How do casteism, bigotry continue to thrive in IITs?

A death allegedly by suicide, a resignation that exposes caste-based discrimination; happenings at IIT Madras are a sign of a deeper problem

casteism, bigotry
Image: Simrin Sirur/ThePrint

The charred body of a 22-year-old engineer was found inside the campus of The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras in Chennai on July 2. The IITs are autonomous public technical universities with campuses across India. This gruesome incident in its Madras campus has added to the crisis it faces after the recent resignation of one of its professors who has alleged caste-based discrimination. 

However, so far, the two incidents are unrelated and the cause of the tragic death by suicide of Unnikrishnan Nair, 30, who worked as a project associate at IIT Madras is now under investigation. According to news reports, citing preliminary police investigations Unnikrishnan had left a note saying he was “unable to cope with work.” The reports furth say that the victim’s body was recovered from a hockey stadium in the institute’s campus. It has been stated by the Institute that Unnikrishnan “joined the Institute in April 2021 and was living outside the campus.” Curiously, the statement has mentioned that he was a “temporary” staff, though it is not clear yet why or how that clause will matter in the investigation. 

Unnikrishnan, hails from Ernakulam and his father Raghu works in an ISRO unit in Aluva, Kerala stated news reports. He has reportedly left behind a 11-page suicide note which talked about stress in work place, police told the media. It has not elaborated what the “stress” was as written by the victim. News reports added that Unnikrishnan was last seen alive when he left his off-campus residence in Velachery on Thursday morning. His body was reportedly discovered on Thursday evening by some hockey players who were practicing at the grounds, and they alerted the authorities. Police told the media, “Unnikrishnan had removed and kept all his personal accessories safely before committing suicide.” Police found the reported “suicide note” at his Velacherry resident on Friday. 

 It is not the first death by suicide at this IIT 

In November 2019, news was ablaze with reports of death by suicide of Fatima Lateef, a student in IIT Madras coincidently also hailing from Kerala. She had alleged that one of the professors was the “the cause of my death”. The case is being probed by CBI. According to a report in India Today, her death had “shaken students at IIT Madras,” and the case “also acquired political dimensions.” The then senior politician Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president MK Stalin (now Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) had tweeted in Tamil saying, “The death of IIT Madras student Fathima is not suicide. After interacting with Fathima’s father it is clear that there are many mysteries and questions around her death.” It is not yet known if he has made any official comment yet on the current crisis that seems to be unfolding at IIT Madras.  

A resignation that exposes bias 

IIT Madras states on its own website that it “is one among the foremost institutes of national importance in higher technological education, basic and applied research.” However, it has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this week. On Thursday, a faculty member Vipin P Veetil, had resigned citing caste discrimination. A number of activists have been calling out the allegations of casteism at IITs, specifically IIT Madras, Kharagpur etc.     





According to news reports, Vipin Pudiyath Veetil, who taught Economics at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at IIT Madras, wrote an email to his colleagues and alleged that he had faced caste-based discrimintion ever since he joined the institute in 2019, and that the “discrimination came from individuals in positions of power irrespective of their claimed political affiliations and gender”.  

Vipin who hails from an OBC community in Kerala stated that he was leaving the IIT for another institution and that he would “pursue appropriate actions to address the matter.” News reports quoted his email that illustrated the alleged discrimination, “I’ve observed at the institute is that the Bayesian prior among many is that caste discrimination is rare occurrence. My own experience and conversations with members of SC and OBC communities, suggests that the Bayesian prior is far from true.” 

Ironic, because the IIT Madras in its mission statement proclaims to provide “a liberal; as well as a professional education so that each student acquires a respect for moral values, a sense of their duties as a citizen, a feeling for taste and style, and a better human understanding. All these are required for leadership.” It aims to “send forth men and women of the highest professional competence with a breath of learning and a character to deal constructively with issues, and problems anticipated in the next decade relevant to the programmes of development of our country.” 

Perhaps it is time for them to add the Preamble to the Constitution of India, for its students and faculty to remind themselves that India is a “SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC” and that all citizens have the right to: 

“JUSTICE: social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

and FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;”

Vipin Pudiyath Veetil, has also suggested that the IIT sets up a committee to study the experience of the SC and OBC faculty and include members from the SC / ST Commission, OBC Commission and psychologists. According to a report in The Print, his resignation comes two days after the NCSC reprimanded IIT Madras for not hiring enough SC, ST, and OBC professors. Yet another marker in the allegations of such discrimination in IITs. A petition has begun gathering momentum calling out the “rampant and unchecked” discrimination and backing Vipin’s call for the “urgent need for having permanent SC, ST, and OBC committees at IITs.” The petition may be signed here. 

Remember IIT Kharagpur Prof abusing Dalit students? 

In April this year Associate Professor Seema Singh’s humiliation of Dalit and PWD students exposed the class divide in elite institutions. A video that had gone viral for all the wrong reasons of an online preparatory English course held for students belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes as well as persons with disability, at IIT Kharagpur. The teacher’s language and attitude had once again exposed the class divide in elite institutions. The abusive teacher was soon identified as Associate Professor Seema Singh of HSS Department who was heard screaming and verbally abusing students. Singh, according to news reports, was later suspended until further orders and a fact-finding committee that was “instituted to look into the allegations” had also submitted its report. The institute had told the media that ‘an internal inquiry” had also begun.  It was also reported that after the videos went viral, Singh ‘apologised’ and said “it was never the slightest intention to be discriminatory towards any segment of the student community.”  

Normalising discrimination on campus 

There are many ways to ‘normalise’ discriminations too. Recently, in a blatant display of Islamophobia, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University ‘invited’ three students from every semester to ‘promise’ never to engage in any terrorist activities. The students protested an anti-terrorism oath taking ceremony organised on May 21, 2021, via a Google meet call. Student unions like All India Students Association (AISA) condemned the event for its “transparent display of Islamophobia.”

According to one of the attending students, who wished to remain unnamed, the college forwarded a circular by the Union Ministry of Education that instructed an anti-terrorism pledge-taking ceremony for government officers, staff. It also included subordinate / attached / autonomous bodies under their administrative control. Speaking to SabrangIndia, a student said that they received the notice from their co-curricular activity group, the English Literary Association.  

Intolerance of another kind is seen in Kerala  

The Central University of Kerala (CUK) suspended Assistant Professor Dr. Gilbert Sebastian on May 17, 2021 for calling the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a proto-fascist organisation during an online lecture on ‘Nazism and Fascism.’ University Vice Chancellor H. Venkateswarulu set up a three-member internal inquiry committee that deemed the International Relations and Politics department’s professor guilty of misconduct during the online class. During the April 19 class, Dr. Sebastain talked about how the ‘Sangh Parivar’ – the RSS and the BJP and other affiliated organisations – can be considered proto-fascist or people influenced by classical fascist organisations. He also asked students where India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule since 2014 is akin to other areas like Spain under General Franco, Portugal under Salazar and Argentina under Juan Peron.



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