(*Some names have been changed to protect identity)
"SC/ST leave the campus", "Jai Parshuram (All hail lord Parshuram)". On 2 December 2022, when Paresh*, an English journalism student at Delhi's Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), opened his class WhatsApp group, he was shocked to see his batchmates exchange such memes with controversial slogans targeting students belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) groups.
"At first, I thought it was reactionary. On the same day, walls inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus were defaced with anti-Brahmin slogans. But we didn't write those slogans. Then why was this meme shared on our WhatsApp group? I wanted to confront the student who sent it but couldn't gather the courage at that time," Paresh, a Dalit student, told The Quint.
He was referring to a case from earlier that day wherein walls of several buildings at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi were defaced with slogans targeting the Brahmin and Baniya communities.
"Brahmins Leave The Campus", "There Will Be Blood", "Brahmin Bharat Chhodo" and "Brahmin-Baniya, we are coming for you!" — these were among the slogans which were written on the walls and images of which subsequently went viral on social media.
While the JNU administration ordered probe in the matter and the left and the right leaning student bodies blamed each other, at IIMC, the incident opened a pandora's box of cases of caste bias and the faculty's reluctance to address the issue.
'Can't Act on Anonymous Complaints'
After the purported memes were shared on the unofficial students WhatsApp group, on 5 December 2022, an anonymous complaint, with the screenshots, was sent to faculty members including Sangeeta Pranvendra (English Journalism Head of Department) and Surbhi Dahiya (English Journalism Course Director).
Of these, Dahiya forwarded the complaint to concerned authorities including IIMC's Director General (DG) Sanjay Dwivedi.
Copies of these complaints were accessed by The Quint.
"Professor Surbhi forwarded the complaint to the DG, the ADG, and other authorities. It's been over five months and we haven't heard from them," the complainant told The Quint.
The Quint wrote an email to IIMC seeking their response. Professor Dahiya said that she was on child care leave for last one year and rejoined only on 24 April. "I am not aware of anything. Talk to the DG or the ADG," she said.
The DG and the ADG have not responded to our queries. This story will be updated when we hear from them.
On condition of anonymity, a senior official at IIMC claimed that the complaint was not entertained because it was sent anonymously. "If complainants don't reveal their identity, we can't take any action. There is an SC/ST Cell in the college. They can approach the Cell with their problems but for a complaint to be registered and for us to investigate the matter, the complainant will have to come forward," the official said.
'SC/ST Cell Exists Only on Paper, Who Will Listen To Us?'
Sakshi*, a Dalit student, who previously studied at the Delhi University, said that she developed a "thick skin" to caste-related prejudices long back.
"Most SC/ST students learn to face caste bias from an early age. It happens in school, university, at work. I developed a thick skin when I was studying in Delhi University. The college I was enrolled in did not have a functional SC/ST Cell. We agitated and pressured the administration into making it functional. The scope for such agitations is limited at IIMC. They (faculty) directly say that that we shouldn't get involved in activism or advocacy as it will impact our placements," she said.
While the official website of IIMC states that there is an SC/ST Cell in place to take stringent action in case of atrocities against marginalised students, none of the students who spoke to The Quint were aware of the existence of any such cell.
"It exists only on paper. We've never heard of this Cell. The only way for us to complain in case of caste-based violence/harassment is to reach out to our course in-charges or the DG and the ADG. You see what happens when we do that," Sakshi* said.
Speaking to The Quint, Sukhdeo Thorat, the Chairman of Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and former Chairman of University Grants Commission (UGC), said that the fact that the complaint was sent to the college authorities anonymously should not have deterred them from acting in the matter.
"If they (authorities) knew that there was a problem, they should have immediately acted on it. It's preferred if the complainant is known but there is no hard and fast rule that the complainant should reveal their identity. They shouldn't have waited for the situation to aggravate," said Thorat who was the Chairperson of the Thorat Committee set up in 2007 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to investigate and publish a report on caste-based differential treatment faced by students from marginalised groups.
'They Don't Even Spare Babasaheb': Students Allege Rampant Casteism on Campus
Paresh — who initially thought that the meme shared on the WhatsApp group asking SC/ST students to leave the campus was a "reaction" to what happened in JNU — said that his assumption was "horribly wrong" and memes targeting students from marginalised communities were frequently exchanged on the group after that one time.
"Once it started, it just didn't stop. Every few days we'd see a meme or a message targeting the Dalit or the Adivasi students. They didn't even spare Babasaheb (Ambedkar)," he told The Quint.
On 14 April — on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti — some students shared memes allegedly calling Ambedkar an "untouchable" on the same WhatsApp group. Screenshots of the same were accessed by The Quint.
"One might think that being a media institute, IIMC is a progressive space. That, however, is not the case at all. I've overheard my classmates say that 'reservation ki wajah se harijan bhare hue hain campus mein' while eating a samosa in the canteen," said Rekha*, a student from the Dalit community.
'Harijan' is a derogatory term used for the Dalit community. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India held that terms such as "Harijan" and "Dhobi" which are used to "denote a caste" and can be used to "intentionally insult and humiliate someone" are offensive and constitute abuse.
Established in 1965, IIMC is a media institute funded and promoted by the government of India. It is an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
'They Asked Me If I was a Naxal'
For Ramesh*, a student belonging to the ST community, the distance between his hometown and Delhi was a long one.
"It's not easy for many of us to dream of having a career in big cities such as Delhi or Mumbai. There are multiple hurdles including financial difficulties and access to education in early years. Despite these when some of us reach here, our peers first see us as Naxals, harijans, and chamars, and then as their batchmates," he said.
Ramesh added that there have been multiple instances of his batchmates asking him if he or anybody from his family has ever sheltered Naxalites or were part of the movement right after they find out where he comes from.
'Their Comments Make Us Physically Sick'
Several IIMC students The Quint spoke to alleged that they are ridiculed by their batchmates whenever the topic of academic reservation comes up for discussion.
"Once after the screening of a short film centred around caste, the professor opened the floor for discussion. Most of the students claimed that caste is a concept of the past and does not exist in this day and age. When I opposed, I was labelled as a woke, left-leaning liberal," said Suresh*, a Dalit student at the institute.
Rekha* recollected how she and several other SC/ST students were asked about their surnames by their batchmates. "They start by asking us our surnames. If that's not enough for them to figure out which community we come from, they ask about our rank and marks in the entrance exam," she said.
Speaking about how this behaviour has a crippling impact on the mental health of students, she added, "When I saw a screenshot of the meme saying 'SC/ST campus chhodo' which they had shared on the group, I felt physically sick. I wanted to rush back home and just sleep."
"If I tell my parents about these incidents, they will ask me to quit the course and return home. I can't afford that," she added.
IIMC's Troubled History With Caste
This is not the first time that IIMC, widely regarded as one India's premiere journalism schools, has run into a controversy for ignoring caste bias on campus.
In 2016, a "caste war" broke out on campus when Dalit students alleged that a student of Hindi journalism, Utkarsh Singh, made derogatory remarks against the community in his Facebook post. This after, 18 Dalit students and three held a solidarity meet after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad who died by suicide.
While Singh alleged harassment by Dalit students, the Dalit students on campus demanded a public apology from him.
In the same year, a report by The Caravan said that Narendra Singh Rao, an academic associate at IIMC, was allegedly sacked for protesting against the illegal sacking of Dalit safai karamcharis.
As per a report by the magazine, Rao, in an open letter addressed to the then DG said that he was being punished because he had “raised my voice against a number of atrocities being committed against vulnerable people in the campus. Among these, he had mentioned “illegal sacking of 25 Dalit safai karamcharis, constant victimisation of a Dalit rape survivor, harassment of a Muslim student, who was forced to contemplate suicide, by the reactionary and brahmanical [sic] forces of IIMC.”