Leadership positions within the elite academic institutes are de facto reserved for Brahmins, a reservation which is never questioned on the grounds of merit.

Vipin P VeetilVipin P Veetil
Voices Opinion Sunday, March 13, 2022 - 14:40

India is living in a contraction. On the one hand, our Constitution enshrines the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality. While on the other hand, many in positions of power live by convictions wholly antithetical to our constitutional values. More specifically, those in power overtly or covertly act as if they were following the Constitution of Manu. And this contradiction manifests itself rather acutely within India’s elite academic institutes. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to make sense of the workings of these institutes without a sense of the bureaucratic means by which an Ambedkarite Constitution is made to generate Manuvadi outcomes.

It is well known that members of the ‘lower-castes’ are conspicuous by their near-absence in India’s elite academic institutes. This ‘near-absence’ becomes ‘absolute-absence’ as one travels up the administrative hierarchy. Leadership positions within the elite academic institutes are de facto reserved for Brahmins, a reservation which is never questioned on the grounds of merit. What is the ultimate cause of these glaring inequities? One cause is simply the fact that historically, the vast majority of India’s people did not have access to formal higher education. Naturally, then, people from the historically disadvantaged communities are less likely to qualify to work at India’s elite academic institutes. But do these historical factors explain all, or even the majority, of the near-absence of the ‘lower-castes’ at India’s elite academic institutes? My own experience as an Assistant Professor at IIT Madras suggests not. In fact, caste discrimination appears to play a significant role in excluding meritorious individuals from faculty positions at India’s premier educational institutions.

There are numerous avenues for caste discrimination in faculty hiring, so much so that one cannot rule out the possibility that a qualified candidate from a marginalised community is deemed ‘unqualified’. The first of these avenues is the stage of advertisement. Note that the recruitment of new faculty is not strictly related to the demand from students for specific courses. Rather faculty positions are advertised based on numerous opaque reasons. In such circumstances, academic bureaucrats have an incentive to tailor advertisements to suit the qualifications of their kin waiting in the wings. And when the majority of the bureaucrats come from one caste, there will be a tendency to tailor advertisements to suit known members of their caste waiting on the outside. In IIT Madras, for instance, nearly all Directors have been Brahmins, so have the vast majority of the Deans and Heads of Departments. The caste-affinity among Brahmins, their predominance in decision-making positions, along with the opaqueness of the origin of faculty advertisements, are sufficient grounds to suspect that members of the marginalised communities face a degree of exclusion at the point of advertisement itself.

The second avenue at which caste-discrimination occurs in faculty recruitment is in the short-listing of candidates for interview. Faculty applications come from individuals with doctoral degrees from different universities in a variety of disciplines. Even within a given discipline, applicants come with specialisations in different subfields and publications in diverse journals. There is no objective method to aggregate these manifold attributes into a simple statistic with which to sort the applications. One must invariably depend on ‘judgement’ in the shortlisting of candidates for interview. Insofar as the judges are creatures of the Indian society, i.e. they carry with them caste-sentiments in one form or another, the judgement is more likely than not to be biased against candidates from the marginalised communities.

The third avenue for caste-discrimination in faculty recruitment is the interview. It is a well-known axiom amongst academics that the composition of the interview panel is as much a determinant of the outcome of an interview as the quality of the interviewee. Interviewers can vary demeanours and attitudes with the caste or community of the candidates interviewed, thereby frightening some candidates, while soothing others. Also, in any given area of science, one can find questions which even the ablest of candidates cannot answer, and questions which even the worst of the lot could reign over. Naturally, then, as to who is selected through the interview depends heavily on who forms the interview panel and who asks the questions. And the ‘who' is not an individual alien to society, but a product of society, often borrowing her values with little dissension over its content but great revelry over its framing. Insofar as members of the ‘lower-castes’ are excluded from the ‘who’ that determines the composition of the interview panel and the ‘who’ that determines what questions to ask, they are also likely to be excluded from the faculty directories of India's premier educational institutions.

The aforenoted three avenues for discrimination illustrate the levers that the administration can and does use to exclude individuals from marginalised communities. These levers are merely illustrative of the many means available to Brahminical bureaucracies to subvert the values enshrined in the Constitution of India.  An egalitarian constitution means little when the conduct of people in positions of power is guided by Manu’s philosophy of innate and irremediable inequality. Beneath the advertisements and appointments typed on guilded letterheads lies the values of the people who sign them. One would have to be sorely naïve to presume that the values by which academic bureaucrats live play no role in determining the social composition of the Indian scientific enterprise.

For good or bad, the exclusion of faculty from the ‘lower-castes’ from India’s elite educational institutes is not merely a matter of a few hundred jobs. These institutes shape thousands of minds through the design of courses and programs. But more importantly, they implicitly set the agenda for research and teaching across the nation through the influence on government regulatory bodies and private colleges. The elite institutes therefore occupy the top of the academic pyramid from which ideas percolate to colleges across the nation. What questions can be asked and what is not to be spoken of, what kinds of answers are admissible and what kinds to be met with sanction, what sorts of personalities are to be portrayed with a halo and what sorts to be vilified are all matters that are ultimately shaped by faculty at a handful of elite institutes. Naturally, the questions asked and the answers presented are seldom independent of one’s own lived experience in society. Faculty members from the lower-castes are likely to see the world through windows different from those of Brahmins. The exclusion of lower-caste individuals from elite academic institutes therefore amounts to the exclusion of the questions and problems that matter for the lives of the vast majority of the citizens of our republic. What is at stake therefore is not only our constitutional values but the very lives we live.

Vipin P Veetil has a PhD in economics from George Mason University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Sorbonne University. He recently resigned from the post of Assistant Professor at IIT Madras. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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