Centre forms expert panel to revise anti-discrimination norms in higher universities

Action after Supreme Court had asked the government what steps it had taken to rid campuses of caste discrimination

Updated - August 03, 2023 12:25 am IST

Published - August 02, 2023 10:26 pm IST - New Delhi

On July 6, 2023, the Supreme Court asked the UGC to detail steps it had taken to address caste discrimination on campuses. File

On July 6, 2023, the Supreme Court asked the UGC to detail steps it had taken to address caste discrimination on campuses. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Union Education Ministry has now constituted an expert committee to revisit its regulations and guidelines on anti-discrimination with respect to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, Other Backward Classes, Persons with Disabilities, and other minorities in higher educational institutions, the government told Parliament on Wednesday. 

Responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Education Subhas Sarkar said the University Grants Commission (UGC) had taken this step in pursuance of a Supreme Court direction on July 6, where the top court had asked the government to clarify the affirmative steps it had taken to make campuses free of caste discrimination. 

The government told the Upper House on Wednesday that the expert committee had been formed on July 21 and that it would revisit and suggest changes to the existing anti-discrimination guidelines already in force. The Education Ministry said, “The committee will revisit the UGC regulations/schemes concerning the SC/ST/OBC/PwD and minority communities in Higher Educational Institutions [HEIs] and suggest further remedial measures if required to make non-discriminatory environment for SC/ST students in HEIs.”

Notably, the UGC had in 2012 issued the UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutes) Regulations, 2012. This covered all forms of discrimination, provided for liaison officers to check reservation fulfilment, and gave mandates for strict grievance redressal cells to address concerns of discrimination. 

However, these guidelines have not been fully implemented in several higher educational institutions, including a lot of the Indian Institutes of Technology. The IIT-Delhi in fact got the mandate for its SC/ST Cell passed only in 2023, providing for a liaison officer and anti-discrimination officers.

Cases of suicide

In the last six months, at least half a dozen students from marginalised backgrounds have died of suicide on campuses of IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, and IIT-Delhi — the latest one on July 9 on the Delhi campus. While official inquiries are yet to establish discrimination as a cause of death in either of these cases, the incidents led to a deluge of students choosing to go public with their experience of caste discrimination. 

On July 6, the Supreme Court was hearing pleas filed by the mothers of Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadavi — two other students who died by suicide, accusing their institutes of enabling casteism. The court had then asked the UGC to detail the steps it had taken to address caste discrimination on campuses. 

In response to the question by DMK MP M. Shanmugam, the Education Ministry on Wednesday said it had from time to time issued advisories to institutes on suicide prevention methods, helplines, campaigns, and activities. 

“In order to proactively address any issues of SC/ ST students, institutes have set up mechanisms such as SC/ ST students’ cells, equal opportunity cell, student grievance cell, student grievance committee, student social club, liaison officers, liaison committee etc,” the Education Ministry added. 

Ambedkarite student associations at several of the country’s top institutes have told The Hindu that even if the bodies had been constituted, it has been a struggle to get a mandate for it passed and get office space and resources for its activities. Students of the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, IIT-Bombay said they were yet to get their SC/ST Cell’s mandate passed and there was no clarity on the procedure for grievance redressal. 

The Education Ministry’s announcement of an expert committee to review existing anti-discrimination guidelines comes days after IIT-Bombay saw tensions flare up over posters marking a space in a public mess as “vegetarian only” — prompting students to call this out as casteist and the hostel general secretary to shoot an email reiterating that excluding people from physical spaces was not allowed. 

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