Asia - Pacific

India 'struggling' with casteism in higher education

Students, anti-caste activists say caste discrimination becoming more prevalent on campuses

Ahmad Adil   | 24.01.2022
India 'struggling' with casteism in higher education File Photo


When Rohith Vemula, a Dalit post-doctorate student from southern India’s University of Hyderabad, killed himself after alleged caste-based discrimination, it triggered protests across India and brought to the fore the issue of casteism prevalent in the Indian education system.

Six years later, activists and students from the Dalit community, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, say that caste discrimination has become very prevalent on campuses and classrooms.

The caste system divides Hindus into four categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Outside of this, are the Dalits or the untouchables.

Coinciding with International Day of Education on Monday, Raam Singh, an anti-caste activist who is associated with the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, a student group at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Anadolu Agency that casteism is rampant in higher education institutions, and a number of measures are needed to end discrimination.​​​​​​​

"We have seen horrific incidents where people have committed suicides which were institutional murders over caste discriminations in the institutions. In terms of the recent challenges, the primary reason for discrimination is the upper caste mentality; lack of awareness; casteism, and no proper policy. All these are resulting in Dalits continuing to face huge discrimination," he said, adding that "country is struggling with casteism in higher education institutions."

The study, The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism, released last September by civil society groups said casteism is prevalent in the Indian higher educational institutions, particularly in medicine and engineering.

The report noted that there is a need to treat caste-based discrimination and institutionalized caste-based discrimination as a violation of the constitutional rights of individual students, especially from marginalized castes, tribes and minority communities and not simply as ragging.

"The inadequacies of the current legal frameworks and colossal gaps in their implementation warrant a separate legal framework to prevent and respond to caste-based discriminatory practices in educational institutions," said the report.

Several cases have been reported in recent years where suicides have been registered after alleged caste-based discrimination.

In September, university watchdog University Grants Commission (UGS), wrote to colleges and universities to prevent caste-based discrimination.

Many students agree that they face discrimination because of their castes.

"When I was enrolled for an undergraduate course, I was vocal about his Dalit identity and vouched for the rights of Dalits and marginalized sections. Most of my upper-caste mates were against reservation. I was always typecast, stereotyped and even labeled with derogatory nicknames," Nishat Kabir, who is studying film at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, told Anadolu Agency.

He said he was publicly tagged with the “Dalit” label and it left a deep effect on his morale and personality.

Dalit scholar Munna Sannaki from the Center for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the University of Hyderabad told Anadolu Agency that after several incidents many state and central institutions have taken measures according to their convenience, but "after a point, they are not functioning."

"According to UGC, all the universities must have student counselors, psychiatric, anti-discrimination and many other facilities. A very few universities have all these facilities. But those are not autonomous or no student representing bodies," he said. "Being a member or representative of any student-related body is a student's legal right but very few universities are considering this. When all these facilities are administered by institutions, students are left with no hope."

Sannaki, who is the former president of the Ambedkar Students' Association at the school, which fights for the rights of Dalits, also blamed faculty members who do not care about the rights and laws of the marginalized population.

"They keep involved in discriminating against students at every step possible. I have seen faculties carrying the same attitudes even after his/her students commit suicide. That means they can manage or overcome their nexus," he said.

Proper policies

According to activists, proper policy-making and proper implementation with appropriate supervision for students in educational institutions as well as ministry level can help bring an end to the discrimination.

"All educational institutions must be barrier-free in terms of language, caste, class and religion so that the marginalized sections can come up to construct their own merits," said Raam Singh from Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association.

Megha Kshirsagar, a student activist in the western state of Maharastra, said that there is a need to highlight discrimination in the 21st century.

“We need to raise voices and highlight how the caste discrimination continues to happen in the 21st century and in a democratic society. Awareness needs to be created and we need affirmative action so that in society we can bring a change," she said.

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