SC deems caste-based discrimination in higher education system to be a ‘very sensitive matter’

In the PIL filed by mothers of Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi, bench urges UGC take action, propose steps to facilitate students from the SC/ST backgrounds into the mainstream
Image: PTI

On July 6, the Supreme Court heard the petition filed by Radhika Vemula and Abeda Salim Tadvi, mothers of Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi respectively, and deemed it to be a ‘very sensitive matter’. The matter was being heard by a division bench of Justice AS Bopanna and Justice MM Sundresh. Both Rohith and Payal had faced caste-based discrimination in institutions of higher education. The Supreme Court had sought the University Grants Committee’s (UGC) response, specifying the specifying the guidelines already taken, and planned, by them for creating an enabling environment for students belonging to SC/ ST communities in higher education institutions.

Justice Bopanna had told UGC, “Ultimately it is in the interest of the students and the parents whose children have lost their lives. In the future, at least some care should be taken that this doesn’t happen,” as reported by the LiveLaw.

In addition, Justice Bopanna advised the UGC that since the case was non-adversarial, it was important to be specific about how the UGC intended to address and resolve the issues mentioned in the petition rather than responding in the form of objections.

Furthermore, Justice Sundresh asked for details from the UGC regarding any actions the organisation has already taken as well as any upcoming plans.

Senior Advocate Indira Jaisingh, appearing for the Petitioners, requested the Court to urge the petitioner to ensure some action taken in a consultative manner. “It would be good if it is done in a consultative manner.” On this, Justice Bopanna informed the counsel for UGC, “Tell the UGC this is a sensitive matter and you have to take some action. Since it is non-adversarial you can also discuss with the petitioner’s counsel for suggestions,” as per a report by LiveLaw.

Justice MM Sundresh also suggested to the UGC to propose steps to facilitate students from the SC/ST backgrounds to the mainstream. “How do you facilitate them to get into the mainstream? Because they have come from a different backgrounds. There are many scenarios, some might drop out, while some may not perform well.”

Additionally, Advocate Jaisingh informed the court that the “equity regulations” the UGC created in the year 2012, to address concerns of caste discrimination on campuses, were insufficient. “It is unfortunate that these regulations do not have a binding nature, because they don’t have any sanction for violation of the regulations. When these regulations are compared to regulations under statues such as POSH and anti-ragging regulations, they fall short” Advocate Jaisingh argued, as per LiveLaw.

Pointing out that notice was issued to the Centre in the matter as far back as in September 2019, and more suicides due to caste-based discrimination have taken since then, Advocate Jaisingh further submitted that there was an urgent need to address the issue:

It is rather unfortunate that in the year 2023, 3 more suicides of have taken place of students. One of them in a National Law School, one in a medical college and one in an IIT. Therefore, there is a sense of urgency about this petition. It would be in the fitness of things if the UGC in a non-adversarial manner could be persuaded to frame binding guidelines which will bind all institutes of higher education.”

The matter has now been posted after 4 weeks.

The order can be read here:

Brief about the PIL filed:

In August, 2019, mothers of Rohit Vemula and Dr Payal Tadvi had approached the Supreme Court with the aim of seeking for an effective way to abolish caste-based discrimination in institutes of higher education. Through the petition, the petitioners had submitted caste-based incidents of discrimination against SC and ST community members are rampantly prevalent, combined with institutional indifference to such practise as well as brazen disregard for the rules and regulations already in existence. It was also contended that the norms and regulation already in place are insufficient, failing to adequately address the incidence of caste-based discrimination on campuses that affects both teachers and students. Additionally, these rules did not offer a mechanism for complaints to be resolved in an independent, unbiased and impartial manner, and do not impose any sanctions on higher education institutions on their failure to take proactive and preventive measures to stop caste discrimination on campuses.

Caste – based discrimination on the campus of HEIs, which is violative of Article 15, came to be recognised by the media in the year 2006 with reports that highlighted the rampant prevalence of caste based discrimination on the campus of All India Institute of Medical Sciences New Delhi which included instances such as referring to students from the SC/ST with derogatory slurs and remarks, unmeritorious, by Professors by purposely marking students from the SC/ST community with lower grades. Additionally, AIIMS served as a hotspot for anti-reservation protests which further fuelled casteism on campus.” (Para 10.2)

The petitioners also claimed that an independent study was conducted by the New Delhi-based Insight Foundation in the year 2012, under the direction of Anoop Kumar, wherein a list of suicides of students from the Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan communities was compiled. According to the said research, 19 students belonging to the marginalised communities had taken this extreme step in various higher education institutions across the nation between the years of 2007 and 2012.

“The frequent episodes of caste discrimination demonstrate that the state has not only completely failed to protect the fundamental rights of the SC/ST/OBC students, faculty and employees on campus but also refused to take action against the perpetrators of these incidents. In multiple incidents it is noted that Universities have refused to take action against incidents of caste-based discrimination or have been perpetrators of such discrimination themselves resulting in the institutionalised form of discrimination on the basis of caste. It is also noticed that the UGC has abdicated its responsibilities by turning a blind eye to multiple lapses of universities by failing to enforce existing regulations in Universities and not developing effective mechanisms to combat caste based discrimination”. (Para 10.37)

A list of Dalit and Adivasi students that have died by suicide can be read here

As a part of ground, the petitioners provided that there is need to form new guidelines as “UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012” does not provide for an independent mechanism of grievance redressal since the Anti- Discrimination Officer under the regulations and the Appellate Authority are both the Professor/ Associate Professor and the head of the institution respectively. This has a chilling effect on the students who may fear adverse consequences if they raise complaints against the administration.

Because Regulation Nos. 3(2)(f) of the Equity Regulations prescribe that a Professor/Associate Professor shall be appointed as the ADO is violative of the principles of fairness since they do not provide students recourse to an independent and unbiased adjudicatory mechanism since as has been evidenced by the cases referenced above, often it is the professors and deans itself who are responsible for such discrimination. Thus, the ADO who is often likely to be a colleague/employee of the accused and functions as the sole adjudicator, is not capable of functioning in an independent and unbiased manner” (Para W, grounds)

Our analysis of UGC’s anti-discriminatory guidelines failing Dalit-Adivasi students can be read here.

What do the petitioners seek through the PIL?

Through the petition, the petitioners had sought a direction to strictly ensure enforcement of and compliance with the above-mentioned UGC, (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012, dated December 17, 2012, issued by UGC (“UGC Equity Regulations”). Petitioners also sought issuance of directions to all Universities and Higher Education Institutions to establish Equal Opportunity Cells on the lines of such other existing anti-discrimination internal complaints mechanisms and to include members from the SC/ST communities and independent representatives from NGO’s or social activists to ensure objectivity and impartiality in the process.

Another prayer in the said petition was for the issuance of direction to all Universities to take strong disciplinary action against victimization of students/staff who file complaints alleging caste based discrimination and to take necessary steps in the nature of interim reliefs that restrain the Higher Education Institutions from creating a hostile environment against students who file such complaints.

The PIL can be read here:

Courtesy: Live Law

Who were Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi?

Rohit Vemula was a Dalit student, a PhD scholar at Hyderabad Central University and the son of Radhika Vemula, who died by suicide on January 17, 2016. He had been suspended along with four others after a complaint by the local unit of the Akhil Bharatatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP. ABVP had branded him as casteist and anti – national. Vemula’s fellowship of Rs 25,000 was suspended for raising “issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association” (ASA). On January 17, Vemula committed suicide and left behind a critical note talking of unfinished dreams and how he felt his “birth was his fatal accident”.

Twenty-three-year-old Payal Tadvi hailed from the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, and was a Bhil Muslim, she belonged to the scheduled tribes. She was a student at TN Topiwala National Medical College in Mumbai. On May 22, 2019, she was found hanging in her room in the Nair hospital premises. She had committed suicide after months of alleged harassment by three college seniors who subjected her to casteist slurs and other forms of caste violence. Both these suicides have been attributed to have been instigated due to facing caste-based discrimination in educational institutions.



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