Delhi University: Dalit Law Student's Internship Opportunity Thwarted by Caste Bias

Sourabh points out a troubling practice within the academic system in DU where students are required to divulge their names and even caste categories on their answer sheets.
Sourabh at one of the college events.
Sourabh at one of the college events.

New Delhi: In a stark portrayal of the persisting caste-based discrimination in professional spheres, a bright Dalit law student's hopes were crushed as an internship opportunity slipped through his fingers solely due to his caste identity.

Sourabh Rai, a final year student of Delhi University's law program, found himself at the crossroads of ambition and injustice when he approached a senior lawyer for an internship. What he anticipated as a chance to learn and contribute within the legal domain soon transformed into a painful encounter highlighting the deep-rooted prejudices that continue to plague society. Sourabh took to Twitter to share his pain on the lost opportunity and prevalent caste discrimination in the legal spheres.

In a conversation with The Mooknayak, Sourabh mentioned that he had recently visited the Tees Hazari court based on a reference from a friend, aiming to join a senior lawyer for an internship. Upon his initial approach, he was met with a seemingly innocuous inquiry about his surname. However, this innocent question quickly unravelled into a relentless interrogation probing his caste background. The questions about his domicile, origins, and heritage were posed not to understand him as an individual, but rather to pigeonhole him based on his caste.

What escalated the situation was the lawyer's persistent need to delve into Sourabh's background during leisurely breaks. These breaks were not merely pauses in the conversation but rather opportunities for the lawyer to dig deeper into Sourabh's caste identity, overshadowing any semblance of professionalism. The undeniable obsession with Sourabh's caste eclipsed his skills, aspirations, and potential contributions as a budding legal professional.

Despite Sourabh's best efforts to steer the conversation towards his passion for law and his eagerness to learn, the caste fixation persisted. The dialogue remained fixated on his caste, eroding his dreams and ambitions one question at a time. The climax of this unfortunate episode arrived when Sourabh was posed a direct question: "What's your caste?"

"He attempted to pose all his questions with the underlying intent of uncovering my caste background. Eventually, he posed the direct inquiry - 'To which caste do you belong?' To this, I responded with 'Chamaar,' signifying Scheduled Caste (SC). In response, the lawyer advised me to keep in touch with the friend who is currently serving as an intern. He mentioned that they do not have an immediate requirement for an intern, but encouraged me to maintain communication so that I am informed when the need arises," Sourabh conveyed to The Mooknayak.

Students come together to organize events honouring the legacies of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshiram.
Students come together to organize events honouring the legacies of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshiram.File pic

Silent Struggles: Caste-based Discrimination and Fear in Educational Institutions

Sourabh emphasizes that students from his community have encountered such behaviour even within the campus environment, where opportunities, exposure, and even favourable grades seem to be distributed based on one's 'caste' affiliation. He highlights that certain subjects provide teachers with the discretion to allocate marks to students they favour.

He further elaborates that while many students face discrimination, they are often hesitant to voice their concerns due to the fear of potential repercussions. They understand that raising their voices might lead to problems or jeopardize their academic future by receiving lower grades. This prevailing atmosphere of fear and vulnerability compels students to endure such discriminatory practices in silence, ultimately perpetuating a cycle of unequal treatment based on caste alignments.

Sourabh points out that students from marginalized backgrounds often come together to organize events honouring the legacies of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshiram. These events serve as a platform for awareness, education, and unity among the community members. However, even in such endeavours, hurdles arise that underscore the ongoing disparities faced by these students.

Law students celebrating Kanshiram Jayanti at DU
Law students celebrating Kanshiram Jayanti at DU File pic

Echoes of History in Contemporary Classrooms

Amid the shift to online education prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dalit students like Sourabh Rai encountered more than just the challenges of remote learning. The remnants of age-old caste hierarchies crept into their modern learning experiences, leaving behind a disheartening reminder of the enduring nature of caste-based biases.

In a specific online class session, Sourabh's teacher embarked on a discussion about Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu text infamous for its caste-based classifications. However, what began as a potentially neutral exploration soon took a troubling twist. Sourabh discerned an apparent glorification of the text, as the teacher lauded its supposed wisdom while indirectly endorsing the entrenched caste-based ideals it propagated.

Refusing to stand silent in the face of what he perceived as an inappropriate celebration of a system that had perpetuated injustice across centuries, Sourabh voiced his concerns about the ethicality of such discussions. In a startling response, the teacher defended the glorification by asserting that remnants of the ancient varna system still persisted within contemporary society. To bolster her claim, she recounted a telling incident involving a Principal from her village in Rajasthan.

" The narrative she recounted depicted the Principal, belonging to a lower caste, patronizingly serving water to individuals from upper castes during his village visit on leave. The implications were stark - caste discrimination was not an artifact of history but a staring reality that endured in the present" , Sourabh said.

Caste Identification on Exam Papers Raises Concerns

Sourabh also points out a troubling practice within the academic system in DU where students are required to divulge their names and even caste categories on their answer sheets. He highlights a particular example in the sixth-semester Professional Ethics paper where 20 marks are allotted for multiple-choice questions (MCQs). However, he finds it perplexing that students are compelled to write their names and caste categories on the answer sheets. Sourabh shares his concerns about this practice with The Mooknayak, shedding light on a practice that seemingly transcends conventional understanding. Sourabh says he has raised a complaint against the DU with the SC-ST Commission and has even a case pending before the High Court regarding a scholarship issue.

Sourabh Rai's pursuit of justice and equality led him to cross paths with members of the All India SC-ST Advocates, an organization of law professionals from marginalized communities. However, even this platform, fell short in making a tangible impact on first-generation learners.

Seeking Support Amidst Silence

Sourabh noted that the majority of students within this community, hail from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These students, burdened by limited resources, often face barriers to education and opportunities that their privileged counterparts might take for granted. Consequently, they are hesitant to raise their voices against discrimination, fearing the potential consequences that could further hinder their progress.

Sourabh's experience also unveiled the challenges within his own educational institution, Delhi University (DU). While there are provisions for lodging complaints related to SC-ST issues, the campus itself lacks an inclusive space for dialogue and resolution. The existing redressal mechanism is confined to a section on DU's website, with limited visibility and engagement.

Despite the existence of platforms and provisions, a lack of accessibility, resources, and proper channels often leaves these students without effective recourse.

In pursuit of clarity regarding the matter of disclosing names and castes in answersheets of multiple-choice questions (MCQs), The Mooknayak sent an email to Prof. Usha Tandon, Dean of the Law Faculty at DU. The email aimed to gain insights into the rationale behind such practices. The efforts met with silence. Even after a polite reminder, the awaited response from the other end remained elusive.

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