Caste Discrimination Rampant in Indian Higher Education: Study Exposes Deep-rooted Prejudices

The study conducted by scholars from prestigious universities in the US and the UK sheds light on the systemic stigma, prejudice, and social representation that hinder the progress of marginalized students in Indian universities.
CasteismGraphic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

In a recently published research article in the journal "Caste: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion", the pervasive issue of caste discrimination in Indian higher education institutions has been highlighted. 

The study titled "Caste Identities and Structures of Threats:Stigma, Prejudice, and Social Representation in Indian Universities", conducted by scholars from prestigious universities in the United States and the United Kingdom sheds light on the systemic stigma, prejudice, and social representation that hinder the progress of marginalized students in Indian universities.

The paper is part of the project “Distress, Discrimination and the Higher Education in India” and supported by the International Partnership and Mobility Award 2016 of the British Academy, UK. 

Facing exclusion and partiality in educational spaces

The research, based on qualitative ethnographic methods including field observations, focused group discussions, and field logs, exposes the distressing experiences of students and teachers from diverse social backgrounds. It reveals how students belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) face differential treatment, social exclusion, and humiliation in educational spaces.

One of the alarming findings of the study is the prevalence of discriminatory practices during the admissions process. For instance, it was discovered that lower caste students who performed well in the written portion of the MPhil admissions exam at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were unfairly marked down during the viva-voce portion. This demonstrates institutional biases and obstructs the path of social inclusivity.

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Furthermore, the research brings attention to the hostile environments faced by marginalized students within universities. Derogatory comments, abuse, and questioning of their legitimacy as students are commonplace. The study highlights instances where reserved category students are subjected to humiliating remarks related to their caste identity. This deeply affects their self-esteem, well-being, and academic performance.

The impact of caste discrimination goes beyond the students themselves. Even reserved category teachers face subtle and overt discriminatory behaviors from non-category students, faculty, and administrative staff. The study reveals a disturbing reality wherein the daily experience of social exclusion adds an additional negative dimension to the lives of quota students.

The research also sheds light on the alarming rate of suicides among Dalit and Adivasi students, further emphasizing the gravity of the issue. The findings underscore the urgent need for comprehensive measures to combat caste discrimination in the Indian education system.

The stigma of belonging to the 'Reserved Category'

Constitutionally, SC, ST and OBC students have seats reserved (15 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively) both in institutions of higher education as well as in public sector employment. Colloquially they are called (reserved) categorystudents or quota students. ‘Category Students’, recount their experiences of prejudice from other students, teachers as well as administrative staff.

In a study conducted by Kumar (2016), it was highlighted that Dalit girls at Delhi University face humiliation when they are asked questions like, "Have you come through reservation or have you come from a brothel?" Here, the word "quota" rhymes with the Hindi word for brothel, "Kotha." Similarly, Guru points out how derogatory terms like "son-in-law of the government" are used to demean reserved category individuals. Such derogatory language contributes to the stigmatization of these students as carriers of dirt, waste, and disease.

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According to anti-caste scholar N. Sukumar (2008), students belonging to reserved categories at Hyderabad Central University face derogatory comments and humiliation from their non-Dalit peers and mess workers. These derogatory remarks include references to negative characters from Hindu mythology such as Bakasura and Kumbhakarna. Additionally, reserved category students are subjected to abusive comments like "pigs," "government's sons-in-law," "bastards," "beggars," and other insults that even question their paternity.

The humiliation extends beyond students, as reserved category teachers also report experiencing discriminatory treatment. They face derogatory remarks and discriminatory behavior in classrooms, staff rooms, interactions with staff in residential quarters, and even in hostel canteen halls. This indicates that caste-based discrimination is pervasive and affects various aspects of university life, creating a hostile environment for reserved category students and teachers alike.

Institutional Caste-Based Discrimination Exposes Students to Public Shaming and Violates Privacy Rights in Indian Universities 

In Indian universities, the lack of institutional mechanisms surrounding privacy has created a distressing environment where academic staff and faculty have the authority to publicly shame students by revealing their caste identities. This practice is facilitated by the public display of lists containing the names of admitted students along with their obtained marks. Additionally, during the registration process, separate counters are often set up for students belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC), and the unreserved "general" category. Such practices exemplify institutional caste-based discrimination, severely violating the basic dignity and right to privacy of SC/ST students.

Need for psychological and emotional support system 

Efforts to address this pervasive issue must extend beyond policies and regulations. The study recommends the establishment of appropriate psychological, emotional, and physical support systems, such as counseling and enhanced security measures, for victims of caste-based discrimination. 

The findings of this research demonstrate the urgent need for a collective effort from educational institutions, policymakers, and society at large to eradicate caste discrimination and create an inclusive environment that provides equal opportunities for all students. Failure to address this deep-rooted problem will continue to hinder the progress of marginalized students and perpetuate social injustice in Indian higher education institutions.

The Team of Researchers :

The study was conducted by a team of researchers comprising: 

  • Gaurav J. Pathania - Assistant Professor of Sociology and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.

  • Sushrut Jadhav - Professor of Cross-Cultural Psychiatry, University College London, UK.

  • Amit Thorat - Assistant Professor, Center for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

  • David Mosse - Professor, Social Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, UK.

  • Sumeet Jain - Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, UK.

These researchers collaborated through an international partnership and network mobility grant provided by the British Academy. The team brought together scholars from the United Kingdom and India who specialize in studying caste-related issues. 

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The study employed qualitative ethnographic research methods, including field observations, focused group discussions, and field logs, to gather data on the experiences of caste-based stigma and discrimination in Indian higher education institutions.

Speaking to The Mooknayak, Gaurav Pathania says, "the research study serves as a wake-up call to address caste-based discrimination and partiality in higher education. It calls for comprehensive policy changes, institutional reforms, and interdisciplinary dialogues to dismantle the barriers that hinder marginalized students' progress. By bridging the gap between social sciences and clinical perspectives, universities can evolve into healing sites for both upper and lower castes, fostering inclusivity and empowering all students to thrive. "

  • Student suicides reached a staggering number of 10,335 in 2019, averaging at approximately one suicide every hour. This marks the highest number of student suicides in the two decades, highlighting a pressing issue in the education system. (Source: Times of India, September 7, 2020)

  • On April 13, 2017, a Dalit M.Phil student of India’s most politically vibrant campus Jawaharlal Nehru University hanged himself.

  • In 2016, University of Hyderabad student, Rohith Vemula (whose suicide led to nation-wide protests), wrote in a letter25 to the university administration that university authorities should “make preparations for the facility of euthanasia for students like me”

  • A concerning statistic reveals that less than 3 percent of the faculty members in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) belong to Dalit and Tribal communities. (Source: Justice News, January 1, 2019)

  • Dalits face dual stigmatization, both for their caste identity and as beneficiaries of the government's quota/reservation policy.

  • In 2008, Senthil Kumar, a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide. Professor N. Sukumar who prepared a report on this suicide highlighted ‘murky realities of caste discrimination in our universities’ (Senthil kumar Solidarity Committee 2008, p. 10)

  • In 2006, a Dalit student committed suicide due to caste humiliation by hostelmates in India’s top medical school. In response, the government of India formed the Professor Thorat Committee to investigate the matter.

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