Is elite caste syndrome continuing to dog top Indian educational institutions?

Just how sharp are cultural fault lines in top end campuses like the IITs, IIMs and NITs?

Published: 31st March 2023 10:39 PM  |   Last Updated: 31st March 2023 10:39 PM   |  A+A-

IITBHF has also helped establish the most recognisable IIT and IIT Bombay brands in the US and elsewhere.

Image used for representational purposes only (File Photo | PTI)

Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old Dalit boy who was a first-year student of the Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay, killed himself on February 12, adding another name to a long list of students belonging to backward communities, who have ended their lives due to reasons that are largely unexplained.

Is the caste syndrome, steeped in historical trauma, social ostracism, and political ambivalence, taking its toll on Indian student life, even among the country's best-known places of higher learning? It raises a few fundamental questions: just how sharp are cultural fault lines in top-end campuses like the IITs, IIMs and NITs? Let us face it: no matter how high profile and brilliant the campus is, could it be so far removed from society that it fails to mirror its fissures and reflect the biases of the wards produced by such a system?

In a country where hierarchies based on ascribed identities are even older than the modern nation state itself, education has been seen -- and rightly so -- as one of the few means, if not the only one, of acquiring social mobility by marginalized groups. The deeply stratified Indian society brings about a plurality of student experiences coming from diverse backgrounds into places of higher learning, which helps in the process of nation building.

ALSO READ | IIT suicides reveal toxic mix of academic pressure, official apathy and discrimination

While there can be no quarrel with inducing homogeneity in student life, the everyday travails of scholars belonging to Dalit, tribal, other backward castes (OBCs) and minority backgrounds, who come face to face with constant alienation and humiliation that are part and parcel of their admission in the higher arenas of learning, can take its toll.

And taking a toll they are. Data presented by the Ministry of Education in the parliament this month is telling. Thirty-three students have died by suicide at IITs since 2018, nearly half of them from the SC, ST and OBC communities. In the same period, NITs and IIMs across the country registered 28 deaths by suicides of students, a majority of whom belonged to the SC, ST and OBC communities.

The reasons identified behind such suicides include academic stress, family reasons, personal reasons, mental health issues, the Ministry's response said. This comes amid a raging debate on the state of mental health and alleged caste-based discrimination at the country’s premier institutes triggered by the reported suicide of Darshan Solanki.

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Without taking anything away from greater democratization in the education sector, which has, without doubt, opened the way for more underprivileged students to find a level playing field, upward mobility has been far from smooth. The dominant groups have constantly tried to assert their ascendancy by primarily controlling the gates of the educational institutions of excellence. One common fallacy, reasserted ad nauseam, against increased representation of historically marginalized groups in top-tier higher education institutions is that their presence would compromise the quality of the education imparted and dilute the 'merit' of the institution. Utter nonsense, but old prejudices are hard to vanquish.

Nowhere was this prejudice better exemplified than in 2006 during the outcry against the implementation of OBC reservations in elite educational institutions, revealing the anxieties amongst upper-caste groups towards increasing the democratization of higher education in India. Things went so far that a group of students from IIT, Delhi, submitted a memorandum to the President of India seeking permission to commit suicide if the policy was implemented!

Would it be accurate to suggest that premier institutions like IITs were basically elitist in setting their criterion for admission? According to Ajantha Subramanian’s book, The Caste of Merit, IITs were allocated significant funds and other resources to produce a select group of top-tier engineers. She writes that the government omitted the implementation of reservations and that the rationale behind such a move was to help preserve the 'meritocracy' of the IITs. In other words, the principles of equity and social justice were sacrificed at the altar of so-called 'meritocracy'.

The exalted value of these institutes allowed the predominantly advantaged groups to seize these educational spaces largely on account of their existing caste privileges that directly reinforced their meritocracy. Therefore, caste privilege masqueraded as meritocracy and became a filter for the dominant groups to restrict the entry of marginalized groups to top-tier educational institutions.

The implementation of the reservation policy, particularly of OBCs, has opened the doors of elite institutions to historically marginalized groups. Their entry into institutions such as IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS greatly increased the socio-cultural diversity of these institutions. While the reservation policy aided the entry of marginalized groups, there was no question of ensuring their inclusion by failing to address their historic disadvantages. The decades of domination of these spaces by privileged groups had entrenched the upper caste sensibilities in all aspects of life inside the campus. They were and are determined to not concede space to the newcomers easily.

Despite the legal safeguards, there remains little by way of providing an institutional support system and public discourse against caste discrimination.  

If campus life itself was given to such segregation, hiring strategies at Indian companies couldn’t be much different. Not only do companies and employers want to hire top performers, they want to hire them from elite colleges such as the IITs and IIMs.

In his 2016 book Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, author Duncan Clark explained how the founder of one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies hires. Apparently, when building up his team, Jack preferred hiring people a notch or two below the top performers in their schools. The college elite, Jack explained, would easily get frustrated when they encountered difficulties in the real world. The contrast with Indian firms could not be starker.

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)

India Matters


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  • Sriram

    The article doesn't address the fact that the students are unable to cope up with the stress of exams because they haven't competed at the same level with the other students who gain admission with great deal of hardwork and not just reservation. Mediocracy through reservation is the basic bane of education. Very easy to keep blaming the institution or open category students who too come from diverse financial backgrounds and are not born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
    2 months ago reply
  • Sam John

    Who are you fooling ? There is a 70% reservation in these institutions !!!
    2 months ago reply
  • Gopalan

    People fail to notice that professional courses are not easy walk cources. Many students who score good marks in school
    2 months ago reply
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