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'Merit' is Constructed via Coaching Centres: Anoop Kumar

 

Anoop Kumar

This is the transcript of his speech at the Fourth International Dr. Ambedkar Convention 2018, at the Matsumoto Juchiro & Dr. B. R. Ambedkar International Convention, Japan, in October 2018. It was transcribed by Vinay Shende.

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Thank you very much. Jai Bhim and Good Morning to All. My name is Anoop and I've been teaching for the past 5-6 years in Wardha. Today, I am going to speak on the problems which our Dalit students face in higher education. I have been working on this issue since the last 20 years almost- first as a student and later on as an activist, and now as a teacher.

I will put forward, whatever experience that I have gained through working on this issue. The Indian Constitution has provided Reservation in Education for Dalits. It has been the single most important factor in Dalit empowerment. Reservation has helped millions of Dalits to come out of their marginalization & deprivation and to lead a life of dignity. Still, there are various gaps to be filled to provide equal opportunity in real terms for Dalit students. I am trying to list some of the gaps which are problems for the Dalit students, despite the reservation policies.

The first gap is most of our students come from a very poor, economic background. This is one of the main reasons for the heavy drop-out rate among Dalit students. Lack of economic support systems often compels them not to pursue studies. And if they decide to continue, it greatly affects their academic performance. The State support in the form of scholarships is quite inadequate. They also suffer serious handicaps arising out of the poor state of Indian primary education system. Most of them complete their primary education in rural areas. These primary education centres are ill-equipped and are unable to provide them the quality education. Moreso, higher education in India is either in English medium or requires a good knowledge of English. Dalit students coming from regional language background suffer the most in this situation. Above all, the educational spaces of the country are not free from caste-based prejudices against Dalits. They become easy victims of sometimes covert, sometimes overt discrimination. There are huge misgivings and resentment against reservation policy among the non-Dalits, which often results in outright hostility towards our students. Often, this results in atrocities on Dalit students by fellow non-Dalit students and discrimination by the faculty members. They also suffer huge alienation due to the English speaking urban milieu of the higher educational institutions. Often, they consider themselves complete misfits in such an environment.

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The reservation policy helps Dalit youth to enter into education but is unable to provide them adequate skills needed to compete in the emerging job market after the opening of the Indian economy. Dalit students, due to the lack of guidance, facilities mostly opt for traditional courses and do not aim for specialized professional courses. Despite being talented and suited for the jobs, Dalit youth cannot enter into the highly lucrative job market in the private sector, mostly due to lacking in English and computer proficiency. Added to this is lack of proper information and guidance resulting from the lack of cultural capital. Hence, Dalit students aspire only for fast shrinking Government jobs and are completely absent from the fast-emerging high-end specialized private sector. Then there is also the absence of Dalit history, culture, Dalit icons in the Indian academics and curriculum. Dalit students grow up without knowing their history and culture, which again is a big detriment in their development, as they are not able to identify with the community and feel rootlessness and are not able to draw strength from the community. These educational spaces also break their organic linkages with the community and even after completing their education, they remain alienated from the grassroots level struggles of the community. They are not able to claim the richness of the community in terms of history, culture, and the Movement. Above all, they are unable to locate their role models- successful Dalit professionals who can inspire them.

All these handicaps and problems have a very serious impact on Dalit students. All these handicaps leave a deep psychological impact on Dalit students and also hamper their academic and intellectual growth. Most of them develop an inferiority complex and lose self-confidence. Scared of caste-based backlash from fellow students and faculty members, they are not able to assert their identity. "Reserved Category" tag and the negative constructed identity of a Dalit further bring them down. Ideally, these places should be a space for Dalit youth to blossom, empower themselves and an opportunity to develop their maximum potential. But all these above factors prevent Dalit students to have all-round development and maximise their potential. Despite graduating from top colleges, universities and professional Institutes, the Dalit youth comes out as a person having low confidence, negative self/community image. Hence after getting employment he/she tries to break all linkages with the community and does not want to identify himself. He/she tries to imitate Brahminical culture thinking it to be the best defense mechanism against further caste prejudices and also in hope of getting recognition and respect from fellow non-Dalits. Such highly educated Dalits who in reality should have led the movement, provide intellectual leadership and provide material resources are not seen anywhere in the movement. There are many exceptions to this trend, but more or less, such is the state of educated Dalits.

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Hence the Dalit movement, as well as the whole community, is deprived, robbed of the benefits from its only valuable asset that is its educated class- the class which is supposed to provide intellectual leadership, use their human and material resources for the empowerment of the community.

So while working as an activist, these are the things I first encountered as a student. While studying in the University, the first thing that used to come up was our identity, which was linked directly with the question of merit. 'You are a Reserved Category Student and since you have taken Reservation, you do not have Merit'. So this whole construction of non-meritorious Dalit students creates lots of psychological impact on Dalit students which often results in termination and suicides.

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While working as an activist, I was part of two studies. I will try to give a brief introduction to the studies. The first study which I did was in 2008 where 12 Dalit students were expelled from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi which is one of the premier engineering colleges in this country. I was studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which is nearby. I had some connections with those students and in 2008, some of us came to know that 12 Dalit students have been expelled from the college. The reason given was that their academic performance is not up to par. This is not one case. There are many such cases which we were aware of, but this was something which was very near to us and we could go and talk to the students. So some of us made a team and carried out a small study on whether these students are really "weak" students as the IITs are claiming. Or, are there some other reasons for it? Because if you see, IIT entrance exam is supposed to be one of the toughest exams in the country. And the students who have qualified, you cannot say that they are not meritorious enough to get a degree. After successfully competing in the entrance exam, you cannot say within 6 months that these students are not fit for an Engineering Degree and they are weak students. We were not very convinced by the arguments of the IIT authorities.

So I did a study on this and in May 2008, 12 students (11 of them from the Scheduled Caste (SC) background and 1 from Scheduled Tribe (ST) background) were terminated by IIT-Delhi citing their low academic performance. 11 of these students were from the first year of their undergraduate courses. That means that they had just entered into IIT and within 6 months they were told to get out of the College. I carried out a study and wrote: "Caste Discrimination in IIT Delhi- A Report" (https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/caste-discrimination-in-iit-delhi-a-report/) in 2008, which can be accessed online.

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What I found out was very disturbing. While doing my research, I went through various newspaper articles, archives and I tried to find out the performance of Dalit students of the past. Before interacting with the students in the present, I wanted to see what have been the past trends in IITs, and the data is really disturbing. I found one article, which was published in Frontline and Frontline is one of the most reputed magazines in the country. There was this article "IIT Students- Issues and concerns" and it was published in Feb 2003. This article carried some data which was very important for us for that study. The data is that almost half of the SC/ST seats in IITs remains unfulfilled. 25% of the candidates from the seats that have been filled drop out. This is a huge loss for the community. Now we do some simple calculations. We can very easily conclude that the SC/ST community on an average loses 773 Undergraduate seats out of the total 1237 seats reserved for them every year. I am talking about the data from the time when there used to be only 7 IITs in India in 2008. Now there are more – around 20 IITs. So this data pertains to only those 7-8 IITs in 2008. This amounts to a loss of 62%of the total seats every year allotted for the SC/ST students. Except for IIT Guwahati, which was founded in 1994 and IIT Roorkee, which was included as IIT in 2001, all the other 5 IITs are at least 45 years old. So you can just calculate, in the last 45 years, how many seats have we lost? How many less IIT Engineers we had because of various reasons? Just imagine the magnitude of loss suffered by the SC/ST community in all these years, and also to critically analyse the impact of such losses for the community.

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When I started this study, this was the data before me of such big losses, so the expulsion of 12 students was nothing new. It's a historical trend which happens year after year. So for us, it was very important to find out. For IIT, it is very easy for them to say that "These students are not up to the mark, they are weak students". But are they really "weak" students? What is the definition of a Weak Student? So if you have an exam and students are not able to qualify, immediately after being selected in one of the toughest exams, you say that they are weak students? But maybe there are other reasons also. So we started this study. So, I spent almost one month in IIT Delhi talking, interacting with the students. Whatever major findings I have, I will share with you. From the onset, it was very clear that these are not cases of individual discrimination. This wasn't discrimination against One Student or 12 students. It is Structural. There were instances of individual discrimination also.

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Our students were victims of both individual as well as institutionalized, structural discrimination. And the most important finding was that all these 12 expelled students were from the non-English background. From regional language background. From rural or semi-urban areas and most of them were first generation literates. So just imagine a student, whose family has no history of education, who has struggled so much, cleared one of the toughest exams in the country and then being told after his arrival that he is a "weak" student, not Fit to be an Engineer. That was the thing which we first found out. And as mentioned earlier, the first things our students face when they come to these campuses is the question of "Merit". That they are not meritorious and they have come through Reservation. What I saw in IIT Delhi was that this notion of "Merit" is constructed via coaching centres. So, in India, there are many coaching institutes which mostly have rich, upper caste students which train them to qualify for IITs, whereas our students are not from an economically good background and are not able to avail these coaching classes, and hence are unable to match these students.

A study conducted by ASSOCHAM reveals that private coaching centres that train students to crack the entrance exams for the admission in IITs and other prestigious engineering colleges, mint Rs.100 billion ($2.30 billion) a year – an amount that can fund 30 to 40 new IITs. - ('IIT coaching classes, a Rs 10K crore Industry?' The Times of India, 3rd July 2008).

The majority of Dalit students have cleared the IIT through self-study or taking private tuitions, as they were not in a position to pay huge fees in the coaching centres. In comparison, it is very rare to find a General Category student, a non-Dalit student who had not studied in one or the other big coaching centres, due to which the General Category students are much better equipped for IIT-JEE exams and this reflects in the merit list of the General Category, which has higher cut-off marks than the SC/ST list. Still many SC/ST students are able to score high and reach the General Category list. However, the lower cut-off marks for SC/ST students become the first indicator of the assumption that SC/ST are "weak".

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The second finding was that English is used as a tool against us. It's used as a tool for discrimination. So if you are not from an English Medium background, you automatically become a weak student. You cannot ask questions in the class as everything is in English. There is no mechanism where our students can learn English. There has to be some passage where students coming from the regional background are trained/oriented towards education in English medium. But in IITs, no such thing existed. So if you are from a Non-English medium background, there is no mechanism for you to cope with the environment there, with the media there. So the majority of Dalit students entering into IITs are from non-English medium schools whereas the medium of instructions in IITs is in English. Once admitted, these students find it very difficult to follow the classes taught in English, which results in their low performance in initial years as compared to other students. Instead of acknowledging the difference in background, and the problem of the medium of instruction, the IIT faculty members, due to their casteist prejudices, quickly brand these students as undeserving, not up to the mark, and forced into IITs through reservation. So they used our students' lack of English as a tool to further discriminate and further create a negative identity that "Since you do not know English, you are not Intelligent enough" in IITs.

Apart from this, the Constitution of India mandates that there has to be some kind of redressal mechanism to address caste discrimination in every educational institution. So every educational institution in the country, especially universities and professional institutions, should have some kind of such mechanism. But in IIT, Delhi, the mechanism that was visible only on paper and none of the mechanisms was actually working. Every institution is supposed to have remedial classes for learning English. There were remedial classes in English. But it further stigmatized our students. The faculty would say that "All SC/ST students must learn English and undergo remedial classes". So everyone knew that these remedial classes are for these students, so it became a further stigmatizing thing. Secondly, remedial classes were not taken seriously by the faculty. They were just doing the formality. The teacher will come, spend one hour per week. So in 4-5 hours of classes, you are supposed to be as good as an English medium student, which is impossible actually. The Government funds these remedial classes, but the funds go wasted. What I experienced was that the Dalit students hated these classes because it further stigmatized their identity. The way it functioned was that these are for weak students. And no student wants to be considered as weak. All of us do not want to be branded as weak students. There was no SC/ST cell, it was on paper. None of the students I interviewed could actually tell me where the office of SC/ST cell in the campus was. There were no SC/ST faculty members there. There was only one, who had retired by then and there were many instances of caste discrimination.

But this is not the only picture of discrimination. There is something which is a very sad dimension. More sad than the termination. All such discriminatory practices do not just result in terminations and humiliation of Dalit students, there is another sad dimension, and that is the disproportionately large number of suicides by Dalit students in higher education, especially in technical & professional institutions. It was something some of us were aware of but never knew how to approach, given the whole upper caste dominant narrative about reservation & merit. Suicide is something which is very difficult to study and work on. But four of us – me, my friend Gurinder, Ratnesh and Manju - we did a 2-year long study on suicides in 2010 and 2011. We tried to document all those suicide cases and we chose the last 4 years, from 2007 to 2011. We were aware that a number of our Dalit students have been committing suicides, but there was no data, research, discussion, so we thought we should bring out something. We went across the country and documented 22 cases of Dalit students committing suicides. We gathered testimonies of their parents, friends, documenting the struggle of these students and possible causes of their suicide. These are the 22 cases (https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/list-of-dalit-students-committing-suicide-in-last-four-years-in-indias-premier-institutions/).

If you see, these are all top educational institutions in this country. Out of these 22 cases, we made three documentaries. On the basis of our studies, we created a series of documentaries, called "Death of Merit" in 2011 to showcase the prevalent Caste Discrimination in Higher Education and also to highlight its brutal repercussions resulting in brilliant Dalit students committing suicide. So these are the three documentaries we made. First was on Dr. Balmukund Bharti. He committed suicide on March 3rd, 2010. He was a Final Year MBBS from AIIMS. The second was on Dr. Jaspreet Singh, Final Year MBBS student from Government Medical College, Chandigarh. And the third was Manish Kumar. He was doing his B.Tech from IIT, Roorkee. These are the three documentaries which we uploaded on YouTube so that there was some kind of discussion on this.

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Can we alter this situation? Whatever I have talked about is about the problems. But beyond problems, we also have to talk about the solutions. I felt that we can alter the situation, but what you need is a symbiotic relationship between the Dalit movement with our students. Dalit Movement has to come forward to support our students in their quest for quality education, provide our students psychological/financial strength to overcome the oppressive nature of educational institutions and to excel in their respective professions. And above all, Dalit movement must provide them a positive identity. After working till 2013, a point came in my life where it was very difficult to keep on working on discrimination because whatever mechanism for justice was available to us, there was actually no justice for us. None of the cases we documented could give justice to the parents. And it was a very difficult point of time in my life and there was no hope as such.

So what some of us thought was let us go back to the field at the ground level and create our own network, our own support system for our students. Presently, Nalanda Academy where I work is one such effort. I have been working since 2013. I just wanted to share and glance through the photos. This is a coaching class where I train students to enter into higher education. We started in a Buddha Vihar, which is a very old Vihar. The Vihar people gave their space for us. I started this in 2013. I also teach in various other Vihars. These are my students. This is the beginning of our coaching. Right now, I have 213 students from 13 States studying with me. I have been fortunate to have very good community support. I live in an area where there are local Dalit Buddhists. Now we have been renovating our class and now it looks like this.

We are also starting Nalanda Labs. Apart from Nalanda Academy, here we are going to train our students in the sciences. We have a Dalit Women Collective called Sanghamitra Collective where Dalit women students organize themselves. So we have our Educational Fair. Thank you so much.

The YouTube link of the speech is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCCKdxHijvs&t=2271s

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Anoop Kumar is a senior activist and currently runs Nalanda Academy in Wardha, Maharashtra.

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