The Spectre that Haunts Academia: Caste and the Thorat Report

– The NotA Collective

Thorat, S., Shyamprasad, K. M., and Srivastava, R. K. (2007)
Report of the committee to enquire into the allegation of differential treatment of SC/ST students in All India Institute of Medical Science

A few weeks ago, a postgraduate medical student, Dr. Bhagwat Devangan, died by suicide at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Medical College in Jabalpur, allegedly due to ragging by his seniors. Bhagwat had on multiple occasions complained of maltreatment by his seniors as he belonged to a “lower caste community”.1 This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Just last year, we learned of the institutional murder of Dr. Payal Tadvi, a 26-year old Adivasi Muslim gynaecologist at B Y L Nair Hospital and student at TN Topiwala National Medical College in Mumbai. She too died by suicide after being subjected to casteist slurs and harassment (ragging) based on her caste.2 In light of these incidents, we feel that it is pertinent to discuss a significant report that provides evidence of caste discrimination in higher educational institutions — The Thorat Committee Report. 

The All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in New Delhi, an autonomous medical institute of national importance, was the venue of national anti-quota agitations in 2006. This protest was backed by the Faculty Association of AIIMS (FAIIMS), which announced a “mass casual leave” in opposition to the introduction of reservations for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in higher education by the ruling UPA government.3 AIIMS was particularly favourable for the anti-reservation protests because it could paralyze the availability of health services to thousands, draw public attention, and put pressure on the government to withdraw the reservation.4 These protests were eventually called off after a “Supreme Court warning to end the stir in the interest of patients”.5

In the wake of such protests, the discrimination against the SC/ST community in AIIMS increased and many complaints and letters were received by the central government, specifically against the administration (including the Director) of AIIMS. To address these complaints of discrimination, and because AIIMS is required to comply with all the directives of the government (especially with respect to the implementation of reservations and other safeguards for the SC/ST community), a committee was constituted to conduct an investigation into the alleged discrimination. This committee was headed by Sukhdeo K. Thorat, then chairman of the UGC. The committee was tasked with compiling a report that was expected to investigate and summarize the alleged prevalence of discrimination against the SC/ST community (students, faculty, and administrative staff) in AIIMS and provide recommendations. 

At the time the Thorat report was commissioned, there was sufficient evidence (including observations by the Supreme Court) that AIIMS did not follow the directives of the reservation policy as laid out by the government when selecting postgraduate students.6 Further, a post-based roster system for the selection and appointment of faculty, as required by the rules of the central government, was never followed.7

Key Observations of the Thorat Report – Situation of Undergraduate Students:

The committee used various ways to ascertain information including seeking written information from AIIMS, the collection of views of students, staff, and faculty in written statements and through recorded interviews, through general interaction with concerned persons, and through a structured questionnaire to which they obtained responses from 50% of the SC/ST students.8

The Thorat Committee initially requested the then Director of AIIMS to set up notices in order for the students, faculty and staff to meet the committee. The notices were, however, not displayed in prominent places, attesting to the non-cooperation of the administrative authorities with the committee. It was further clarified that the authorities had harassed some of the students who had complained about the situation at AIIMS in the first place. Hence, a direct contact and examination based approach outside the AIIMS campus was followed. At the time of the study, AIIMS had a total of 250 undergraduates of which 55 belonged to the reserved category. Of these 55, 25 responded to the questionnaire.

To highlight the findings of the Thorat Committee, below we present a graphical representation of the responses, showing the widespread discrimination that SC/ST undergraduate students face not only in their academic life but also their social life. Such discrimination was also observed for SC/ST faculty as well as administrative staff. We also direct the reader to see the collection of striking interviews in the report.9

I) Teaching and Lab Assessment Bias
II) Evaluation Bias
III) Bias in Class Representation: Selection of Class Representative
IV) Bias in exchange of Information on Classes: Does the information reach?
V) Interpersonal Relations
VI) Participation in Sports and Events
VII) Discrimination in Hostels
In the wake of the anti-quota agitation, the accommodation of students in hostels saw some degree of segregation along caste lines. Reports of humiliation, abuse, and even violence from upper caste (UC) students also came out. About half of the respondents cite this as the reason for shifting hostels, and 84% of the respondents living in hostels with an UC majority reported experiences of various forms of violence.

While ragging is officially banned in AIIMS, as with other educational institutions in India, students are faced with this for the initial month typically, with SC/ST students stating that they have experienced such instances with serious caste overtones and several forms of humiliation meted out to them.

According to Article 46 of the Indian Constitution, the state is expected to “promote, with special care, the education and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of social exploitation.”10 In compliance with the above constitutionally mandated norms, AIIMS and other related central institutions are expected to have the following provisions:

  1. A special cell for SC/ST as prescribed by the Government, to deal with the reservation policy.
  2. A grievance cell for students, to deal with special problems of discrimination.
  3. A counselling committee, to deal with complaints of discrimination.

The Thorat Committee Report indicated that all of the above were absent. Based on these observations and the stark and obvious discrimination reported by SC/ST students, faculty, and non-faculty, the committee made the following simple recommendations:

  1. Recommendation of Special Programs:
    • AIIMS should start a remedial English course in close consultation with SC/ST students to address their needs.
  2. Recommendation to improve consultation with teachers:
    • Initiate dialogue between faculty and students to form a positive interpersonal relationship and provide guidance.
    • Introduce a formal system of consultation with records of proceedings and meetings to avoid any bias.
  3. Recommendation for fair evaluation and examination:
    • Introduce an objective method of examination to overcome personal bias.
    • Make internal assessments more open.
  4. Recommendation on Class Representatives:
    • Provide equal opportunity for appointments using a fair, transparent and democratic manner.
  5. Recommendations to improve interpersonal relations to bring social harmony:
    • Set up a joint committee of students, faculty and administration to study and understand the social atmosphere and how social division came to be developed.
    • Set up an “Equal Opportunity Office” – a grievance cell spearheaded by faculty.
    • Affirmative action to nominate SC/ST members as committee representatives in social annual student events.

Despite these recommendations being supported by evidence, AIIMS initially rejected the implementation of the recommendations of the Thorat Committee Report.11 They later implemented some of the recommendations; however, larger systemic changes still need to be introduced.12

Moreover, the country has witnessed increasing suicides of SC/ST students in higher education institutions, often due to issues that can be easily resolved or should not even exist, such as payment of stipend, ragging, command over english, etc.13,14 This demonstrates to some extent the unwillingness of members of higher education institutions to bring any form of change that can benefit students of the SC/ST community. Infact, the major argument against the Thorat Committee Report is that it is “politically motivated”.15

Investigations like the Thorat Committee Report show the stark presence of discrimination, not just in small colleges/universities in the rural hinterlands of our country, but also in reputed central higher education institutions. They also point to the absence of systemic policy changes to overcome caste discrimination. This has to change. And we have to help change it.

Footnotes

1 Shantha, S (2020), Family of Jabalpur Medico Who Ended His Life Alleges Ragging, Caste Discrimination, The Wire.

2 GroundXero Report (2019), Protests Erupt Over Institutional Murder Of Adivasi Doctor, GroundXero. Since then, the Supreme Court has allowed the accused to pursue higher education on account of them being “presumably innocent”, see Shantha, S (2020), Payal Tadvi Suicide Case: Supreme Court Allows Accused Doctors to Pursue Higher Education, The Wire.

3 Jeelani, M (2012), Unhealed Wounds, Caravan Magazine.

4 Sabrang (2016), Lessons Unlearned: Nine years after the Thorat Committee Report, Sabrang.

5 PTI (2006), Junior doctors call off anti-quota strike, stir to continue, Outlook.

6 Supreme Court of India (2001), A.I.I.M.S. Students Union vs A.I.I.M.S. & Ors.

7 Thorat, S., Shyamprasad, K. M., and Srivastava, R. K. (2007), Report of the committee to enquire into the allegation of differential treatment of SC/ST students in All India Institute of Medical Science. On p. 7 we read: “A recent Supreme Court order has exposed several wrong doings on the part of the AIIMS administration faculty appointments and promotions. The SC/ST group was adversely affected by these methods of appointment.”

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., pp. 26-29; 34-36; 48-50.

10 The Constitution of India.

11 Dhar. A (2007), AIIMS rejects Thorat Report, The Hindu.

12 Dutta S.S (2019), There is bitterness towards quota students: Sukhdeo Thorat, The New Indian Express.

13 Maurya, R. K. (2018), In their Own Voices: Experiences of Dalit Students in Higher Education Institutions, International Journal of Multicultural Education, 20 (3), 17-38.

14 Shantha, Family of Jabalpur Medico Who Ended His Life Alleges Ragging, Caste Discrimination, The Wire.

15 Katju, M (2020), Reservations are psychological crutches for scheduled castes have only perpetuated caste system instead of destroying it, FirstPost.

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