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How to Make Caste Discrimination Disappear From Universities

The RSS-BJP are adept at narratives that make charges of caste-based discrimination appear unreliable.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) continues to hog headlines for controversial reasons. The latest happens to be the new rules it has notified to address the grievances of students, which club issues of caste discrimination with other complaints. Just weeks ago, the UGC decided to allow foreign universities to open campuses in India, and then it queried registrars of universities about whether “a Pakistani author” opposed to Indian interests is being taught and threatened punitive action.

Its new rules on student grievances have further perturbed academics and activists. They seem to convey that the UGC, a statutory body established to fund and maintain the quality of higher education, which means it must enable a non-discriminatory atmosphere on campuses, is cavalier towards the caste and identity-based discriminations that are rife in higher educational institutions. There have even been suicides by young scholars, including at IIT Mumbai and IIT Madras, but the UGC must also be oblivious to those tragedies.

Even more jarring is that proper frameworks based on expert inputs are supposedly in place to counter discrimination. There are also Equal Opportunity Cells thanks to the enquiry committee led by Prof Sukhdeo Thorat, which examined caste discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Then why the urgent need to draft fresh rules?

The UGC’s notification of the new rules appears incongruous in an ambience where there are growing demands to enact a Rohith Act, on the lines of the Nirbhaya Act, to secure students from deprived communities living and studying on campuses. The demand for this law was first raised in 2016 after the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a scholar at Hyderabad Central University. It was a collective demand raised after a nationwide movement that decried caste discrimination and brought ‘subtle’ or ‘invisible’ exclusions and deprivations to the fore. Yet there is no such law, and there has been no let up in the suicides in higher educational institutions, including of students from marginalised classes and caste groups.

So while students and activists want the UGC to tackle caste, its new rules, by putting caste and other complaints on the same footing, appear keen to erase caste. At the very least, its new regulations display the statutory body’s insensitivity to students’ concerns—and effectively deny that discrimination based on identity exists on campuses.

But one must add that anyone who has closely followed the trajectory of the UGC in recent years and watched its approach can vouch that nothing is surprising in these latest rules. While the rules will make it difficult to talk about caste discrimination or make it invisible, the exclusions based on the primordial identity of students themselves will seep deeper into our institutions of higher learning.

In 2017, the UGC rules helped nearly dismantle the unique admission process developed by leading universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University. This happened when the Delhi High Court asked the JNU administration to stop admissions based on “deprivation points” and adhere to UGC’s 2016 rules “without deviation”. But the deprivation points-based system JNU followed was widely appreciated for making education accessible to the marginalised. The result was that a scheme that had received praise from across the country was discontinued for research-level admissions to the university. It had allowed not only more women but more students from socially and religiously marginalised sections to make it to university, a system that the UGC has not been able to put in place even today. Thanks to persistent resistance from students and teachers, the deprivation points-based system is reportedly being reconsidered by the JNU administration. Of course, what really happens to the system remains to be seen.

The UGC’s rules can be viewed in another light. Its new rules are not merely an outcome of the whim of some bureaucrat in the statutory body but resonate with how the ruling dispensation led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party view caste and its attendant discriminations. The project of Hindu unity, which they envisage as the basis for their future Hindu Rashtra, starts floundering once internal asymmetries and exclusions in the Hindu religion and society are acknowledged. Clubbing caste discrimination with general complaints helps cover up all such historical asymmetries.

The UGC’s refusal to acknowledge separate discriminations based on caste and other factors of social origin effectively denies the gravity of the situation. This reminds of the attempts by the state of Gujarat, then led by Narendra Modi as chief minister, when the Navsarjan Trust, an anti-caste discrimination outfit, demonstrated with concrete data the wide prevalence of untouchability in public and private spheres in rural Gujarat. Untouchability permeated the interactions between the members of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and non-Scheduled Castes and within the members of Scheduled Castes, according to its report published in January 2010.

This report covered around 1,589 villages in Gujarat, which it surveyed based on a few crucial parameters, ranging from the right to access and enter temples to the use of a shared well and similar other factors. According to Navsarjan, 98% of the villages it surveyed still practised some form of untouchability in the year of the survey, 2009.

Considering that the report’s conclusions challenged the well-cultivated image of a “Samras Gujarat”, the government of Gujarat sponsored a counter-study titled the “Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat”. Authored by the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology University (CEPT) University scholars and professors, it concluded that caste discrimination was all about “perceptions”.

Veteran journalist Rajiv Shah said about the nearly 300-page Gujarat government-sponsored report that “far from being a review of ‘understanding untouchability’, it is more of an effort to justify the evil practice”.

The State government seemed so keen to give a clean chit to itself that it adopted a two-pronged approach to tackle the uncomfortable situation in which it found itself. Apart from commissioning the report, it constituted a committee chaired by then minister for social justice, Fakirbhai Vaghela, and secretaries of various departments to refute its findings. It even instructed its officers to get affidavits from Scheduled Caste village residents regarding the non-existence of untouchability. What is happening today in higher education can be seen as an extension of the attitude intrinsic to the regime in power—it does not see any need to change its own or the UGC’s approach towards caste discrimination.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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