Just a few days after the death of Darshan Solanki, a Dalit student, the Director of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay alleged that there is "no caste discrimination on campus." The same narrative was reiterated in a recent report by the 12-member internal committee which discarded the allegations by Darshan’s sister that he had in fact faced caste discrimination on campus.
Even though the committee documented the instances that the sister shared in the report, it did not accept it as valid case of caste discrimination. The committee did not even care to understand what constitutes caste discrimination in academic campuses such as IITs and how the monster of caste ensures humiliation of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi (DBA) students from their Savarna counterparts and faculties in every day interactions.
They decided on their own what constitutes casteism and judged that whatever Darshan faced was not caste discrimination.
Savarna students admitted openly in a survey conducted at IIT-Bombay that they often ask for JEE ranks and surnames to mark whether a student was from a reserved category, as reported by The Hindu on 11 March. They even admitted to sharing anti-reservation memes and using casteist slurs. The interesting thing is that they mostly deny that each of these actions are casteist, even though these actions are intended to humiliate DBA students.
For them, raising their voice against reservation is protection of ‘merit’ and freedom of speech, not exclusion and alienation of DBA.
'IIT's Not Designed To Cater To Needs Of DBA Students'
The entire atmosphere of the campus is designed to cater to students coming from generations of social and cultural capital. This capital comes in the form of family networks, English medium school education, familiarity with computers and smart phones, and knowledge of pop culture. All these aspects are essential in building community and navigating campus life comfortably. It offers no space for students from marginalised categories, who are mostly first or second generation graduates of their families, and do not come with these privileges.
There is no support offered by the campus or its inhabitants to understand and guide these students to adapt to the cultural shock they encounter when they step in IITs. Everything in IIT, be it the surnames of professors, the food that is glorified, the art that is created -- everything -- feels alienating to DBA students.
Coming as a first-generation graduate from a Bahujan family to an IIT, the first thing that I noticed while entering the department was the list of faculties, all with Savarna surnames.
The fact that there was no faculty from our own social background who could understand our lived experiences tells a lot to the new student about the kind of campus space they are entering. It tells us that this campus was not designed to fulfil needs of DBA students. This understanding gets reinforced when we meet other staff and especially the counselors who all hail from Savarna families.
The blatant violation of constitutionally mandated reservation norms in faculty recruitment is a proclamation by IITs to the DBA students that reach there that they do not belong in the campus, that they are unwanted outsiders.
'Protecting Merit In The Garb Of Caste Discrimination'
Every day interactions are filled with nuanced and casual casteism, with sprinkles of more atrocious forms of abuses, slurs and even untouchability. Most of the Savarna students and faculties perceive DBA students as not deserving to be at IITs, which they believe to be an exclusive space getting its quality ruined by reservation.
The Savarna students prefer students from their own categories in their friend circles and study groups. Even when grouped together, the views of DBA students are discarded or side-lined in meetings held by Savarna students.
DBA students are harassed for getting scholarships, not having to pay tuition fee, and for getting books from book banks in the library, among other things. Every government-mandated policy that exists for the support of DBA students is being used to torment them to such an extent that they feel that they would have been better off without this support.
During my stay at three IITs -- IIT Kanpur, IIT Madras and IIT Bombay -- I have often seen that every time a DBA student performs poorly in academics, the Savarna students and faculty members immediately blame their entire community as unmeritorious, not just the student.
But no matter how many Savarna students perform poorly, their community is never attacked. In that case, it is only an individual's fault. They are careful not to associate low academic performance to Savarna castes.
The situation gets reversed when a DBA student performs well. Then they (Savarna students and faculty members) make it point to say that you are different from others in your category. They must separate excellence from being associated with DBA community. A student once told me, "You are the only one from backward castes who I found smart." Such statements feel like a compliment but are imbibed with casteism. Even your success is used to humiliate your community.
Even support systems such as mentorship are filled with Savarnas who are unaware and insensitive to the needs and demands of DBA students. Many a times, it is the mentors who make anti-reservation jokes and take active part in humiliating the DBA students by asking their ranks. The students feel alienated and out of place and take time to understand the IIT system. This gets reflected in their academic performance which dips in the first year and slowly gets better in the subsequent years.
Their Savarna counterparts do not have these inhibitions and they get the head-start in academic performance, which aids them in capturing the subsequent academic and non-academic positions (internships, club posts, management posts, admin posts, and placements, among others). There is a huge support structure in place for the Savarna students to help them achieve these targets while there is a complete lack of basic institutional support for DBA students.
DBA Students' Voice To Break 'Savarna Monopoly' Getting Louder
There has, however, been a rise in assertion against caste discrimination by DBA students in campuses across the country since the last decade. I see it through the lens of the implementation of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation in educational institutions from 2008. The 27 percent reservation changed the demography of students in these institutions and made it more diverse, enabling inflow of more students who could challenge the age-old caste supremacy of Savarnas.
This also created a pool of students who would later join for Masters and PhD courses as the years progressed, initiating a chain reaction whereby, within a decade, the campuses have a critical mass of DBA students across under-graduate, post-graduate and PhD levels.
Organisations such as Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) at IIT Bombay, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) and Chintabar at IIT Madras have released data showing that IITs have tried to forbid entry of DBA students into PhD programs by eliminating them in vivas, as reported in The New Indian Express in December 2020. Despite the deliberate violation of reservation in these institutes, there are still enough students who are entering these spaces who are vocal and assertive about their Constitutional rights.
The IITs have been using their opaque and arbitrary recruitment processes to exclude DBA candidates from becoming faculties. More than 95 percent of the faculties at IITs are Savarnas, as reported by The Print on 13 January, and this is the reason why there is no intent on the part of the administration to provide institutional support to DBA students and sensitise the Savarna students about caste-related harassment. We need to break this Savarna monopoly in the faculty positions in these institutions for the campuses to be more inclusive and safer for DBA students.
Students who come from the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation are considered as legitimate beneficiaries of affirmative action and they are welcomed by their Savarna brethren with open arms. Their merit is not questioned even if they have low ranks, and they know to immediately add that they are EWS category if someone asks them their rank.
Even though OBC category has similar income criteria (creamy layer) as EWS, OBC category faces the attack on their merit along with Dalits and Adivasi students. But the discrimination that Dalit and Adivasi students face is much worse than what Bahujan students face on campus.
Even though all DBA students suffer due to the anti-reservation sentiment that is prevalent and face the humiliation that comes with it, it is magnified for Dalit and Adivasi students. They face more abuses in the form of caste slurs and their caste names are used as cuss words to further harass them.
Even cases of untouchability where they are prohibited from touching objects that belong to their Savarna roommates or batchmates are reported. There is also a sentiment of jealousy and anger at Dalit and Adivasi students due to the tuition fee waiver, scholarships, and book bank access in library.
(Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)