---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Shailaja Neelakantan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sat, Dec 17, 2011 at 12:52 PM
Subject: Attached, as well as pasted into this mail is My article on
caste Discrimination on Campuses
To: "Shailaja Neelakantan (Stringer External Address)" <email@example.com>
This is the link to my article on caste discrimination on India's
campuses. I've also attached it as a word file to this mail as well as
have pasted the story at the bottom of this mail.
Thank you all so much for all the time you so graciously spared to
talked to talk to me. Apologies to the people I spoke to who didn't
get a mention in the article. That is because there were space
Still, you will all be glad to know, though, that this is probably one
of the longest article the Chronicle has run, ever! Please do send the
article to your friends and colleagues.
In India, Caste Discrimination Still Plagues University Campuses
By Shailaja Neelakantan
In February, 20-year-old Manish Kumar climbed to the roof of a
five-story building at the elite Indian Institute of Technology in
Roorkee and jumped to his death. The engineering major was a member of
India's underclass, formerly known as "untouchables." And that, says
his father, was what drove him to commit suicide.
From the day he set foot on campus, "his classmates would taunt him,
saying, 'You can never become an engineer—you are only here because of
quotas,'" says Rajinder Kumar, from his home in the northern Indian
city of Kanpur. "Every time we met him, he would look depressed, and
he initially didn't tell us why. One day, finally, he phoned and said
he was being tormented by his classmates and he couldn't study because
Caste-based discrimination has been illegal since the creation of
India's first Constitution, in 1950. To eliminate centuries-old
persecution of Hinduism's outcasts, considered so unclean as to be
untouchable, the Constitution made it a criminal offense to engage in
practices common at the time, including refusing untouchables entry to
temples, serving them from separate cups and plates, refusing to rent
them homes, and denying them access to education.
The government also set aside more than one-fifth of places in public
colleges and in government jobs for this group of around 200 million
people, which the Constitution renamed the Scheduled Castes, and for
Scheduled Tribes, a term that refers to indigenous people, who number
about 96 million.
Today members of the Scheduled Castes have emerged as a potent
political force. They call themselves Dalits, a Sanskrit word meaning
"ground down beyond recognition." But as Manish Kumar's suicide
suggests, thousands of years of prejudice are not so easily erased.
Of 441,424 registered crimes against Dalits and indigenous people from
1995 to 2007, as many as 10,512 were cases in which upper castes
perpetuated some of the old "untouchability" practices, according to
the National Coalition for Strengthening the Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Even recently there have been incidents—mostly in rural areas, where
Dalits are less able to blend in—of people being forced to consume
feces, or lynched because they dared to get water from a well not
designated for their use. Sometimes they are attacked for seeming to
show off by riding a motorbike or by talking on a cellphone.
Disturbingly, caste discrimination is pervasive in India's
universities as well, say many Dalit students and teachers, as well as
social scientists, academics, and observers who study issues of class
In the most egregious cases, Dalit students and their supporters say,
upper-caste students beat up Dalits for no given reason; professors
ignore questions from Dalit students in class; upper-caste students,
with the complicity of professors, ostracize their Dalit peers or
force them out of university housing; and professors compel students
to reveal their caste publicly, and then give Dalits lower grades.
University administrators, police officials, and the Indian media
often deny that discrimination exists, downplay its severity, or
simply sweep it under the rug, says Ivan Kostka, publisher of a
magazine on caste issues called Forward Press, who notes that 85
percent of all senior editorial positions in the national news media
are held by Brahmins, the highest of the caste groups.
Contacted by The Chronicle for comment on incidents that allegedly
occurred on their campuses, officials at several universities either
did not respond or argued that caste discrimination does not exist at
their institutions. At the Indian Institute of Technology at Roorkee,
for example, the dean of student welfare rejects Rajinder Kumar's
claims that his son was harassed for being a Dalit.
"There is no truth in this," says the dean, N.K. Goel. "All students
are treated equal. No discrimination occurs at any level."
Rajinder Kumar says the university did nothing when he asked them for
help after his son confided in him that he was being harassed.
"Instead of taking action against the students Manish complained
about, they said it was better he leave university housing and take up
private residence elsewhere," says Mr. Kumar. "The supervisor said,
'There are 400 to 600 students here, and how many can we stop from
saying such things?'"
To understand these widely divergent points of view, consider that
India's attitudes toward caste today echo attitudes in the United
States until the 1960s, when overt prejudice toward black people
coexisted with a nascent civil-rights movement.
And even though many Indians say they oppose any form of caste
discrimination, it is not uncommon for employers, for example, to ask
applicants about their family backgrounds or to make explicit
judgments about which parts of India produce the most- and
No national studies have been done to determine the magnitude of
caste-related discrimination on campuses. But according to the Insight
Foundation, a Dalit activist group, discrimination and verbal and
physical abuse have led to at least 18 suicides by Dalit students over
the past four years. And a disproportionate number of dropouts from
universities are Dalits—even though higher education is their only
hope of rising socially.
"This is caste humiliation," says Surinder Jodhka, a sociology
professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University who studies
social stratification, with an emphasis on Dalits and religious
Anoop Kumar, founder of the Insight Foundation, says those 18 suicides
reflect only those cases in which parents have come forward to
complain. In many more cases, parents are reluctant to speak out. He
fears that despite the gains that Dalits have made politically, the
climate on campuses has actually gotten worse as they have begun
speaking up more, and the competition for university placements has
grown more fierce.
Opposition to Quotas
At the root of much of the animosity driving caste tensions on
campuses is the quota system, or reservations, as they are often
Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist who has written about religion and
Dalit issues in India, says reservations have created a barrier of
prejudice, especially given the competition in India for admission to
universities. That has entrenched existing stereotypes about Dalits,
who many feel "aren't fit to join university and then not fit to study
and basically should not be treated as citizens."
Those opposed to quotas argue that after India's 64 years of
independence, set-asides have outlived their original purpose. Dalits,
they argue, have risen enough on the socioeconomic ladder to be able
to compete against their peers on a level playing field. Many
opponents of quotas believe that the system allows academically weaker
students to get in, when merit should be the sole basis of admission.
"Obviously they are weak [academically]. That's why they are taking
the benefit of reservations," says Kaushal Kant Mishra, a founding
member of a group called Youth for Equality, which campaigns against
the use of quotas. Dr. Mishra says that while he agrees that Dalits
have been discriminated against in the past, it is wrong to relax
admissions standards in an attempt to redress those injustices.
He helped formed Youth for Equality in 2006, when he was studying at
the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, or Aiims, a top medical
school. He says he does not believe that caste discrimination exists
at his alma mater or anywhere else.
Even some university leaders think the quota system is wrong.
Set-asides in top universities are "a bad mistake" made by the Indian
government, says P.V. Indiresan, a former head of one of the Indian
Institutes of Technology.
And it's common for students who cannot apply under the quotas to feel
that they might have been admitted to a better institution if the
quotas were abolished.
The perception among many opponents of quotas is that there is a
significant difference in admissions standards between students who
qualify for quotas and those who don't. Yet the difference is actually
quite narrow, with a relaxation of between 5 percent and 10 percent of
grades on either college-entrance examinations or high-school exit
"It isn't as if we can get zero marks and get in," says Ajay Kumar
Singh, who studied at Aiims, and has formed a group called Progressive
Medicos Forum, which seeks to bring to light caste discrimination in
"In the notion of merit that has been appropriated by the elite, there
is no inclusion, there is only individual merit and the natural high
IQ which apparently you automatically get if you're higher caste," Mr.
The Death of Merit, a documentary about Dalit students' suicides made
by the Insight Foundation's Anoop Kumar, argues that the real death of
merit occurs when Dalit students who have made it to college despite
socioeconomic hardships kill themselves.
This year Mr. Kumar has been going around to India's universities and
screening the documentary for students. When he talks about suicides
and discrimination, he often hears that hostility toward Dalits exists
because of quotas.
"I ask, 'What about us not being allowed to go to temples or not given
houses on rent or discriminated against in jobs? And what have
reservations got to do with that?' Then they have nothing to say," Mr.
Students who benefit from the quota system often find that it is used
against them once they are on campus. Many institutions post lists of
new students that include their scores and the category under which
they were admitted: general or scheduled caste. This ensures that
everyone—students, administrators, and professors—knows who the Dalits
The differentiation, and sometimes overt segregation, continues in
other ways. Dr. Singh says that most Dalit students at Aiims were
housed in separate dorms. He was placed in a dorm where he was the
only Dalit, which created its own problems.
Students "used to bolt my dormitory room door from outside and write
on the door that no one likes me, and I should change to another
dormitory," recalls Dr. Singh.
More recently, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, two Dalit students were
assaulted, on separate occasions, by upper-caste students, according
to a Dalit support group on the campus.
In one instance, a Dalit student said that an upper-caste male student
and some friends beat him up after the Dalit student asked to see his
ID before he could vote for the dormitory student elections.
"Don't you know who I am?" the latter asked, according to some
students at the university. During the alleged assault, the Dalit
student claims his attackers were chanting caste slurs.
In another instance, Dalit students complained that they had been
assaulted in retaliation for a poster that reinterpreted Hindu
mythology with a pro-Dalit spin. Dalit students say the university
doesn't take action when such incidents occur.
S.K. Sopory, Jawaharlal Nehru University's vice chancellor, says
administrators conducted an inquiry about the fight over the poster
and found that students on both sides were guilty. The university
suspended them. "We have zero-tolerance policy on violence," Mr.
Sopory says. Sometimes clashes between different castes are actually
motivated by rivalry between campus political parties, he adds. Also,
he argues that Dalit students "sometimes incite groups, saying, 'You
Brahmins have been ruling us for centuries.'"
It is difficult, of course, to determine whether Dalit students are
targeted because of their caste or because they simply misinterpret
why they received poor grades or treatment.
Many Dalit students with whom The Chronicle spoke said they didn't
file formal complaints because they were afraid of the repercussions.
However, on politically active campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru
University, Dalit students have been able to produce some evidence
suggesting that discrimination exists.
A petition last year by students at the university, using India's
Right to Information Act, showed that many Dalit students who scored
well in their written exams, on which students are identified only by
a number, received extremely low scores in the oral exams.
Discrimination "is that blatant," says Ashwini Shelke, a sociology
student at the university who is a member of the United Dalits Student
Forum, a group that brings attention to issues faced by Dalits.
Sometimes, students say, they suffer from the prejudice of low
expectations. Mr. Kumar, of the Insight Foundation, says that on his
first day of engineering school, "one professor said, 'Those who are
from the Scheduled Caste category better work hard. Mayawati won't be
marking your exams—I will.'" Mayawati is the country's first female
Dalit chief minister of a state.
Mariaraj, a former student at a Tamil Nadu college, who goes by one
name, says he felt shut out in class.
"No teacher talked to us Dalits in class, and they ignored any
questions we had," he recalls. "Teachers were very partial to
non-Dalits. If any Dalit was absent one day, he would be severely
punished," but non-Dalits who would skip class weren't penalized, says
Mr. Mariaraj, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Manonmaniam
Sundaranar University, in Tamil Nadu.
But quota opponents say they've seen such hostility go both ways.
"Some are good, but many are arrogant," says Mr. Indiresan, the former
head of an Indian Institute of Technology, of students admitted under
quotas. "One Dalit student in my class had a low attendance record,
and he said because he is Dalit, he doesn't need to bother."
Dalit students also seem to fare worse than their peers in college.
In 2007 the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum conducted a
survey and found that student-failure rates at Aiims, the medical
school, were 60 to 70 percent for Dalit and Scheduled Tribe students,
while for nonquota students, the rates were under 10 percent.
At the Indian Institutes of Technology, says Mr. Kumar, of the Insight
Foundation, the annual Dalit dropout rate is 25 percent. Whether this
is the result of prejudice or other factors—such as weaker academic
preparation—is difficult to know.
A Taboo Topic
It is also hard to know whether the average professor or student
believes that caste-based discrimination is a problem, as the topic
remains largely taboo. No national surveys on discrimination, or on
beliefs about quotas, have been done.
The Chronicle approached several professors at the University of Delhi
to ask about their views, but all refused to discuss those issues
publicly. Some who opposed quotas didn't want to be named but said
that once Dalit students get in, they don't work.
University administrators have also not seemed to take many overt
steps to deal with possible discrimination on their campuses or
tensions around the issue of quotas.
In 2008, Senthilkumar, a Dalit physics scholar pursuing his doctoral
degree at the University of Hyderabad, killed himself on campus
because no professor was willing to be his doctoral guide, say Dalit
activists and some academics there.
A university spokesman says an investigation turned up nothing incriminating.
"No evidence was found in any of the schools for systematic or
deliberate discrimination against students on the basis of caste,
although problems in administering the Ph.D. programs have given rise
to such apprehensions among students," wrote Ashish Thomas, a
university spokesman, in an e-mail response to a question about Mr.
P. Thirumal, head of the department of communication at Hyderabad,
says the situation is not so simple.
"There have been [discrimination] cases I have heard of from
students," he says, emphasizing that his views do not necessarily
represent the university's. When society is the way it is, it's too
ambitious to expect professors to transcend its behavior, he says.
"By and large, caste discrimination is an affliction, a collective
one," he adds.
What Mr. Thomas doesn't say, but Mr. Thirumal confirms, is that
Hyderabad's investigation also concluded that discrepancies and
ambiguities had crept into the assessment of students at the school of
"The sad part of the report is that while it agrees discrimination
happened in physics, it didn't pinpoint any authority. So no one was
punished," Mr. Thirumal says.
Looking for a Solution
There are some small signs of change.
After lobbying efforts by the Insight Foundation and other Dalit
advocacy groups, in July the country's university regulator ordered
hundreds of institutions to take strong steps to prevent caste
An unnamed official told an Indian newspaper that the number of Dalit
students committing suicide "is shocking enough for us" to take such
action. Anoop Kumar says the university regulator's order has been
posted on bulletin boards on university campuses.
One thing many Dalit students don't want to change is the quota system
itself. "Yes, the quota identifies you as a Scheduled Caste student,
so the chances of discrimination are high," says Ms. Shelke, of the
United Dalits Student Forum. "But if there is no quota, we wouldn't
even get in, because discrimination is so huge, right from
She and other advocates hope that more Dalit students feel comfortable
speaking up for themselves, and that universities take a more active
part in breaking down longtime social prejudices.
"We have to get universities to break the ice between communities,"
says Mr. Visvanathan, the sociologist. "We need imaginative faculty. I
see [the current situation] as a failure of imagination."
<*>Attachment(s) from Siddhartha Kumar:
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