On January 16, The Wire reported on the five vacant PhD seats in the Department of History at the University of Delhi. The department had advertised for 30 PhD seats, but admitted only 25 candidates. In a clarification, the department said that it had filled all the SC and ST seats, and that the OBC and EWS seats were vacant because no suitable candidates had been found.
The criteria of “not found suitable” in the reserved category is hardly new in India. The recent case at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, where teaching posts in the reserved category remain vacant because they did not find any OBC candidate “suitable” for the posts, is one of countless examples of casteism in educational institutions.
According to University Grants Commission data from 2018, the country has no OBC professor at a central university. In August 2021, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan spoke in Lok Sabha about how 55% of reserved category seats were lying vacant at research institutions and universities. The onus for filling the seats, he said, lay on the universities.
Whenever the subject of vacant seats comes up, the most common reason I hear from upper-caste academia over the state of affairs is: “If the OBC community does not study or pursue research, how will they become professors?”
The very same people who question the merit of the marginalised refuse to understand the very reasons why marginalised students pursue less research than upper-class and caste students and candidates. They don’t see themselves as the main conspirators behind it at all.
But why are there fewer researchers from marginalised communities? First, there is not much exposure to information about research as a career option. Secondly, after facing a slew of problems, even if students from marginalised communities get access to such information, they face a lot of difficulties in clearing entrances. This is because most central universities conduct examinations in English and most marginalised students do not have access to an English-medium education.
Still, many clear the entrances with good marks only to get rejected in the viva because the upper-caste academia gives them a single digit number or declares them as “not found suitable”. The case of the Jawaharlal Nehru University viva scams is a perfect example of this widespread practice.
Finally, for those who do manage to get admission, the caste walls begin to close in as many upper-caste professors create hurdle upon hurdle to discourage marginalised students from pursuing research.
Living the reality
I took admission in the Department of History, University of Delhi to pursue an MPhil with enthusiasm. But my perception towards the department began to change over time as I witnessed the casteist behaviour of my professors, including those who proudly call themselves feminists.
It soon became clear that the department favours upper-caste students. During our first year, while doing some coursework, I found that the professors would always heap praise on upper-caste students for their presentations and mark them well. But when it came to marginalised students, the professors mocked their English, their accents, and would either fail the students or award passing marks.
Most of the marginalised students around me found the environment toxic. Many such students across India are pushed to their limits by the endless obstacles they are forced to leap over, leading many to to drop out. My batch saw a high number of dropouts. Despite going though so much mental torture at the hands of upper-caste supervisors, many are afraid of speaking out for the fear that it would impact their career options.
When I made a complaint about my supervisor mentally harassing me, I was in turn harassed by another senior professor. This led to fear among my fellows over the consequences of speaking up about discrimination.
When I asked my supervisor to conduct a pre-viva for my MPhil submission, he agreed to conduct it and fixed a date. Later, he wrote a letter to the senior professor claiming that I was not ready for the pre-viva. My supervisor made me write my synopsis some six-seven times, and even after that I was humiliated during the synopsis presentation. The senior professor tore up the pages, and another upper-caste professor said, “I cannot believe that you wrote your synopsis right in front of us.”
I was then made to write a synopsis yet again in front of them in order to prove to them that I could write in English. I can still clearly remember how the professors were giggling behind me.
I was also forced to write an apology letter to my supervisor because I resisted working on the topic suggested by him. I wrote the apology, but made it clear to him that I would be working on my own topic on the Doms (Scheduled Caste) of Bihar. After that, when I asked my supervisor regarding my submission, he started making excuses about how my English was not very good. He asked me to hire a copywriter for my MPhil dissertation. He made re-write my dissertation over and over again – which I only did because I wanted my degree and because I wanted to produce my work on Doms.
After all this, he did not agree to submit my MPhil and continued to make excuses. One day, he angrily called me and said, “Why have you submitted your draft, I am not here to read your garbage writing.”
On that day, I decided to take a stand against such discrimination. Under his instruction, I was doing ten times more work than my upper-caste fellows and my writing was still being called “garbage”.
I complained to the Vice-Chancellor, and after a month he forwarded my letter to the department. That’s when the real trouble began.
The senior professor and one upper-caste female professor tried to convince me to write a letter stating that I was “not mentally well” and to take my complaint back. I refused. I said that it was “because of casteist behaviour like this that Rohith Vemula, Muthu Krishnan, Fatima Lateef and Payal Tadvi took the extreme steps they did”.
The senior professor then laughed and said, “Nowadays, it has become fashion to take Vemula’s name.”
I replied, “Vemula’s story is not ‘fashion’, but a story of caste-based discrimination.”
I then decided to approach the National Commission for Backward Classes. Fortunately, they listened to my problems and issued letters on my behalf. My department replied by stating false facts about me – that they were delaying the process because “the student does not know English and she is not from a History background” and that “the student has submitted just 70 pages of her dissertation”.
All these allegations are untrue. I have pursued History since Class 11. I have completed my Masters from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. I also qualified for the department of history at DU by giving an entrance exam.
I have had an English-medium education my whole life. I submitted my thesis of nearly 170 pages after having re-written it almost ten times. My MPhil took twice the duration and crucial years have been snatched from me.
After hearing from NCBC, the department finally agreed to submit my MPhil.
I wanted to narrate my story for several reasons.
I have been discriminated against because of my caste and gender. I have been discriminated against for raising my voice against a casteist department. It was not an easy fight. Many times, I felt drained and frustrated. I was left panicking about my future.
There were even times I thought of taking extreme steps, and others where I began to doubt my own abilities.
However, I did not back down. There are many others who cannot because of the mounting everyday battles they face. They drop the course as they lack the capital, energy and time to jump into a complex legal process.
The reason our representation is so low is because upper-caste academia restricts our representation.
Even after taking admission, the life of marginalised students is not smooth like it is for most elite students. Bahujan students have to face many hurdles to get an education. Caste, gender and language discrimination are the top hurdles in our lives.
To counter such a system that propagates such daily discrimination, the education ministry should ensure that every institution has an effective SC/ST/OBC/women’s cell. Second, all advertised seats ought to be filled, particularly when it comes to the reserved category. The entrance examination system also requires more transparency.
Awareness among marginalised students is necessary regarding their rights. Students from such backgrounds should be clearly informed of the existence of the SC/ST/NCBC and Women’s Commission as well as the process of how to file a complaint. The requisite commission should then ensure that justice is provided on time.
In the UGC guidelines, the rights of students during his/her research are not clearly mentioned. This should be rectified immediately.
Lastly, marginalised students should not lose hope. Caste discrimination has been part of our society for centuries. Without a fight, we have not got anything in this country. So while you gather the courage to fight back – do remember that your mental health and life are far more important.
Ritu is a research scholar at University of Delhi.