Dalit Media Network, Chennai
|Nandanar, a dalit rebel-activist of the bhakti period, sought access to the Shivaloganadar temple in Tiruppungur and the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, to which the ‘untouchable’ Pulaiyars provided hereditary services (supplying leather for percussion instruments). For this, the brahman clergy derided him. The Tamil saivite tradition went on to appropriate the political resistance of Nandanar in the great hindu habit of ‘assimilation’. In Sekkizhar’s Peiryapuranam, a 12th century saivite hagiography, the dalit martyr is made to undergo a ‘conversion’ – he gains access to worship only after his caste-oppressed pulaiya body is purified’ by the sacrificial fire, and lo! he then emerges as a brahman sage – tuft, caste thread and all. Siva is shown to accept the dalit after he undergoes a trial-by-fire. In reality, Nandanar was burnt to death. Incinerated. Today, many dalit students at the Indian Institutes of Technology have to survive a ‘Preparatory Course’ fire and come out unscathed if they have to do BTech. Not much has changed. The dalits fought for temple-entry; today they fight for entry into IITs – temples of technology.
The IITs, like the peethas of Adi Shankara, are established in different parts of A-k-h-a-n-d Bharat – even Guwahati has one (though the Kaladi revivalist would not have reckoned with hindu colonialism in the northeastern belt). The brahmans zealously guard both these institutions. They would not have a dalit as Shankaracharya. ‘Purity’ has to be maintained. Nor do they want a dalit instructor at an IIT. ‘Merit’ cannot be compromised. The IITs are quite like the romanticised gurukulas/ vedic pathasalas where most nonbrahmans, women, dalits and adivasis were/are not allowed. Merit in this country gets reduced to clinging to something for centuries and denying the same to others.
The institute admits students purely on the basis of merit.
IIT-Madras, Handbook 1999
Imagine a student of law, history or engineering being told to undergo an extra year of a ‘Preparatory Course’, pass it, and then get to the usual two- or four-year term, because she happens to be dalit. Consider this happening in Nagpur University or Osmania or Annamalai. Or Jawaharlal Nehru University. But this does not, would not, happen in these places. It happens only in the Indian Institutes of Technology; in their BTech courses. Many dalits and adivasis who get admitted into IITs are ‘counselled’ into first attending, and then passing, a Preparatory Course. IITs were not required to implement reservation for students till 1973. When they were forced to, they did it most reluctantly, adding riders – cut-off mark, prep course.
At the outset, dalit and adivasi students have to submit coloured application forms for the Joint Entrance Examination, JEE. (For JEE-2000, the colour was pink.) They are then given coloured answer sheets as well, while ‘others’ get plain white ones. Defenders of the system argue: This is fair enough. How else do you identify the applicants and fill the quota? Dalits and adivasis have to write their names on the answer-sheets, unlike ‘others’. With mere roll numbers and uncoloured sheets, professors would not be able to establish whose papers they are correcting. The Preparatory Course – meant to ‘uplift’, not empower – is informed by very gandhian perceptions of what the disprivileged need. Much of the Preparatory Course is a revision of Class XI-XII syllabus. ‘Their basics are poor, you see. Bad schools. Poor English. They can’t cope.’ Since IITs grossly violate the provision for affirmative action in faculty positions as well, dalit and adivasi students are taught the Preparatory Course by (mostly) hostile caste-hindu teachers. Such unabashed discrimination is not practised at any other engineering, medicine or humanities course in the country. Which is why, it is argued, IITs are a cut above the rest. And a dalit or adivasi, if she fails – or is made to fail – the Preparatory Course, has to forfeit her seat. One whole year is lost. They must start all over; try their luck elsewhere – if they have been able to salvage any selfrespect, stamina. There is a case here for the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). A person is punishable under Section 3(1)(x) of the Act if he “intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view”. In IITs – a public place – a dalit student is insulted, intimidated and humiliated. This is also violation of Article 14 of the constitution.
But a leading English language magazine has another story to tell. ‘These six engineering schools are perhaps the only truly free and fair centres of learning in India’ (Outlook, 29 May 2000). The brahman-baniya controlled media pays gushing tributes paid to IITs, and the civil society is indifferent to what really happens on these campuses to dalits, adivasis and women. In Chennai, of course, the IIT stands newly, and more aptly, abbreviated: Iyer-Iyengar Technology.
The faculty of 427 at IIT-M has only 2 dalits; and they have made it without positive discrimination. According to Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, a non-electoral activist organisation which seeks to combine E V Ramasamy Periyar’s ideology with Dr B R Ambedkar’s, and has been spearheading the campaign on this issue since March 2000, the institute does not have a single Muslim faculty; there are 20-odd OBCs. (At the time of writing, in a tactful move, a dalit was appointed registrar of IIT-M. He has a poor record in his previous assignment and has only 18 months of service left; moreover, in IIT-M, the Dean-Administration is more powerful and the registrar does not command the same status as in other universities.) According to the management of this 41-year-old institute, IITs have been ‘exempted’ by the government of India from implementing the 22.5 per cent quota for dalits and adivasis in faculty positions. The Public Relations Officer, Pattabhiraman, says the reservation policy needs to be followed only when the basic pay for the lowest post is less than Rs 8,000. ‘That would be the case when you start as a lecturer; in IITs we follow a different cadre system where you start as an Assistant Professor with a higher basic. So no quotas need to be filled. That is the government rule. Even the Mandal Commission says so.’ Asked if this is not violative of constitutional provisions and if he could show the relevant ‘government rules’ that imply this exemption, Pattabhiraman just insists they are following the rules.
Sujee Teppal, an adivasi student who topped the Andhra Pradesh common entrance test (EAMCET) for engineering in her category, was keen on a BTech from IIT. At IIT-M, she was asked to take the Preparatory Course route. At the end of it, she was failed in one subject, Physics. (Her Class-XII Maths-Physics-Chemistry average was 94 per cent; she had a centum in Class XI Physics.) After the issue was taken up by the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, and the subsequent coverage in the local press – which got interested, typically, after Sujee attempted suicide – and following a directive from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (dated 8 July 2000), the IIT management tried to cover its tracks, conducted another test for Sujee and other dalits-adivasis who were failed along with her, and cleared some of them for BTech. A much-harassed Sujee has now been assured of direct admission into MTech (without having to clear GATE) by the management. First, you are humiliated; then your silence is bought. Several dalit employees have been similarly gagged. Says an employee denied promotions and increments for his outspoken views, ‘The management plays one dalit against another, sometimes showering petty favours on one group, manipulating resistance.’ The IIT-M director, R Natarajan, offers a different rationale. ‘IIT faculties do not have to follow the reservation provision just like the defence, space and medical super specialities sectors. We follow it only for one cadre, Scientific Officer, which has a low basic of Rs 2,200.’ Even the usual excuse – ‘we do not get qualified, meritorious dalit candidates’ – is not offered; total exemption from affirmative action is claimed. For student intake, the director and his deputy, C R Muthukrishnan, maintain that they implement the quota, whatever be their ‘personal views about the lower cut-off mark’ and the quota system as such. Does any other university in the country which awards an engineering degree have this concept of a Preparatory Course? Unlikely, says Natarajan. For faculty posts, the PRO and director explain how at the bottom of the employment notice, the fine print says: ‘All things being equal, preference will be given to SC/ST candidates.’ And all things not being equal, this preference rarely ever happens. The probability at IIT-M: 2/427. In IIT-Bombay, the management is more straightforward and unabashed. According to a recent report, ‘IIT-Powai does not have any Dalit teaching staff, even though 22.5 per cent of posts are reserved for them. Faculty members feel that the ‘IIT’s standards will be compromised if reservations in this area are implemented,’ says a faculty member, with pride’ (Indian Express, Mumbai, 12 Nov, 2000).
It is not a glass ceiling that dalits, adivasis and women (who have no protective discrimination whatsoever) in IITs have to reckon with. It is a solid, rusty, iron ceiling. And it is so low, you constantly hurt your head even when you walk half-bent. The IIT establishment justifies the policy of non-implementation of affirmative action without realising the social significance of having dalits and adivasis in faculty positions. The need for reservation and a rejection of the brahmanical ‘merit-alone’ theory has been beautifully articulated by Devanesan Nesiah in his comparative study of affirmative action in the United States, India and Malaysia (Discrimination with Reason? 1997).
Even in respect of jobs for which recruitment is on merit, as measured in terms of specified qualifications, there may be justification for reverse discrimination resting on efficiency criteria alone. For example, a Black, Dalit, or woman student might find it easier to establish rapport with, and learn better from, a teacher of the same category. Further, such a person could serve as a role model, and inspire and motivate others of that category, helping to augment the pool of human resources. Moreover, enrolling a member of a minority group into the management can help to broaden the network of contacts, resulting in increased efficiency in respect of further recruitment and various other transactions. Affirmative action may be the only feasible way, initially, to breach the barriers either on account of prejudice or the narrow self-interest of a closed network. Another factor may be diversity, which could bring substantial benefit to the entire community. Thus selection based on ‘merit’ alone may be inefficient … Clearly, the ‘merit’ criterion is not an inherently ‘fair’ basis of distribution of rewards, since it may depend less on effort and more on genetic and other factors over which the individual may have no control. That the merit criterion benefits the clever is, in itself, no reason to adopt it (Nesiah 1997, 288, emphases added). The government obviously has decided to look the other way when the IITs flout constitutional provisions. All the six IITs in the country – and this is likely to be true of other elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Science – given that they are perceived to be ‘highly specialised apex institutions and centres of excellence for higher education in engineering and technology’ (Chitnis cited in Kirpal 1999), seem to be getting away with not observing the rules of the game. These institutions depend on heavy subsidy – the annual central assistance to the six IITs amounts to about Rs 499.18 crores (Government of India, 2000, 125), IIT-M receiving Rs 88.64 crore this year – but do not implement reservation. This is not surprising given that even for student intake the IITs, unlike almost all other government-run educational institutions, were exempt from implementing the dalit and adivasi quota till as late as 1973 (Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta 1999 23, 31). When this was done as per the Chandy Committee recommendations (1972), which specified that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be taken into IITs ‘down to the zero mark at the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)’ (31), the results were ‘disastrous’. Most of the first batch of dalit and adivasi students found it extremely difficult to cope at the IIT and were failed or forced to drop out. Hence, ‘the system of a two-thirds cut-off point at the JEE as the more reasonable alternative’ was suggested in 1977. ‘In 1978 all the IITs adopted the system which continues to be used till today’ (32). In 1983, the Preparatory Course was conceived, thus further blocking the prospects of dalits/adivasis. How dalit and adivasi students make it to these discriminatory institutes of learning is a unique process that needs elaboration.
On direction from the Union Government, SC and ST students scoring upto two-thirds of the marks obtained by the last GE [general category] student on the merit list [sic] in the JEE are directly taken into the first year of the BTech programme, under the reservations scheme. Students who score below the two-third JEE cut-off point and “x” marks are assigned to the Preparatory Course where they are given one year’s rigorous training. On obtaining a certain percentage of marks in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and English at the end of the year, they are registered for the First year of BTech, failing which they are asked to leave so that they may join some other college. The SC/ST students may pass the programme with a reduced number of credits, i.e., 22 credits per semester as compared to 28 credits for the GE students. Nonetheless, to earn the BTech degree, they have to complete the total number of credits common for all (categories of students). The unique aspect of reservations in IITs is the total absence of compromised standards (such as grace marks awarded to SC and ST students). The concessions offered end with the reduced cut-off point at entry, the reduced course load during the semester and the six years (against the five for GE students) to complete the four-year BTech programme. The degree awarded is on a par with the GE students (Kirpal and Gupta, 36, emphases added). The study, Equality Through Reservations, by Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta – both have taught Humanities at IIT, Bombay – is based on data collected from IIT students belonging to batches beginning 1989 to 1992. It says, ‘During the period of data collection, there were approximately 5,868 general category students and 616 SC and ST students in the IITs’ (49). Percentage-wise, this works out to 10.49 dalit and adivasi students out of the total intake – less than half the quota is being ‘filled’. Though awash with statistics of all kind, this book, devoted to examining reservation in IITs, does not bother to work out this all-important figure which amounts to flouting the reservation norm. Nor does the Viney-Meenakshi effort tell us one word about the status of reservation at the faculty level. The authors, while admittedly concerned with how best the disprivileged students can ‘integrate’ with the ‘mainstream’ at IIT, are not even alive to the inherent discrimination wrought into the idea of a prep course. They do not see any moral turpitude in the very premise that some dalits and adivasis must undertake an extra year of study (but then they do not see caste as immoral, vulgar); it does not occur to them that such discrimination is not institutionalised anywhere else; nor are they alive to the absence of dalits and adivasis on faculties, and this affecting the social balance in IITs. To top it all, they use the term ‘merit list’ while referring to nondalit students, reinforcing postMandal notions of ‘merit’ being the prerogative of caste hindus (they are born with it, they always-already have it); something that is deemed to be unforgivably compromised, and even essentially absent, among persons who avail of affirmative action.
Most caste hindus spoken to express the opinion that it is good that IITs do not take the reservation provision seriously; this enables them to maintain ‘standards’, unlike other institutions. And since they are ‘forced’ to take some dalit and adivasi students, at least the Preparatory Course hurdle must be cleared. The Bombay Indian Express reporter who, briefed by the Dalit Media Network about the situation in IIT-Madras, filed a report (‘Dalit Quota Opens Doors But Reservations Remain’, quoted earlier) on the problems faced by dalits and adivasis in IIT-Powai, conveyed to us excerpts of a conversation in the reporters’ desk. ‘I wish you had got your facts right about the IIT piece. These people you are defending are dumb fucks who should be where they are. You don’t know how many deserving students [as always, the case of some relation is cited] don’t get in because of these duffers.’ This would be a representative brahmanical response to any ‘debate’ on atrocities in the IITs, or on the subject of ‘reservation’ as such.
A fact is most dalit and adivasi students who make it to the IITs have internalised the logic of the Preparatory Course. A typical rationalisation goes: ‘Look, they are not protesting… take a survey, and they all want the Preparatory Course without which they would feel further alienated.’ Meenakshi and Viney reinforce this opinion, ‘Of those who attended the Preparatory Course, 75 per cent felt that the Course had been helpful’ (83). Seventeen-year-old dalits, who are within knocking distance of a BTech from an IIT, cannot be expected to reject the Preparatory Course as discriminatory. They might not be in a position to see the politics of it; and even if they do, it would prove personally too costly to act on such injustices. It is a classic case of saying the victim loves the physical or epistemic violence s/he is subjected to, when forcefully extracted tolerance of such violence is made a precondition to some material gain (in the IIT context, a BTech). We must realise that they are being forced to record consent/ approval of their humiliation; they internalise the logic that making it to an IIT matters most, even if it means an extra year and dirty looks from caste-hindu students for the ‘lower cut-off mark’. In IIT-M, there have been cases where some dalit/ adivasi students have been coaxed by the management to opt out of the BTech because of their ‘poor grades/ nonperformace’ in return for diploma certificates, or sometimes, a BSc degree. Here too, the management argues that ‘some degree’ in the case of dalits would be better than ‘being stuck doing BTech forever’. And since there is no academic audit in IITs, decisions of the all-powerful senate and the director’s whim go unquestioned. This is academic and intellectual terrorism. Would our dalit and adivasi MLAs/MPs take it if told that they – but not other MPs – have to undergo a training course, similar to the IIT Preparatory Course, before they attended parliament?
One basic anomaly is overlooked. If for 25 years IITs have been implementing reservation for students, why is it that hardly any dalits and adivasis hold faculty positions? Technically, the IITs want to show that they are indeed satisfying the dalit/adivasi need to be part of what is an elite setup at the student level, but in effect they are producing (dalit and adivasi) technologists and engineers who will not be recruited by these very institutions. However, in lower-end posts, (‘Class IV’ employees), the scenario is predictably the opposite. In 1983, there were in all 800 dalit employees in IIT-M. Of these, 796 were scavengers. Here the brahmans stake/d no claim. There were four dalit LDCs. (‘Caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers’ [Ambedkar 1987, 66, emphasis original].) Reservation norms were being overlooked even for non-faculty posts till a Suraj Bhan-led delegation of dalit and adivasi MPs – that materialised at the behest of a dalit employee in IIT-M – enquired into the situation that year. The director then was the now-Padmashreed P V Indiresan. And his views? ‘Higher education is, and has to be, elitist… admit only those students who can cope with global standards in science and recruit only those teachers who have an international reputation for research… Both the Constitution and our politicians prohibit any institution from exercising academic freedom’ (Outlook 23 Oct, 2000, emphases added). Indiresan, well-known for his anti-reservation line, has been particularly belligerent in the postMandal phase (for which the present government has bestowed on him a padma award). Says T Jayaraman of the Tamilnadu Science Forum, ‘From media reports, it is clear that there is strong resistance to reservation in IITs. The extraordinary attack launched on the reservation policy by an IIT director (P V Indiresan), in the presence of the President of the country (Zail Singh) during a convocation ceremony, for which he did not even receive a reprimand/ reminder that affirmative action was a constitutional guarantee, reflects the situation in these institutes… such views stoke the perception that there is a real contradiction between reservation and ‘merit’, instead of arguing that in a country with a long history of discrimination based on caste, ‘merit’ must be suitably tied to justice, equality and affirmative action.’ Jayaraman, a professor at the MatScience Institute, Chennai, is also of the view that IITs, by never having made a serious effort to identify dalits who are meritorious and recruit them in the faculty, give credence to the counterposing of ‘merit’ against reservation, and this amounts to an attack on the reservation policy itself.
M S Swaminathan, who by running an institute that takes his own name has made an institution of himself, is a former chairperson of IIT-Madras. On being contacted, he refused comment on the antidalit atmosphere prevalent in IITs, saying he was no longer associated with the institute. But he did say, ‘Any questions on agriculture, I will answer.’
At a time when the IIT establishment (in Chennai) was being attacked by dalit and OBC groups – for not implementing reservation on the faculty, and ill-treating/ harassing dalit and adivasi students – Outlook featured a panegyric which began: ‘What was Jawaharlal Nehru’s greatest gift to the nation? … what is the one unimpeachably visionary, unquestionably positive thing that he left us, something for which we should be grateful to him? A radical thought, but worth considering: Nehru’s greatest gift to his nation was the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). And the world seems to agree’ (Outlook 29 May, 1999).
But we do not.
Outlook’s cover story, ‘Doing India Proud’, highlighted the ‘achievements’ of several ‘IITians’ ¾ needless to say those of men, mostly caste hindu; and amidst all the recent hype about information technology, most ‘achievers’ were those who had emigrated to the US as computer and technology coolies. The feature shows how casteist and sexist lies when garnished with bias can assume the taste of truth. In a nation where specific subcastes within dalits are forced to continue to carry caste-hindu shit on their heads and enter overflowing sewers, the IITs perpetrate a caste culture which would have pleased a Manu, who proscribed the Book for the OBC-sudras, dalit-untouchables and women (who together account for about 90 per cent of ‘hindu’ population). The non-implementation of reservation in IITs is something that is welcomed even in ‘progressive’ circles. ‘No dilution of merit here please; at least spare these institutions.’ The issue is sought to be swept under the ‘merit’ carpet. The merit carpet takes flight. Sitting on it are caste hindus. A brahman steers it. But who made the carpet? Who wove it, made patterns on it? And where are they?
The result: IITs remain virtual brahman monopolies; modern agraharams. And they are supposed to be doing India proud. We would rather believe that the contribution of IITians is the same as a brahman-dominated game like cricket. Both give the caste-hindu middle class a falsified sense of achievement.
Genderwise, the IITs fare even worse. Sandipan Dep, deputy editor with Outlook: ‘What was my IIT education all about? It was about IITians: 400 academically exceptional boys (and 12 girls) on a campus…’ The girls come in parenthesis. It’s all about boys. Despite all those headlines and reports we have seen for years about girls doing better than boys in Class X, Class XII and other state and central board school exams, it is (mostly caste hindu) boys who have enough ‘merit’ to enter the IITs. And the few girls who make it must prove themselves male enough. ‘From one coast to another, women engineering students have shared their relief on being accepted by the men in engineering as one of the guys’ (Sally Hacker 1989, 49).
Some letters responding to the Outlook feature raised the issue of nonrepresentation of women. ‘I was horrified to see not a woman mentioned in your entire story. Forget the alumni, even the on-campus photos didn’t feature any women. Is your outlook so biased?’ Another asked, ‘Are all IITians men?’ (Outlook 12 June, 2000). According to the news report cited earlier with reference to IIT-Mumbai, ‘(T)he situation for women students remains dismal, with less than 200 among the almost 3,000 students in the bachelor’s and master’s programmes. For Dalit girls, things are even more bleak. The first Dalit girls, numbering all of three, were admitted in 1997. Since then, their number has increased by one every year’ (Indian Express, Mumbai, 12 June 2000).
One of the few dalit girls doing BTech in Mumbai is says, ‘If you are in a coveted department like Computer Science and Engineering, the guys wonder aloud how a woman could get through and if they know you are a cata student, there is an audible ‘ohh’ which seems to answer their question.’ (‘Cata student’ is caste-hindu IIT lingo for those who make it using affirmative action. In IITs, as in other campuses in our country, dalits tend to be allotted only dalit room-mates; dalits also do not figure in IITs’ famed alumni associations.)
The problem is not just with the IITs, which merely represent the perverse culmination of a larger social bias ingrained in our education system; our anti-dalit, pro-caste, gender-insensitive syllabi which tend to reinforce existing hierarchies. A system that allows most IITians to take the first flight to the US after completing their BTech. A system that privileges the privileged, and even pays Rs 500 crores per year for it. The 1999-2000 Union Bugdet accounts for Rs 4380 crores (revised) on ‘secondary and higher education’ (Government of India 2000). Of this, Rs 499.18 crores went towards the six IITs. This works out to 11.4 % of the total expenditure in this sector. (This figure does not include what is spent on subsidising the general tuition, exam, hostel fee etc – about Rs 15,000 per year per BTech student (IIT-Madras Handbook 1999), insignificant compared to what private engineering colleges charge.) After spending/ subsidising so heavily, ‘India’ seems to gain nothing. ‘The take-home package for campus recruits ranges from Rs 4.5 lakhs to 7.5 lakhs per annum plus other perks’ (The Times of India, Delhi, 12 Nov, 2000). And whom do they serve? The frontpaged ToI report gushingly begins: ‘The Americans want them. So do the Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans, Germans, Canadians and the French.’ Even from a purely investment point of view, the IITs seem nonviable. If the IITs are to have any social value to the country which foots their bill, there must be an effort to completely overhaul them and cast them anew.
Admittedly, the IITs are fashioned after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC) (Kirpal, Gupta 68). And it shows. The result is communities which have dealt with leather for centuries – who perhaps can be reckoned with as the first technologists of this country, who knew how to turn animal hide into beautiful bags and shoes, and for which reason were treated as ‘untouchable’ (Kancha Ilaiah 1996) – would rarely ever make it to these IITs. These institutions are not meant for them.
At IIT Guwahati, where ‘every hostel room has an Internet connection’ the BTech, Design, course is adapting to ‘local conditions’. And how?
Says Sudhakar Nadkarni, head of the department: “In years to come, this will be the course to apply for.” Nadkarni is adapting the design course to local conditions too. Bamboo and cane craft for instance. “We get master craftsmen from the northeastern states who impart training to our students who then try to adapt the designs through mechanisation,” he says. Top technology meets native Indian talent. That’s the way, one suspects, Nehru envisioned the IITs to be (Outlook 29 May, 2000). But will these craftspersons from ‘northeastern states’, in all probability adivasis, ever make it to these IITs either as faculty or students? What will be the ‘merit’ of privileged, elite male students from across the country in comparison to the ‘merit’ of the nameless adivasis who weave magic on bamboo? And what is the IIT student up to here? These technobrats will computerise traditional adivasi designs using CAD/CAM. Will the craftspersons at least be termed ‘visiting faculty’? Will any settlement be paid? And will that do?
Dalit and OBC intellectuals have pointed out how the equivalents of today’s engineers and technologists in India hail from what would be dalit, shudra and adivasi groups. The lohars (smithies) who deal/t with metal; the dalits who deal/t with leather; the potmakers and toddy-tappers, the sculptors, ropemakers, and boat/ship-makers…; the aboriginal adivasis who found cures in herbs for which swadeshis and videshis are today vying for patents; the yadava women and men who domesticated wild buffaloes, milched them, made butter, ghee (which basically fattened brah-man stomachs); gardeners and tillers… all came from subaltern groups. A brahman, of course, discovered the zero. But today, IIT-M has seen only brahman directors – P V Indiresan, L S Srinath, N V C Swamy, R Natarajan – in the last 20 years. The chairpersons of this institute also tend to be brahmans – U R Rao, M S Swaminathan, Kasturi Rangan. Technology has been brahmanised. The tussle for the top slot, it seems, is between kannadiga brahmans and tamil brahmans at that. Caste struggle.
The Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, which neighbours the IIT, is headed by a nondalit; a brahman in fact. Caste hindus dominate the place. Traditionally, most caste hindus kept away from leather – they still do. Now, brahmans-as-technologists can take charge of CLRI, but would do never get their hands ‘soiled’ tanning leather themselves. The brahmanical scriptures lay down that to touch leather would pollute; only dalits are to do leatherwork. Today, the research agenda on leather is decided by nondalits; people who never treated leather but treated, and treat, leather-workers as ‘untouchable’.
A note on my incursions into IIT-Madras. As a nondalit, outsider trying to listen to and gather the stories of dalits – students, faculty and other staff – I was aware of the politics of power inherent in such situations. Forcing oneself on dalits in IIT-M, who on occasions had to be coaxed into believing our ‘good intentions’, was difficult. In most cases, there is great personal risk for the dalits who open up. Two lower-end staff members were penalised by the management for allegedly sticking up PDK’s anti-IIT posters (condemning the ‘brahman durbar in IIT’) on the campus. A faculty member was quickly stripped of his ‘additional responsibility’ as SC/ST Liaison Officer when he refused to deny/condemn, as demanded by the management, the contents of a pamphlet that denounced the antidalit atmosphere in IIT-M. An employee, who was associated with the first Dalit Employees Association, and at whose behest a delegation of dalit MPs visited IIT-M to enquire into the problems faced by dalits, is willing to tell it all because he has less than two years of service left, and thinks he has nothing to gain or lose (though he grins: ‘Maybe they will delay/ deny me my retirement benefits’). Most others – 2 faculty members, students who are most keen on wringing a BTech out of this scary place – are terrorised into silence; breaking which would mean jeopardising their already vulnerable position. ‘Once you enter this place, the rest of your energies are devoted towards survival. To fight these people is unimaginable,’ says a dalit employee who avoided campus accommodation because ‘the place stinks. They have constructed two temples here. And you must see all the brahmans gang up on Thursday or Fridays, flaunting their caste threads and chanting some vedic and Gita nonsense. It is most offensive and communal.’ One or two persons speak, requesting anonymity. ‘But what will come of your effort? Suppose you publish all this, would things at IIT change? You will come, talk, write and go… we have to continue to live/study on this campus, face the same set of hostile lecturers/ management. Eventually, your booklet will reach the hands of the management; in no time they will figure out who would have spoken out… and they will make life worse than what it already is for us. For all of us. It is like what happens in villages. One dalit would have ‘offended’ the caste hindus by sitting and sipping tea before them; and if he did not repent the crime, the entire dalit community would face a social boycott. Some non-IIT people would perhaps come to know of what happens in these institutions. But they can do nothing about it. Nothing will change here.’ Outside the CLRI gate, a dalit-arundhatiyar sits and waits for work. The CLRI takes ‘pity’ and organises occasional workshops for those who traditionally deal(t) with leather – arundhathiyars, madigas, chamars…. It seems the CLRI is accessible to all ‘traditional groups’ dealing with leather and is quick to arrange for them an interface with latest technology. (A colleague whose brahman father holds a managerial post in a Jharkhand mine, says he knows of only one adivasi who holds a top management post in the firm. Most adivasis work as diggers. And Jharkhand has a predominant adivasi population.)
In Australia, the settler whites are at least saying ‘sorry’ to the ‘stolen generation’. And an aborigine wins a gold medal in Olympics. In the US, there is a public discourse against racism, though discrimination continues. But ‘hindu’ India, despite putting in place theoretical guarantees in the constitution, continues to treat its aboriginals most shabbily, and no questions are asked. In the name of ‘merit’; in the name of democracy.
Some larger questions remain, irrespective of whether we get the IITs to respect constitutional provisions on reservation and equality or not. In all likeliness, since the very basis of technology in these institutions is brahmanical and pseudoscientific, even those few dalits who make it to these places, in the process of surviving and emerging successfully out of them, are likely to imbibe/adopt values which would alienate them from their own backgrounds. (It is like getting dalits to live in an agraharam for four to five years, and then letting them out.) IITs, in their present shape, are likely to produce dalit technologists who would be constantly looked down upon by the brahmanical group, and who may want to dissociate themselves from commitment to any subaltern cause. Caught in a double-bind, they stand doubly alienated. IITs embody a hazardous combination of the worst of western capitalist-driven technology’s social insensitivity and the worst of the local caste system – the only aspect of postAryan culture that has survived, in one form or the other, for 3000-odd years. And casteism in IITs is only a reflection, or an extension, of what is the larger reality in our caste-driven society, where those who benefit most (the caste hindus) by retaining caste tend to see casteism only in the form affirmative action – reservation – for dalits, adivasis. ‘The country has gone to the dogs because of reservation,’ some retired brahman settled (thanks to an IITian son) in Illinois would lament in a letter to The Hindu.
So, what do we do with the IITs? Can they be reformed, made to change their agenda, mend their ways? Can IITians forced to be more accountable to the nation which subsidises them? Would that be practicable? And what about rewriting and radicalising the very premise of ‘technology’ to render it more gender- and dalit-sensitive? That would of course mean a long haul, starting with recasting school curriculum where we need to initiate an anticaste discourse and combine it with respect for and dignity of labour. (During the antiMandal agitation, caste-hindu students mockingly polished shoes – with utter disregard for people who depend on such labour for livelihood – mourning the ‘death of merit’. They were merely expressing contempt for such work; these were just photo-ops. Even if it comes to remaining unemployed, caste hindus would think it below their dignity to consider shining or mending shoes. They merely wanted to convey that such jobs are not meant for people who have ‘merit’. The meritocrats would rather be underpaid in sweatless jobs than sweat it out as shoeshiners or sanitary workers even if paid more. Contempt for certain kinds of labour goes a long way in hindu culture and is integral to the definition of the caste system.)
In a postcapitalist world where even some dalitist ideologues are arguing that if we can’t beat the forces of globalisation let’s join them and make the best of it – the logic being it can’t be worse than brahman-baniya capitalism and may perhaps help unshackle capital from the caste forces – what do we do with IITs which become recruiting grounds for MNCs? Right now, the only answer one can think of – most impossible and impractical though it may sound – is: close down these institutes. Which is what it would boil down to if the state were to, with determination – another most improbable thing – insist that all the IITs (and IIMs and other ‘secular’ agraharams) strictly implement the reservation provisions both in faculty and student intake, and scrap the blatantly discriminatory Preparatory Course, colour application forms etc. There would then be at least 80 dalit students doing BTech in each of the six IITs every year. And each IIT would have to recruit at least 80 dalit and adivasis as faculty members. Then the caste hindus, led by the brahmans, would say, ‘Merit is being buried alive in this country’. To demand a sincere implementation of constitutional provisions of affirmative action in IITs would be the equivalent of saying priesthood and the right to initiation in brahmanic hinduism should be given to all – dalits and women. Which means we would be asking caste hindus to consider the possibility of a dalit as Shankaracharya/IIT director.
The IITs are not alone in flouting reservation norms in faculty recruitment. They only seem to be doing it most unabashedly, proudly. In the same city, the Madras Institute of Development Studies, which boasts of several ‘progressive’ Fellows (who have no teaching obligations so that they concentrate on pure academic social science research), too, does not respect the reservation norms. And this seems to be the case with most universities according to a 1999 study by the Delhi-based Forum of Academics for Social Justice. ‘In the 239 universities and 7,000 colleges covered by the study, SC/ST members appointed under the reservation system constitute less than 2 per cent of the nearly three lakh teachers’ (Frontline, 14 April, 2000). Jamia Millia Islamia has only three dalits/adivasis on its faculty as against the 106 required; Jawaharlal Nehru University has 15 dalits instead of the stipulated 89; in Aligarh Muslim University where there need to be 263 dalit instructors, there is not even one; in Benares Hindu University it is 14/ 257. All these are central universities. Not that state universities have a decent record on this count. The IITs can now smugly tell you, ‘Look, we told you so…’. ‘Ooooooooo!’ The brahmans would cry. ‘We would rather flee the country.’ Then let them (never mind that at one point of time crossing the seas meant losing one’s caste; but the brahman comes first, his rules next). But they would not. The government, safe in the hands of a brahman prime minister who gets his name from forefathers who should have performed the disgusting vajapeya yagna, if at all its hands can be forced on the reservation issue in IITs (suppose all the dalit, adivasi and women MPs miraculously joined hands!), will instead announce that the IITs would be privatised. MoUs would be signed with MNCs; Microsoft would take over one IIT, GE another, Siemens…. Then the caste hindus would say: Let’s now see how you untouchable duffers get in. Let them privatise IITs if it comes to that; let the meritorious caste hindus pay an unsubsidised fee – it could run into lakhs of rupees – for a BTech…; but the state should not be allowed to drain Rs 500 crores a year and not implement affirmative action provisions by which it is bound.
The postMandal Chanakya, Narasimha Rao, realised that to counter the rise of the subaltern castes the public sector units should be closed/privatised. Today, a former World Bank employee, Arun Shourie, presides over the Disinvestment Ministry. And if we insist on reservation in IITs, the government will begin disinvesting them – ‘affirmative action would render them nonviable and they would have to be shut down’. Actually, we don’t have to insist that the IITs be closed down. All we – dalit leaders, activists, dalit politicians, MPs, MLAs, writers, lawyers… – need to do is pressure the government and courts (where 78% judges are brahmans (New York Times, quoting dalit activist Martin Macwan, 16 Nov. 2000) into ensuring that the reservation provisions are honoured. That our constitution be honoured. Honouring our constitution would indeed be a dangerous proposition (if the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act were seriously implemented, most caste hindus would land up in jail) . But let us insist on it. The fight for social justice in IITs might seem insignificant compared to larger battles that need to be fought against caste. But IITs have come to epitomise the caste system; they are the contemporary agraharams, the science and technology equivalents of what the maths of Shankaracharyas are in the religious realm for hindus. (To reinforce this connection, the IIT-M Handbook lists one ‘Kanchi Kamakoti Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Endowment Award’ under its various schemes of financial assistance for students.)
But what do we do with a regime that has put in place a constitution review commission? Tomorrow, there might be a new constitution which might scrap all affirmative action provisions (they broke a mosque and nothing happened to them; in fact, they came to power). And the caste hindus righteously would quote Ambedkar, no less, to support this. ‘Even your Babasaheb wanted a review of reservation in 10 years.’ (They would never remember, quote or do anything else that Ambedkar said or wanted. Not certainly his Annihilation of Caste.)
Yes, we may prove those sceptical dalit employees and students in IIT-M right. Nothing is going to change IITs. They will be what they are. They will continue to treat dalits and adivasis the way they have been doing. As someone said in colloquial Madras-male Tamil, Oru mairum aagada. ‘Not one pubic hair can be made to fall.’ Maybe, we should then parse them. The IITs. They must be great places, after all, since they all say so. Let us then join the chorus and praise these famous institutes. Let us sit back and enjoy the carnival of brahmanism being played out here. 6 Dec. 2000
Ambedkar, Babasaheb Dr. Writings and Speeches, Vol 3. Government of Maharashtra, Bombay: 1987
Government of India. Expenditure Budget 2000-2001 Vol 2. New Delhi: 2000
Gupta, Meenakshi and Viney Kirpal. Equality through Reservation. Rawat, New Delhi: 1999
Hacker, Sally. 1989 Pleasure, Power and Technology: Some Tales of Gender, Engineering and the Cooperative Workplace. Unwin Hyman, London: 1989
IIT Madras, Handbook. 1999
Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I am Not a Hindu. Samya, Calcutta: 1996
Nesiah, Devanesan. Discrimination with Reason? The Policy of Reservations in the United States, India and Malaysia. Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 1999
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