A few days ago, a couple of videos surfaced from a preparatory English course (conducted for SC/ST and PD candidates) hosted by IIT Kharagpur. In these videos, Dr. Seema Singh, an associate professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences was seen verbally abusing students in the class. The videos, the links to which are given below, show the brazen nature of the act and the impunity which the professor seems to enjoy in the IIT ecosystem.
Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) IIT Bombay has issued the following statement regarding this incident, with demands for actions against Dr Seema Singh as well as for institutional reforms to rid IITs and other similar institutions of their savarna bubbles. We, as a collective, display full solidarity with the statement and the demands stated herein.
We also urge the reader to go through the valuable resource Caste on Campus created by APPSC IIT Bombay. The website collates various documents procured on reservation norms being violated in various central institutions including the IITs.
Casteism in Indian campuses has been a long standing problem. Please read the Thorat report on discrimination against the SC/STs in AIIMS, Delhi. Read our invitation to the Thorat report at The Spectre that Haunts Academia: Caste and the Thorat Report. Also see An Invitation to Beyond Inclusion.
It is amidst desolate cries and the numbing daily reports of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the nation, that we all have witnessed a video recording of an online class for the Prep English Course (IITs Preparatory Course for SC/ST and PD Candidates) of IIT Kharagpur that have been doing the rounds in social media since yesterday. Shocking would surely be an understatement, as we watch Associate Professor Seema Singh of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT Kharagpur, abusing the students and their families on record. She openly threatens the students that she would fail them in the course and arrogantly challenges them to complain to the Ministry of Women and Child Care and Ministry of SC/ST/Minorities after repeatedly calling them “bloody bastards”. Some of the students had not stood up to the National Anthem that was played and this was, apparently, the reason that the Professor had started throwing casteist slurs at the class. There was also another video recording where she humiliated a student who had requested for leave from the class for a few days as the student had lost his/her grandfather who had been infected with covid. The professor is seen explaining to the entire class how excuses such as birth, death and marriage cannot be used for taking leave from class. She is seen asserting that she is a ‘Hindu’ and respects the rituals associated with death, but as the covid protocols do not allow for any rituals to be performed, there is simply no cause for the student to have taken leave from her class. More students have expressed that this is not the first time she has behaved in this manner. She has been behaving similarly to students in past as well.
The initial shock and disbelief aside, what’s crucial to note is that this is not an isolated incident by any means. A narrative that is reiterated by the administrative authorities of these Institutes is that such incidences of caste atrocities are rare and that they don’t deserve too much attention. They even deny that caste of the students has anything to do with it. One of the primary reasons that students across the country, teachers, activists, journalists and countless people on social media were able to complain, respond and record their rage at this one ‘casteist professor’ was that there was concrete video proof of the entire exchange. However, what’s even more shocking is the fact that the Professor is in complete cognizance of her actions. She knows that the Institute authorities will protect her from any possible backlash to her actions, and hence challenges her students to complain. She is also aware that the class is being recorded and says that she wants whatever she has said to be placed ‘on record’ anyway. The eruption of rage and discussions around the incident should not, therefore, die down with this one case. The reasons for the impunity with which such countless casteist atrocities continue unquestioned in esteemed institutes of higher education, like the IITs, need to be brought to light.
This incident compels us to look at the larger issue of reservations and the savarna concept of merit in higher education. The very nature of the prep course is based on the merit-based education system, wherein it is assumed that SC, ST, OBC students are not eligible to study in IITs as they are less “meritorious”, that they need a preparatory English course to enter this institution. The anger of the Professor, therefore, is directed towards those students who want to study in an institution dominated by savarnas. It is also an anger at the audacity of the marginalized communities who claim a savarna space and have to repeatedly prove their worth by different means. And even if these students do get seats, they suffer abuses on a daily basis both from fellow upper caste students and from the faculty. Without an SC/ST/OBC/minority cell to address their grievances or enquire into their well-being, they either drop out or fall victim to another institutional murder, which the administration conveniently blames on their lack of “merit”. It is not surprising that the merit these faculties seek, most often, boils down to a savarna surname.
It is the deliberate neglect of the IIT administration to protect these caste hierarchies in higher educational spaces that has converted IITs into hotbeds of suicides by SC/ST/OBC/minority students. The caste violence they face from the savarna Agraharas that IITs are, either pushes them to drop out or end their life due to the constant assault on their dignity. The IIT administration then conveniently blames these institutional murders as mere suicides due to the inability of students to handle academic pressures. We have seen cases of Fathima Lathif, Aniket Ambhore, Manish Kumar and many more over and over again through these years and still there is no institutional mechanism in place in IITs for students from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi background to feel welcome, accepted and supported in these spaces. A recent RTI filed by APPSC IIT Bombay showed that in the past 17 years, only 3% of faculty hired hailed from the SC/ST/OBC while the constitutional norm is 49.5%. This is despite the fact that enough candidates have applied for these faculty posts from these categories. The fact that there isn’t an adequate representation of SC/ST/OBC faculty in their ranks is a major contributor to the institutional casteism these students face daily. A recent committee formed by the central government to find ways to implement reservation effectively advised the government to exempt the IITs from following reservation norms, which clearly shows the levels they stoop to in order to keep these academic spaces exclusive.
We believe that the breaking of the caste ceilings at IITs and other similar institutions require systematic changes. In this light, we demand the following:
- Immediate termination of the casteist and authoritarian Professor Seema Singh.
- That she be booked under Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
- That the students be protected and passed without any coercive action by the administration for exposing the casteism in the institute.
- Set-up a permanent SC, ST, and OBC Cell at IIT Kharagpur and all other IITs. This Cell should act as a anti caste discrimination cell, take strict actions against casual and structural casteism and work towards sensitizing the campus about casual and structural forms of discriminations. The cell should have faculties from minorities and representatives from SC/ST/OBC. They should also have power to monitor if all admission and faculty recruitments follow reservation guidelines.
- Make sure that all the vacant seats allotted for SC/ST/OBC faculties be immediately filled by special recruitment drives. It is only through bursting these savarna bubbles and ensuring constitutionally mandated representation of other castes through reservation that students from marginalized communities can have a positive work environment.
- Remove the criterion of illegal additional cut offs which faculties use to exclude candidates from SC/ST/OBC background from gaining admission to PhD programs in IITs.