It was exactly 13 years back that the Thorat Committee, constituted in September 2006 to enquire into allegations of differential treatment of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students at the premier medical institute, AIIMS—was released.
The first of its kind in independent India, this three-member committee led by then chairman of the University Grants Commission, Sukhdeo Thorat, had looked deeply into the many shades of discrimination faced by students of non-elite castes in the institute.
What it discovered after talking to students and faculty was, to say the least, shocking. Some 72% of SC/ST students mentioned facing some discrimination during the teaching sessions. Second, caste-based discrimination was prevalent in the hostels, for instance around 88% students reported experiencing of social isolation in various forms. The committee’s report also outlined the discrimination faced by SC/ST professors.
This context frames the alleged suicide attempt of a female doctor a fortnight ago in the same institute. The doctor, who worked at the Dental Research Centre of AIIMS, was allegedly facing sexual harassment and caste discrimination. This is another reminder that there has not been a qualitative change in the institute in the long years since the Thorat Committee report.
The report had recommended joint committees of students, residents and faculty to examine the social atmosphere; developing mechanisms to regain social harmony; formation of an “equal opportunity office” to deal with all issues of non-elite caste students; encouraging students of all identities to participate in cultural and sporting activities; creating a roster system for selecting senior residents and faculty. It had also asked that the Ministry of Health should closely monitor how reservation is implemented at AIIMS.
The recent attempted suicide is disturbing, for the doctor had repeatedly written to the authorities, including the Resident Doctor's Association, to examine the issues she was raising. The Association had written to the concerned authorities, including the health ministry, to take necessary action, which was never done.
Question is: was the administration’s inaction a result of caste blindness or deliberate neglect of a marginalised student? Definitely, the callousness of AIIMS’ administration is no exception. On 22 May 2019, Payal Tadvi, a promising doctor who belonged to the Bhil-Muslim community, ended her life in a teaching hospital in Mumbai due to ill-treatment by her seniors. The 26-year-old would have become the first doctor from her community, were she still alive today.
Payal had also complained to the management of her hospital about continuous harassment by her elite-caste colleagues, who were her seniors, Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehra and Anikta Khandelwal. She had alleged not being allowed to perform surgeries. She had confided in her parents and to her husband Dr Salman Tadvi about this and other harassment.
After Payal had died, Thorat said that the premier institutions are filled with bitterness about marginalised students. “Nearly 25-30 students in the top educational institutes have died in the last decade or so, but the subsequent governments have failed to take any concrete policy decision to end caste discrimination...,” he told the New Indian Express.
The logic of purity and pollution, which is the basis of caste and its exclusions, manifested itself in IIT Madras as well, where separate entrances to the dining hall were delineated for vegetarians and non-vegetarians in 2018. The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student group within the institute, had brought this issue to national attention. The segregation was withdrawn after tremendous public uproar. “Caste masquerades as something else in ‘modern’ society. In IIT Madras campus, it manifests itself as separate entrance, utensils, dining area and wash area in the mess for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students...,” the students of the APSC said.
In her essay, “An anatomy of the caste culture at IIT-Madras”, Ajantha Subramanian, a professor of Social Anthropology at Harvard University, investigates caste and the notion of “meritocracy”. She notes, “Caste and casteism have shaped IIT Madras for a very long time, generally to the benefit of upper castes”. Until 2008, when a legal sanction was given to reservation of seats in educational institutes for members of the other backward classes or OBCs, the general category made up 77.5% of student admissions. This, as Subramanian points out, indicates that mostly members of elite castes populated premier institutes. She wrote: “Not only students, the composition of the faculty at IIT-Madras is also overwhelmingly upper caste,” she notes, with 464 professors drawn from the general category, 59 OBCs, 11 SCs, and only two STs.
Rohith Vemula’s case was no different. Deeply-entrenched caste prejudices in India’s society and academic institutions, he said, reduced the value of a to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. “To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind,” his unforgettable and deeply poignant suicide note of January 2016 said.
This promising student of Hyderabad Central University, who yearned to become a science writer and was part of the Ambedkar Students Association, was unjustly suspended by the University in August 2015 after an alleged altercation with Hindutvadis students.
Rohith’s death led to a national uproar and created a pan-Indian student uprising whose focus was on justice for a young scholar’s “institutional murder”. There were demands for a Rohith Act to protect students from marginalised communities in higher educational institutions, much on the lines of the Nirbhaya Act. It was supposed to be an instrument to fight caste oppression and ensure punishment and dismissal of those who discriminate on grounds of identity.
What remains unanswered till date is how many students who could have been role models for their communities and the entire country will have to sacrifice their lives before we rise from our deep slumber. Should not society do a soul-searching for its complicity in these denials, humiliations and deaths. The poet Meena Kandasamy had written after Rohith’s death that the suicide of a Dalit student is not just an “individual exit strategy” but “...a shaming of society that has failed him or her.”
Yet time does not seem to be reducing caste discrimination and oppression, rather it is increasingly being normalised. The arms of the state; the legislature, executive and even judiciary, seem to be wanting on this score.
Caste asymmetries have seen a quantum jump with the ascent of Hindutva supremacist formations. With its ascent to power at the Centre and most states in 2014, the BJP has been “...systematically conniving to dilute existing provisions of affirmative action and legal protection to Dalits.”
The BJP government has diluted legal provisions that are meant to include more Dalits in university appointments, and it did not show alacrity in restoring the Atrocities Act to its original form when it had been watered down by a court order.... Instead, the UGC passed orders that reservations will be based on departments rather than for a university or college as a whole. Following this change in the rules, the advertisement for 52 faculty posts at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Madhya Pradesh, to cite just one of many such instances, had only advertised one reserved post.
The dilution of affirmative action programmes manifests itself in some ingenious ways, which end up reducing the representation of members of marginalised sections in educational institutions. For instance, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where a unique reservation system is in place, aspirants from backward districts, and students from weaker sections of society, are included in the rank and file of the institution. However, of late, there has been a qualitative change in the composition of the university. It has been reported that according to the Annual Report for 2013-14, out of the total 7,677 students at JNU, 3,648 (or around half) were Dalit-bahujan (1,058 SCs, 632 STs + 1,948 OBCs). If other deprived social groups, minorities and women are included, the elite-caste and upper class are a numeric minority at JNU, as pointed out by Abhay Kumar, in his 2016 essay, Assertion of Dalitbahujan Discourse in JNU.
But the recent suicide attempt and other changes ever since the university decided to revisit its unique reservation system, this last bastion of representative social composition is also under threat.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.