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Are IITs safe for Dalit Students?


The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), IIT Bombay

Aniket Ambhore, a student of electrical engineering, had fallen to his death from the sixth floor of hostel 13 on September 4, 2014. An SC student, he was alleged to have committed suicide. After his parents wrote to the IIT director, a three-member committee was set up by the administration. The Report of the Committee to investigate the allegations of the parents of Late Aniket Ambhore and suggest measures for the betterment of SC/ST students (henceforth “the Report”) was submitted on 10th of November 2015. The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, IIT Bombay (henceforth APPSC) has closely studied this Report and would like to place on record a detailed response.

Aniket AmbhoreAniket Ambhore

There are several recommendations which the Report makes that we whole-heartedly endorse. However, there are crucial aspects to which we want to register our strong disagreement. When APPSC learnt that the Director, IITB, had constituted a committee to examine the allegations made by Aniket Ambhore’s parents, we seized the initiative to proactively meet with the committee. A reference to this can be found in page 4 of the Report where the committee records that it met “a group of faculty and students”. Even at that time APPSC had impressed upon the committee its deep reservations about the manner in which the committee had been constituted and the modalities through which it chose to function. It bears emphasis that these objections are not a comment on the individual integrity and sincerity of members who comprise the committee or indeed, of the Director, IITB.

We had pointed out that best practices which have been established for committees of this nature entail, minimally,

a) That there should be at least one “external member”—an individual who is not from IITB; an individual who has significant experience in working with issues of human rights, institutional reforms and/or caste-equity.

b) That the committee should widely advertise its existence so that any persons who wish to depose before the committee on either the particular “case” of Aniket Ambhore or on the social worlds of caste within IITB could do so. We regret that the committee has not even recorded these critical points that we raised before it. We contend that under prevailing circumstances the committee and its Report are constitutively flawed. Even as APPSC maintains this position, it would like to register its response to particular issues laid out in the Report. In its wisdom the committee has chosen to frame its investigation into Aniket Amobore’s tragic death within a forcefield of puzzling oppositions.

a) Was it a planned suicide or was it an accident?

b) Was it caused by “internal contradictions” that beset Aniket Ambhore or was it caused due to external (social) reasons, pointedly due to caste discriminations within IITB?

c) “Was Aniket’s case typical of SC/ST students at IITB”, or was it not?

d) Is the institution culpable of overt caste discrimination or is it not?

APPSC feels that such a framing of issues greatly undermines

a) Aniket Ambhore’s lived experience within IITB

b) the social lives of caste within the campus and

c) institutional responsibility of IITB.

It is clear from Aniket Ambhore’s several emails as well as from the testimonies of his parents’ and friends that a crucial reason for Aniket’s “internal contradictions” was his flailing academic performance conjoint with the stigmatization faced by the “reservation student”. These stigmas refracted upon Aniket Ambhore from several quarters within IITB. In its deposition before the committee APPSC had emphasized the need to be attentive to new ways in which casteism operates in our seemingly modern and secular world. The possible absence of visceral untouchability, brutal slurs and/or overt physical violence should not reassure us that casteism is absent in these spaces. Instead, we need to examine the proxies that come to be used to stigmatize persons from oppressed castes. “Merit” is clearly foremost among these.

In this point of our history, it is inexcusable that an institution can seek to “fix” the problem of students like Aniket Ambhore by merely “remedial” and “rehabilitative” academic attention; that it can do so while conscientiously and steadfastly ignoring social issues such as caste. When an institution functions as though it has “officially” nothing to do with debilitating social situations that might obtain within it, there are several fallouts. Principally, it individualizes failure, i.e. it places the onus of failure on particular students. These students are re-routed to academic rehabilitation programmes where they are enjoined to be demonstrably regular, systematic and earnest. These students are also channelled into counselling where “their problems” are coded almost exclusively as psychological. If these students continue to fail, it is then attributed to their individual lack of coping mechanisms, their lack of academic wherewithal, their recalcitrance, their lack of initiative, their ill-considered decisions. It needs to be recorded that the Report notes this predisposition to be generally true. Furthermore, it is rightly critical of such attitudes (section 3.5, page 12). However, the committee demonstrates no hesitation in deploying this same tendency when it decides upon the particular “case” of Aniket Ambhore. His “internal contradictions”, it would appear from the Report, is not engendered and fueled by situational, social, structural or institutional factors. The committee rarefies individual and psychological issues in this case and thereby absolves the Institution of all responsibility. The committee can, therefore, claim with astounding certainty that “Aniket Ambhore’s difficulties cannot be traced to a caste-based or anti-reservationist environment at IITB.” Such an assertion also deliberately overlooks his treatment records wherein there are several instances when Aniket sited caste as the reason for his distress.

In its haste to give short shrift to the complaint filed by Aniket Ambhore’s parents, the committee short-circuits the possibility of listening to the social life of caste in IITB. In section 3 (page 5) the Report lists 8 students with whom the committee interacted. Thereupon, with studied vagueness, it notes that “some of the students mentioned above were themselves from SC/ST categories who had entered IITB through the reservation quota” (emphasis added). It is based on this sample that the committee concludes that Aniket experienced no “caste-based or anti-reservation environment at IITB.” It is striking that the committee does not choose to conduct a more thorough-going survey or investigation. Also, that it ignores explicit statements that Aniket Ambhore felt oppressively “casted” in IITB, by assigning this to his psychological temperament, his internal contradictions (chiefly caused by his agnostic upbringing and his own spiritual craving). Furthermore, the committee chooses to regard Aniket Ambhore as not “typical of SC/ST students at IITB”. Thus, it is able to avoid framing Aniket Ambhore’s struggles in the light of the survey conducted in 2014 by the student magazine Insight and reported in The Indian Express (8, May 2014). It may be recalled that the report had noted that “an alarming 56% of students belonging to various categories like SCs, STs and OBCs [felt] discrimination does exist in the institute, albeit in a discrete manner”. A significant 28% said that caste discrimination was there in an indirect manner and 3% had said that they had witnessed it first-hand.

In section 4 of the Report, the committee scrupulously describes the support systems that IITB has put in place for SC/ST students. The various programmes, their history and their current status are all explicated in detail and we cannot emphasize enough the usefulness of this section of the report. However, there are two grounds on which APPSC would differ from the Report’s assessment of these initiatives. Unlike the Report, APPSC would like to call attention to

1) the persistent caste-imperception of these initiatives, which makes them severely inattentive to how caste structures institutions and people.

2) the fact that these initiatives are a case of too-little which comes horrendously too-late.

 

1) APPSC holds that to be caste-aware (rather than caste-imperceptive) is to know that

a) Caste substantively affects individuals’ life in society: the way they inhabit social spaces, their ability to associate with others, their self-perception, their ability to perform under given conditions, their mental and physical well-being, productivity etc.

b) One cannot hope to keep all other things unaltered and still restore people who are deeply debilitated by caste to efficiency and wellness

c) Caste has changing configurations; that there are many codes by which people, situations and institutions convey caste dispositions. (The invisibility and marginalization of students from oppressed sections, the invisibility of the office of the SC/ST coordinator etc. being cases in point)

d) There is no “typical” case of being “SC/ST” in our world—persons from oppressed castes and communities might come from rural or urban areas, might be fluent in English or otherwise, might have various genders and sexualities, might be first generation learners or not, might emerge at the top in academics or not, secure good jobs or not. None of these occlude the possibility that they feel stigmatized for the castes to which they identify (or are identified)

e) One cannot turn away when explicit avowals of caste discrimination are made and think that those are beside the point, that they are extraneous, insignificant, can be “dealt with” separately or at a later point of time.

2) The Report displays a patience for what it sees as the slow-but-steady evolution of support systems for SC/ST students in IITB. In this context APPSC would like to recall that

a) A report was submitted by Vinay Kripal and Meenakshi Gupta in 1996 on the needs of SC/ST students and proposed strategies by which these could be addressed. (See Integration and Development of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Students: A Study of Five IITs). In the intervening years little was done by the institute in this regard. All initiatives during this time were formulated either by well-meaning individuals in their individual capacities, or mandated by the government (eg: the Preparatory programme).

b) Prof. Kushal Deb’s, the then SC/ST coordinator, report presented to Prof. Suresh’s Committee, in which he made forceful recommendations regarding the academic needs of SC-ST students, pointed out the lacuna of the existing ARP as well as the shortcomings of the office of the SC-ST coordinator. There has been an overwhelming inaction at the institutional level to this report.

c) The present Report was submitted on 10th November 2015. It includes a detailed list of sound suggestions and recommendations. These range from long-term measures to those that need to be implemented with some urgency in the short term. Two new seasons of admissions have happened in this time (January 2016 and July 2016); nearly 9 months have elapsed. We can only echo the Report to note that, “Even now on the Institute webpage we could not find the name of the SC/ST coordinator”. Even small matters proposed by the Report remain unattended. Such appalling slowness, sustained omissions as well as consistent oversight can only be seen as programmatic of an official policy of indifference.

d) There have been various occasions in the past—memorably the anti-reservation mobilizations in 1980 and then again in 2006—where there were expressions not only of “deep-seated misgivings about reservations”, but also explicitly casteist comments and aspersions made against persons who availed reservations. In other words, what we saw were not just democratic disagreements with a government policy but deeply undemocratic and bigoted actions against particular people and communities. Several students, research scholars and members of the staff mobilized against this bigotry—they organized marches, pickets, debates, discussions in student-messes etc. If the institution felt that the “eradication of such feelings would require a sustained effort over a number of years” it is astounding that it has not even started out on this process. Over the last many decades, we fail to recall a single workshop or sensitization programme that the institution has organized for its staff, students, mentors, faculty advisors, campus community.

Given this APPSC finds itself unable to agree with the Report’s unambiguous assertion, “It is clear that the Institute and its official organs do not, overtly or subtly, discriminate in any way” (page 24). The second part of the Report moves away from Aniket Ambhore’s death to the examination of caste in IITB. It bears emphasis that this part of the Report foregrounds various useful matters. It traces the support systems which exist on campus—the histories and circumstances in which they have come to be, the work they do and their shortcomings. The Report also goes on to make some very crucial recommendations. We seek to highlight some of these.

The Report notes that despite the nearly three-fold increase in “SC/ST population”, there is still only one SC/ST coordinator with no office or support staff. The coordinator is rendered further ineffective because there is no department level support, no clear mandate and no linkage with other important bodies (the Academic Rehabilitation Programme, the Mentor Programme, the Office of the Dean Academic). Compounded to this is the difficulty in accessing data on SC/ST students and the lack of information-flow to this office about the problems faced by individual students. It is crucial to note that several of these issues had also been pointed out by Prof. Kushal Deb during his tenure as the SC/ST Coordinator. The present Report unpacks each of these issues with considerable care. The “Recommendations” made in the Report also need to be highlighted and seconded.

The need to conduct bridge courses and summer courses in a systematic, rigorous fashion cannot be over-emphasized. It is especially necessary that courses that serve as prerequisite for other courses be offered regularly so as to facilitate easy transitions of students across semesters.

The Report makes a pitch for a diversity cell, which will serve as an umbrella cell for “SC/ST students, women students, international students, differently-abled students”.

APPSC feels that while this might be a useful assembly, the specificities of these sections should not be overlooked. In other words, the Diversity Cell cannot be in lieu of a well-organized and responsive SC/ST Cell or a Women’s Cell.

Currently there is no grievance cell in the institute that hears complaints about caste discrimination. This needs to be speedily remedied. The recommendation to have a faculty advisor for the SC/ST students at the departmental level is excellent.

APPSC would also strongly recommend the need to have SC, ST and OBC student representatives in relevant bodies of IITB.

In this context it must be noted that there are no venues or official bodies that are attentive to the particular concerns of OBC students and researchers, who constitute a significant and growing segment within IITB.

Recommendations 7 and 8 in segment 6.2 of the Report are particularly important. In the light of recommendation 8, APPSC would emphasize the need for awareness-building among mentors, tutors and counsellors of IITB on issues of caste.

The Report points out the difficulty that students face in accessing information—even regarding the SC/ST Coordinator’s office (distressingly evident through the experience of Aniket Ambhore) as also counselling services. Besides improving online interface, it is also important to re-imagine the student handbook so that these critical information is easily available. The orientation at the time of student admission is also an important occasion where this information has to be centered for attention.

There are two recommendations made in the Report for which APPSC would like further clarity—particularly recommendation 3 (section 6.3) and those in section 6.6. It is important that the Institute draw up a road-map for operationalizing these recommendations. As noted above, even 9 months after the submission of the Report, none of its recommendations have been visibly addressed.

Finally, APPSC would strongly emphasize a suggestion that the Report makes, albeit in passing. At one point in the Report, the committee calls for a “fuller investigation”. APPSC urges the Institute to undertake this at the earliest. Such an investigation should, among other things, conducts surveys, call for an open house and initiate imaginative ways of talking openly and candidly about the social life of caste. It should also set out a time-bound road-map for implementing foundational changes.

(This was written as a letter to The Director, IIT Bombay in response to the report. The report is available as A K Suresh Committee Report on Aniket Ambhore’s Death and Suggested Measures for the betterment of SC/ST students at  https://casteoncampus.wordpress.com/iit-bombay/ )

~~~

 

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