When 35 medical students — all Scheduled Caste candidates — failed en masse in the same subject — Physiology — they cried foul. Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College, where they were studying, turned a deaf ear to their grievances, according to a recently-released report by Rajya Sabha MP Bhalchandra Mungekar, who was appointed commissioner of enquiry by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes to probe the two-year-old matter.
The damning report unequivocally concluded that the college, affiliated to Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, practised caste discrimination.
“For the first time, a report has named the names. I have recommended four names for suspension and the invoking of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,” Mr. Mungekar told The Hindu over the phone.
He said that in the rarefied, erudite spaces of higher learning, caste-discrimination is covert. You see no killing or rape. No beatings or burning of houses. What you see are student suicides, failures, degrees delayed for years on end. He cited the case of a PhD student at an IIT who was not given his degree for nine years as he was vocal about Dalit issues.
The suicide of Anil Meena from a Rajasthan village, who was the second topper in the Scheduled Tribe category at the all-India medical entrance test, is well-known.
Discrimination in higher education is a “very serious” issue, Mr. Mungekar said. “It stems from the strong bias that SCs and STs are getting easy admission devoid of merit and just because of reservation. As higher and technical education gets privatised, the General category students feel that the reserved seats are an encroachment on their privileges. There is a conflict of privileges. In institutions like the IITs, SC/ST students are looked at and treated differently. Forget about extra cooperation, institutions don’t even give normal cooperation. SC/ST students are from a different background. Many come from rural areas and are first generation learners. The arrogance in urban areas kills their confidence.”
Questioning the notion of merit, often bandied about in bastions of higher education, Anoop Kumar of the Delhi-based Insight Foundation pointed to the sheer inability of varsities to handle student diversity. Speaking at a recent seminar at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), he gave an instance of the suicide of an adivasi student from the Lambada community, studying in IIT Kanpur. He had failed in all the subjects.
“How can an institution not be able to deal with a situation where a student is failing in all the subjects? That means there is a crisis. A student is failing, not attending class and nobody is bothered. There have been around nine suicides at IIT Kanpur in the past four years – seven SC/ST and two General students. The administration’s response has been that the student was not able to deal with the rigour of academics. In a tragedy too, institutions talk of ‘merit.’ This is a perverted claim of merit.”
The system, he felt, was “brutal” not just to Dalit students alone, but to all students. There was, therefore, a need to challenge the idea of merit itself. “The claim of merit depends on the difference of some six percentage points. Places like the IITs are where the upper castes derive their claims of merit.”
A reserved category student from an elite institute told The Hindu , “There is no caste based discrimination (in my institute) as of now. But as a backward category student, you are expected to work harder. If you don’t then professors look down upon you. In the friend circle, once you have been labelled a ‘lukkha’ (loafer), people exploit you. Not because of caste, but because of your behaviour and caste plays a huge role in behaviour. People from the backward class usually have low self esteem, partly because of inferiority in caste and partly because of inferiority in rank (or) merit.”
He also felt that ‘bias’ was a poor word to define the experiences of Dalit students in higher education. A student is unable to fight institutionalised hostility and indifference.
TISS researcher Suryakant Waghmare said discrimination in higher education was “invisible, polite, but absolute.” There was a need to “study caste where there is no caste and the normality of violence.” In urban areas, mutated forms of caste atrocities or discrimination have not even been identified.
Mr. Kumar recalled how a Delhi court, hearing complaints of Dalit students had declared on day one that caste did not exist in urban India. The paper, ‘Spaces of Discrimination – Residential Segregation in Indian Cities’ by Trina Vithayathil and Gayatri Singh (Economic and Political Weekly), easily dispels such a notion. The study found “high levels of residential segregation by caste in India’s seven largest metro cities.”