The order given by the Supreme Court of India to the IIT Joint Seat Allocation Authority (JoSAA) to give a seat to a Dalit student, Prince Jaibir Singh, shows that the Indian justice system remains hopeful for the oppressed. Prince’s fight for his place in IIT Bombay and his eventual victory is a David and Goliath tale – or, perhaps, the story of a modern Eklavya, who got his thumb back.
The IITs, with their suspicion of reserve and their cult of merit, are not known to be friendly with Dalit students. But even the admissions processes are loaded against the disadvantaged, and the inequality on the Internet can become an anti-Dalit pashupadastra. In Prince’s case, a portal issue prevented him from paying the fees. Undeterred, with his father, a police officer, he traveled to IIT Kharagpur, where JoASS operates. They refused to admit it by accepting the honorarium a day after the deadline. Prince appealed to the Bombay High Court, which dismissed his claim. He eventually moved the Supreme Court, which responded sensitively. Judges DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna ordered JoASS to admit it, berating them for being “too woody”.
It is not an isolated struggle; students from disadvantaged sections have to undertake a difficult path to be admitted to the IITs and survive. Just a few months ago, Vipin P Veetil, an OBC scholar who joined IIT Madras as an assistant professor in the general category, was forced to resign due to alleged caste discrimination. Faculty members found out about his caste history and began to humiliate and harass him. The letters he wrote to various authorities reveal how endemic casteism is in these institutions.
The struggles of reserved candidates do not end with admission. Caste discrimination is an ongoing problem in many higher engineering education institutions, where Dalits / OBCs and tribes are treated like everyone else. Conservative sections have long opposed the implementation of reservation in the recruitment of professors in IITs. Some demanded that the reservation be completely deleted. But they don’t realize that if such a thing happens, the country will face a bigger protest than the farmers’ movement.
Alumni of several engineering institutions carry caste practices and discrimination from India to the rest of the world. The case of an Indian engineer at CISCO and his treatment of his Dalit colleague has become a landmark discrimination case in the United States of
America. Today, the University of California, Davis, has added caste to its anti-discrimination policy.
Prince’s struggle is an inspiration to those who continue to struggle in these institutes. First generation booking students and subsequent faculty members like myself who continue to work in higher education institutions know how the manipulation of late dates, cutoffs and booking numbers is done. Once inside as a student, students are graded and evaluated, not always on objective criteria. After entering the workforce, life is a daily struggle, whether one is incompetent or more competent. Vipin from IIT Madras told me he was discriminated against for the second reason. He is more competent than a Dalit / OBC faculty member is supposed to be.
Many young boys and girls, first generation learners in rural India, faced with such difficulties, tend to give up. Courts like the Bombay High Court treat these cases as acceptable institutional mechanisms. But the determination of Prince and his father will serve as an inspiring fable.
These institutions can only be reformed by teachers. Not teachers who model themselves on Dronacharya and demand that Eklavyas cut off his thumb. It will take teachers inspired by Guru Nanak.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on December 1, 2021 under the title “The Prince’s Fable”. The writer is a political theorist, social activist and author