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New anti-discrimination laws for universities may not be enough

Bal Mukund Bharti received an award from the president of India after he came top in his final-year high-school exams in 2004. He later cleared the fiercely competitive Indian institutes of technology entrance exam but chose to become a doctor after qualifying for the All Indian Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) – New Delhi, the top medical college.

For a Dalit or low-caste student from a small village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, this was no mean feat. But in his fourth year of medical studies in 2010, Bharti committed suicide after failing a community medicine exam.

Two years later, in 2012, Anil Kumar Meena, a tribal student from Baran in Rajasthan, hanged himself because he could not cope with a course taught in English – he had passed the entrance examination in Hindi.

The families of both students have alleged caste discrimination by fellow students and teachers at AIIMS.

“They [teachers at AIIMS] told him he could never become a doctor. He had come on reservation and not on merit,” recalled Bharti’s father, Gulab Chand Ahirwal, referring to the quotas reserved at universities for certain disadvantaged castes.

“He often talked about changing his name and said that he would go to America when he became a doctor.”

Policy gone wrong

To ensure inclusion and equity, India’s Constitution states that 7.5% of seats at government-funded higher education institutions are to be reserved for ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (STs), also known as adivasis in India, and 15% for ‘Scheduled Castes’ (SCs) often referred to as Dalits.

In 2008, the government brought in an additional 22.5% reservation for students belonging to ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs) – which are socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged – in all federally funded universities and higher education institutions.

Yet cases of discrimination continue to make headlines.

In the past five years, 17 suicides by students from these disadvantaged groups have been documented by the Insight Foundation, a Delhi-based initiative that seeks to make higher education more inclusive.

In early June, scheduled caste students at Vardhman Mahavir Medical College at Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi submitted a memorandum to the hospital’s medical superintendent alleging caste discrimination in marking. They claimed this had led to a majority of them failing in supplementary exams.

And the issue was brought up in parliament.

“Discrimination meted out to SC, ST and OBC students have forced several to commit suicide. There should be a full probe into the matter,” PL Punia of the ruling Congress Party said during a recent parliamentary session. He is also chair of the National Commission on Scheduled Castes.

Struggling academically

At most elite institutions, English is the medium of instruction, a difficult switch for disadvantaged students who may have studied primarily in Hindi or their regional language. But English is also a social necessity.

“Knowing English is a skill but in elite institutions across India it is seen as a measure of merit or capability. When SC or ST students enter institutes like AIIMS or Indian institutes of technology (IITs) they are made to feel inferior because of their language of communication,” said Anoop Kumar, coordinator of the Insight Foundation.

The students often require academic support, including extra tutorials, English language classes and communication skills, which many elite institutions fail to provide.

A 2006 report by a committee at AIIMS, which enquired into allegations of differential treatment of low caste students, said that some, “if not all, face difficulties in learning, hence in completion of courses and in performance”.

New regulations to fight discrimination

After numerous complaints, the University Grants Commission (UGC) came out with a regulation in early June to prevent discrimination of any form on- or off-campus. The regulation also clearly defined harassment and victimisation for the first time.

According to the UGC’s “Prevention of Caste-based Discrimination/Harassment/Victimisation and Promotion of Equality in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations 2012”, biased evaluation of examination scripts by professors, attributing poor academic performance to a student’s social background, and harassing low caste students by keeping them idle in the laboratory, among other acts of subtle discrimination, are now punishable.

The new rules empower the victim or his or her family to lodge a complaint irrespective of whether humiliation took place on- or off-campus.

Institutions will have to appoint anti-discrimination officers to deal with complaints. The institution’s ombudsman will be the relevant authority under the new rules, which will make it obligatory for institutions to decide on such complaints within two months.

If violations are confirmed, the UGC can withdraw grants from a public institution or recommend that official recognition be withdrawn from a private college.

More needed

But even the new regulation may not be enough, given the covert nature of discrimination and the hierarchical structure of Indian society.

“The [UGC] regulation points to an acceptance of the problem. A few years back even the judiciary was not willing to accept that students at the IITs faced caste discrimination,” said Kumar of the Insight Foundation.

But implementation will be a bigger challenge, he believes.

“The authorities who implement the law are often the same people who discriminate. In elite institutes like AIIMS and IITs, a student’s entire career is in the hands of professors. They [students] are often reluctant to risk a teacher’s wrath by lodging a complaint.”

Orientation courses are also necessary, according to AIIMS alumnus Dr Ajay Kumar Singh. These would familiarise disadvantaged students “with the university environment and the social and cultural aspects of the city.

“Several interactive and ice-breaker sessions should be organised by institutions to enable students and teachers to mingle, as is done in universities abroad,” said Singh.

Most special courses at Indian universities are focused on reserved category students, but not on others. Higher caste students also need to be aware of the problem, he added, if changes are to occur.

Tata Institute

In 2005-06 the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Mumbai, initiated its own training programme for SC and ST candidates, identifying disadvantaged students from villages and providing one week of training for the the entrance exam. TISS has now established centres all over the country to provide similar training.

Caste is more openly discussed than in the past, although Professor SR Bodhi of the Centre for Social Justice and Governance at TISS admitted that the institution “has a history of discrimination, like several other higher educational institutes. In the 1990s there was tremendous tension on campus.”

TISS has set up a special cell to scrutinise the admission process for evidence of discrimination. And the institution provides special facilities for disadvantaged students including accommodation, food, tuition waivers and even travel reimbursements for field trips up to a certain amount.

More radically, it introduced a social work masters degree in "Dalit tribal studies and action", which Bodhi noted was significant. “The institutionalisation of such courses has been responsible to a great extent in changing the campus environment,” Bodhi said.

Higher education institutions thus have to play a larger role in the debate about caste. Caste needs to be talked about openly at universities, he stressed.

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