Read, Debate: Engage.

Dalit scholar’s protest exposes casteism in India’s higher education

March 07, 2024
tags:#Dalit, #India, #women's rights, #caste, #education
by:Hanan Zaffar, Shaheen Abdulla
The protest has largely been ignored by the mainstream Indian media, which is often perceived as being run by privileged castes.

Editor's note: This article contains references to suicide and suicidal ideations that may be triggering for some readers. 

"I refuse to be another institutional murder," Dr Ritu Singh, 29, stated resolutely while standing outside the gate of the Delhi University campus in New Delhi. Dr Singh, a former assistant professor at the university’s Daulat Ram College was abruptly terminated in 2020.

She has been protesting her termination for close to 200 days now, gathering substantial support from student organisations, caste academics and political figures.

The Dalit academic, who holds a doctoral degree in psychology, alleges that she was a victim of caste discrimination by the college and university administration. Dalits, situated at the lowest tier of Hinduism's intricate caste hierarchy, have been systematically denied basic civil liberties.

As per Singh, her dismissal stemmed from caste-based discrimination, accusing college principal Savita Roy of targeting her due to her Dalit identity.

"Staff and other faculties ostracised me for my dressing, activism and I was looked down upon for securing the job under reservation meant for the marginalissed castes," she said. Singh's Scheduled Caste category is allotted a 15 per cent reservation in government jobs.

Despite the Indian constitution's prohibition of the caste system, research indicates that caste-based practices persist in Indian society. Caste prejudices infiltrate educational, economic and social structures in the country, perpetuating severe inequalities.

"This system has taken too many of our lives and it has to end," Singh said while vowing to continue her struggle for others who took their life or dropped off after being "defeated" by the institutional bias.

Singh's protest, lasting over six months, has been repeatedly and forcefully thwarted by Indian police, resulting in injuries to her colleagues and supporters.

She has filed a case against the College Principal under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which penalises atrocities and hate crimes committed against these groups.

Following her termination in 2020, Singh protested for ten days outside the college, but had to stop due to the spread of COVID-19. Later, she pursued legal action and the case proceeded to court.

During the investigation and legal proceedings, the school principal, Savita Roy, presented a letter in court alleging dissatisfaction and disruption from students taught by Dr Ritu. However, it was later discovered that Dr Singh had never taught the 35 students who purportedly signed the letter, as they were neither enrolled nor present on campus.

Consequently, a charge sheet was filed in this case.

But Singh alleges that so far no action has been taken against the police despite clear evidence of malpractice.

Institutionalised Discrimination and Violence

Dalit scholars, students and teachers in Indian academia are frequently subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence, both overt and covert, due to their caste identity. Instances of intimidation, social exclusion and even physical assaults remain prevalent on Indian campuses. 

Caste discrimination has been also linked to numerous student suicides in the country.

Last year, an Other Backward Communities (OBC) ad-hoc teacher at DU died by suicide after losing their job to a less qualified person through an allegedly "rigged" recruitment process. Samarveer’s death was labelled as an "institutional murder" by activists and student groups.

"People break when they face such a dehumanising system after facing all the challenges to reach such a position in life," Singh told FairPlanet. She claims that thoughts of suicide have crossed her mind too, despite her determination to fight.

There have been several instances of Dalit scholars and faculty members from across the country resigning from institutions a result of caste-based discrimination. In 2021, Vipin P. Veetil, a postdoctoral fellow at the Sorbonne University in Paris, resigned from his position as an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management-Madras, citing discrimination.

In 2016, the death by suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad triggered nationwide protests, demanding strict provisions to protect students from marginal groups from discrimination on Indian campuses.

"Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this," Vemula wrote in a letter to the Vice Chancellor of the university a month before he took his own life.

Despite assurances by the government, Dalit and tribal students continue to lose their lives to casteism.

In 2019, 26-year-old Dr Payal Tadvi ended her life after she faced "prolonged torture, humiliation and blatant caste discrimination" from three senior doctors. Tadvi was one of the first doctors from her community.

"Institutional murders are normalised now," said N Sukumar, a professor of political science at DU who authored the book Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection.

He argued that right-wing ideologies support the caste system, and the rise of a Hindu nationalist regime in the country has emboldened individuals engaging in caste-based practices with a sense of impunity.

"Casteism has always been there. But it has flourished under the current regime," he claimed, referring to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power since 2014.

Last year, following the suicide of Darshan Solanki, a Dalit student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, acknowledged the issue. "In 75 years we have focused on creating institutions of eminence but more than that we need to create institutions of empathy," the chief justice said, pointing out that "these numbers are not just statistics."

No significant cognizance

In 2023, the Indian government accepted in the Parliament that over the span of five years, more than 19,000 students from marginalised communities dropped out of central varsities and other elite public institutions.

The government said steps like fee reduction, establishing more institutes, scholarships and priority access to national-level scholarships are being done to address the alarming trend.

However, Sukumar says there has not been any serious cognizance by authorities to eradicate the practice. Several reports that proposed guidelines for the prevention of discrimination were ignored by the administration, he accused.

"They openly practice casteism by not giving marks (to Dalit students), or by not abiding by reservation policies," he said.

In 2007, the Indian government formed a committee headed by Professor Sukhadeo K. Thorat to study widespread allegations of differential treatment and discrimination against students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities.

The Thorat Committee Report stated that SC/ST students experienced various forms of discrimination by teachers, from avoidance, contempt and non-cooperation to discouragement and differential treatment.

But despite its findings, the committee's recommendations were never implemented.

"They rejected the report, but later selectively included some provisions," Thorat told FairPlanet. He blamed the University Grants Commission (UGC), a body that controls the standards of higher education in India, and the Ministry of Education for not recognising the problem of caste-based marginalisation.

He also called out the government for not implementing the Vemula Act, which was promised in the fallout of a massive protest in 2016. The law was proposed to ensure security and dignity for students from marginalised communities on Indian campuses. India's main opposition, the Indian National Congress, has vowed to implement the Vemula Act if voted back into power.

"The ministry has done nothing in this regard. Even the UGC is not interested other than merely issuing guidelines."

Thorat, who himself served as the chairman of UGC, said, "People think education is a secular sphere, but that is not the case. Caste is a religious institution and high caste will carry it wherever they go."

He said caste discrimination should be made a criminal offence in educational institutes like ragging.

"Students know during admission that if they indulge in ragging, they will face criminal charges. Now ragging has significantly reduced. Similar laws should be there for caste discrimination also," the veteran education expert suggested.

He further stressed that caste discrimination is now being recognised in universities across the United States, "because caste Hindus carry their caste everywhere" and the problem then becomes "global."

Image by Rupinder Singh.

Article written by:
Hanan Zaffar
Hanan Zaffar
Shaheen Abdulla
Embed from Getty Images
Dalits, situated at the lowest tier of Hinduism's intricate caste hierarchy, have been systematically denied basic civil liberties.
Embed from Getty Images
Dalit scholars, students and teachers in Indian academia are frequently subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence, both overt and covert, due to their caste identity.
Embed from Getty Images
Thorat stressed that caste discrimination is now being recognised in universities across the United States.