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Dronacharyas all: Caste discrimination in higher education

By Subhash Gatade

A committee has recommended legal action under the SC/ST Atrocities Act against faculty of the Vardhman Medical College for caste-based harassment of 35 students. This is only the latest in a long list of similar cases in India’s institutions of higher education. Subhash Gatade provides the details

Caste discrimination

For Bhalchandra Mungekar, ex-vice chancellor of Bombay University and ex-member of the Planning Commission, the exercise of looking into allegations of caste discrimination faced by scheduled caste students at Vardhman Medical College, Delhi, has been extremely disturbing. As the single-member committee appointed by the National Scheduled Caste Commission, it was important that he examine every aspect of the case and ensure that the guilty were brought to book.

Dr Mungekar discovered to his dismay that not only were the 35 scheduled caste students failed repeatedly in one particular subject – physiology – but the authorities had not even bothered to meet them to look into their complaints. He had to resort to RTI to seek information and approach the high court to ensure their rights as equal students. As his report puts it, the faculty of the said department ‘resorted to caste-based discrimination and neglected the duties assigned to them, not by omission but by commission’. Even other administrative people, including the head of the institution, had not seen fit to intervene. Not only did the students lose years because of this apathy, shockingly, the same authorities were guilty of showing leniency towards general category students. While they had no qualms about barring scheduled caste students from taking their examinations due to lack of attendance, four students from the general category, who were detained for inadequate attendance, were allowed to take the examination.

Dr Mungekar, who has finally submitted his report, has put forward wide-ranging recommendations. Apart from asking the authorities to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to students Manish and others who had moved court -- underlining the fact that ‘the mental trauma that they were/are made to undergo is not measurable in terms of money’ -- he has demanded that legal action under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 be taken against former Principal V K Sharma and his then colleagues Professor Shoma Das, head of the physiology department, Principal Jayshree Bhattacharjee and Raj Kapoor, professor of physiology, and a liaison officer.

It is worth highlighting that this was not the first time the college had made the national headlines. Two years ago, the Delhi High Court intervened on a writ petition filed by aggrieved students of the college. Twenty-five scheduled caste students who had taken admission in 2004 and 2005 approached the court when it was discovered that they were deliberately being failed in physiology. Under instructions from the high court the college was forced to conduct fresh examinations; 24 students out of the 25 passed.

Last year too, a committee of experts belonging to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Lok Nayak Jaiprakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP), headed by Dr L R Murmu, looked into ongoing discrimination at the college and found that in the previous five years all the students who had failed the physiology paper belonged to the backward/scheduled castes. Professor Murmu noted in his report how a student had failed three years consecutively only by one mark. Other members of the committee also noted how all the students who had failed the physiology paper had performed well in other subjects and had got admission in the college because of their high marks.

There are many similar cases in other reputed institutions in the capital.

Take the premier medical institute in the country, AIIMS, which is always in the news though mostly for the wrong reasons. In 2010 and 2011 two students committed suicide -- Balmukund Bharti and Anil Meena. Both belonged to scheduled castes, and these suicides again raised the issue of treatment of scheduled category students. The institute had made headlines earlier too,  when caste discrimination cases forced the National Commission on Scheduled Castes to appoint a committee to investigate the complaints. The committee acknowledged that scheduled caste students did face discrimination and made some recommendations. It has been a long time since the report was handed over to the government, but there have been no  concrete moves to end the discrimination. Some months ago it was disclosed that the said report had been scrapped!

A story in the national daily Mail Today (‘Caste Aside: AIIMS Junks Report Nailing Discrimination at Institute’, May 15, 2012) revealed how the ‘[i]nstitute has decided to junk a report… which had recommended action against several officials including a former director… The commission in its report submitted in 2008 had specifically named the then director Dr P Venugopal for indulging in caste discrimination and for being the ‘main actor’ in the anti-quota stir which had plagued the institute for several days’. Despite the commission’s strong recommendation that action against the then director be initiated under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,AIIMS preferred to junk the report citing the strange logic that, “the institute had come over the phase of unrest and a congenial atmosphere was prevailing”.

All these votaries of a ‘congenial atmosphere’ would not like to be reminded about the herding together of reserved category students which a leading daily reported about: ‘Parts of AIIMS hostels are turning into SC/ST ghettos. Reserved category students said they were being “hunted out of the remaining rooms” by upper-caste students and driven to two floors of the hostels,’ (The Telegraph, July 5, 2006). Graffiti in one of the rooms of an SC student in the hostel warned the occupant to ‘get out of this (hostel) wing’. The SC/ST students also shared with the reporter how they are ‘failed’ in the examinations if they dare complain against the discrimination. The sub-dean of the institute, himself a scheduled caste member, corroborated what the students were saying.

Denial of action against guilty teachers and the consequent lack of closure for aggrieved students at a premier institute like AIIMS reminds one of the refusal of the administration at Chikitsa Vishvavidyalay, Lucknow (Lokmat, April 2, 2012), to implement an order of the SC commission in matters related to the deliberate failing of dalit students in a particular subject. In fact, the aggrieved students and Professor V K Gupta, vice-chancellor of the said university, were jointly summoned by the commission to sort out the matter on March 13, 2012, where the VC had agreed in principle to allow the dalit students to write their examinations in the next session. It’s a different matter that he refused to abide by the instructions of the commission and started threatening the dalit students. One of the students, Neeraj, subsequently attempted suicide but was saved in time. It is strange that these students were failing a particular subject only, at this university.

Merely three years ago, the Supreme Court had to intervene in a case related to scheduled category students from IIT-Delhi and instruct the administration that it could not expel students merely on the basis of performance. Responding to a petition filed by Avinash Bagdi and five other scheduled category students, the court said students who had got into IITs after going through a long admission process, could not be externed, violating the principles of natural justice. A Supreme Court bench of K G Balakrishnan and P Sathasivam asked the IIT administration to arrange special classes for the students so that they could catch up with general category students. The said petition had specifically mentioned how callousness on the part of the administration had made the whole system of reservations meaningless as neither were such students provided with the necessary facilities nor were they given special coaching which resulted in over 90% of scheduled category students either failing their first or second years and leaving the institute, or being expelled because of ‘below par performance’.

A close look at the academic atmosphere at other IITs makes it clear that IIT-Delhi has been no exception. A story in Tehelka (June 16, 2007), that focused on IIT-Chennai, explained how the institute had metamorphosed into a ‘modern-day agraharam’ (in Tamil, a brahmin’s house is called an agraharam). The author gave figures explaining how the quota of seats meant for reserved category students always remained underutilised. The figures were 11.9% for SC students (2005) when it should have been 15%. At the higher education level, the ratio is further reduced: in research one finds merely 2.3%, and for PhDs, 5.8%.

This discrimination is not confined to the student level; the authorities or higher-ups, with their varna mindset, also see to it that eligible candidates from socially oppressed sections are not allowed to become teachers. Take IIT-Kharagpur (Times of India, September 12, 2012, ‘Quotas Fail to Break Caste Ceiling in IITs’), one of the oldest IITs; it has only three scheduled caste professors, two associate professors and two assistant professors. There is not a single scheduled tribe person at all the three levels. There are two OBC (other backward classes) professors and seven assistant professors but no associate professor. Coming to the general category, there are 227 professors, 105 associate professors and 165 assistant professors.

Despite the fact that Tamil Nadu has a background of social movement, under-representation of marginal castes and scheduled tribe members prevails. While there are 212 professors, 91 associate professors and 177 assistant professors in the general category, the figures are 3, 3 and 44 for the SC category. A lone ST is assistant professor; there are seven assistant professors from the OBC category.

Consider AIIMS. There is ongoing legal wrangling related to the recruitment of 164 associate professors in the institute. The petitioners’ contention is that the authorities clearly violated all norms of reservation while appointing these teachers. Despite the matter being sub-judice, and despite an affidavit filed by the central government and the institute administration in court which clearly acknowledges that there had been violations of rules in the appointments, the administration had no qualms about promoting some of them.

It was only last year that Ghulam Nabi Azad, health minister of the UPA government, informed Parliament that around 500 posts in the reserved category at Safdarjung Hospital, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital and Lady Hardinge Hospital, Delhi, were lying vacant because of the absence of ‘suitable candidates’. There was no uproar over the fact that all these hospitals that face a tremendous rush of patients are short of 500 doctors.

The plea of ‘absence of suitable candidates’ while making selections under the reserved category is regularly invoked when there is a lapse on the part of the higher-ups in sticking to their constitutional responsibilities. In fact, the reason lies elsewhere. If we consider hospitals or medical colleges, on the one hand it is the logical culmination of an absence of sensitivity and lack of consciousness among the higher-ups as far as the rights of oppressed students are concerned, or the resistance put up by a section of them opposed to affirmative action of any kind; and on the other hand it is a product of the economic policies being followed under a neoliberal regime. As usually observed, the free play of market forces results in cutting necessary subsidies or contractualisation/casualisation of labour; thus doctors too are appointed for a limited period.

Resistance to the appointment of teachers from these categories is not limited to the medical field. There have been reports (Times of India, September 6, 2012) providing details of SC/ST teaching slots lying vacant in central universities. In fact, just over 32% of sanctioned teaching posts for SCs and 41.8% for STs in 40 central universities are occupied. The list includes premier institutions like Delhi University (DU), Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Benaras Hindu University (BHU) and University of Hyderabad. Here, vacancies exist in all three categories -- assistant professor, associate professor and professor. Here are some details about four premier universities:

Quota in varsities

Universities  SC quota Filled  ST quota  Filled
AMU   283  1 142 0
DU    255 44 128 14
JNU 109 24 55 9
BHU 362  115  181 30

A short while ago, the UGC formulated and enforced a new set of regulations that empower it to revoke recognition or even withdraw grants to public and private colleges and universities. For the first time, harassment and victimisation of SC/ST students at the hands of their teachers and peers has been clearly defined. The regulations, called UGC (Prevention of Caste-Based Discrimination/Harassment Victimisation and Promotion of Equality in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2012 -- which were approved by the human resources ministry and were discussed at a conference of state education ministers held in the middle of this year -- applies to all colleges and universities. It is worth emphasising here that to promote equality on campus, the rules have been formulated in such a manner that overt and covert acts of casteism are identified. Provisions have also been made to make it mandatory to appoint an ‘anti-discriminatory officer’ from amongst the staff and to establish a grievance redressal committee.

It even discusses what sorts of acts can be considered punishable under the rules: for example, biased evaluation of exam papers by professors by giving less marks to SC/ST students; passing derogatory remarks indicating caste as a reason for under-performance in class; keeping such students idle in the lab and not allowing them to work; segregating such students from others in hostels/messes/reading rooms, etc; acts of ragging specifically targeting these students; non-implementation of the reservation policy for admissions. The guilty, if they are students, will be punished ‘as per the statutes/ordinances/regulations of the higher educational institution, the UGC regulations on ragging and any other regulations in force’; teaching and non-teaching staff will be dealt with according to the service rules of the university or college.

While all these initiatives on the part of the UGC need to be lauded and appreciated, even a cursory look at the goings-on at educational institutions makes it quite clear that the task is a difficult one.

Returning to the Vardhman Medical College case, it remains to be seen whether the recommendations of the Professor Mungekar Committee will be followed in letter and spirit, or whether symbolic action only will be taken against the perpetrators, leaving them unscathed despite their deliberate role in wasting the academic years of these students and causing them and their family members tremendous mental trauma. Will the authorities show enough courage in filing cases against the guilty teachers and their accomplices? Or will they be content to simply disburse compensation?

If a premier institution like AIIMS can junk a report prepared by the National Supreme Court Commission asking it to punish the perpetrators of caste discrimination; if Chikitsa Mahavidyalay can similarly challenge the Supreme Court commission, what will stop the authorities at Vardhman Medical College from challenging a report that has the potential to cleanse the academic fraternity of its caste egos?

(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal Sandhan)

Infochange News & Features, October 2012