Trigger Warning: Caste-based discrimination, mention of death by suicide
Recently, former Assistant Professor at IIT Madras, Professor Vipin P Veetil, resigned from the institute with a firmly worded email, the reason being that he was subjected to caste-based discrimination ever since he joined in 2019.
The Professor from the Humanities and Social Sciences Department alleged that, “the discrimination came from individuals in a position of power, irrespective of their claimed political affiliations and gender.” Screenshots of his email were circulated widely on social media, bringing to light the issue of caste-based discrimination among faculty members at IIT Madras.
But is this an isolated issue?
A thriving casteist culture
The news of professor Veetil’s resignation comes soon after the IIT Kharagpur incident where a professor reportedly abused students verbally during an online class. This was in an English preparatory course for students from Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC), and Persons With Disability (PWD).
She reportedly dared the students to go to the Ministry of Minority Affairs if she had offended them. The impunity with which the professor allegedly made ableist and casteist remarks, suggests that a culture of rampant casteism is allowed to thrive in the IITs.
On November 9th, 2019, Fathima Latheef, a student at IIT Madras, reportedly died by suicide in her hostel room within the first year of her master’s in the humanities and development studies department. Her father, Abdul Latheef, informed that his daughter had left a suicide note allegedly holding a professor at the institution accountable for the step she took, and he also alleged that she faced religion-based discrimination.
This incident triggered widespread resistance against the unnervingly high academic pressure exerted towards students in the IITs and the disastrous consequence it can have on their mental health. But is academic pressure the sole factor to blame?
From 2006 to 2019, the reported number of suicides in the IIT Madras campus totaled up to 18—of which one person was a faculty member. A Newslaundry article shows us many more instances of alleged caste and religion-based discrimination across the IIT campuses.
From a Muslim student allegedly being asked, ‘Are you Al-Qaeda?’ to a PhD scholar reportedly being treated as a ‘lower creature’, a culture of exclusion seems to be prevalent in the IITs.
A survey cited in the Economic & Political Weekly studied how perceptions held of students at IIT-Banaras Hindu University were influenced by their caste. Thirteen percent of student respondents from the SC/ST category reported that they felt the teachers’ attitude towards them was hostile.
When asked about the perceived academic ability of students in the SC/ST category, 61 percent of the respondents in the general category felt that it was ‘less than others’. In comparison, 46 percent of SC/ST category students also thought it was ‘less than others’.
IIT Madras had, in 2019, already been under the radar of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes when it reported five alleged cases of death by suicide within 11 months. There were also concerns raised about the admission barriers faced by students from marginalised communities.
Between 2009 and 2019, only 47 SC students and six ST students were admitted to IIT Madras for the Master of Science programme, which has a total strength of 2,320. Within the same timeline, only 213 SC students and 21 ST students were awarded PhDs out of a total of 4,000 PhDs given out. We must view Professor Veetil’s resignation with this context in mind.
Casteism overshadows the ‘power’ of faculty members
Mistreatment and unsolicited comments are not targeted only towards students from marginalised communities. While one may believe that a faculty member holds significantly more power than a student, the discrimination based on caste often trumps the occupational hierarchy in an institute.
Such is the example of Subrahmanyam Sadrela, who joined IIT Kanpur as an associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering department in 2018. A Newslaundry article reports his experience as follows:
“…soon after Sadrela’s appointment, he says some of his colleagues said his appointment was “wrong”, that he didn’t deserve to be a faculty member at the institute, that he could not speak English perfectly and was mentally unfit…..Sadrela was slapped with charges of plagiarism in his thesis and threatened with the revocation of his PhD degree, almost a year after he alleged caste-based discrimination in the campus”
With this context, it is no surprise that RTI data cited in a Hindustan Times article reveals that, even as of June 2021, “none of the 22 IITs [in this study] have more than six teachers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes community, while 18 of them have ten or fewer candidates from the Scheduled Castes category. Seven IITs had ten or fewer faculty members from the other backward classes community”.
Essentially, none of the 22 IITs were following the mandated reservation rules in faculty positions. Additionally, Professor Veetil also alleged that he faced discrimination from people in ‘positions of power’.
Pawan Goenka, the chairperson of the board of governors of IIT Bombay and IIT Madras, said, “Currently, the IITs have a fairly large number of vacancies which they are trying to fill, but sufficient high-quality candidates have not been available across all categories”.
Indeed, people in positions of power at the IITs have found themselves a ‘justification’ for violating reservation rules in faculty recruitment. As recently as in January 2021, a government panel suggested that all 23 IITs should be exempted from reservations in faculty positions altogether.
This illustrates how the IITs are enablers of an already casteist society. The caste system, which has been a long-standing form of systemic oppression, far overshadows the relative ‘power’ that a faculty member holds.
India’s ‘Institutes of National Importance’ can do better. They must.
Sensitisation, unlearning biases: The way ahead
We can see how Professor Veetil’s resignation is a symptom of a much larger issue. Being discriminated against to the point that he was forced to resign is not only a consequence of caste-based discrimination but a win for caste hegemony. It serves to keep educational spaces exclusionary, intolerant, and inaccessible to the majority of the population.
Education is always termed as the “magic bullet” for progress. It has the capacity to empower marginalised communities. However, so long as caste-based discrimination pervades educational institutes, this magic bullet holds little power. For education to maximise its potential of being transformative and liberating, several changes must be made at the structural level.
An article on The Swaddle insists that, in order to be inclusive, education institutions must commit to “undoing the idea of merit as a random consequence of individual ability”. Staff and faculty must recognise their social position as a factor determining their ability.
Students and teachers alike should be shown that brahmanical hegemony still shapes our notion of capability and that it has more to do with denying communities opportunities for progress than with one’s personal talent.
Another important note in the article is that education is inherently political, and must be taught as such. If caste-based privilege still pervades education, this privilege must be named and critically analysed. This is necessary to give people the opportunity to “unlearn supremacist and oppressive ways of thinking and acting,”.
Learning about anti-caste movements, the history of caste-based oppression and challenging the current notion of merit can help contextualise caste-based discrimination and allow privileged groups to understand that their power comes from the socio-cultural capital they extracted from the oppression of others.
Schools and colleges must also do away with the “hidden curriculum” that is taught in educational spaces. This refers to “the norms and values that are implicitly, but eﬀectively taught in schools and that are not usually talked about in teachers’ statements of ends or goals.”
Examples of this include referring to students as “boys and girls”, thereby reinforcing the gender binary. A childhood studies scholar, Sarada Balagopalan, reports that during her fieldwork, many teachers spoke about Dalit and Adivasi students demeaningly with statements like, “these children are slow”.
Such implicit notions are internalised by students and staff of educational institutions. The hidden curriculum must be done away with through sensitisation training and teaching of the history of caste-based oppression. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment must mandate such core courses and training workshops for education to be truly accessible, inclusive, and prejudice-free.
In his email, Professor Veetil has asked that the institute set up a committee consisting of representatives from SC, ST, and OBC communities, and psychologists to study the experience of SC, ST, and OBC faculty members. ChintaBAR, an independent student organisation at IIT Madras, has further demanded the setting up of functioning SC, ST, and OBC cells for specifically addressing grievances related to caste-based discrimination. The author wrote to IIT Madras, asking if they are doing anything regarding the professor’s demands and is yet to get a response from them.
These are just starting points for a long battle against casteism in India’s ‘prestigious’ institutions. They are extremely necessary to take. If you wish to join the fight against casteism at IIT Madras, you may look through and sign our petition.
Featured Image Source: Huffpost
The article will be updated if and when the author hears back from the institute.