Caste bias is rife on campuses. Address it
It is yet to be understood that academic excellence can co-exist, even thrive, alongside caste-based attitudes. BR Ambedkar warned about it at the moment of India’s Independence. It remains true today.
In the temples of higher learning in India, caste is a reality that lurks beneath the surface, shaping classroom and campus experiences, and vitiating interpersonal interactions of students from marginalised communities. This notion was reinforced this week with the tragic suicide of a young Dalit student at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay. The 18-year-old boy died by suicide on Sunday, igniting protests by student groups and a renewed conversation on the vulnerabilities of young people from caste-oppressed backgrounds in seemingly caste-neutral spaces such as IITs.
The victim’s family has complained that he battled discriminatory behaviour from his friends after they found out his caste. The institute has rejected allegations of systemic caste discrimination, and said it is probing the case. The facts of the case are still emerging and will need to be thoroughly and empathetically investigated. But irrespective of the particular details of this incident, the bias battled by Dalit and Adivasi students in educational spaces that are supposed to nurture and protect them is an undeniable blot on modern India.
The 2016 death of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad set in motion conversations around tighter anti-discriminatory policies on campus, but institutional apathy and public inertia have thwarted these from coming to fruition. Similarly, concerns about the low number of professors and authority figures from marginalised groups are yet to be taken seriously. Crucially, it is yet to be understood that academic excellence can co-exist, even thrive, alongside caste-based attitudes. BR Ambedkar warned about it at the moment of India’s Independence. It remains true today.