Less than 5 percent of the academic faculty are from the SC, ST, OBC categories at IISC, one of India’s premier research institutions, indicating a lack of adequate representation of the socially marginalized people in Indian science.
A similar case of inadequate representation of marginalized castes can be seen in the IITs. According to its annual reports of 2016-17, IIT Kanpur has only 3 Dalit faculties out of the total 394 faculty members. A minuscule 12.4 percent of the faculty of IIT Madras belong to the reserved categories.More than 40 percent of students who dropped out of IITs in the last two years belong to the reserved categories.
AIIMS, one of the country’s top-ranking institutes of medicine has been in the news for indulging in caste-based discrimination. A report by the Thorat committee in 2008 observed that the faculty, former director had displayed such behaviour and fuelled anti-quota stir. They have also allegedly discouraged students from marginalized castes and not followed adequate reservation policies while selecting resident doctors.
What is merit?
Indian parents, science teachers, scientists often harp on the importance of ‘merit’ in the world of science, technology, medical education. This idea of a meritocracy believes in judging each student solely on their capabilities, whether it is to clear an entrance exam or face an interview. This world view tends to overlook how a student came to possess those capabilities. Would students from marginalized sections of the society have as much access to books, resources as compared to the students from the educated middle class? Is it not easier for a student coming from an upper-caste Indian family, who had grown up with role models like scientists, academicians, engineers at home to enter into the world of scientific research? Is it fair to compare the abilities of students from such privileged backgrounds with students from marginalized castes who are mainly first-generation learners? Hostility or lack of interest from the faculty, biased attitudes of fellow students often act as a psychological barrier to academic success for students from marginalized communities. Surveys have shown that many such students went on to face discrimination at their workplaces as well. Higher the level of educational attainment, fewer are the proportion of people from the reserved and marginalized categories.
Merit is not something that a student can acquire just by working hard, it is defined by the economic opportunities, access to education, and social identities like caste.
Can Indian science call itself caste-less?
The short answer is no. The Indian academic spaces have always been dominated by the upper caste, as a result, discussions regarding the under-representation of Dalits, OBCs in research institutions were rare. A number of scientists from privileged, upper-caste backgrounds have often remarked in interviews, biographies that they are ‘caste-less’ or blind to the caste backgrounds of students. They often forget that traditional caste- capital in India has, during the course of history, been converted into modern forms of economic and cultural capital like property ownership, access to higher education, dominating presence in professional fields like academia and journalism. It is not just a passion for science or hard work that enabled these researchers to do science, it is a result of their caste associated privilege. Calling themselves caste-blind is part of their inability to acknowledge that privilege.
1. Why most drop-outs from IITs, IIMs are from reserved category? Aug 27,2019, The Indian Express.
2. 2,400 students dropped out of IITs in 2 years, nearly half were SC, ST, OBC 29th July, 2019, The Print.