A survey of first-year students at IIT Bombay which found that 56 per cent of those belonging to the SCs, STs and OBCs feel the presence of subtle discrimination and extra academic pressure, has followed on the heels of a recent analysis of IIT-JEE results showing that the test is tilted towards those from urban, high-income backgrounds. This is the first time an IIT has tried to examine internal social bias. It’s about time more institutions began to pay attention to these dysfunctions.
The fact that caste is a cause of trauma is undeniable. There have been instances of bright, promising Dalit and Adivasi students being driven to depression and suicide in India’s best educational institutions, including the IITs, IISc and AIIMS. Entering these portals of technical education is seen as the ultimate measure of intellectual merit and a guarantee of professional success. It is no secret that many in the IIT faculty and student pool have appealed for it to remain unsullied by reservations, and suggested that the burden of having come in with the aid of a quota would make it more difficult to meet exacting academic standards. In this argument, the definition of meritorious and deserving takes place at the point of the test alone, oblivious to the ways in which educational capital reproduces itself, the way intellectual endeavours have been tacitly “reserved” for upper castes for so long. For a Dalit or tribal student, apart from schooling disadvantages, often families are not able to provide books, minimal assistance or even the leisure that better-off students take for granted. They fight ferocious odds to get past the entrance test, to join a system they believe in. And once in, quota students commonly face jokes, stigmatisation, assault, discrimination from faculty and insensitivity from the administration.
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Higher educational institutions can redeem themselves only by first confronting what happens. In 2006, the Centre set up a committee under S.K. Thorat to study complaints at AIIMS. It recommended many steps, including transparency in grading, equal opportunity cells and punishment for instances of caste discrimination. Nothing came of those recommendations. But these exemplars of technical education, held up as the great dream by so many Indians, must examine the ways they carry on social biases and fail to be fully inclusive. That involves confronting caste.