February 11, 2007
Dalit Discrimination in Institutes of Higher Learning
PUCL Bulletin, Jan 2001
Dalits at the Indian Institutes of Technology
-- Dalit Media Network, Chennai
Nandanar, a dalit rebel-activist of the bhakti period, sought access to the Shivaloganadar temple in Tiruppungur and the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, to which the 'untouchable' Pulaiyars provided hereditary services (supplying leather for percussion instruments). For this, the Brahman clergy derided him. The Tamil saivite tradition went on to appropriate the political resistance of Nandanar in the great Hindu habit of 'assimilation'. In Sekkizhar's Peiryapuranam, a 12th century saivite hagiography, the dalit martyr is made to undergo a 'conversion' - he gains access to worship only after his caste-oppressed pulaiya body is 'purified' by the sacrificial fire, and lo! he emerges as a Brahman sage - tuft, caste thread, and all. Siva is shown to accept the dalit after he undergoes a trial-by-fire. In reality, Nandanar was burnt to death. Incinerated.
Today, many dalit students at the Indian Institutes of Technology have to survive a 'Preparatory Course' fire and come out unscathed if they have to do B. Tech. Not much has changed. The dalits fought for temple-entry; today they fight for entry into IITs - temples of technology.
The IITs, like the peethas of Adi Shankara, are established in different parts of the country. They do not want a dalit instructor at an IIT in the Adi tradition. 'Merit' cannot be compromised. Merit in this country gets reduced to clinging to something for centuries and denying the same to others.
The institute admits students purely on the basis of merit.
IIT-Madras, Handbook 1999: Imagine a student of law, history, or engineering being told to undergo an extra year of a 'Preparatory Course', pass it, and then get to the usual two- or four-year term, because she/he happens to be dalit. Consider this happening in Nagpur University or Osmania or Annamalai. Or Jawaharlal Nehru University. But this does not, would not, happen in these places. It happens only in the Indian Institutes of Technology; in their B. Tech courses. Many dalits and adivasis who get admitted into IITs are 'counseled' into first attending, and then passing, a Preparatory Course. IITs were not required to implement reservation for students till 1973. When they were forced to, they did it most reluctantly, adding riders - cut-off mark, prep course.
At the outset, dalit and adivasi students have to submit coloured application forms for the Joint Entrance Examination, JEE. (For JEE-2000, the colour was pink.) They are then given coloured answer sheets as well, while 'others' get plain white ones. Defenders of the system argue: This is fair enough. How else do you identify the applicants and fill the quota? Dalits and adivasis have to write their names on the answer-sheets, unlike 'others'. With mere roll numbers and uncolored sheets, professors would not be able to establish whose papers they are correcting. The Preparatory Course - meant to 'uplift', not empower - is informed by very Gandhian perceptions of what the disprivileged need. Much of the Preparatory Course is a revision of Class XI-XII syllabus. 'Their basics are poor, you see. Bad schools. Poor English. They can't cope.' Since IITs grossly violate the provision for affirmative action in faculty positions as well, dalit and adivasi students are taught the Preparatory Course by (mostly) hostile caste-Hindu teachers. Such unabashed discrimination is not practiced at any other engineering, medicine, or humanities course in the country. Which is why, it is argued, IITs are a cut above the rest. And a dalit or adivasi, if she fails - or is made to fail - the Preparatory Course, has to forfeit her/his seat. One whole year is lost. They must start all over; try their luck elsewhere - if they have been able to salvage any self respect, stamina. There is a case here for the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). A person is punishable under Section 3(1)(x) of the Act if he "intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view". In IITs - a public place - a dalit student is insulted, intimidated, and humiliated.
This is also violation of Article 14 of the constitution. But a leading English language magazine has another story to tell. 'These six engineering schools are perhaps the only truly free and fair centers of learning in India' (Outlook, 29 May 2000). The high caste controlled media pays gushing tributes paid to IITs, and the civil society is indifferent to what really happens on these campuses to dalits, Adivasis, and women. In Chennai, of course, the IIT stands newly, and more aptly, abbreviated: Iyer-Iyengar Technology.
The faculty of 427 at IIT-M has only 2 dalits; and they have made it without positive discrimination. According to Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, a non-electoral activist organisation which seeks to combine E V Ramasamy Periyar's ideology with Dr B R Ambedkar's, and has been spearheading the campaign on this issue since March 2000, the Institute does not have a single Muslim faculty; there are 20-odd OBCs. (At the time of writing, in a tactful move, a dalit was appointed registrar of IIT-M. He has a poor record in his previous assignment and has only 18 months of service left; moreover, in IIT-M, the Dean-Administration is more powerful and the registrar does not command the same status as in other universities.) According to the management of this 41-year-old Institute, IITs have been 'exempted' by the government of India from implementing the 22.5 per cent quota for dalits and adivasis in faculty positions. The Public Relations Officer, Pattabhiraman, says the reservation policy needs to be followed only when the basic pay for the lowest post is less than Rs 8,000.
'That would be the case when you start as a lecturer; in IITs we follow a different cadre system where you start as an Assistant Professor with a higher basic. So no quotas need to be filled. That is the government rule. Even the Mandal Commission says so." Asked if this is not violative of constitutional provisions and if he could show the relevant 'government rules' that imply this exemption, Pattabhiraman just insists they are following the rules.
The IIT-M director, R Natarajan, offers a different rationale. 'IIT faculties do not have to follow the reservation provision just like the defence, space, and medical super specialties sectors. We follow it only for one cadre, Scientific Officer, which has a low basic of Rs 2,200.' Even the usual excuse - 'we do not get qualified, meritorious dalit candidates' - is not offered; total exemption from affirmative action is claimed. For student intake, the director and his deputy, C R Muthukrishnan, maintain that they implement the quota, whatever be their 'personal views about the lower cut-off mark' and the quota system as such. Does any other university in the country, which awards an engineering degree, have this concept of a Preparatory Course? Unlikely, says Natarajan. For faculty posts, the PRO and director explain how at the bottom of the employment notice, the fine print says: 'All things being equal, preference will be given to SC/ST candidates.' And all things not being equal, this preference rarely ever happens. The probability at IIT-M: 2/427. In IIT-Bombay, the management is more straightforward and unabashed. According to a recent report, 'IIT-Powai does not have any Dalit teaching staff,' even though 22.5 per cent of posts are reserved for them. Faculty members feel that the 'IIT's standards will be compromised if reservations in this area are implemented,' says a faculty member, with pride' (Indian Express, Mumbai, 12 Nov, 2000).
It is not a glass ceiling that dalits, adivasis, and women (who have no protective discrimination whatsoever) in IITs have to reckon with. It is a solid, rusty, iron ceiling. And it is so low, you constantly hurt your head even when you walk half-bent.
The IIT establishment justifies the policy of non-implementation of affirmative action without realising the social significance of having dalits and adivasis in faculty positions. Devanesan Nesiah has beautifully articulated the need for reservation and a rejection of the brahmanical 'merit-alone' theory in his comparative study of affirmative action in the United States, India, and Malaysia (Discrimination with Reason? 1997).
Even in respect of jobs for which recruitment is on merit, as measured in terms of specified qualifications, there may be justification for reverse discrimination resting on efficiency criteria alone. For example, a Black, Dalit, or woman student might find it easier to establish rapport with, and learn better from, a teacher of the same category. Further, such a person could serve as a role model, and inspire and motivate others of that category, helping to augment the pool of human resources. Moreover, enrolling a member of a minority group into the management can help to broaden the network of contacts, resulting in increased efficiency in respect of further recruitment and various other transactions. Affirmative action may be the only feasible way, initially, to breach the barriers either on account of prejudice or the narrow self-interest of a closed network. Another factor may be diversity, which could bring substantial benefit to the entire community. Thus selection based on 'merit' alone may be inefficient ... Clearly, the 'merit' criterion is not an inherently 'fair' basis of distribution of rewards, since it may depend less on effort and more on genetic and other factors over which the individual may have no control. That the merit criterion benefits the clever is, in itself, no reason to adopt it (Nesiah 1997, 288, emphases added).
The government obviously has decided to look the other way when the IITs flout constitutional provisions. All the six IITs in the country - and this is likely to be true of other elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Science - given that they are perceived to be 'highly specialised apex institutions and centers of excellence for higher education in engineering and technology' (Chitnis cited in Kirpal 1999), seem to be getting away with not observing the rules of the game. These institutions depend on heavy subsidy - the annual central assistance to the six IITs amounts to about Rs 499.18 crores (Government of India, 2000, 125), IIT-M receiving Rs 88.64 crore this year - but do not implement reservation. This is not surprising given that even for student intake the IITs, unlike almost all other government-run educational institutions, were exempt from implementing the dalit and adivasi quota till as late as 1973 (Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta 1999 23, 31). When this was done as per the Chandy Committee recommendations (1972), which specified that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be taken into IITs 'down to the zero mark at the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)' (31), the results were 'disastrous'. Most of the first batch of dalit and adivasi students found it extremely difficult to cope at the IIT and were failed or forced to drop out. Hence, 'the system of a two-thirds cut-off point at the JEE as the more reasonable alternative' was suggested in 1977. 'In 1978 all the IITs adopted the system which continues to be used till today' (32). In 1983, the Preparatory Course was conceived, thus further blocking the prospects of dalits/adivasis. How dalit and Adivasi students make it to these discriminatory institutes of learning is a unique process that needs elaboration.
On direction from the Union Government, SC and ST students scoring upto two-thirds of the marks obtained by the last GE [general category] student on the merit list [sic] in the JEE are directly taken into the first year of the B Tech programme, under the reservations scheme. Students who Score below the two-third JEE cut-off point and "x" marks are assigned to the Preparatory Course where they are given one year's rigorous training. On obtaining a certain percentage of marks in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and English at the end of the year, they are registered for the First Year of B Tech, failing which they are asked to leave so that they may join some other college. The SC/ST students may pass the programme with a reduced number of credits, i.e., 22 credits per semester as compared to 28 credits for the GE students. Nonetheless, to earn the B Tech degree, they have to complete the total number of credits common for all (categories of students). The unique aspect of reservations in IITs is the total absence of compromised standards (such as grace marks awarded to SC and ST students). The concessions offered end with the reduced cut-off point at entry, the reduced course load during the semester, and the six years (against the five for GE students) to complete the four-year B Tech programme. The degree awarded is on a par with the GE students (Kirpal and Gupta, 36, emphases added).
The study, Equality Through Reservations, by Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta - both have taught Humanities at IIT, Bombay - is based on data collected from IIT students belonging to batches beginning 1989 to 1992. It says, 'During the period of data collection, there were approximately 5,868 general category students and 616 SC and ST students in the IITs' (49). Percentage-wise, this works out to 10.49 dalit and adivasi students out of the total intake - less than half the quota is being 'filled'. Though awash with statistics of all kind, this book, devoted to examining reservation in IITs, does not bother to work out this all-important figure, which amounts to flouting the reservation norm. Nor does the Viney-Meenakshi effort tell us one word about the status of reservation at the faculty level. The authors, while admittedly concerned with how best the disprivileged students can 'integrate' with the 'mainstream' at IIT, are not even alive to the inherent discrimination wrought into the idea of a prep course. They do not see any moral turpitude in the very premise that some dalits and adivasis must undertake an extra year of study (but then they do not see caste as immoral, vulgar); it does not occur to them that such discrimination is not institutionalised anywhere else; nor are they alive to the absence of dalits and adivasis on faculties, and this affecting the social balance in IITs. To top it all, they use the term 'merit list' while referring to non dalit students, reinforcing post-Mandal notions of 'merit' being the prerogative of caste Hindus (they are born with it, they always-already have it); something that is deemed to be unforgivably compromised, and even essentially absent, among persons who avail of affirmative action.
Most caste Hindus spoken to express the opinion that it is good that IITs do not take the reservation provision seriously; this enables them to maintain 'standards', unlike other institutions. And since they are 'forced' to take some dalit and adivasi students, at least the Preparatory Course hurdle must be cleared. The Bombay Indian Express reporter who, briefed by the Dalit Media Network about the situation in IIT-Madras, filed a report ('Dalit Quota Opens Doors But Reservations Remain', quoted earlier) on the problems faced by dalits and adivasis in IIT-Powai, conveyed to us excerpts of a conversation in the reporters' desk. 'I wish you had got your facts right about the IIT piece. These people you are defending are dumb fucks who should be where they are. You don't know how many deserving students [as always, the case of some relation is cited] don't get in because of these duffers.' This would be a representative Brahmanical response to any 'debate' on atrocities in the IITs, or on the subject of 'reservation' as such.
A fact is most dalit and adivasi students who make it to the IITs have internalised the logic of the Preparatory Course. A typical rationalization goes: 'Look, they are not protesting... take a survey, and they all want the Preparatory Course without which they would feel further alienated.' Meenakshi and Viney reinforce this opinion, 'Of those who attended the Preparatory Course, 75 per cent felt that the Course had been helpful' (83). Seventeen-year-old dalits, who are within knocking distance of a B Tech from an IIT, cannot be expected to reject the Preparatory Course as discriminatory. They might not be in a position to see the politics of it; and even if they do, it would prove personally too costly to act on such injustices. It is a classic case of saying the victim loves the physical or epistemic violence s/he is subjected to, when forcefully extracted tolerance of such violence is made a precondition to some material gain (in the IIT context, a B Tech). We must realise that they are being forced to record consent/ approval of their humiliation; hey, internalise the logic that making it to an IIT matters most, even if it means an extra year and dirty looks from caste-Hindu students for the 'lower cut-off mark'. In IIT-M, there have been cases where some dalit/ adivasi students have been coaxed by the management to opt out of the B Tech because of their 'poor grades/ non performance' in return for diploma certificates, or sometimes, a B Sc degree. Here too, the management argues that 'some degree' in the case of dalits would be better than 'being stuck doing B Tech forever'. And since there is no academic audit in IITs, decisions of the all-powerful senate and the director's whim go unquestioned. This is academic and intellectual terrorism. Would our dalit and adivasi MLAs/MPs take it if told that they - but not other MPs - have to undergo a training course, similar to the IIT Preparatory Course, before they attended parliament?
One basic anomaly is overlooked. If for 25 years IITs have been implementing reservation for students, why is it that hardly any dalits and adivasis hold faculty positions? Technically, the IITs want to show that they are indeed satisfying the dalit/adivasi need to be part of what is an elite setup at the student level, but in effect they are producing (dalit and adivasi) technologists and engineers who will not be recruited by these very institutions. However, in lower-end posts, ('Class IV' employees), the scenario is predictably the opposite. In 1983, there were in all 800 dalit employees in IIT-M. Of these, 796 were scavengers. Here the Brahmans staked no claim. There were four dalit LDCs. ('Caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers' [Ambedkar 1987, 66, emphasis original].) Reservation norms were being overlooked even for non-faculty posts till a Suraj Bhan-led delegation of dalit and adivasi MPs - that materialised at the behest of a dalit employee in IIT-M - enquired into the situation that year. The director then was the now-Padmashreed P V Indiresan. And his views? 'Higher education is, and has to be, elitist... admit only those students who can cope with global standards in science and recruit only those teachers who have an international reputation for research... Both the Constitution and our politicians prohibit any institution from exercising academic freedom' (Outlook 23 Oct, 2000, emphases added). Indiresan, well known for his anti-reservation line, has been particularly belligerent in the post-Mandal phase (for which the present government has bestowed on him a Padma award). Says T Jayaraman of the Tamilnadu Science Forum, 'From media reports, it is clear that there is strong resistance to reservation in IITs. The extraordinary attack launched on the reservation policy by an IIT director (P V Indiresan), in the presence of the President of the country (Zail Singh) during a convocation ceremony, for which he did not even receive a reprimand/ reminder. M S Swaminathan, who by running an institute that takes his own name has made an institution of himself, is a former chairperson of IIT-Madras. On being contacted, he refused comment on the anti-dalit atmosphere prevalent in IITs, saying he was no longer associated with the institute. But he did say, 'Any questions on agriculture, I will answer.'
At a time when the IIT establishment (in Chennai) was being attacked by dalit and OBC groups - for not implementing reservation on the faculty, and ill-treating/ harassing dalit and adivasi students - Outlook featured a panegyric which began: 'What was Jawaharlal Nehru's greatest gift to the nation? ... what is the one unimpeachably visionary, unquestionably positive thing that he left us, something for which we should be grateful to him? A radical thought, but worth considering: Nehru's greatest gift to his nation was the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). And the world seems to agree' (Outlook 29 May, 1999).
But we do not. Outlook's cover story, 'Doing India Proud', highlighted the 'achievements' of several 'IITians'. Needless to say those of men, mostly caste Hindu; and amidst all the recent hype about information technology, most 'achievers' were those who had emigrated to the US as computer and technology coolies. The feature shows how casteist and sexist lies, when garnished with bias, can assume the taste of truth. In a nation where specific sub-castes within dalits are forced to continue to carry caste-Hindu shit on their heads and enter overflowing sewers, the IITs perpetrate a caste culture, which would have pleased a Manu, who proscribed the Book for the OBC-sudras, dalit-untouchables and women (who together account for about 90 per cent of 'Hindu' population). The non-implementation of reservation in IITs is something that is welcomed even in 'progressive' circles. 'No dilution of merit here please; at least spare these institutions.' The issue is sought to be swept under the 'merit' carpet.
The merit carpet takes flight. Sitting on it are caste Hindus. A Brahman steers it. But who made the carpet? Who wove it, made patterns on it? And where are they?
Genderwise, the IITs fare even worse. Sandipan Dep, deputy editor with Outlook: 'what was my IIT education all about? It was about IITians: 400 academically exceptional boys (and 12 girls) on a campus...' The girls come in parenthesis. It's all about boys. Despite all those headlines and reports we have seen for years about girls doing better than boys in Class X, Class XII and other state and central board school exams, it is (mostly caste Hindu) boys who have enough 'merit' to enter the IITs. And the few girls who make it must prove themselves male enough. 'From one coast to another, women engineering students have shared their relief on being accepted by the men in engineering as one of the guys' (Sally Hacker 1989, 49).
Some letters responding to the Outlook feature raised the issue of non-representation of women. 'I was horrified to see not a woman mentioned in your entire story. Forget the alumni, even the on-campus photos didn't feature any women. Is your outlook so biased?' Another asked, 'Are all IITians men?' (Outlook 12 June 2000).
According to the news report cited earlier with reference to IIT-Mumbai, '(T)he situation for women students remains dismal, with less than 200 among the almost 3,000 students in the bachelor's and master's programmes. For Dalit girls, things are even bleaker. The first Dalit girls, numbering all of three, were admitted in 1997. Since then, their number has increased by one every year' (Indian Express, Mumbai, 12 June 2000).
One of the few dalit girls doing B Tech in Mumbai is says, 'If you are in a coveted department like Computer Science and Engineering, the guys wonder aloud how a woman could get through and if they know you are a cata student, there is an audible 'ohh' which seems to answer their question.' ('Cata student' is caste-hindu IIT lingo for those who make it using affirmative action. In IITs, as in other campuses in our country, dalits tend to be allotted only dalit room-mates; dalits also do not figure in IITs' famed alumni associations.)
The problem is not just with the IITs, which merely represent the perverse culmination of a larger social bias ingrained in our education system; our anti-dalit, pro-caste, gender-insensitive syllabi which tend to reinforce existing hierarchies. A system that allows most IITians to take the First flight to the US after completing their B Tech. A system that privileges the privileged, and even pays Rs 500 crores per year for it. The 1999-2000 Union Budget accounts for Rs 4380 crores (revised) on 'secondary and higher education' (Government of India 2000). Of this, Rs 499.18 crores went towards the six IITs. This works out to 11.4 % of the total expenditure in this sector. (This figure does not include what is spent on subsidising the general tuition, exam, hostel fee etc - about Rs 15,000 per year per B Tech student (IIT-Madras Handbook 1999), insignificant compared to what private engineering colleges charge.) After spending/ subsidising so heavily, 'India' seems to gain nothing. 'The take-home package for campus recruits ranges from Rs 4.5 lakhs to 7.5 lakhs per annum plus other perks' (The Times of India, Delhi, 12 Nov, 2000). And whom do they serve? The front-paged ToI report gushingly begins: 'The Americans want them. So do the Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans, Germans, Canadians and the French.' Even from a purely investment point of view, the IITs seem nonviable. If the IITs are to have any social value to the country, which foots their bill, there must be an effort to completely overhaul them and cast them anew.
Admittedly, the IITs are fashioned after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC) (Kirpal, Gupta 68). And it shows. The result is communities which have dealt with leather for centuries - who perhaps can be reckoned with as The first technologists of this country, who knew how to turn animal hide into beautiful bags and shoes, and for which reason were treated as 'untouchable' (Kancha Ilaiah 1996) - would rarely ever make it to these IITs. These institutions are not meant for them.
At IIT Guwahati, where 'every hostel room has an Internet connection' the B Tech, Design, course is adapting to 'local conditions'. And how?
Says Sudhakar Nadkarni, head of the department: "In years to come, this will be the course to apply for." Nadkarni is adapting the design course to local conditions too. Bamboo and cane craft for instance. "We get master craftsmen from the northeastern states who impart training to our students who then try to adapt the designs through mechanisation," he says. Top technology meets native Indian talent. That's the way, one suspects, Nehru envisioned the IITs to be (Outlook 29 May, 2000).
But will these crafts persons from 'northeastern states', in all probability adivasis, ever make it to these IITs either as faculty or students? What will be the 'merit' of privileged, elite male students From across the country in comparison to the 'merit' of the nameless Adivasis who weave magic on bamboo? And what is the IIT student up to here? These technobrats will computerise traditional adivasi designs using CAD/CAM. Will the craftspersons at least be termed 'visiting faculty'? Will any settlement be paid? And will that do?
Dalit and OBC intellectuals have pointed out how the equivalents of today's engineers and technologists in India hail from what would be dalit, shudra and adivasi groups. The lohars (smithies) who deal/t with metal; the dalits who deal/t with leather; the pot makers and toddy-tappers, the sculptors, rope makers, and boat/ship-makers...; the aboriginal adivasis who found cures in herbs for which swadeshis and videshis are today vying for patents; the Yadava women and men who domesticated wild buffaloes, milched them, made butter, ghee (which basically fattened brah-man stomachs); gardeners and tillers... all came from subaltern groups. A Brahman, of course, discovered the zero. But today, IIT-M has seen only Brahman directors - P V Indiresan, L S Srinath, N V C Swamy, R Natarajan - in the last 20 years. The chairpersons of this institute also tend to be
Brahmans - U R Rao, M S Swaminathan, Kasturi Rangan. Technology has been brahmanised. The tussle for the top slot, it seems, is between kannadiga Brahmans and Tamil Brahmans at that. Caste struggle.
The Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, which neighbours the IIT, is headed by a nondalit; a Brahman in fact. Caste Hindus dominate the place. Traditionally, most caste Hindus kept away from leather - they still do. Now, brahmans-as-technologists can take charge of CLRI, but would do never get their hands 'soiled' tanning leather themselves. The brahmanical scriptures lay down that to touch leather would pollute; only dalits are to do leatherwork. Today, the research agenda on leather is decided by nondalits; people who never treated leather but treated, and treat, leather-workers as 'untouchable'.
Outside the CLRI gate, a dalit-arundhathiyar sits and waits for work. The CLRI takes 'pity' and organises occasional workshops for those who traditionally deal(t) with leather - arundhathiyars, madigas, chamars.... It seems the CLRI is accessible to all 'traditional groups' dealing with leather and is quick to arrange for them an interface with latest technology. (A colleague whose Brahman father holds a managerial post in a Jharkhand mine, says he knows of only one adivasi who holds a top management post in the firm. Most adivasis work as diggers. And Jharkhand has a predominant adivasi population.)
In Australia, the settler whites are at least saying 'sorry' to the 'stolen generation'. And an aborigine wins a gold medal in Olympics. In the US, there is a public discourse against racism, though discrimination continues. But 'hindu' India, despite putting in place theoretical guarantees in the constitution, continues to treat its aboriginals most shabbily, and no questions are asked. In the name of 'merit'; in the name of democracy.
Some larger questions remain, irrespective of whether we get the IITs to respect constitutional provisions on reservation and equality or not. In all likeliness, since the very basis of technology in these institutions is brahmanical and pseudoscientific, even those few dalits who make it to these places, in the process of surviving and emerging successfully out of them, are likely to imbibe/adopt values which would alienate them from their own backgrounds. (It is like getting dalits to live in an Agraharam for four to five years, and then letting them out.) IITs, in their present shape, are likely to produce dalit technologists who would be constantly looked down upon by the brahmanical group, and who may want to dissociate themselves from commitment to any subaltern cause. Caught in a double bind, they stand doubly alienated. IITs embody a hazardous combination of the worst of western capitalist-driven technology's social insensitivity and the worst of the local caste system - the only aspect of post-Aryan culture that has survived, in one form or the other, for 3000-odd years. And casteism in IITs is only a reflection, or an extension, of what is the larger reality in our caste-driven society, where those who benefit most (the caste Hindus) by retaining caste tend to see casteism only in the form affirmative action - reservation - for dalits, adivasis. 'The country has gone to the dogs because of reservation,' some retired Brahman settled (thanks to an IITian son) in Illinois would lament in a letter to The Hindu.
So, what do we do with the IITs? Can they be reformed, made to change their agenda, mend their ways? Can IITians forced to be more accountable to the nation, which subsidises them? Would that be practicable? And what about rewriting and radicalising the very premise of 'technology' to render it more gender- and dalit-sensitive? That would of course mean a long haul, starting with recasting school curriculum where we need to initiate an anticaste discourse and combine it with respect for and dignity of labour. (During the anti-Mandal agitation, caste-hindu students mockingly Polished shoes - with utter disregard for people who depend on such labour for livelihood - mourning the 'death of merit'. They were merely expressing contempt for such work; these were just photo-ops. Even if it comes to remaining unemployed, caste Hindus would think it below their dignity to consider shining or mending shoes. They merely wanted to convey that such jobs are not meant for people who have 'merit'. The meritocrats would rather be underpaid in sweat less jobs than sweat it out as shoe shiners or sanitary workers even if paid more. Contempt for certain kinds of labour goes a long way in Hindu culture and is integral to the definition of the caste system.)
In a post-capitalist world where even some dalitist ideologues are arguing that if we can't beat the forces of globalisation let's join them and make the best of it - the logic being it can't be worse than upper caste capitalism and may perhaps help unshackle capital from the caste forces what do we do with IITs which become recruiting grounds for MNCs? Right now, the only answer one can think of - most impossible and impractical though it may sound - is: close down these institutes. Which is what it would boil down to if the state were to, with determination - another Most improbable thing - insist that all the IITs (and IIMs and other 'secular' agraharams) strictly implement the reservation provisions both in faculty and student intake, and scrap the blatantly discriminatory Preparatory Course, colour application forms etc. There would then be at least 80 Dalit students doing BTech in each of the six IITs every year. And each IIT would have to recruit at least 80 dalit and adivasis as faculty members. Then the caste Hindus, led by the brahmans, would say, 'Merit is being buried alive in this country'. To demand a sincere implementation of constitutional provisions of affirmative action in IITs would be the equivalent of saying priesthood and the right to initiation in brahmanic hinduism should be given to all - dalits and women. Which means we would be asking caste Hindus to consider the possibility of a dalit as Shankaracharya/IIT director.
The 'brahmans' would cry. 'We would rather flee the country.' (never mind that at one point of time crossing the seas meant losing one's caste); but the Brahman comes first, his rules next). But they would not. The government will instead announce that the IITs would be privatised. MoUs would be signed with MNCs; Microsoft would take over one IIT, GE another, Siemens....
The post-Mandal PM, Narasimha Rao, realised that to counter the rise of the subaltern castes the public sector units should be closed/privatised. Actually, we don't have to insist that the IITs be closed down. All we - dalit leaders, activists, dalit politicians, MPs, MLAs, writers, lawyers... - need to do is pressure the government and courts (where 78% judges are brahmans (New York Times, quoting dalit activist Martin Macwan, 16 Nov. 2000) into ensuring that the reservation provisions are honoured. That our constitution be honoured. Honouring our constitution would indeed be a dangerous proposition (if the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act were seriously implemented, most caste Hindus would land up in jail) . But let us insist on it. The fight for social justice in IITs might seem insignificant compared to larger battles that need to be fought against caste. But IITs have come to epitomise the caste system; they are the contemporary agraharams, the science and technology equivalents of what The maths of Shankaracharyas are in the religious realm for Hindus.
But what do we do with a regime that has put in place a Constitution review commission? Tomorrow, there might be a new Constitution, which might scrap all affirmative action provisions (they broke a mosque and nothing happened to them; in fact, they came to power). And the caste Hindus righteously would quote Ambedkar, no less, to support this. 'Even your Babasaheb wanted a review of reservation in 10 years.' (They would never remember, quote or do anything else that Ambedkar said or wanted. Not certainly his Annihilation of Caste.)
Yes, we may prove those skeptical dalit employees and students in IIT-M right. Nothing is going to change IITs. They will be what they are. They will continue to treat dalits and adivasis the way they have been doing. As someone said in colloquial Madras-male Tamil, Oru mairum aagada. 'Not One pubic hair can be made to fall.' Maybe, we should then praise them. The IITs. They must be great places; after all, since they all say so. Let us then join the chorus and praise these famous institutes. Let us sit back and enjoy the carnival of Brahmanism being played out here.
February 09, 2007
Of Freedom of Speech and the Malaise Within
A recent BBC survey reveals that 55% of Indians believe that the caste problem is an impediment to India’s growth and development into a super power. Casteist Indians both in politics and in industry deny that caste tensions and caste discrimination exists in India. They are content to put their head in the sand and wish that the inhuman discrimination against the Dalits will just disappear without proactive action and the restructuring of Indian society. Can India ever achieve its true greatness without abolishing the caste system?
The Hindu nationalism of the RSS and the BJP rather wants to enforce the caste system and other banned practices like Sati (widow burning). Their version of Hindu nationalism is amply demonstrated in the state where they are carrying out the Hindutva experiment – Gujarat State – where now yet another new movie called ‘Parzania’ is banned because it tells the story of the Gujarat riots of 2002.
When the present Prime Minister of India said the following about Dalits in a Dalit meeting on December 27, 2006, in New Delhi, the RSS/BJP was up in arms:
“In studying the problems captured by this theme, it is necessary to make a distinction between the problems faced by Dalits in India and the problems faced by “minorities” in all societies. Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of “untouchability” was Apartheid in South Africa. Untouchability is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on humanity.”
I fully concur with the Prime Minister’s words and also attempt to identify the malaise within. Our aspiration for greatness as a nation in the modern world depends on our ability to unflinchingly look at what is wrong in our social structures and to deal with it. India’s poverty and backwardness is not just about economics. It is also because of the slavery of the caste system. We need not be afraid about what the world thinks of us when the Prime Minister speaks like this, as the RSS leaders are saying. It is the greatness of our Prime Minister that he has had the courage to look at a problem squarely and call it for what it really is – India’s apartheid. The Dalits are examples of modern day slavery!
The root problem is the caste system and the ideology that says humans are created unequally, that one man is lower than the other, and that Dalits are put just outside the caste system itself, not linked to God at all. The answer is to abolish the caste system itself. This is in the interest not only of the Dalits, but of the upper castes as well.
The movie ‘Parzania’ has received rave reviews and tells the story of a Parsi family in the midst of the Gujarat riots of 2002. As the parents search for their missing son they confront the hired mobs, the police, and the apparatus of the State which all participate in one of India’s darkest communal genocides.
But the truth is bitter and Chief Minister Modi and his State apparatus (which have been trying to sell Gujarat to the Americans by bringing in loads of businessmen and also US politicians) have once again stayed true to their ilk by banning the movie.
The reason being given for the ban is that the movie will give rise to communal violence. Why is that in the other parts of the nation where the movie is being watched with interest, pain and sadness there is no communal tension anywhere?
This attempt by Indians to look at themselves critically – be it by a Prime Minister or by a film maker – is a sign of our maturity. I am encouraged by the fact that the Bollywood fraternity has united behind the maker of “Parzania”.
February 06, 2007
India's Dalits: Between Atrocity and Protest
By Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch
Published in openDemocracy
Surekha Bhotmange, a Dalit (or so-called "untouchable") member of the Hindu caste system in Maharashtra, was cooking the family evening meal on 29 September 2006 when a group of upper-caste men surrounded her home. Surekha, her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, and two sons, 23-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir, were dragged out of the hut. The two women were stripped, beaten and paraded through the village. The young men were beaten up so badly their faces were disfigured. All four died. Almost all of Khairlanji village witnessed this spectacle of caste vengeance. No one did much to stop it.
The attack was a retribution for previous activism. The upper-caste farmers from the area were using the Bhotmanges' land as a throughway for their tractors. The family resisted, with the help of a Dalit rights activist. Siddharth Gajbhiye. Gajbhiye himself was beaten up. Surekha Bhotmange was a witness, identifying twelve perpetrators who were then arrested. On the day that the Bhotmange family was attacked, all twelve had been released on bail. They took their ghastly revenge.
Surekha's husband, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmagne, was visiting a neighbour at the time of his family's murder. He saw his family being dragged out and remained helplessly hidden, watching what happened. He was the only witness to come forward. At his village, there are only a handful of families from his Dalit caste. The rest, perpetrators or spectators, who consider themselves higher caste, did not say a word. Police arrived a few hours after the incident, but no report was filed. When a terrified Bhotmange filed a police complaint the following morning, he was initially ignored. Only when the bodies were discovered was a case registered and some arrests made. The main perpetrators, however, were not taken into custody.
For a month, photographs of the brutality circulated among Dalit rights activists. The incident, however, barely registered in the national press. In November, a protest was organised by some Dalit activists and erupted into violence. Police teams were stoned, cars set ablaze. Eventually riot police were called in, some politicians rushed to the area to promise justice, while others blamed the Naxalites (Maoist groups leading a violent insurgency in the region) for instigating the violence. Several policemen were suspended for dereliction of duty, as were the doctors who failed to file proper autopsy reports. In December, the Central Bureau of Investigation finally filed charges against eleven of those accused.
The cost of violation
The Indian government, faced with difficult internal conflicts in vast swathes of the country, has routinely called upon people to reject the gun and enter into dialogue. Yet the Khairlanji incident showed once again that it is often only when marginalised people turn to violence that there is any hope of getting the attention of politicians and the authorities. In late November, Maharashtra state had again erupted into violent Dalit protest; three people died, a train was burned down, and several areas had to be placed under curfew. While the trigger was an attack on the statue of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, it was apparent that the rage had been building up since Khairlanji.
Violence is unjustified, but for many it appears to be the only way to get attention. This is because - despite all the anti-caste legislation and all the policies to end caste-based discrimination - justice for Dalits remains elusive.
More than a sixth of India's population - approximately 160 million people - live at the bottom of the caste structure: denied access to land, clean water, and education, left out by the recent modernisation process and surging economic growth, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of police and higher caste groups.
For example, a Dalit bridegroom and his wedding procession were pelted with stones on 2 November 2006 by members of upper castes in Bihajar village of Rajasthan state. He was punished for riding a horse to the wedding, a privilege these upper-caste groups claim only for themselves. The following month, an upper-caste landowner chopped off all five fingers of a 10-year-old Dalit girl's hand with a sickle after catching her stealing a few spinach leaves from his property in Bihar state. She had been foraging for edible leaves for the family meal.
Such incidents of prejudice are routine, with Dalits punished for wearing watches or riding bicycles, all symbols of affluence and reserved traditionally only for the higher caste groups. While "unotuchability" was abolished decades ago, the practice continues. Its pervasive persistence emerged during the December 2004 tsunami, when many higher-caste survivors refused to share emergency shelter and food rations with Dalits.
Since the police tend to ignore Dalits' complaints, only a small proportion of incidents of violence against Dalits is registered. Yet the National Crimes Bureau still registered 26,127 cases in 2005. Even when complaints are filed, despite special laws to protect Dalits, justice is usually delayed and the rate of conviction remains abysmal.
Efforts by Dalits such as Surekha Bhotmange, to demand their rights have provoked a brutal backlash from higher caste groups. In fact, incidents such as these, where witnesses, or those that seek judicial remedy, are brutally savaged, have become depressingly common. A Dalit rights activist from Punjab, Bant Singh, campaigning for the rights of landless or marginal farmers, has come under vicious attack a number of times. Members of the upper-caste, landowning community gang-raped his daughter. He pursued the case and secured the conviction of those responsible, who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Supporters of the rapists then organized further retribution: on 5 January 2006, Bant Singh was so badly beaten that both his arms and a leg had to be amputated.
Though their rights are inadequately defended, Dalits are courted by all political parties as a significant vote-bank. Since before India's independence, when Mohandas Gandhi first condemned "untouchability", numerous political leaders have claimed that they would work towards ending the medieval practice. In 2006, the Indian government called upon the private sector to voluntarily adopt affirmative action policies that ensure jobs for Dalits. There has been a strong backlash from upper-caste members, who make arguments similar to those who oppose affirmative action in the United States.
The real challenge is that, for all of the laws, policies and positive political rhetoric in favour of caste-abolition and the rights of Dalits and other low-caste members, words have hardly translated into change. Dalits rightly see mostly empty promises, with little law-enforcement or active campaigning designed to create public outrage.
While the Indian constitution outlaws caste, oddly the Indian government has refused to acknowledge its failure to end caste-based discrimination. For instance, at the United Nations, India has claimed that caste bias cannot be equated with racial discrimination. The government insists that altering an age-old tradition takes time, and cites its numerous laws and schemes as a measure of its commitment to protect victims of caste-related atrocities. Instead of seeing UN commentary and criticism as a tool to address the problem, the government goes into denial in international forums.
However, in December 2006 prime minister Manmohan Singh agreed that the "only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid", a statement that was immediately criticised by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - which had rejected the UN recommendations when it held power in New Delhi.
The promise of reform
Yet the Khairlanji incident and the violent protests that followed demonstrate once again that India is failing in its obligations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called upon the government to take special measures to "prevent acts of discrimination towards persons belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes, and in the case where such acts have been committed, to conduct thorough investigations, to punish those found responsible."
India's claims that caste and racial discrimination could not be equated were dismissed in 2002, when a general recommendation on descent-based discrimination specified for the first time that descent-based discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of caste, is a human-rights violation.
Although India does have laws to protect vulnerable communities such as the Dalits, it is obvious that with widespread prejudice within the bureaucracy there is very little will to actually implement and enforce these laws. That will only change if those that fail to implement policy receive administrative punishment or are prosecuted.
Manmohan Singh has promised reform. It is crucial that his government act swiftly so that no others ever suffer the fate of the Bhotmange family.