APPSC IIT Bombay
We have been getting requests from fellow student organizations in other institutes to document our journey in setting up a functioning SC/ST Students Cell in IIT Bombay. This article is a brief history of the long struggle APPSC had engaged for the last 8 years.
In September 2014, Aniket Ambhore, a 22 year old fourth year B.Tech student of IIT Bombay, died after falling from a hostel building on the campus at IIT Bombay. The institute framed the incident initially as an accident. Aniket’s parents were not convinced by this explanation. Aniket had taken admission in IIT Bombay under the SC category and had faced derogatory comments in the institute about his academic ability. He was suffering from depression and had stayed home for ten days before going to campus that fateful day when he passed away. It looked like a case of suicide, but one which had resulted out of an ‘atmosphere of discrimination’ on the IIT Bombay campus which severely affects the mental state and motivation of the reserved category students. Despite being neck deep in grief, the parents prepared testimony of the problems they faced when seeking guidance and support from IIT Bombay for Aniket. In it they wrote about the insensitive attitude of faculty members relating to Aniket’s identity as a ‘category student’, the lack of communication from the institute about Aniket’s academic performance, the problems with the academic rehabilitation programme, and the general atmosphere in IIT Bombay campus where reservations are equated with lack of merit. In November 2014, they wrote to the Director of the institute sharing this testimony and requesting him to set up a committee to inquire into the circumstances of Aniket’s death, the problems faced by students from the SC/ST category and how the institute could address them.
In early 2015, a three-member Committee (henceforth called Suresh Committee) comprising IIT Bombay professors was set-up in response to the letter submitted by Aniket’s parents. The mandate of the Committee was twofold:
- Investigation into facts about Aniket’s poor academic performance and death.
- Examine the institutional provisions available to assist academically weak undergraduate students, particularly those from reserved category. And provide recommendations to improve these institutional measures.
In April 2015, a few students and faculty members who came to know about the parents’ testimony and the formation of the Suresh Committee met the Committee members. They expressed the need to have on the Committee, at least one “external member”—an individual who is not from IIT Bombay and who has significant experience in working with issues of human rights, institutional reforms and caste-equity. It further suggested the setting up of SC/ST and Women’s Cell offices in the Main Building, and holding sensitization and training programs on caste discrimination for students, faculty members, administration staff and other workers on campus. They strongly urged the Committee members to widely advertise its existence and be approachable to any persons who wish to depose before the Committee on the particular “case” of Aniket Ambhore as well as on the experience and practices of caste operating on campus. However, the administration did not inform the wider IIT Bombay community about the Committee through its internal webmail, thereby foreclosing an opportunity to take note of the experiences of students and researchers who have faced caste-based discrimination and stigma in the institute.
Meanwhile, in May 2015, APSC (Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle) IIT Madras was banned by then HRD minister Smriti Irani. In response, massive protests were happening across the country. Students in IIT Bombay who were fighting to obtain justice for Aniket Ambhore decided to form Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (henceforth APPSC).
The Suresh Committee submitted its report to the institute in March 2016. In the report, the Committee maintained that Aniket’s difficulties could not be traced to a caste-based or anti-reservation environment at IIT Bombay. Instead, they were traced to the “internal contradictions” he was battling with. It further asserted “the Institute and its official organs do not, overtly or subtly, discriminate in any way,” even though it admitted “a possibility that the students entering through SC/ST quota could face difficulties in the hostels and the departments because of the hardened attitudes against the reservation policy of the government, which could add to or even result in, difficulties in coping with the academic pressures.” They acknowledged that there were many deficiencies in the way academically challenged students are supported at IIT Bombay and these may be more acutely felt by SC/ST students. Some of the shortcomings noted were – despite the nearly three-fold increase in SC/ST population, there is still only one SC/ST coordinator with no office or support staff, there is a lack of coordination among the different arms of the support system for academically weak students, the mentorship programme leaves much to be desired, there is a dearth of awareness of the existing support programmes even among faculty and a lack of no periodical evaluation to make these programmes better. It made a series of recommendations relating to improving the academic support systems for weak students. With regard to specifically supporting SC/ST students, it recommended the setting up of a “Diversity Cell” which would serve as an umbrella Cell for “SC/ST students, women students, international students, differently-abled students”, appointing a faculty-in-charge for the SC/ST unit under the Diversity Cell, having a faculty advisor for the SC/ST students at the departmental level, conducting periodic assessment of academic records of SC/ST students and intervening in a timely manner in case of emerging problems, fair representation of SC/ST students among student mentors, measures to sensitize faculty members about the problems of weaker students and of those belonging to reserved categories, etc.
The parents, in a letter to the Director, expressed their disappointment with the Committee’s report for it tried to shift the blame towards Aniket and them without properly acknowledging how biased and unprepared the institute is to deal with problems of scheduled category students and those not performing up to its expectations academically. They were also dismayed that no action was recommended against the professor who had made casteist comments to Aniket. According to them, there was a problem with the nature of the Committee itself, since all members of the Committee were IIT professors who had not done any study on the realities of caste.
After a detailed study of the report and holding collective discussions around it, APPSC responded to the Suresh Committee report in October 2016. According to APPSC, the assertion by the Committee that IIT Bombay does not in any way discriminate on the basis of caste conveys that the Committee was severely inattentive to how caste structures institutions and people. It also expressed its disappointment that initiatives suggested by the Committee were a case of too-little, too-late. While highlighting some useful suggestions made by the Committee, APPSC made its own recommendations: setting up of a well-organized and responsive SC/ST Cell, setting up on an urgent basis a grievance redressal Cell in the institute that hears complaints about caste-discrimination, having SC, ST and OBC student representatives in relevant bodies of IIT Bombay, need to address the lack of venues or official bodies that are attentive to the particular concerns of OBC students and researchers, holding awareness-building programmes among mentors, tutors and counsellors of IIT Bombay on issues of caste, providing information regarding the SC/ST Coordinator’s office and counselling services in the student handbook and during the orientation programme at the time of student admission.
Pamphlet made by APPSC IIT Bombay which was distributed to new students during orientation session in 2017 and 2018 to inform them about the nuances of caste discrimination in campus.
Director or any other member in administration never responded to these issues raised by us. We have banged every possible door. We met and asked elected student representatives and institute media body ‘Insight’ to raise the issue but nothing was moving. In repeated meetings with the Director and Deputy Director, we raised our concerns regarding problems with the institutions functioning and the need for reforms.
With our sustained efforts, we managed to push for an open house with the Director arranged by Research Scholars Forum and Insight on 2nd Feb, 2017. In that open house, APPSC quarreled with the Director, Deputy Director and Dean of students’ affairs for implementation of Suresh Committee recommendations and formation of various Cells on campus. Owing to our efforts, they formed SC/ST Students Cell with an institute faculty advisor and department level faculty advisors. The Cell functioned mostly as a grievance redressal body. Neither did it conduct active sensitization sessions on campus, nor did it try to reach out to students so they could approach the Cell in case of need.
APPSC tried to meet with the then institute faculty advisor of SC/ST students Cell to demand implementation of other recommendations of the report. In our repeated correspondence with the Cell, they did not give any satisfactory response to our queries, nor did they change their functioning in any sort. It was the most invisible Cell of the campus. Only thing they did was to introduce SC/ST students Cell in the orientation programs in 2018-19 and release a poster.
When a student filed a case in the SC/ST students Cell and did not get a satisfactory response, APPSC tried to meet with the faculty advisor of SC/ST students Cell but the request was denied every time.
The Cell was only functioning as a grievance redressal body and not actively conducting sensitization sessions or support activities for the students. On 9th November 2019, Fathima Lateef became victim of institutional discriminatory practices at IIT Madras. Ambedkarites Students Collective, a fellow students organization in IIT Bombay, invited us and other organizations on campus to come together for a joint meeting to plan the protest. A forum named IIT Bombay For Justice was formed with four member organizations coming together (APPSC, ASC, NEC, Saathi) along with many individuals who were unaffiliated to these organizations also taking part in it.
IIT Bombay for Justice asked many questions regarding the functioning of SC/ST Cell, its constitution, its scope and the campus sensitization activities it has conducted. We also requested for a meeting with SC/ST Cell members, to which they responded saying our request is being discussed with “higher authorities” and they will respond soon. Already being doubtful about the independent nature of Cell, we further got confirmation that Cell does not function as an independent body. For over two months and after repeated reminders, Cell never agreed for a meeting. During those days Covid-19 entered our lives, and the institute was closed. We required some time to understand and adjust to the fact that now the classes will be online and campus activities of APPSC would not be possible. Since the institutional murder of Fathima Lateef, discussion was going on among the various IIT based student organizations to file RTIs and bring out the exact data regarding the presence and representation of students and faculty from reserved categories in IITs. During the lockdown, we decided to spend our energies on filing RTIs, putting together the data, analyzing and then disseminating the information. By July 2020, we had a comprehensive report about severe lack of representation of SC/ST/OBC students in PhD admissions at IIT Bombay. Seeing such skewed numbers, we wrote to the SC/ST Cell mentioning the unconstitutional practice of not following implementation of reservation in the campus. Cell responded asking us to raise this issue with the Deputy Director (AIA) and Dean Academic as this issue does not come under their purview. We wrote to the Director and Deputy Director, raised our concerns and asked for an online meeting. Initially, they responded saying that they were busy with setting up of online classes, but still did not fail to voice out their usual casteist practice of stating the unavailability of meritorious students being the cause behind such skewed numbers. We were equipped with data and argued back showing how they were not selecting anyone despite having a huge number of applicants.
We also wrote to around 200 faculties in IIT Bombay, with a false hope that it will create some discussion and administration will be forced to meet us. Only a handful responded with surprise after seeing such embarrassing data. Yet nothing changed, no discussion was initiated by any of the faculty members, neither at institute level nor at department level.
Months after months passed by, even with so many reminders the Director did not respond nor contacted us for a meeting. We started mobilizing the other IIT based student organizations and formed a collective to fight for representation in IITs. APSC and Chinta Bar at IIT Madras, Science Education Group at IIT Kharagpur, Students for Change at IIT BHU, IIT Delhi for Justice, Freedom and Democracy, and concerned students from IIT Gandhinagar, IIT Guwahati, and IIT Mandi joined in.
It is in this collective effort that we decided to take the matter to the outside world. We started putting out our data on social media, various media reports started to write about the non-implementation of reservation in IITs. We wrote repeatedly to the national commissions (NCSC, NCST, NCBC), Parliamentary standing committee on welfare of SCs/STs, and Ministry of Education. Some commissions and bodies responded saying they will look into it, while others totally ignored it. During the same period, individuals from IIT Gandhinagar involved in this work started APPSC IIT Gandhinagar. We collectively shared our experience of working in IITs. The idea was clear for all of us. We are up for a long battle and we will not drop our shoulders till we see change in the way IITs function. In April 2021, Seema Singh was caught spewing casteist slurs on preparatory course SC/ST students in IIT Kharagpur. APPSC along with the other organizations put up a strong campaign on social media highlighting the casteist harassment and discrimination happening in IITs and we wrote to all the national commissions on SC, ST and OBCs to take up this issue. Our social media campaign also highlighted the need of functional SC/ST Students Cell in casteist agraharas such as IITs.
Around August 2021, there was a change in leadership in the SC/ST Students Cell of IIT Bombay when two new convenors (convenor and co-convenor), took charge. They sent a mail to all the SC/ST students asking for a meeting in August, which was attended by only 3 students. This shows the trust which the students had towards the SC/ST Cell. Most of our members were not in campus as the campus was not fully reopened due to covid. One of our founding members went to this meeting and he was made the student representative of the Cell and he has been leading the work of the Cell since then. We pushed SC/ST Students Cell to coordinate with various bodies and bring in institutional changes in the hope of building trust among SC/ST students.
The first work for the representative was to approach each of the institute’s student support bodies and make them aware of the issues SC/ST students face and get them on board with the Cell’s activities. The Students Wellness Centre (SWC) and Bandhu (an alumni initiative) were contacted and it became apparent that no one in these bodies was sensitive to issues due to caste/tribe identities and the harassment, discrimination and mental health issues that arise due to it. In order to convince these people that caste is a real issue, the representative had to bring individual students to these bodies and let them listen to the students’ experiences. The administration kept on trying to impede the process by issuing orders to various bodies not to work with the SC/ST Students Cell.
To convince, the student bodies about the underlying caste discrimination who were oblivious of it. We had to bring in data to support our claims and we decided to make a survey about the experience and issues faced by SC/ST students in campus. While designing this survey, we could not find any such survey from other institutes. So, we thought we must prepare and contextualize the survey for IIT Bombay.
Based on the survey, the activities of the Cell were planned. Initially the Cell focused on scholarship issues faced by SC/ST students and tried to sort them out. It also focused on the welfare of preparatory students. Once APPSC felt that the new convenors are enthusiastic to do some work for the betterment of the SC/ST students, we started pushing them for more structural changes within the institute. The student representative worked tirelessly to create a network of SC/ST alumni who were interested in the welfare of SC/ST students. An alumni interaction event was organized for the outgoing SC/ST students where they could interact with SC/ST alumni who are well established in industry and academia for motivation and network building. Discussions are underway in other ways alumni can support the students, especially those who face financial and material difficulties. We also came to know from students that the mental health counselors were openly casteist and propagating anti-reservation propaganda. So, the Cell is now trying to create alternate mental health support for SC/ST students.
Two of the immediate demands were getting a room and separate website for the SC/ST Cell exactly similar to the one the gender Cell has in the institute. The renewed demand for a physical space for SC/ST Cell began in October 2021 and the admin kept on pushing it off delaying the meeting to discuss the allotment of room for months. Then in April 2022, we went hunting for free rooms in the main building and found that there were many rooms available, and we found a suitable room near the gender Cell itself. We communicated to the admin that a room is available and asked them to give it for SC/ST Cell. The admin responded that they will set up a meeting with the room committee within a week and give a decision. Weeks passed and the meeting never happened, and we came to know that the room we requested was allotted to someone else in the meantime. The admin said a section of the gender Cell will be allotted as space for SC/ST Cell, but since some renovation is happening, it will take a couple of months to get that space. Since we knew the admin was again delaying the process with more excuses, we went on social media with our demand for room for SC/ST Cell to create pressure on the institute. The pressure from media compelled the institute to act quickly and space was finally allotted for the SC/ST Students Cell.
Setting up the website for the Cell was comparatively easier. None of the IITs have a website for the SC/ST Cell, most of them only have a web page in some corner of the institute website. SC/ST Cell only had a webpage till that point in which the names of the functionaries were provided and a link to grievance redressal form was provided. There was a lot of information about scholarships, events, resources, which were not possible to be put with a single web page. Since the gender Cell of IIT Bombay already had a separate website, we also pushed SC/ST Cell to demand for one. The permission for a separate website was obtained finally after months of persuasion and the website is finally up at www.scstcell.iitb.ac.in.
Since its inception cell as functioned as grievance addressal body, and never conducted campus sensitization activities. We pushed the Cell to organize talks by eminent personalities who worked on caste. Such talks organized by an institute body gives more legitimacy to the cause and more students will attend. The first such talk happened in April 2022 and was streamed live in the official IIT Bombay YouTube Channel.
One of observations we reached from the surveys was that new students who come to campus face the most amount of harassment based on anti-reservation sentiment, especially with regard to low ranks. The current mentorship program functioning in IIT Bombay does not cater to the needs of the SC/ST students as all mentors are savarnas that engage in the anti-reservation propaganda. A demand was raised for SC/ST mentors for SC/ST students in the surveys. So, we pushed the SC/ST Cell to start a mentorship program for incoming students in parallel to the existing mentorship program in the institute. Around 60 students volunteered to be part of the pilot program. We contacted Mariwala Health Initiative, a mental health NGO to collaborate in training these mentors.
The SC/ST Students Cell of IIT Bombay still did not have a proper mandate directing its objectives, powers, functions, and responsibilities. There was no proper procedure for grievance redressal either. We are pushing the SC/ST Cell to draft a proper mandate document and get it ratified by the institute.
To encourage students to come and talk about caste openly in the campus, an Open House was conducted by the SC/ST Cell in June, 2022. Open house gave a platform and space in the campus for students and faculty to openly talk about their experiences of harassment, discrimination and privilege. Such open house events will encourage more people to come forward and understand more about the issues of caste and help students be more aware of their rights and support structures present.
The Gender Cell of IIT Bombay introduced a mandatory course for campus sensitization about sexual harassment in workspace in January 2022. We pushed the SC/ST Students Cell to create a similar course on caste sensitization. The work for the course is currently going on and we have made sure that the institute has publicly agreed to make this a compulsory course once it is completed and approved.
IITs need to do at least two-fold things. One is concerning members of the campus community by setting up proper functioning SC/ST Students Cells in all its campuses, reachable to students, and conduct programs to better the conscience of students and more so of the faculties. One thing via the curriculum could be done is to introduce a mandatory sensitization course on caste which students and faculties must attend once during their stay on campus. The campus practices should be more democratic and sensitive to caste and other forms of discrimination.
Another set of things concerns the entry into the campus. IIT should strictly implement the reservation policy as per mandate in student admissions and faculty recruitments. They should fill the past vacancies in the faculties posts and they should also fill the seats of SC/ST/OBC students which they have denied year after year. We hope that we have given justice to the work that our members and many others have done along the years to create a functioning SC/ST Students Cell on campus.