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For India's Backward Castes, IITs & IIMs Have Become 'Centres of Exclusion'

Data show most institutes fall severely short in upholding diversity in admissions and faculty appointments.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
For India's Backward Castes, IITs & IIMs Have Become 'Centres of Exclusion'
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In November last year, a division bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice DY Chandrachud invoked Article 142 of the Indian Constitution to direct IIT Bombay authorities to create a seat for a Dalit student who could not secure admission due to his inability to arrange the required fees within the stipulated time. Justice Chandrachud pulled up the IIT authorities with remarkable words: “He is a Dalit boy. His sister transferred money to him, you need to understand the reality of what happens on the ground.” Further, the Supreme court in its final judgment said, “Having regard to the fact of the case, it would be a grave travesty of justice for the young Dalit student who had to finally move this court is turned away from its portal, for difficulties he has encountered in acquiring funds necessary to pay to acquire seats at IIT Bombay.”

The verdict and the hearing of the case are just a glimpse of the experiences of students from marginalised castes in India’s prominent public institutions of technology education. At the heart of this experience is the reality of caste and tyrannical rules of meritocracy.

Snapshot
  • ‘Merit’ has been weaponised as an idea in India’s campuses in general, and IITs, IIMs and AIIMSs in particular.

  • A panel constituted by the Centre to suggest measures for the effective implementation of reservation policies instead ended up recommending that IITs be exempted from reservations in faculty appointments.

  • Data shared by the Ministry of Education in Parliament recently revealed massive social disparities in PhD intakes at IITs.

  • The nature of faculty appointments at IITs, IIMs and even AIIMS also reflects the upper-caste tendency to see candidates from marginalised communities as ‘meritless’.

  • IITs and IIMs have ended up championing the process of reproducing upper-casteness.

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That is why, it is important to understand how ‘merit’ has been weaponised as an idea in India’s campuses in general, and IITs, IIMs and AIIMSs in particular. The privileged notion that merit and the ‘meritorious’ alone should enter “institutes of excellence”, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), is a historical narrative created to strengthen the social realities of caste that exclusively benefit the privileged.

How the Idea of Merit Was Promoted

The dominance of upper castes in higher education institutes continues despite the constitutional provisions of reservation. Primarily, science, technology, management and medical institutions of national importance fall severely short of upholding diversity in students’ admissions and professors’ appointments and end up retaining the caste hegemony of Brahmins and other Savarna upper castes.

The idea of merit was officially promoted by an eight-member panel comprising IIT directors and government officials. The panel was constituted by the Central government to suggest measures for the effective implementation of reservation policies in recruitment and admissions. However, it instead recommended that IITs be exempted from reservations in faculty appointments. The committee, headed by IIT Delhi Director V Ramgopal Rao, went on to suggest the de-reserving of reserved faculty posts within a year upon non-availability of SC, ST or OBC candidates in faculty positions.

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Dismal Data

Data shared by the Ministry of Education in Parliament recently revealed massive social disparities in PhD intakes at IITs. The data for the year 2021 show how casteism and social exclusion have become deeply ingrained in IITs. In IITs at Kharagpur, Indore, Delhi, Gandhinagar, Tirupati, Mandi, and Bhubaneswar, general category students mostly come from upper castes, who formed 51.8%, 41.2%, 52.7%, 49.9%, 42.1%, 43.1% and 47.9% of the total applications, respectively. However, their share in admissions was way more, at 62.6%, 63.8%, 70.5%, 74.4%, 59.7% 63.3% and 58.7%, respectively.

PhD applications at the same IITs received from SC candidates were 13.9%, 12%, 12.2%, 10.3%, 14.6%, 10.6% and 11.6%, respectively, while the percentage admitted were 10.9%, 5.5%, 5.8% , 3.1%, 1.6%, 6.6% and 8%, respectively.

IIT Bhilai has not accepted PhD applicants from SC and ST communities despite receiving 10.9% and 1.6% applications from the two most marginalised communities of the society. Similarly, candidates belonging to Scheduled Tribes make up for an abysmal share of total admissions, even though the share of applications from these communities is considerable. In a few departments of all IITs, zero SC, OBC and ST candidates are being admitted.

The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have also failed grossly in upholding social justice and caste diversity. Out of the 20 IIMs, only 15 extend reservations in PhD programmes for candidates from SC, ST and OBC communities.

Similarly, protests surfaced recently at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where The Film and Television Institute of India Students Association (FTIISA) accused the authorities of subverting reservations and not filling up seats reserved for SC, ST and OBC caste categories.

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Lopsided Recruitment Process

The nature of faculty appointments at IITs, IIMs and even AIIMS also reflects the upper-caste tendency to see candidates from marginalised communities as ‘meritless’.

Central universities aren’t any better at being inclusive in the recruitment process. Data presented by the Ministry of Education in Parliament show that out of 2,297 faculty positions sanctioned for SCs in 45 central universities, 1,004 seats are lying vacant. For STs, the number of sanctioned posts for faculty recruitments is 1,144, of which 582 remain vacant. Last year, IIT Madras was in news over the resignation of Assistant Professor Vipin P Veetil allegedly because of caste discrimination. Veetil, in a column for The Newsminute, wrote about how the faculty recruitment process, right from seeking applications to the setting up of the interview panel, is tailored to suit the kin of upper caste academic bureaucrats. He said:

“Note that the recruitment of new faculty is not strictly related to the demand from students for specific courses. Rather, faculty positions are advertised based on numerous opaque reasons. In such circumstances, academic bureaucrats have an incentive to tailor advertisements to suit the qualifications of their kin waiting in the wings and when the majority of the bureaucrats come from one caste, there will be a tendency to tailor advertisements to suit known members of their caste waiting on the outside.”

Harvard’s Ajantha Subramanian, in her book ‘The Caste of Merit, Engineering Education in India’, places IIT Madras at the centre of her research. Her work lays bare the social reproduction of caste capital. Subramanian writes: “Claim to merit at IIT Madras is only about the institutional reproduction of middle-class Brahminness. It is certainly the case that a regional history of caste formation has given merit a uniquely Brahminical inflection. But other examples reveal a structure of feeling through which merit is increasingly mapped, not simply onto Brahminess, but onto an emergent form of upper-Casteness.’’

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Centres of 'Exclusion'

Beyond the data of the Ministry of Education that recently threw open the Pandora’s box of social discrimination in IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and central universities, the everyday experiences of students, scholars and faculties from marginalised castes are defined by ghettoisation and humiliation. Most national institutions have become centres of exclusion, instead of practising inclusivity. Further, the idea of having ‘casteless’ campuses has historically deemed students from marginalised sections as undeserving and unwanted. Most SC, ST, and OBC students and professors join campuses of national importance and eminence in the hope of attaining intellectual appreciation, but they end up being treated as the ‘other’.

Dr BR Ambedkar dreamt of seeing science as a moral force of democratisation. But today, the science spaces of India are significantly unmaking his vision. IITs and IIMs have ended up championing the process of reproducing upper-casteness. The language of ‘merit’ in Indian academic discourses has been defined by casteist prejudice that alienated historically oppressed castes’ struggles for recognition. And thus, IITs, IIMs and central universities, instead of being the engines for lower-caste mobility, are now spaces that consolidate the privilege of the upper castes.

(Subhajit Naskar is an Assistant Professor at Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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