Interview: Sukhadeo Thorat

‘Exclusionary practices are deeply pervasive’

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Sukhadeo Thorat: "The Vice-Chancellor handled the case with a lot of insensitivty and immaturity." Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Interview with Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

THE United Progressive Alliance government, under a lot of pressure from civil society groups, constituted a three-member committee to inquire into the allegations of differential treatment of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (S.C./S.T.) students in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, in 2006. The committee, headed by the economist and former University Grants Commission Chairperson Sukhadeo Thorat, released its report in 2007. It pointedly spoke out against many discriminatory practices in the premier institute. While highlighting the fact that institutional measures like remedial classes and English-coaching classes for marginalised students were absent, the report noted that S.C./S.T. students had to face social and academic isolation at every level of the course—from classrooms and laboratories to hostels and messes. The report also noted that even though ragging was officially banned, there was unofficial ragging, which had serious caste overtones, for a month.

The report also suggested that S.C./S.T. students had to face discrimination in examinations, practical work and viva voce. It said that they were kept out of administrative responsibilities and many cultural activities in AIIMS. The report also noted that the discrimination was so high in AIIMS that S.C./S.T. students were forced to live separately in different floors of the hostels. In a similar study done with the economist Paul Attewell, Thorat found caste-based discrimination in the urban labour market too. In their study, they found that S.C./S.T. students had much lower chances than upper-caste students of getting an interview call for a job.

Professor Emeritus in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Thorat is now the Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research in New Delhi. He has published many research papers on the issue of caste-based discrimination against S.C./S.T. students and has been one of the greatest voices to demand reservation for S.C./S.T. students in the private sector. He spoke to Frontline in the context of Rohith Vemula’s death and explained how higher education in India systematically favoured savarna Hindus and discriminated against Dalit/Adivasi students. Excerpts from the interview:

Rohith Vemula’s death has brought into discussion a number of issues about discrimination faced by Dalit students in Indian universities. What, according to you, are the various forms of exclusion and discrimination?

Indeed, Rohith Vemula’s death has brought the issue of discrimination against Dalits out in the open. It is not that Dalit suicides have not occurred in the past; close to 25 Dalit students have committed suicide, but those cases hardly received attention beyond the institution or the press. It is for the first time that there has been a pan-India response. This presumably speaks about the ubiquitous nature of a Dalit’s problems in higher education, particularly relating to discrimination.

There are very few studies that capture the nature of discrimination. However, the limited evidence that we have indicates that the discrimination that Dalit students face assumes various forms. They generally face discrimination and stigmatised behaviour in their relations with other students, the faculty, and administration in multiple aspects of their life on the campus—peer groups, friend circles evolved around caste, ethnic and religious identities, which brings about an exclusionary pattern in social life on campus.

The exclusionary trends are reflected in hostels, in dining rooms, in friendships, in academic support and other spheres. It is shocking that many universities still have separate hostels for each caste and religious group. The differential treatment experienced by Dalit students in their relation with teachers varies from non-cooperation and lack of support to humiliation and discrimination.

Similar non-cooperation is experienced from the administration. A representation by a group of teachers from educational institutions in the city of Hyderabad to the Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh in 2013 brings out the behaviour that involves hurt and humiliation. It must be recognised that discrimination is deeply embedded in social relations, which cannot be captured in straightforward indicators but is experienced by Dalit students either directly or in an indirect and invisible manner. But it is beyond doubt that higher education campuses with diverse student compositions have developed a visible exclusionary character around social identities like caste, religion, ethnic background, gender, region and language, which affect the academic life of students on the campus.

The rate of suicides among Dalit students has been abnormally high over the last few years. Do you think these practices of exclusion are so deep and pervasive that it pushes many to kill themselves?

The exclusionary practices around caste are deeply pervasive. We have at least three studies that comment on the probable reasons for suicides by Dalit students. An analysis of some suicide cases by Anoop Singh revealed that “there seems to be more than enough evidence to believe that caste discrimination played a significant role in driving these extraordinary individuals into committing suicide” and that “elite professional institutions are the places where caste prejudice is so firmly entrenched that it has become normal”. In the representation to the Andhra Pradesh High Court judge, a group of 29 academics, in a petition to the court, identified failure, fear of failure, administrative indifference, hostile regulations, insults, social and academic stigmatisation and rejection as some of the reasons for suicide by students from marginalised groups.

Research done by N. Sukumar, professor of political science, who was also a student of the University of Hyderabad, provides an insight into the general milieu of stigmatisation and discrimination faced particularly by Dalit students in the context of Senthil Kumar’s suicide [the Dalit student from Tamil Nadu committed suicide in the University of Hyderabad in 2008] and throws light on how caste comes into play in interactions of Dalit students with high-caste students, teachers and administrators. It is this exclusionary social milieu that pushes those Dalit students who fail to handle the psychological pressure of humiliation to suicide. In fact, academics have ignored the studies on these aspects of university life . We need to conduct methodological studies to better understand the Dalit student’s life.

In the case of Rohith Vemula’s death, do you hold the Vice-Chancellor accountable as is being stated all over?

I believe that the Vice-Chancellor handled the whole case with a lot of insensitivity and immaturity. Students come to the university to build their careers, and therefore their issues have to be handled with care so that they feel protected. That is why in the university system a separate mechanism is developed to deal with the problems of students. This is not to say that in unusual cases the law should not take its own course. But students are not commodities to be thrown out for normal mistakes.

Let me give an example of Jawaharlal Nehru University, which will make the point that I wish to make. In JNU, students had gone on a hunger strike. Prof. Y.K. Alagh, the Vice-Chancellor, and the faculty thought that the students’ demands were unreasonable. Prof. Alagh could have called the police or taken steps like what the University of Hyderabad did. Instead, Prof. Alagh erected a tent right in front of the students’ tent and went on a hunger strike himself against what he perceived as the unreasonable demand of students. The students responded and the issue was resolved.

Recently, the African American students of Michigan University accused the president of the university of discriminating against them in selection for sports. The president resigned on moral grounds. It needs a lot of moral courage and concern for students to take such a drastic step. Here is a Vice-Chancellor to whom Rohith wrote that Dalit students at the time of admission should be provided with poison.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad did not have a clue as to what was going on in Rohith’s mind. I believe that the way the Vice-Chancellor handled the whole affair, he is, in a way, morally responsible for what has happened in the university.

You headed the committee to inquire into the allegations of differential treatment of S.C./S.T. students in AIIMS. In your report, you drew up an extensive list of the problems and discriminatory practices faced by Dalit students. How, according to you, is such differential treatment manifested in colleges like AIIMS?

The differential treatment is manifested in unsupportive, unhelpful and exclusionary treatment towards Dalit students by other students, teachers and administrative officials in some spheres, if not all. This leads to an environment where Dalit students feel frustrated and helpless. Hurting them psychologically by calling them “category” students is one of the most disturbing trends in institutions like this. This affects them psychologically. This also affects their academic performance.

Often, the practices of exclusion are entwined with loose notions of “merit” that are deeply entrenched in our social imagination. Your comments on this.

It has to be recognised that in our higher education system there is a large inter-institutional disparity in quality of education and curriculum. Most Dalit and Adivasi students enter elite institutions with an educational background from public institutions. They often feel intimidated by the advanced curriculum and methods of teaching with which they are not so familiar. Therefore, there is a need to make the curriculum and pedagogy student-friendly, and this demands reforms in the education system.

When you were the UGC Chairperson, what steps did you take to check such exclusion of Dalit students?

A number of steps were taken to address the problems of students from marginalised sections. These mainly include increase in fellowship, including non-NET [National Eligibility Test] fellowship, and setting up of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, hostels for girls from rural areas, strengthening equal opportunity offices in universities and, above all, framing regulations to prevent discrimination.

What according to you are the most important steps that the government should take immediately to address the problems of S.C./S.T. students?

In my view, the government should take five steps: a law against discrimination; some form of academic assistance to students by reforming the present remedial schemes; regular fellowship; participation in governance; and a sensitisation programme for students through courses in civic learning, similar orientation programmes for teachers and administrative officials about the problems of discrimination. Overall, the government should look towards creating a more supportive atmosphere for S.C./S.T. students.

You have been an advocate of “personalised academic support system” for Dalit students. What do you exactly mean by that?

Personalised academic assistance systems essentially involve identifying the academic needs of each student. Once those needs are identified, the teachers concerned, with the help of senior students, could help each student overcome those difficulties. I think this system will be better than a general classroom teaching system. This is possible at postgraduate and PhD levels where the number of students is relatively low.

The regular delay in disbursement of fellowships like the Junior Research Fellowship or the Rajiv Gandhi Fellowships for S.C./S.T. students further jeopardises the lives of marginalised students on campuses. How do you think this problem can be addressed?

Since most Dalit/Adivasi and OBC [Other Backward Classes] students come from poor backgrounds, fellowship is like a maintenance support for them. So the release of fellowships has to be regular. There are methods which enable the authorities to deposit the fellowship in the students’ bank accounts on a regular basis. This has worked. However, there are delays in the releasing of the amount. In such situations, institutions should release the fellowship from their own resources. Above all, what is needed is concern and empathy for the poor. That is lacking.

Increasingly, there are attempts to privatise higher education in our country. In the light of the recent World Trade Organisation meetings around education and the Occupy UGC movement spearheaded by students, do you think privatising higher education can lead to further marginalisation of certain communities, especially Dalits and women?

We have one of the most privatised education systems in the world. About 60 per cent of students now go to self-financing institutions. Privatisation has already reduced the access of the poor to self-financing institutions. The proportion of students in the bottom quintile of consumption expenditure is much lower compared to the top quartile. The share of S.Cs and S.Ts in private institutions is lower compared with the rest. Access to higher education, particularly in professional courses, is highly unequal. Unlike European countries, where equal access through public education systems has become a leveller, in India unequal access to higher education has become a source of economic inequalities, the consequences of which will be far more serious.

Of late, there has been a surge in Ambedkarite political groups across various campuses in India. Often, these groups engage in critical debates with traditional political groups in the universities. How do you see the development?

The tendency to form political groups around Ambedkar and social identity is because of the hesitation by general students’ or teachers’ organisations to take up the issues of Dalit students or teachers. Often there is a conflict. This leads to the formation of associations built around their own problems. Dr Ambedkar’s ideology and movement, thus, becomes the only source of aspiration and symbol for S.C./S.T. students.