Equity in Education: Confronting Caste-Based Discrimination in Premier Institutes of India

Between 2018 and 2023, a staggering 19,256 students belonging to the OBCs, SCs, and STs have dropped out of Central Universities, IITs, and IIMs.
Equity in Education: Confronting Caste-Based Discrimination in Premier Institutes of India

While the implementation of the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) by the central government emphasizes the urgent need for educational reforms, concerning figures of dropouts from premier institutes like IITs and IIMs reveal a worrying trend of discrimination and harassment faced by students from marginalized communities in higher education institutes in India. 

The NEP aims to transform India's educational system and position the country as a global knowledge hub, focusing on holistic development, innovation, and technology. One of the key provisions of the NEP is the introduction of multiple entry and exit points in universities, facilitated by an Academic Bank of Credit (ABC), allowing students to complete their courses without losing credits earned in previous sessions.

However, recent data shared by the Ministry of Education in response to a written question in the Rajya Sabha exposes the distressing reality. Between 2018 and 2023, a staggering 19,256 students belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) have dropped out of Central Universities, IITs, and IIMs.

This includes 6,901 OBC candidates, 3,596 SC students, and 3,949 ST students leaving Central Universities, 2,544 OBC candidates, 1,362 SC students, and 538 ST candidates dropping out of IITs, and 133 OBC, 143 SC, and 90 ST candidates discontinuing their studies in IIMs.

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The highest number of dropouts were from IIT Delhi, IIT Kharagpur, IIM Indore and IIM Kashipur.

These figures highlight the concerning trend of students from marginalized communities facing discrimination and harassment, leading to their premature departure from premier institutes.

Union Government Denies Reports of Caste Discrimination 

During a session at the Rajya Sabha last month, the Union government made a statement regarding caste discrimination and marginalization of SC/ST students in IITs over the past five years. In response to MDMK MP Vaiko's inquiry about instances of caste discrimination in higher educational institutions, the government claimed that no such cases have been reported from IITs and Central universities during the specified period.

Vaiko had sought information from the Union government regarding the occurrence of caste discrimination in IITs and Central universities within the last five years. He also inquired about the steps taken to address these issues, the number of suicides among SC/ST students in these institutes, and the underlying reasons behind such tragic incidents.

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In his response, Minister of State for Education, Subhas Sarkar, asserted that there have been no documented cases of caste discrimination in IITs over the past five years.

Regarding the efforts to tackle caste discrimination on campuses, the government mentioned the establishment of various mechanisms such as SC/ST students' cells, Equal Opportunity Cell, Student Grievance Cell, Student Grievance Committee, Student Social Club, Liaison officers, and Liaison Committee. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has also provided guidelines to eliminate discrimination among students.

Additionally, the Education Ministry highlighted several measures taken by institutes, government departments, and the UGC to address language adjustment, mental health, psychological stress, academic pressure, and related issues. However, it is important to note that the listed measures did not include any specific initiatives aimed at addressing caste discrimination.

Inquiry Raised on Dropout Rates of OBCs, SCs, and STs in Higher Educational Institutions

During a parliamentary session, Tiruchi Siva, an MP from Tamil Nadu, sought information regarding any studies conducted by the government on the factors contributing to the high dropout rate among OBCs, SCs, and STs students in higher educational institutions.

The Ministry said that this was because in many cases, students wished to migrate to another department or institute. It said, “The migration/ withdrawal if any, is mainly on account of securing a seat by the students in other departments/ institutions of their choice or on any personal ground.”

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The minister highlighted the government's efforts to support financially disadvantaged students through measures such as fee reduction, the establishment of additional institutes, scholarships, and priority access to national-level scholarships. 

Specific welfare schemes aimed at SC/ST students, such as tuition fee waivers in IITs and grants of national scholarships under the Central Sector Scheme, were also mentioned.

Caste discrimination behind suicides?

Unfortunately, alongside these statistics, distressing news emerged of a recent suicide by a PhD student at IIT Madras. The student tragically took his own life at his off-campus residence in Chennai, marking the third suspected suicide case at IIT-Madras in 2023.

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Earlier this year, on February 12, another incident of suicide occurred at IIT Bombay, involving a Dalit student named Darshan Solanki. Allegedly, caste discrimination was a contributing factor in his decision. Subsequently, the police filed an FIR a month later, charging an unknown individual with abetment to suicide.  

Stress not discrimination reason for suicides: Govt

The government provided data indicating that from 2018 to 2023, there were a total of seven suicides by SC/ST students in IITs (six SC and one ST). Additionally, between 2017 and 2021, seven suicides of SC students were reported in other Central universities.

The Education Ministry stated that in such cases, internal investigations by the institutes are conducted along with inquiries by the police and district authorities. The reasons behind these tragic incidents were found to include academic stress, family issues, personal reasons, and mental health concerns, among others.

IIT Roorkee dropout shares experience of caste discrimination 

Madhusudan, a Dalit student, fulfilled his childhood dream of attending IIT after clearing the GATE exam, a decade ago.  However, his experience was plagued by pervasive caste discrimination. From daily encounters in the library to the canteen, Madhusudan faced prejudice solely based on his reserved category.

"Not even the teachers treated us well that we could have expressed our grief to them. They used to look at me as if I had landed there from another planet. Even as a child, I have the habit of speaking my mind upfront. I used to protest against the discrimination meted out to us and on other student issues like food quality on campus. We gradually started becoming part of the Anna Movement in Delhi, and used to travel from Roorkee to Delhi. Because of this, around 12 of us students were forced to drop out, by failing us in 2 subjects. I did not know how to communicate to my family that I had dropped of the much-revered IIT. But I did. I left IIT, left the government job and left civil engineering, which I had studied for 7 years by then." Madhusudan told The Mooknayak.

Despite the initial disappointment, Madhusudan redirected his focus to advocate for the annihilation of caste. He believes that continuing at IIT would have exposed him to a fate similar to Rohith Vemula and Darshan Solanki. Madhusudan urges society to support Dalit students' struggles and seeks genuine empathy, understanding, and transformative change.

The Challenges in implementing NEP

The NEP's vision for a transformed education system must address these deep-rooted issues to ensure equal opportunities and a supportive environment for all students, irrespective of their social backgrounds. It is crucial to bridge the gap between policy aspirations and ground realities to create an inclusive educational ecosystem that truly nurtures the potential of every student and safeguards their right to education.

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As the government spearheads the implementation of the NEP, it confronts these challenges head-on. The vision of an inclusive education system necessitates dismantling age-old prejudices and fostering an environment that celebrates diversity and provides equal opportunities for all.

The NEP introduces multiple entry and exit options in universities, enabling students to tailor their academic journeys according to their pace and circumstances. This flexibility alleviates the pressure on students and ensures that external factors do not impede their educational progress.

The Academic Bank of Credit (ABC) acts as a pivotal instrument in this transformation. It allows students who have temporarily paused their undergraduate studies to seamlessly resume their educational pursuits, building upon the credits they have already earned. This innovative approach acknowledges the efforts of students and mitigates the fear of losing progress due to unforeseen circumstances.

However, the road to an inclusive education system encounters obstacles. Deep-rooted caste-based discrimination continues to hinder the aspirations of OBC, SC, and ST students. The battle against these systemic biases becomes an integral part of the larger struggle for equality and justice.

Simultaneously, civil society organizations, activists, and change-makers too need to join forces to amplify the voices of marginalized communities. Their relentless advocacy seeking to dismantle barriers, challenge systemic biases would ensure equal opportunities for every student.

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