By Charu Bahri
In March 2012, Sanjay and Sunita Ambhore, parents of Aniket Ambhore, 19, a first-year electrical engineering student at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B), received a letter informing them that their son -- admitted in the Scheduled Caste (SC) quota -- had failed two courses.
Concerned, the Ambhores -- Sanjay, a bank manager, is a Dalit; Sunita, a junior-college lecturer, is not -- met one of Aniket's professors, who told them their son could not cope with IIT workload and would be happy in "normal" engineering colleges (with lower standards). He implied, they said, that SC students took up to eight years to complete a course that normally took four years. The professor suggested counselling to help Aniket focus on studies and named anti-depressants he could take.
The comments were a shock to Sanjay and Sunita, they said, who were until then mostly unaware that such attitudes existed in higher-education institutions. However, "Aniket did not find anything wrong with what he (the professor) had said, maybe because of the way it was said, as a well-meant suggestion", Sunita told IndiaSpend.
Instead, Aniket -- who scored 86 per cent in his class 12 Maharashtra State Board exam -- possibly influenced by disparaging talk of affirmative action, told his parents that he wanted to re-appear for the Joint Entrance Examination, the IIT admission test, which he cleared in 2011 -- and study engineering only if he could crack the test without affirmative action.
Between then and August 2014, the Ambhores consulted three psychiatrists to help their son regain confidence. It made no difference. Gradually, the talented Aniket turned into a student with low self-esteem.
In August 2014, a joint meeting with Aniket's head of department and the head of the Academic Rehabilitation Programme (ARP) -- a programme for academically deficient students that Aniket had been enrolled in the previous year headed by the same professor they met in 2012 -- went particularly badly. The ARP head suggested that another exam failure would devastate Aniket, so it would be best if he dropped out.
On September 4, 2014, Aniket fell to his death from the sixth floor of an IIT-B hostel. It isn't clear if it was an accident or he jumped.
The IIT system provides for an SC/ST adviser for the redressal of caste grievances, and there is acknowledgement that caste plays some role in the life of SC students (and tribal students, for whom an additional 7.5 per cent of seats are reserved).
"Some caste bias does shows up on campus, mostly as upper-caste students expressing their discontent with the reservation system," Devang Khakhar, Director, IIT Bombay, told IndiaSpend.
Questions have arisen over the efficacy of the redressal of caste grievances. Filmmaker Anoop Kumar of the 2011 documentary "Death of Merit" said that 80 per cent of those who committed suicides in the IITs between 2007 and 2011 were Dalits, and none of these institutes had a grievance-redressal mechanism to address caste-based discrimination.
Sunita now wonders if Aniket's downward turn began when he stepped into IIT-B as a Dalit, within months believing his academic woes were a result of his inability to reconcile with his origins. This left him with the belief that he was undeserving of a seat at India's premier engineering college -- an attitude confirmed by a 2013 King's College, London, study of an Indian university, now a book, "Faces of Discrimination in Higher Education in India: Quota Policy, Social Justice and the Dalits".
Could it have helped Aniket if there were at least some professors who shared his background? There are, for a start, very few Dalit professors in India's 23 IITs.
The quota system policy was designed in the 1950s as an early form of affirmative action to ensure that higher education institutions retained 15 per cent of their places for Dalit students; the same proportion of faculty was also expected to come from this background.
A 2008 government order instructed the IITs to employ 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 27 per cent SC, ST and other backward caste (OBC) faculty, respectively -- in line with the quota system being implemented for student admissions since 1973 -- at the entry-level post of assistant professor and lecturer in science and technology subjects and across all faculty posts in other subjects.
Almost a decade on, you can count the number of SC and ST faculty in the IITs on your fingers.
Dalit faculty made up no more than 1.12 per cent of IIT faculty positions in December 2012; 0.12 per cent were tribals, while OBC faculty were 1.84 per cent.
The proportion of SCs and STs in the country's population were 16.6 per cent and 8.6 per cent, respectively, as per the 2011 census.
This lack of SC/ST faculty could affect students from traditionally disadvantaged groups.
"Considerate and supportive faculty who are genuinely sympathetic to student's problems are few," said sociologist Virginius Xaxa, professor of eminence, Tezpur University, who has studied the adverse attitude towards SC/ST students in Delhi University. "The pervasive attitude is that students coming through quotas are undeserving."
Why do IITs lack SC/ST/OBC faculty? Too few applicants: That is the overriding reason for not having enough SC/ST faculty, the directors of IIT Bombay, IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras told IndiaSpend.
"We receive too few good-quality applications from SC/ST candidates who meet the minimum threshold for an IIT faculty," said Indranil Manna, Director, IIT Kanpur. "While we are committed to the law and our social obligation, we are also keen to protect the IIT brand, a globally recognised Indian brand that has taken 50 years to build."
Could prejudice impede the employment of faculty from disadvantaged communities? In August 2016, the Madras High Court concluded that IIT Madras had committed "gross irregularity" in passing over Associate Professor W.B. Vasantha -- a faculty member from a backward caste -- for promotion in 1995, and then again in 1997, for lesser-qualified candidates.
"There is no corner of India where prejudice against Dalits doesn't exist," said Anand Teltumbde, Senior Professor, Goa Institute of Management, formerly with IIT Kharagpur, and grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, the writer of India's Constitution.
"India has reconciled itself to admitting Dalit students in the IITs, but resistance to admitting Dalit faculty is still very strong, a Dalit must expect to fight the system."
Some of the IITs that IndiaSpend contacted for comments have started to bend the rules to increase the number of SC/ST faculty.
Almost all the SC/ST faculty on the rolls of IIT Delhi today were hired a couple of years ago during a special recruitment drive, a senior faculty member, requesting anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic, told IndiaSpend.
IIT Madras has considered conducting a special recruitment drive for SC/ST faculty, over and above its six-monthly recruitment cycle. However, "so far, a special drive does not seem like an idea that will give us more candidates as we are constantly on the lookout for SC/ST candidates during regular recruitment", said Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Director, IIT Madras.
SC/ST applicants compete against general category applicants in regular recruitment. Does that increase the odds against them?
Manna does not think so. "SC/ST candidates would not be disadvantaged because they are treated under a separate category with a different level of expectation," he said.
At the entry level, applicants need not possess "a superlative record", said Manna. A doctoral degree from a "decent" university, a good academic background, some good publications and a couple of years of work experience.
"I would definitely prefer the SC/ST candidate if I had three candidates of different social status but comparable merit and qualification," said Manna.
Improving the learning environment and training potential candidates in-house would likely help retain more SC/ST doctoral scholars.
"Students aware of the environment in the IITs may be reluctant to join as faculty," said Tezpur University's Xaxa "Academic progress depends greatly on how comfortable you feel in an environment." Aniket, clearly, did not.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform.)
(Charu Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at email@example.com)