How Are Universities Handling Caste-based Discrimination? A Report on Three Central Varsities

The UGC has mandated HEIs to submit a report by July 31, 2024, on measures taken to prevent caste-based discrimination in 2023-24.
How Are Universities Handling Caste-based Discrimination? A Report on Three Central Varsities

New Delhi: The University Grants Commission (UGC) has issued a comprehensive directive to higher education institutions (HEIs) across India, mandating them to submit a detailed report on the measures they have undertaken to prevent caste-based discrimination during the 2023-24 academic year. This report is to be submitted by July 31, 2024 via University Activity Monitoring Portal (UAMP).

The UGC directed the HEIs to form committees to address caste-based discrimination, including representatives from marginalized castes and women to ensure diversity and fair handling of complaints.

Seeking to know how complaints of caste-based discrimination are tackled in university spaces, particularly at the University of Delhi (DU), the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the University of Hyderabad (UoH), The Mooknayak spoke to DU's Dean of Students Welfare who said no specific committee has been formed to tackle such complaints even after the UGC directive.

He claimed no such complaint has been recently received at the university level. “If there is a harassment complaint, we deal with it accordingly, irrespective of the caste of the complainant.”

DU Professor Dr Nandita Narain, who is also the president of the Democratic Teacher’s Front, said the university currently do not have a committee dedicated to addressing caste-based discrimination.

However, she said, it has officers responsible for various categories who oversee general issues related to both employees and students in these categories.

The professor then went on to talk about the history of reservation at her varsity.

“Historically, until 1997, there was no reservation for SC/ST teaching posts. Reservation for OBC candidates only started after 2008. While student reservations for SC/STs were implemented earlier, faculty reservations began in 1997 and gradually increased,” she said.

“Before 1997, there was a disparity between the composition of faculty and students. Students from reserved categories existed, but there were no corresponding reserved categories among teachers.”

According to her, although there was an academic council resolution, stating that one in five posts should be reserved for SC/ST, it was never implemented due to the lack of formal reservation criteria.

As a result, students are often misunderstood and targeted, leading to significant unrest and lack of support.

In the University’s Colleges of Medical Sciences, for example, students allegedly faced discrimination such as being made to stay on different floors, eat in separate rooms and use different coloured paper for exams.

These practices led to scandals and prolonged student agitations, highlighting the extent of the issue.

She said the anti-Mandal Commission agitation in 1991-92 also created a hostile environment for SC/ST students, further exacerbating their sense of alienation and discrimination. This period saw derogatory terms coined for these students and various forms of segregation, even in prestigious colleges.

The reservation for faculty positions, which started in 1997, marked a significant change.

The political assertion of identity groups post-Mandal Commission led to a stronger demand for implementation of existing measures and new reservations. The struggle continued into the 2000s, with notable resistance from both major political parties at the time.

However, the composition of the teaching community began to change as SC/ST faculty members were appointed. This shift altered the dynamics within institutions, reducing overt anti-reservation sentiments as these faculty members became integral parts of the voting community within universities.

OBC reservations were introduced in 2008, but a freeze on permanent appointments in 2010 slowed the integration of OBC faculty. Many OBCs who were hired after this period were on ad hoc contracts, resulting in a significant number of OBC ad hoc faculty in universities.

Although there has been progress in making permanent appointments, the numbers are still insufficient. Policy changes over the years, including a shift from a department-based to a university-based roster system in 2013, have been part of a long struggle to ensure fair representation.

The increasing diversity among faculty may have positively impacted student confidence as they see more representation within their classrooms.

However, the journey has been fraught with challenges and slow progress, and the need for dedicated support structures, such as the committee proposed for handling caste-based discrimination, remains critical to addressing ongoing issues.

“No wonder,” she continued, “reservation and caste are still a sore subject for the university.”

Multiple colleges are affiliated with the DU where a proctorial committee set up by the principal themselves look after instances of discrimination. So the cases seldom reach the university level.

The Hyderabad Central University (HCU) said it has a committee to handle caste-based discrimination, but it acts only on the orders of registrar.

The HCU has been an epicentre of student demonstrations against alleged casteism, more so after the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula.

The screening of 'Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai' at Kirorimal College led to an allegedly by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and nationwide protests. At the HCU, protestors, including Vemula, were allegedly threatened by the ABVP. After an altercation, one Nandanam Susheel Kumar claimed assault and was hospitalized.

The ABVP allegedly escalated the issue, leading to the expulsion of five students, including Vemula, while Kumar faced no action. vemula's fellowship was suspended, forcing him into severe financial hardship and to live in a makeshift tent. On January 17, 2016, he committed suicide, leaving a note expressing his despair.

The Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) takes a primary role against such issues, making sure that the voice of the marginalised reach all corners of the campus and the nation.

JNU's public relation officer claimed it has an Equal Opportunity Cell, which deals with complaints of caste-based discrimination. The cell has a chief advisor and two advisors.

“These three as a committee deal with all the complaints of caste-based discrimination. The complaints may concern faculty members, students and staff,” he stated.

JNU Student Union General Secretary Priyanshi Arya spoke about the instances of casteism on the campus.

“Informally and based on my interactions with the student body, it is evident that marginalized students have borne the brunt of caste discrimination, especially post COVID,” she said.

During admissions and particularly in PLT admissions and Viva Voce, she alleged, students from SC/ST backgrounds are often profiled based on their caste.

"This profiling results in them receiving significantly lower marks — often only three or four out of 30 — which confines them to the reserved category or excludes them from the process altogether," she said.

What Did the UGC Directive Say?

In its directive, the UGC emphasized the necessity of forming dedicated committees within HEIs to address complaints related to caste-based discrimination.

These committees are to include representatives from marginalized castes or tribes and also ensure gender representation by including women members. This approach aims to foster diversity and ensure fair handling of complaints.

To facilitate the lodging of complaints, institutions are instructed to develop a dedicated webpage on their official websites specifically for SC/ST/OBC students.

In addition, a physical complaint register should be maintained in the offices of the registrar or principal, allowing students another avenue to report incidents of discrimination.

The UGC has emphasized the importance of sensitivity training for faculty members and officials. Such training aims to equip them with the awareness and skills necessary to handle incidents of caste-based discrimination appropriately.

Officials and faculty members are advised to avoid any discriminatory actions against SC/ST students, ensuring that all students are treated equitably regardless of their social backgrounds.

Prompt and decisive action against any officials or faculty members found guilty of discriminatory practices is another crucial aspect of the directive. This measure ensures accountability and helps create a safer, more inclusive campus environment.

The UGC has also mandated that institutions regularly report the number of complaints received and detail the resolutions or actions taken on these complaints.

Internal cells within HEIs are expected to actively monitor and resolve issues related to caste-based discrimination, ensuring that complaints are addressed promptly and effectively.

To ensure comprehensive implementation, the UGC has instructed that these guidelines and recommendations be widely circulated among all constituent and affiliated colleges of the universities. This includes advising all officials and faculty members to be more sensitive in their interactions with students from marginalized communities.

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