a hostel room of a medical college in Amritsar, Punjab. These incidents are the signs of increasing hatred towards the emerging anti-caste narratives in the campuses across the nation.

The above evidence does not require any further research or enquiry. These cases are not the first. Numerous instances have confirmed that Dalit students are discriminated against, leading to feelings of alienation or exclusion which further force them to drop out, or die by suicide. Even the University Grants Commission (UGC) has acknowledged this problem in this regard and from time to time, it has formed many committees and given guidelines for the redressal. 

In 2012, UGC came up with regulations for the promotion of equity in higher educational institutions, which paved the way for establishing an Equal Opportunity Cell and Anti-Discrimination Officer in academic institutions. Under the vision of UGC 2012 regulation, it prohibited discrimination, harassment, unfavourable treatment, and victimisation based on caste, creed, religion, language, ethnicity, gender and disabilities to maintain equity. 

Let's go by the definition of equity — opportunity and entitlements for the equal enjoyment of all legitimate rights. Government data itself exposes that the situation on the ground contradicts this definition of equity.

Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, the former chairman of UGC, submitted a report in 2007 that highlighted caste-based discrimination against medical students from SC/ST backgrounds at AIIMS Delhi. The report described issues such as differential treatment in academic institutions, hostel segregation, social segregation in games and cultural events, and ragging with serious caste overtones. Similarly, the Mungekar Committee headed by former Rajya Sabha MP Mungekar found a pattern of discrimination in Vardman Medical College —also known as Safdarjung hospital— in 2012. The panel discovered that SC students had failed en masse in physiology papers, causing a nationwide controversy. The allegations were found to be correct and the accused staff members, including the principal of the medical college, were subsequently suspended from service.

Philosophical roots of caste oppression

The caste system always bears on people’s minds in their day-to-day interactions irrespective of their educational or social status and its imprints can be found in the conduct of even professional groups like teachers, engineers, doctors, or even government officials. Noted sociologist MN Srinivas has said that caste is broadly and tacitly accepted by all —including those most vocal in condemning it— to the extent that everywhere it is the unit of social action.

In his famous work, Gopal Guru, a renowned social scientist, commented that caste oppression or discrimination leads to a sense of humiliation, a kind of mental hurt to the dignity of the discriminated individual. In Hindu philosophy, the social oppression of the caste system originates from the karma theory, which does not leave any scope to challenge it through logical arguments. The humiliation caused by caste oppression is not just physical but also mental and psychological, leaving permanent scars on the victim’s heart. Guru further adds that humiliation completely arrests the growth of moral insights.

Drawing from the aforementioned philosophical insights, it can be inferred that suicides in higher education institutions are not regular suicides. These victims are not ordinary people. The victims were in higher educational institutions by overcoming significant barriers to reach that level and it is only when they lose all hope of receiving justice from society and other institutions that they resort to extreme acts like suicide.

Assessment of state intervention 

Based on government data and reports, it appears that the efficacy of state action in implementing the affirmative policies has proved to be very weak in producing desired social change, resulting in the traditional caste structure of the society remaining unchanged with very slow upward mobility of the oppressed castes. 

Similarly, higher educational institutions are not immune to discriminatory sociocultural practices as confirmed by media reports of caste discrimination experienced by lower caste individuals in universities and colleges. Noted Dalit expert and sociologist Prof. Vivek Kumar in a seminar said, “We talk about casteism, but a majority of the Indian people relate caste discrimination with untouchability, but, in modern times, forms of discrimination have changed. Those who control the power structure of the society create hurdles so that those who are at the margins could not reach or intermingle with mainstream society.” 

In other words, not giving proper representation in fields which control the country and society is casteism. Prof. Kumar gave seven types of power centres that control power: 1) Judiciary; 2) Polity; 3) Bureaucracy; 4) University; 5) Industry; 6) Civil society, 7) Media. As per his argument, casteism in the country cannot be eliminated without proper representation in all these fields.

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As a researcher on a similar topic, I found respondents sharing similar views. Some added that asserting constitutional rights promised in the Indian Constitution often result in being labelled as casteist. But who are the true culprits of casteism? Everyone is aware of the answer to the question. The true culprits of casteism are those who have benefitted from the hierarchical Hindu social order and do not want to relinquish their privileges. They demoralise assertive youth with social connections and create an environment where victims lose hope of positive change, accepting their fate as destiny and are driven to suicide.

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If you ask an educated Dalit about the reasons for their community’s backwardness, the immediate response would likely be Manusmriti. Many scholars have also written that the codification of Manusmriti led to the exclusion of Dalits from education and property ownership. Many will say as the enrichment of the upper castes came at the cost of Dalit, so there is a moral and legal ground for compensation. Makers of the Constitution realised this and they created the provisions in the form of reservation, which is a positive discrimination. Reservation in our society is always a matter of controversy, and educational institutions are also not spared from it. Logically, Dalits argue in favour of reservation and say it is a long overdue social debt that upper castes owe to the untouchables, but upper caste youth think in other ways and make fun of Dalits’ presence in universities. 

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The debate around merit is just one aspect of this problem. Additionally, data shows that reserved seats often go unfilled even at the enrollment stage. Following this, we can reach to the conclusion that despite various court judgments upholding the legitimacy of reservations, academic institutions have not fully complied with this constitutional obligation, indicating a failure on the part of the state not only to fulfil a constitutional obligation but also to utilise a key instrument to uplift the most disadvantaged sections of society.

To conclude the article, I would like to highlight a statement made by Dr BR Ambedkar — caste intercepts every aspect of life. It is ubiquitous within the learning process. It creates distinctions among students and deprives them of equal opportunities to learn. The remedial measures against caste discrimination in higher education appear completely insufficient and impotent. There is a need for radical social reforms in academic institutions and all stakeholders involved must be sensitised to eliminate biases and prejudices.

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(Virendra Kumar is a PhD scholar at the School of Liberal Studies at Dr BR Ambedkar University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.)

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