By Abhishek Jha:A student from IIT Roorkee compiled statistics on the expulsion of 73 students from the institute. The student’s argument is that if the policy of expelling students below the cumulative grade of 5 were to continue, it would- in conjunction with the relative grading system- lead to expulsion of a total of 30% students by the time a batch of students completes its degree. Another shocking statistics by the same student, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the institute, reveals that “out of the 73 students, 31 were from ST category, 23 from SC category, 4 from PD, 8 from OBC & 7 from general category (90.4% students are from the reserved category).” While we discussed previously how the very idea of expulsion on the criterion of grades is flawed, here we seek to address the revealed statistics in the context of caste.
Why Discuss Caste In IIT?
Because caste is so intrinsically woven into the social fabric of this country, there is little need for arguing that these statistics should be examined vis-a-vis casteist practices in IITs, the relation between merit and caste at IITs, and the reservation policies. However, it would not be useless to understand how historically, caste privilege had put upper castes on a perch in the field of technical education in particular. Ajantha Subramanian, an anthropologist from Harvard University, writes in Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste: “As the numbers of Europeans in Madras Presidency’s engineering profession fell over the early twentieth century, Brahmins were the single largest group of Indians who filled the vacuum, this despite being barely 3 percent of the total regional population (Fuller and Narasimhan 2008). Not all Tamil Brahmins were inducted into engineering,and Vellalas and other upper castes were also key beneficiaries. Nevertheless, as a caste, they became disproportionately well represented across the modern professions….it was the distinction between industrial labor and artisanship on the one hand, and the engineering profession on the other, that ultimately convinced Brahmins that they could enter this new occupation without the loss of status.” Thus it can be argued that the engineering profession is not untouched by the hegemony of caste privilege. What is today known as the “general category” or “merit based admission” already rests on accumulated social capital.
How One Becomes Casteless
Nevertheless, the aforementioned statistics have led those against reservations to already claim that the admission process is flawed because it admits “undeserving” students into the institute. The claim is based on double oversight. About half the seats (about 1000 students are admitted to IIT-R ever year) in IITs are reserved. Therefore, the first oversight in the matter is that, of the (around) 500 students, only 64 students could not acquire the alleged “merit” “deserving” of an IIT student. It was also overlooked in the claim that those who languished below the 5 point bar (the unfairness of which has already been argued) included 7 students who are by the anti-reservation brigade considered by default “meritorious” or “talented“. Here is the second oversight in the matter. As Subramanian points out, ‘The distinction drawn ….between “the socially-deprived” and “the talented” illustrates the ability of upper castes to inhabit a casteless norm. After all, he refers to upper castes, not as “the socially-advantaged” but simply as “the talented.”’ After this self-transformative re-christening, this upper-caste then perceives a disadvantage. This perception remains even after seats were doubled and new IITs built when OBC reservations were introduced.
Some of those positioned against reservation also blame the reservations themselves for the heightened awareness of one’s caste in IITs (an observation I have gathered from my years in preparation for JEE and from the subsequent years at IIT-R) and, sometimes, also for casteism inside the institute. They are right to an extent and Subramanian concurs with them: “Identitarian claims are no longer just the resort of the powerless; in the face of subaltern assertion, the powerful are similarly inclined.” But this assertion is incomplete because it overlooks the fact that the “inclination” of the powerful stems not from being historically deprived or from a current social handicap but, precisely, because of being asked to compete on a level playing field, where caste inequality is compensated. The heightened awareness of the caste of the other is then the upper-caste’s inability to see its “modern capital” as a transformation of its “caste capital“.
Casteism And Reservation
However, this inability has its repercussions. Manish Kumar, a student of IIT Roorkee, committed suicide, some 4 years ago, allegedly due to casteist taunts. On Youtube, what appears to be a documentary video, which I chanced upon in my first year at college, shows Manish’s parents alleging that the institute even tried to cover up the incident and protect the accused. The story is similar in other elite institutions of this country, as reports show.
The failure of these 64 students in participating in the 5 point chase, the suicides of students, the de-recognition of Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, etc. means not that reservations are useless but that more needs to be done, as sociologist Satish Deshpande pointed out in The Hindu in March this year. Deshpande rightly pointed out that reservations are not just “welfare programmes” handed out by the “caste-less nation” to “certain castes“. “From such a vantage point, it is impossible to see that the true origins of reservation lie in a promise of good faith that forms the core of the social contract on which our nation is founded“, Deshpande wrote, referring to the Poona Pact of 1932 where Ambedkar withdrew his claim for separate electorate for the untouchable castes. He also dismisses replacing caste criteria with economic criteria as it is “the promise of full citizenship” itself. “Note that such a policy is not about “historical wrongs” in the dim past, but about contemporary forms of caste inequality, and that replacing caste with economic criteria misses the whole point of caste discrimination that exists in varied forms across all classes,” he says. Of course, he concludes, that the “reservation policy as it exists today is flawed” but its “rethinking” is needed “because it is no longer enough.”
Anybody who defends the institute in failing its reserved category students and the casteist bias in it, falls into the trap of deeming oneself casteless by aforementioned machinations. It is the pet excuse of administrators to offer rules as their circumscribing limit. But it is they themselves who make the rules. It is reminiscent of the 1931 Malabar Hill meeting between Gandhi and Ambedkar, where Gandhi glibly offered that “Congress has spent not less than rupees twently lakhs on the uplift of the Untouchables. And it is really surprising that men like you should offer opposition to me and the Congress.” The prompt reply from Ambedkar was “But let me tell you frankly that Congress did nothing beyond giving formal recognition to this problem….Had it been sincere, it would have surely made the removal of untouchability a condition…for becoming a member of the Congress… Had there been such a condition, you could have avoided the ridiculous sight where the President of the District Congress Committee was seen opposing the temple entry of the Untouchables!”
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