Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit

– The NotA Collective

Ajantha Subramanian,
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,
Harvard University Press (2019).

I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.

Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the

“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1

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End Casteism in IITs: A Statement by APPSC IIT Bombay

APPSC IIT Bombay

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.

Link to the videos: Video 1, Video 2

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.

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Contract Workers at IITK: A Response to Commonly Held Misconceptions

– Rahul Varman

In light of the ongoing strikes of sanitation workers at JNU, we have elected to republish this article from Sanhati. While about contract workers at IIT Kanpur specifically, it is relevant to every institute of higher education across India, and talks about issues entirely ignored by the academic section of these institutes, see for example “We Are No Longer Afraid” and “Higher Learning and Exclusion.”

We at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK henceforth) today are dependent upon contingent workforce for most of the work and services and a large amount of such work has been contracted out. Today the campus, where close to 10,000 of us work and stay, is almost completely dependent on contract workers, whether for cleaning, horticulture, security, messing, civil & electrical maintenance, construction, laying cables, research assistance, the list can go on. By reliable estimates, as the institute has no system to keep consolidated records of such workers, the contingent workforce can be as high as 3,000 1. Given such a large workforce and given the fact that they work without any framework of rights and responsibilities, we keep hearing of arbitrary hiring and firings, accidents, grievances, signature campaigns, office orders, reports, and so on relating to the contingent workforce, and yet we do not seem to be any closer to addressing the ‘problem’. The present write-up is based on my 2 interaction with various constituencies on the issue during the last 15 years. Over these years of my stay in the campus I have primarily endeavoured to understand the problem from ‘below’ by interacting fairly closely with various kinds of workers. In the process I have also engaged with different constituencies on the issue – students, staff, faculty colleagues, authorities at various levels, contractors and have also been involved with minimum wage monitoring, handling worker grievances officially, etc. In this brief piece I am attempting to understand various aspects of the problem and what can be the possible ways of addressing them as I have understood personally with all its biases and limitations.

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Higher Education: A Luxury?

– The NotA Collective

Tuition fees in premier higher education institutes in India have seen an exorbitant increase over the last few years. There is a consistent trend of fee hikes in several public institutes of national importance,which creates barriers to upward social mobility for several sections of the society. This article will report on this trend considering the case of IITs, NITs and IISERs.

The fee hike is an important issue to consider for two reasons. Firstly, these public institutions were established to address the lack of a competent skilled workforce needed for a country like India. The demographics of such institutions dictate the composition of the skilled workforce we create with regards to caste and gender. As is well known, studying in these institutions leads to well paying positions. Thus, providing equal access to these institutes is an issue that we must all care about. Secondly, the barriers presented by high tuition fees effectively means public institutions now only cater to a small well-to-do elite, which is emphatically not the purpose of public institutions of higher learning.

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