February 12, 2023: A Dalit student takes his life, this time at IIT Mumbai. There are accusations of institutional culpability by failure to “make the space inclusive and safe for Dalit Bahujan Adivasi students”.
February 13, 2023: A post-graduate student takes his life at IIT Madras. A second student may have been saved from ending his life. Students sit in protest all night long demanding action from the administration. Among areas of concern: discrimination, inadequate attention to mental health issues, and the relationship between research scholars and their professors. The director appears in the morning and promises a town hall meeting to address all their concerns.
To some, the students’ concerns and the administration’s promises are merely echoes from the past, only to be forgotten or diluted over time…until the next suicide.
Will the proposed town hall meeting result in any out-of-the-box solutions to the long, troubled relationship between the administration and students under duress, especially those from marginalised communities?
As an alumnus who has been advocating for an open dialogue on the issue of diversity and inclusion on campus for some years, I am skeptical.
Sure, there has been progress from time to time, such as recognising the importance of personal privacy (no more marked envelopes for SC/ST applicants or highlighting them on attendance lists); appointment of staff counselors for SC/ST students; recognising student bodies who speak on behalf of marginalised communities; promoting mental health resources; etc.
But the response of the IITs to such a critical issue is often seen as formulaic – more akin to solving an engineering problem, without considering the psychological dimensions of historically oppressed communities, who are finally gaining entrance in large numbers to higher education.
No wonder, there are awkward moments such as when IIT-M decided that the most urgent action following a suicide was to make ceiling fans in hostel rooms “suicide-proof”!
Also, interestingly, almost all the proposed solutions over the years have been directed at the student body – remedial courses, mentoring, counselling and so on – but seldom directed inwards, at the administration and the faculty.
Does that mean that the latter have no role in creating meaningful solutions to troubled relationships? For example, how about mandating sensitivity training on caste discrimination for all faculty and administration?
Over the decades, I have tried to engage the alumni and the administration on the issue of SC/ST/OBC reservations and the readiness of IIT campuses to successfully integrate larger and larger numbers of students from these communities.
But my attempts, almost always, have hit a brick wall.
I once questioned a faculty presenter at an alumni get-together on what IIT-M was doing to prepare for the imminent influx of OBC students. The cocky response went something like this: “It’s nothing that we are not already handling under our general student population. The only question now for us is the direction of growth of our hostels – we may need to build up vertically.”
I nudged a past director on his views on OBC reservations. The gist of his response: “We just do what we’re told and keep our mouth shut.” A frank admission of unwillingness or inability to engage in a public conversation on an issue of crucial importance to students.
I wrote to the pan-IIT group (cc: Director) requesting that it create space in its mega conventions to discuss diversity and inclusion. The director responded to say that he would be happy to speak if the group invited him to do so. The group promptly responded that all topics were chosen based on the level of interest expressed by the alumni – meaning that there was zero interest in discussing campus diversity. Shunning any discussion of “controversial issues” seems to be the party line among the IITs and their alumni.
More recently, I spoke to a group of IIT Mumbai alumni, including a former dean of students, on the issue of diversity on campus. He bemoaned: “What is this word ‘Dalit’ you use over and over again? If something happens to a student in Madras, why should these people in Mumbai be bothered and start protesting?” I was shocked to hear such total lack of empathy from someone who was once in charge of all students at a prestigious IIT campus.
Around the same time, I spoke to students from the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a campus support group at IIT-M. They spoke about how the administration had once tried to ‘cancel’ their group altogether, while student organisations sympathetic to Hindutva had had a free rein on campus. They liked their faculty counselor, but they seemed convinced that Dalit students were constantly being set up for failure.
They also told me that most of their queries with regard to lack of caste diversity among the faculty were simply stone-walled by the administration. It is only with the help of RTIs and dedicated outside researchers that we have been able to recently find that “At the top five IITs and the IISc, 98 per cent of professors and more than 90 per cent of assistant or associate professors are from privileged castes.”
Is it any surprise that students often flag discrimination and relationships between professors and student scholars (especially Dalits) as a major area of concern?
I have no idea whether the proposed town hall meeting will simply be a complaint-taking session or will bring any new ideas from the administration.
For the sake of the future of an institution that I deeply care for, I hope that the administration will at least make a new beginning by committing to open and transparent communications with students on all issues that affect them, especially with students from marginalised communities.
A commitment to hiring an external consultant to study issues of diversity and inclusion on campus would be a great forward-looking step.
Recognising the urgent need for training faculty and administration on issues of caste discrimination would be a revolutionary step forward.
Finally, I hope the institute and its alumni will seriously ponder over the question of whether any institution can deal effectively with mounting complaints of discrimination as long as the faculty doesn’t come anywhere close to representing the diversity of the student body and their social circumstances?
Raju Rajagopal is a 1968 graduate of IIT Madras and co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, USA.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.
This article was first published on The Wire.