Authors- Sushovan Pattnaik and Sushant Gajula
Understanding Caste and its association with merit.
The idea of caste, as it is understood in the modern sense as an enclosed class, found an introduction in the Laws of Manu, a compilation of reforms that the Brahmins believed could create an ideal society.[i]In Orientalist terms, caste was theorised as a social system consisting of four hierarchised varnas, divided on social responsibilities that members of these communities owed towards society, called dharma.[ii]Beyond the pale of Hinduism laid a miscellaneous mass of outcasts, the lowest of whom were the Chandalas, who were not allowed to live within the village and were regarded as the scum of the Earth.[iii]Various ancient scholars propagate that if a person belonging to the first three varnas, touches a Chandala, he is subjected to toxification and must take steps to detoxify himself.[iv] This was what eventually came to be known as ‘untouchability’ and the word ‘Dalit’ developed as a response to classifying the ‘untouchables.’[v]
A certain class of these Dalits in a bid to escape systemic discrimination under the Brahmanical order converted to Islam[vi], and these Dalit Muslims construe 75% of the current Muslim populace in India.[vii]Untouchability in various forms continues to haunt these converted Dalits generations after their renunciation.[viii]
Chapter III of the Constitution of India, 1950, dedicated to a set of ‘fundamental rights,’ abolishes the practice of untouchability[ix]and prohibits discrimination in any existing rendition in matters of caste, class, sex, religion, race or place of birth.[x] It simultaneously enables the union and state governments to formulate “any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or the Scheduled Castes (‘SC’) and Scheduled Tribes (‘ST’).”[xi]Additional provisions enable reservations in a matter of public employment for the safeguarding of representation of backward members of the society and the promotion of the Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes.[xii] The Mandal Commission Report, 1980, finally implemented in 1989 by the V.P. Singh government, provided for the extension of such reservations to ‘Other Backward Classes’ (‘OBC’) of citizens.[xiii]The implementation of such a Report resulted in the onset of anti-reservation protests nationwide carried out by a voluble section of the upper-caste demographic, and the caste-meritocracy discourse developed largely in this context.[xiv]Legitimising access to educational and employment structures based on congenital identity as opposed to assessed merit was argued to be a deeply problematic fallacy.[xv] But, notably, the anti-reservation discourse continues to be based on a platonic understanding of merit, wherein merit is perceived to be vastly extricated from economic, familial, physical, and geographical privilege.[xvi]
This fallacious demarcation of a legitimate meritocracy, one verified through objective assessment and an illegitimate meritocracy that derives its strength and identity from caste-based reservations, has sustained into the contemporary times and manifests in the form of discrimination towards and stigmatisation of beneficiaries of reservation in modern education and employment institutions.[xvii]
Dissecting institutional casteism and the flawed narrative of the caste-meritocracy connection through Payal’s story.
The narrative of PayalTadvi can be especially determinative in locating institutional discrimination within the framework of this demarcation of an ‘undeserving’ and a ‘deserving’ colleague.
Tadvi’s genealogy can be traced to some members of the Bhil tribe converting to Islam, forming the Tadvi Bhil Muslim Community.[xviii]The census of 2011 states that the Bhil community of Maharashtra has a literacy rate of 40.6 per cent, with low levels of female mobility, and as per the 2001 census, an extremely low 1.3 per cent graduates within the community.[xix]While the community is permitted to avail advantages due to its identification as a Scheduled Tribe, it remains one of the poorest beneficiaries of reservation policy in Maharashtra due to systemic inequity.[xx]
To understand institutional discrimination then is to understand the manners in which the merit of Payal by virtue of her legitimate achievement as a first-generation female medical student from one of the most historically marginalised communities, gets downplayed and overridden by the characterisation of her merit as being illegitimate by virtue of her being a beneficiary of Scheduled Tribe reservation.
There was a very distinct display of stratification in how her senior roommates harassed Payal through the way they were allotted beds while Payal had to sleep on the floor and the way these seniors wiped their feet on her mattress on their way back from the bathroom.[xxi] These were, in their naked form, symbolic presentations of upper-caste superiority.
Payal wrote in her suicide letter that she had been deliberately posted in the PMC ward, denying her of any opportunity to learn about the ANC and gynaecology patients. “I have been asked to stay out of labour room during OPD hours,” she writes, “They do not allow me to check patients; all I’m doing is clerical work.”[xxii]
Caste identification is pathological to Medical colleges, and the emphasis on rankism with respect to the overly glorified entrance examinations contribute heavily towards metastasizing the idea of illegitimate meritocracy.[xxiii]
Apart from the subtle implications of untouchability, it appears that the discrimination that flows out of the idea of illegitimate meritocracy can vary from physical exclusion to a more subtle denial of entitlements, and to seemingly neutral practices which disproportionately affect lower-caste students.[xxiv]Such unequal treatment may be meted out by both teachers and students from historically privileged communities with little knowledge or sensitization pertaining to a marginalised student’s lived experiences.
According to the Thorat Committee report on caste discrimination in AIIMS, SC/ST students at the premier institutions of the country are discriminated by teachers and fellow students, which takes the form of “avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, and discouragement and differential treatment.”[xxv]One may refer to a recent incident wherein six Dalit students in Hyderabad committed suicide because they could not find a faculty to supervise their research.[xxvi]What perhaps lays the basis of ignorance and bigotry among the teachers or people in a position of power in these institutions is simple incapability and/or impatience to work with students from the marginalized communities.[xxvii]
Discrimination, thus, we understand, is both passive and active, arising out of both conscious and subconscious decision making. Regardless, from an alternate victim perception, there is a uniformity to the psychological, physical, emotional, and economic consequences of such discrimination.
The Position of the law with regards to institutional casteism.
Caste discrimination in higher education institutions has numerous flagellations that are both separate and extensive to untouchability. Ragging and sexual harassment constitute the two most immediate variations of oppression faced by students who get admitted through the reservation. While both ragging and sexual harassment have been extensively regulated within and beyond the collegial environment[xxviii], it appears that an almost special implementational deficiency exists with regards to the few regulations that exist with regards to the protection of marginalized students. This seems absurd as caste-discrimination can be perceived to contain within its ambit both ragging and sexual harassment, thus acquiring a more severe status as a form of discrimination.
The primary legal document for this paper is UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions) Regulation 2012. This came out five years after the inconclusive Thorat Committee Report, which was so peculiarly specific to the AIIMS context that it only provided issue-based solutions to the institute.[xxix] The promotion of equity regulation was thus long overdue by the time it came into being. The regulation prohibits discrimination, harassment, unfavourable treatment, victimisation based on caste, creed, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, and disabilities to promote equal entitlements and enjoyment of legitimate rights. Section 3 (1) requires every higher educational institution to safeguard the interests of the students without any discrimination, to eliminate discrimination and harassment through preventive and protective measures, and to promote equality among students of all sections of society.[xxx]The law aims to regulate discrimination during the admissions process, harassment by authorities, discrimination during the evaluation process, discrimination while providing fellowships, and spatial segregation in social spaces such as hostels, mess, and such. Section 3 (2) (f) necessitates the presence of an Anti-Discrimination Officer and an Equal Opportunity Cell.[xxxi]Section 4 (1) provides the modus operandi for institutions upon receiving complaints of casteism.[xxxii]
An outward analysis of the provisions shows that the policymakers have appropriately recognised the elemental forms of institutional casteism and the law in itself appears textually unproblematic. Implementation of these regulations, however, is a matter of some speculation.
Implementational deficiencies and proposed reforms to the law.
Payal wrote in her suicide letter, “I found out no one is there to stand for us, support us in this department.”[xxxiii]
Topiwala Medical College, in the wake of Payal’s suicide, was found not sheltering any Equal Opportunity Cell.[xxxiv]More recently, National Law University, Delhi was alleged not having an Equal Opportunity Cell, despite acknowledging its presence on its website.[xxxv] This online misrepresentation appears to be a trendy means of escaping the theory of the regulations. Only four of the fifteen IoEs, four IITs, and none of the first-generation IIMs host an Equal Opportunity Cell.[xxxvi] Several of these institutes claim to have a cell, but there exists no clarification of the procedure to be followed to file a complaint. The UGC has left it for the universities to decide upon such a procedure. This is problematic because, in the absence of a mandated uniform set of procedures applicable across a wide range of institutions, universities are free to decide upon arbitrary, lengthy and inaccessible grievance redressal structures that may remain knowledgeably alienated from victims of caste-based harassment. The regulations need to clarify how the complaints are to be lodged and how the committee is to be approached.
The specific functions of the Anti-Discrimination Officer have not been defined. Such an employment positioning would ideally come with a vast amount of responsibility, sociological and psychological sensitivity and confidentiality in relation to data pertaining to vulnerable student groups. In the absence of standard eligibility protocol, arbitrary appointments to Anti-Discrimination Officer positions can result in an obliteration of the grievance redressal mechanism by gravely affecting the mental health of survivors. Eligibility ought to take into consideration the caste identities of the candidate as well as the academic background of the candidate. Ideally, appointments go to either marginalised persons or upper-caste persons with a deep, sensitive understanding of caste, caste-based harassment, and mental health. The regulations need to legitimise high empathy quotient as a qualifying ground to be appointed to such a position.
Some enquiry committees have also pointed out that the provision for checking discrimination during the admissions process has been woefully inefficient in its delivery.[xxxvii] Entrance examinations that conduct oral interviews and depend heavily on English language fluency put marginalized students, who may have scored well in the written assessment at a disadvantage. A committee set up to investigate discrimination during the admission process in JNU recommended bringing down the weightage on viva voce from 30% to 15%.[xxxviii] These recommendations are yet to be implemented within JNU. Diminished significance to oral assessment in Entrance Exams should be implemented uniformly in all universities that conduct oral interviews for admission.
One can also question the stringency of the UGC regulations, as they are not backed by well-defined punitive measures and depend too heavily on warnings and persuasive orders, as seen in the aftermath of Payal’s death.[xxxix] In 2019, the mothers of PayalTadvi and Rohith Vemula, the latter a Dalit PhD student from the Hyderabad Central University who allegedly committed suicide, partly in response to institutional harassment,[xl] filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding more stringent application of the UGC Regulations and strict disciplinary action against victimisation of marginalised students and staff.[xli]
What this entire issue highlights essentially, is the fact that the patrolling of adherence to regulations by the UGC has been lamentable. The UGC only now plans to maintain a list of non-complying universities[xlii]. What could’ve been done and what should be done in the context of future regulations is that a list should be maintained from the initiation of all those universities that do comply with the regulations. This list should be updated regularly, and there has to be an exhaustive verification before any university is updated on the list.
It is only through a fundamental shift in the lens via which we choose to visualise institutional casteism― from an exceptional act of deviance that could be regulated through a persuasive law, to a widespread menace fanned by deep-rooted social and historical prejudices that must be contained through a punitive law, can the anti-discriminatory and egalitarian values of our Constitution be re-instated in our university and workspaces.
[The authors are 2nd Year students at NUJS, Kolkata]
[i]Caste System in India, Shakuntala Devi 6 (1999). [ii] BBC News, What is India’s Caste System, June 19, 2019, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [iii]Supranote 1. [iv]Dalits in Modern India: Visions and Values, S.M Michael 46 (2011). [v]Roger d. Long, India Today, an Encyclopaedia of life in the Republic, 156 (2011). [vi] Yoginder Sikand, Dalit Muslims, June 20, 2002, available at https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/dalit-muslims/216144 (Last visited on Sept 14, 2019). [vii]Soutik Biswas, Why are many Indian Muslims seen as untouchable? May 10, 2016, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36220329 (Last visited on Sept 14, 2019). [viii] Prashant K Trivedi, Srinivas Goli, Fahimuddin, Surinder Kumar, Doesunctouchability exist among Muslims?15 Economic and Political Weekly 34, available at https://idsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Does_Untouchability_Exist_among_Muslims.pdf (April 9, 2016). [ix] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 17. [x] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 15(1). [xi] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 15(5). [xii] The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 16(4); The Constitution of India, Art. 16(4A). [xiii] Express News Service, Sunday Story: Mandal Commission report, 25 years later, September 1, 2015, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/sunday-story-mandal-commission-report-25-years-later/ (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xiv]Id. [xv] K. Balagopal, This Anti-Mandal Mania, 40 Economic and Political Weekly 2233, available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4396832.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ae6d99cc20fda28575aa6852babfeab25 (October 6, 1990). [xvi] N. Sukumar, The Republic of Reservations, Jan 31, 2019, available at https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9567:the-republic-of-reservations&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xvii]Dalits in Modern India: Visions and Values, S.M Michael 331 (2011). [xviii]Tabassum Barnagarwala, Explained: Who are Tadvi Bhil Muslims?, May 29, 2019, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-who-are-tadvi-bhil-muslims-Dr. Tadvi-tadvi-mumbai-suicide-5754146/ (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xix]Id. [xx]Id. [xxi] Shone Satheesh, Dr.TadviTadvi suicide case: The death of a doctor, June 7, 2019, available at https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/Dr. Tadvi-tadvi-suicide-case-the-death-of-a-doctor-1559891147950.html (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xxii] Mumbai Mirror, Full text of Dr Dr.TadviTadvi's suicide note, July 25, 2019, available at https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/other/full-text-of-dr-Dr. Tadvi-tadvis-suicide-note/articleshow/70378758.cms (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xxiii]Manish Chandra Mishra, 'Casteism hidden behind white coats': Students, professors say medical field rife with bias against marginalised, June 5, 2019, available at https://www.firstpost.com/india/casteism-hidden-behind-white-coats-students-professors-say-medical-field-rife-with-bias-against-marginalised-6755401.html (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xxiv]Makepeace Sithlou, India's Universities Are Falling Terribly Short on Addressing Caste Discrimination, Nov 21, 2017, available at https://thewire.in/caste/india-universities-caste-discrimination (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xxv]Professor SukhadeoThorat Commission of Inquiry, Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST students in All India Institute of Medical Science, Delhi (2007). [xxvi] Hindustan Times, Suicides of Dalit students not new in Hyderabad university, January 20, 2016, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/suicides-of-dalit-students-not-new-in-hyderabad-university/story-cbPCCWPAF98q22uDihzb9L.html (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xxvii] Susie Tharu, The Impossible Subject-Caste and the Gendered Body, 22 Economic and Political Weekly 31 (June 1, 1996). [xxviii] UGC Regulations on Curbing the Menace of Ragging in Higher Educational Institutions, 2009; Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SUPREME COURT 3011. [xxix]supra note 25. [xxx]UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions) Regulation, 2012, § 3 (1). [xxxi] UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions) Regulation, 2012, §3 (2) (f). [xxxii] UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions) Regulation, 2012, §4 (2). [xxxiii]supra note 22. [xxxiv] Nayantara Narayanan,Mumbai Adivasi doctor’s suicide highlights extreme casteism in India’s medical colleges, May 29, 2019, available athttps://scroll.in/article/925057/mumbai-adivasi-doctors-suicide-opens-heated-debate-on-casteism-in-indias-medical-colleges (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xxxv] Manu Sebastian, SC/ST Students Of NLU Delhi Complain Of Facing 'Institutionalized Discrimination', August 25, 2019, available at https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/scst-students-of-nlu-delhi-complain-of-facing-institutionalized-discrimination-147466 (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xxxvi]Rica Bhattacharya, UGC plans action against non-complying varsities, June 8, 2019, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/education/ugc-plans-action-against-non-complying-varsities/articleshow/69700329.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (Last visited on June 29, 2020). [xxxvii]supra note 24. [xxxviii]Basant Kumar Mohanty, UGC slashes weightage for Viva, October 29, 2018, available at https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/weightage-for-viva-slashed/cid/1672881 (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xxxix]AbhaGoradia, MUHS forms 4-member SC/ST panel, colleges to send report on status of grievance redressal cells, June 14, 2019, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/education/muhs-forms-4-member-sc-st-panel-colleges-to-send-report-on-status-of-grievance-redressal-cells-5779726/ (Last visited on Sept 15, 2019). [xl] Suchitra, Institutional Casteism: 4 Years After Rohith Vemula, Has Anything Changed?, Jan 17, 2020, available at https://feminisminindia.com/2020/01/17/institutional-casteism-4-years-rohith-vemula/ (Last visited on June 28, 2020). [xli] Press Trust of India, Mothers of Rohith Vemula, PayalTadvi move SC for putting end to caste based bias in campuses, August 28, 2019, available at https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/mothers-of-rohith-vemula-payal-tadvi-move-sc-for-putting-end-to-caste-based-bias-in-campuses-119082801623_1.html (Last visited on June 28, 2020). [xlii]supra note 36.