Higher Education and Affirmative Action

On January 2, 2019 the union minister of the Human Research Development appraised the parliament about the exact number of reserved category faculty members in the Indian Institutes of Technology. Responding to a question asked by Mr. Udit Raj, a BJP MP, the union minister Prakash Javadekar said that out of 6043 faculty members in 23 institutes there are only 170 faculty members who are from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories. He also informed that the reservation in these premier educational institutes is kept open only for the entry level positions, i.e., assistant professors and lectures. This information is a worrying new for Indian higher education. It raises certain questions which do not have any easy answer. One may wonder, quite innocuously, why is it the case that we do not get enough qualified people from the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities to be appointed in these institutes? Is there really a dearth of qualified people in these marginalized sections of our society? What is the reason behind this poor record of intake in these so-called premier institutions when the same policy has allowed so many qualified people to enter in other central and state universities? Is there something wrong in the manner and which these institutes aim to select and appoint deserving young people from these backward communities? Or, is there a bigger systemic fault which we are not yet aware of?

In order to understand the complexity of this issue perhaps we need to pay attention to a certain so-called stray incident which do not often get highlighted in the mainstream media. In November last year, a Dalit faculty member of Indian Institutes of Technology Kanpur registered a case against four faculty members of the same institute, accusing them of harassing him in casteist language and making unsavoury remarks about his personal life. In an FIR, the victim, Dr. Subrahmanyam Saderla, narrated how he suffered as a dalit in that premier institute and gave proofs against the faculty members who were involved in spreading rumours against him and his credentials in his area of research. According to Dr. Saderla, these individuals made some bizarre allegation indicating that he was not competent enough to teach in such a prestigious institute and that his works were mostly plagiarised.

Another equally significant, in fact, more worrisome, incident that has come to light a few days back when some national media including the Indian Express have come out with their findings that in last 5 years some 49 students of the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya have committed suicide for which there has been hardly any serious inquiry. More than half of these students are Dalits and adivasis. It is worth noting that these central government’s “pace-setting residential schools” are known for mainly grooming rural students who prove their talents at a very early stage of their school education.

These are just two recent incidents. There may be hundreds of incidents which may have been going on a regular basis in most of our educational institutes. In most of these cases such victims don’t get a chance to narrate their ordeals. Most of the time either their personal stories are swept under the carpet for not having any substantial grounds or they are ignored strategically by those who are in the responsible positions in these institutes. There are also incidents where victims even fail to gather courage to speak up in the fear of ruining their future educational prospects. Needless to say, only a handful of such incidents have come to light in recent years. The reason behind these lucky incidents is the fact that the victims have gathered their courage to approach the minority commission which is infamous for working under political pressure all the time. Evidently, this is no different from the way in which women are subjected to everyday violence in every stage of our institutional hierarchies. However, if one were to look and go beyond this simple comparison of these two underprivileged and oppressed sections and dig out the structural roots and reasons we may come across a picture which is extremely disturbing.

An important reason why we do not have people in these institutes from the marginalized society is that these sections have always been historically deprived of studying science and technology in the first place. The standard belief of our society is that science and technology is not for everybody and they are only meant for the privileged sections of upper caste and class. People from the lower strata are incompetent and they cannot perform well even if they are given a chance to study these subjects. Besides, there is another factor that has gripped in most of our rural societies is the stigma attached with science education. There is an overarching stigma of competing with the high caste people that has been systematically inserted in the mind of these marginalized communities. This stigma of competing with the higher cast or class society peer groups significantly contributes in depriving the potential students of the marginalized sections from taking up higher studies. Another important factor that has worked against these sections of people is their economic condition. If we look at the basic fee structure of these institutions, it is nearly impossible for a low-income lower caste family to send their children to any prestigious institute of science and technology. In 2016 the Union ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD) had announced that they were thinking of allowing IITs will increase their annual tuition fees from Rs 90,000 to Rs 2 lakh. If this really happens in the coming years, barring the creamy section, the average lower middle class family will not at all be able to send their children to pursue higher studies in these institutions. No bank loans will help them in the long run. They will be forced to either go to a local college or search for other low cast professional course within their hometowns.

While talking about the reasons behind this poor record of marginalized section people in these institutes we also need to critically look at the manner in which these institutes select and appoint prospective candidates. It is worth noting that unlike universities the IITs have an entirely different process of recruiting deserving people in their departments. The candidates are usually required to present their works in front of departmental faculty members before going to the main interviews. This is done to ensure that the applicant get a fair chance to informally interact with the existing faculty members and the students. The standard pattern in most of these institutes is that a candidate can go to the final stage of interview provided that there is a green signal from the existing faculty on her credentials. Although this process has effectively worked in American universities, one needs to critically think whether the same pattern is effective enough in selecting people on equitable grounds in our country. The incident of Dr. Saderla is one such case which has nakedly revealed the darker side of this process.

I think it is high time that policy makers and promoters of science education take serious note of these so-called stray incidents and introspect why we have so few people from the marginalized sections in our premier institutes. It is also the responsibility of the public intellectuals, lawyers, journalists and most importantly science educators to strongly put such cases in perspectives so that we are able to develop a proper mechanism to address this issue. Besides, the voices have to come from within. Teachers and researchers of these institutes have to come out and speak up against these things. Obviously, the judiciary and semi-judicial bodies cannot give us a long term solution. We will have to make ourselves institutionally responsible. After all, these institutes are people’s institutes. They are not some cosy metropolitan clubs of the upper caste and upper-class people.



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Pariz Pikul Gogoi Written by:

Pursuing Masters in Sociology at Tezpur University

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