A Legal Remedy Is Required to Stop Caste Discrimination in Academic Institutions

Remember George Floyd? A 47-year-old African-American man was murdered by four racist police officers of Minneapolis in May 2020. The day after the killing, widespread protests were witnessed not only in the United States but across the globe, demonstrating deep anguish and anger against the brutal murder. In India, on primetime TV, the national media discussed this case under the sentimental rubric of ‘Black Lives Matters’. Within civil society discourse, the issue received vibrant support. Similarly, in 2012, India’s civil society showed great resistance on the streets in protests against the brutal gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi.

Such protests show that there exists deep sensitivity and awareness for unfortunate victims, and the people can rise against such heinous crimes on occasion. However, it also appears that such awakening and uproar by civil society are selective. Many cases of brutal murder, lynching, rape and violence against Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis find only a few takers in the media or in civil society circles. Further, mainstream political parties neglect these cases or provide symbolic lip service when asked.

The recent ‘institutional murder’ of Darshan Solanki, a young student of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, reaffirms the criticism that the ruling political establishment, civil society and the mainstream media overtly distance themselves from the everyday tragedies and traumas of Dalit lives. For many, such incidents are treated merely as any another case of a ‘depressed and poor’ student’s suicide in the campuses of higher education. The recent report by the 12-member inquiry committee to examine Solanki’s suicide endorses a similar attitude. It rules out the possibility of caste discrimination against Solanki and suggested that it might be the student’s failure to bear the academic burden.

Often, an ‘institution of excellence’ like IIT, JNU or DU highlights the so-called poor educational aptitude of Dalit and Adivasi students, and suggests that there is a lack of confidence amongst the students which makes it difficult to survive in such competitive places. Even in a case of visible victimisation and harassment, Rohith Vemula’s case, the defenders suggested that the institutional practices were legitimate and put the blame on the Dalit student instead.

Brahmanical academic institutions

Thanks to constitutional provisions, Dalit students’ participation in the corridors of higher learning has become a reality now. A majority of Dalit students to have entered the citadels of higher education are first-generation learners, coming mostly from rural backgrounds with poor economic conditions. Their lack of social and economic capital often becomes hurdle to pursue their academic career freely. As the normal social milieu in most of these campuses is lopsided towards the upper caste-Brahminic cultural values, the presence of Dalit-Adivasi members is often treated with insensitivity, prejudice and hatred. They are often mocked due to their social background, belittled for their language skills and even punished when they compete against their upper-caste counterparts. As a response, many Dalit-Adivasi students hide their caste identities and operate under distress, fear and anxieties.

Also read: IIT Bombay Suicide: Did Authorities Fail to Act Even After Surveys Pointed to Rampant Casteism?

During the protests to seek justice for Rohith Vemula, multiple testimonies from Dalit students across universities has established the fact that non-Dalit faculty members, authorities and other members of institutions discriminate against Dalit students. There are numerous individual examples: a non-Dalit student changing his/her hostel room because the roommate is a Dalit; giving minimum marks to Dalit students in viva-voce exams; or hurling insensitive and abusive comments against Dalit castes and Dalit icons. There is also structural social discrimination like not allowing common mess facilities and not fulfilling the reserved quota in admissions, or in faculty and administrative positions. Further, political and social activism by Dalit students is met with a violent and repressive onslaught by the university administration and by upper-caste-dominated student organisations. Many such cases in HCU, AIIMS, IITs and JNU are open examples of caste discrimination.

Caste-based discrimination forces many students to fall into acute depressive conditions, resulting into growing cases of suicide. It has been pointed out that before Solanki’s suicide, in the last decade, there were more than 40 cases of Dalit students dying by suicide in some of the major academic institutions.

Two commission reports on caste discrimination in two central institutions of higher learning by Sukhdeo Thorat (2007) and Bhalchandra Mungekar (2012) have concretely demonstrated that Dalit students go through multiple difficulties and harassment while pursuing their education. There are subtle and direct ways to discriminate against Dalit students including caste prejudices, bias, casteist abuses, social humiliation and physical assault.

Though these prestigious institutions admit SC/ST students to fulfil the constitutional mandate, they lack a deeper sensitivity to abide by the principles of social justice. Institutional authorities often show their inability to prevent cases of caste discrimination or to propose an effective resolution against such complaints. Importantly, there is no institutional mechanism within academic institutions to look into compartmentalised caste relationships and its dire effect on campus life. The institutions are unaware of any procedural guidelines that should be implemented as corrective measures to address issues of differential treatment.

Need for legal remedy

The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, (SC/ST PoAA) is one of the powerful legislations to fight social injustice against Dalits. However, it hardly deals with specific cases of caste-based discrimination, subtle crimes and institutional negligence that the Dalits in academic institutions experience. Further, it is often found that internal institutional mechanisms like the SC/ST Cell are dysfunctional or hardly have powers to intervene in cases of caste discrimination. Therefore, during the protests to seek justice for Rohith Vemula, a demand for an effective constitutional provision, specifically meant to address the interests, concerns and difficulties of Dalit-Adivasi students and faculty members in the institutions of higher education, was raised.

The current protests and discussion to ensure justice for Darshan Solanki shall also ask the national government  to formulate the “Rohith Act”, a legal-constitutional enactment to protect the rights and interests of socially marginalised groups in universities and other institutions of higher learning.

Also read: Subtly But Surely, India’s Premier Colleges Still Enforce Caste Norms. I Saw it First Hand.

The government must guarantee equal protection to Dalit students either by executing an amendment in the current Atrocity Act or by evoking a new legislation specifically for the protection of Dalit students’ rights in academic institutions. The other possibility is to learn from the Supreme Court’s Vishaka judgement. The court in 2013 directed public offices to implement an Act for the Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment cases against Women at the Workplace (Anti-Sexual Harassment Act). It helped to make workplaces more gender sensitive and supported women in their fight against patriarchal values. An identical act should be implemented in all educational institutions to address cases of caste discrimination against Dalit-Adivasi students.

The mandate of such an Act shall be to deliver justice to Dalit-Adivasi students through proactive efforts that enables them to study and participate in academic life with dignity and self-esteem. Under the given context, the existing laws and normal provisions of the Indian Penal Code are inadequate to deter crimes against Dalits in spaces of higher learning. In addition, multiple remedial and other welfare programmes for academic assistance should be initiated to ensure their substantive participation in all academic and democratic forums of the institutions.

The ongoing Dalit protests and mobilisations to ensure justice for Solanki shall also be motivated to educate the ruling classes about the casteist psyche that has clutched academic institutions, making them an oppressive space. A sincere deliberation and action plan is required to make university campuses more inclusive, free from caste-based prejudices and substantively dedicated to the ideals of social justice. Such a campaign can start with the demand for a legislative provision to formulate and implement the ‘Rohith Act’. Further, a national civil society campaign shall be launched, engaging the ruling elites, media influencers, political leaders and celebrities to highlight the traumas and injustices that caste creates. Robust civil society activism is a must to advocate effective policies and social programmes to arrest the dangerous spread of caste maladies in society.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.