A 36-year-old assistant professor of the Economics Department at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Vipin P Veetil, quit the premier institution in July and an email he wrote on the alleged caste discrimination he faced in the institute went viral. This caused huge public outrage, once again raising questions about the discrimination faced by both faculties and students belonging to oppressed communities at such institutions in the country.
After quitting IIT-M, Vipin joined another institution, but had to quit due to personal reasons. Vipin will soon be rejoining IIT-M after he decided to withdraw his resignation. According to IIT-M rules, faculty at Vipin’s position can return within a year after quitting the institution. However, he is waiting for the OBC Commission to probe a complaint that he has filed detailing the discrimination he faced. Vipin, who hails from Kerala, belongs to the Maniyani (OBC) caste.
Speaking to TNM, Vipin says that there is considerable oppression at different institutions in the country. He says there are only two groups in IIT Madras – ‘Brahmins’ and ‘Non Brahmins’, and the latter had been silently facing oppression for decades. He does, however, mention that in the case of IIT-M, there are active processes to deal with such cases, but they need to be strengthened significantly.
Answering some of the important questions in a Q&A session with TNM, Vipin clearly lays down the caste dynamics in IIT-M, the root cause of the problem and the solution at hand.
How many times had you written to IIT-M management before quitting?
I have written several emails to the management over the last two years. I had previously written to the grievances’ committee of IIT-M and have been reporting this incident for a good period of time.
I joined IIT-M in March 2019 and at the end of the year, I wrote for the first time regarding the general circumstances of discrimination and other issues in the campus. And in March 2020, I again wrote to the Head of Department of Economics and staff members of the Department, where I explicitly asked ‘if the rules are different for Brahmins or are we all operating on the same rule?’ So I have raised such questions and issues for a long time, but none of the emails were leaked.
The last email was leaked and got all this attention because I resigned. So unless someone kills themselves or resigns there is no traction, which is unfortunate. However, that’s the reality of the matter. Technically, I had resigned even before the email came out and I did not initially intend to write the email because I had written so many before and received no response. All these issues could have been sorted at a much lower level, but the Department is rotten and did not want to do so. I also filed a complaint with the grievances’ committee before resigning.
What was the incident that made you feel you were being discriminated against on the basis of caste?
I tried to teach a course, to which the Department staff said it cannot be done as I am in my probation period. I demanded that they give this in writing, but the HOD refused. Also a senior faculty member said that this is the time to ‘observe my behaviour’ and that they cannot allow me to teach a new course.
Of course, people in the past have been stopped from teaching in the first year and this clearly does not account for discrimination. But after 10 months of me joining, another Brahmin faculty joined the Department. He was also on probation but he was allowed to teach two new courses in his first year. While he took classes, those who were against me teaching the course, had no concerns against him. No one in the Department said ‘let’s examine his behaviour.’ This actually prompted me to ask if the ‘rules are different for Brahmins’. I do not want him to discontinue teaching the course. My concern has only been about preference over caste.
How do the dynamics of giving preference to others (Brahmins or other upper castes) work in institutions like IIT-M according to you?
There is a certain belief that Brahmins and upper castes are superior and their behavior is already good. While my behavior needs to be judged, theirs need not.
And another important thing is that they are all connected with people in ministries, government committees and so on, and have powerful people to back them. And even if you want to raise something against them, you won’t because you know you will have consequences as you come from nowhere.
My parents are not college professors. They haven’t even gone to college. I do not have MP connections or have anyone in the family who is a judge or even a lawyer.
Explain to us the caste dynamics in your Department that exposes caste privilege?
In our Department, every HOD was a Brahmin. In 2020, when there was a change in HOD, I raised this issue again. I requested that we have someone who is not a Brahmin. It doesn’t have to be an OBC or SC member, but someone who is not a Brahmin, but again they appointed a Brahmin.
In our Department, there are 35 faculty members, in a total of 45 sanctioned positions. Now if you apply the 27 percent OBC reservation formula, that means roughly about 10 to 15 OBC professors. And if you apply for SC/ST reservation, that will be 5 to 10 SC/ST professors. But as far as I know, there is only one SC/ST professor and I got in through General Category and not OBC reservation. Hence I cannot be counted and maybe there is one OBC professor who got through reservation.
The Department has people of various ideologies, and most have leftist ideology. They have done PhD from JNU and other institutions, but when it comes to real conflict, they all unite on the basis of caste.
Do you feel this is a particular problem in your Department or IIT-M or other IITs?
There will always be places where the problem is more severe than others, but this is a twofold issue. Firstly, any Department or institute you create in India, you draw people from Indian society. So it will naturally tend to reflect the value, preference and behaviour of the people in the society. So this idea that you somehow can create institutions which will not reflect societies is not going to happen.
Nonetheless, within IIT-M, I feel this Department is particularly problematic among a few other Departments. The Civil Engineering Department, for example, is a good place to work in, I have been told. It is not that IIT-M per se is problematic. There are specific people in specific Departments who are problematic.
Secondly, places with the most amount of conflict need not be places with the most amount of oppression. Because conflict arises when the oppressed feel that they have some chance of victory when they challenge the oppressor. I am certain there are many institutions in India where the circumstances of oppression are much worse but you will never hear about it, because the oppressors know the oppressed will not fight back.
Are you saying you have a chance of victory if you fight back?
Absolutely, because the institute has set up an internal grievances’ committee and I filed a complaint before I resigned. Then I filed a complaint with the OBC commission and besides this, there is pressure from the media to do things.
So though there is sizable oppression at different institutions, in the case of IIT-M, there are active processes to deal with such cases, but they need to be strengthened significantly.
But what does not help is the comment made by people like Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan on July 19 when he was asked by DMK leader TR Baalu about the discrimination at IIT-M and he said there is no discrimination at IIT-M.
There is a grievance committee that is currently inquiring into the matter but someone as powerful as him reaching the conclusion before the committee submits a report is unfair. Additionally, the National OBC commission is yet to begin its inquiry.
It is already difficult for people to report discrimination in this country. I was challenged when I decided to speak up. Because when in March I wrote to the HOD, a senior professor (current HOD) asked me to prove it because he was confident that I would not be able to prove it.
Are you wary about coming back to the Department?
Not at all. People who discriminate should be worried.
Have any of your colleagues warned you or shared their episodes of discrimination with you?
Yes, absolutely. I am able to do a lot of these things because there is support from other professors. When I was denied the opportunity to teach a course, a few professors supported me and said there is no such rule that you are not allowed to teach. I have documented emails about it.
And there were other colleagues who came and told me that there is a professor in the Department with great influence. I should watch what I do. “He can call up the former CM and directly talk to him,” they said. These are intimidation tactics and it does not work with me. But there are many who will be frightened. That’s why you cannot say if someone is oppressed or not depending on whether they are speaking or not.
Speaking out also depends on circumstances. I am single, but many professors at IIT-M have children who are studying in expensive schools. It is also costly to find another job, because even there another Brahmin or upper caste person will interview you and they will talk to each other and inform each other. Then where will you go?
Can you tell us more about the discrimination fellow colleagues have gone through?
Many fellow colleagues are there who have been denied promotions repeatedly. And in terms of work, the quality is better than the Chairperson who is publishing papers. But the problem is, he (colleague) is not a Brahmin.
In IIT-M, there are only two castes – Brahmins and Non- Brahmins. Many faculties who do not belong to SC or OBC communities have also faced discrimination.
Some of them have developed health issues partly because of the structures they have created, structures that Non Brahmin faculty are forced to endure. Every time a Non Brahmin is denied promotion, they will create a new excuse for why he is not promoted and never give it in writing.
What are the other issues you find in the IIT-M management?
I raised an issue in November-December 2019 where I mentioned that the vast majority of IIT-M directors and deans have been Brahmins. And this needs to change. To let others be part of decision-making authority is a paramount, basic and democratic thing to do.
There is an election during the formation of the committee and Brahmins frequently vote and choose the leaders. Here, an important thing to note is that people from the Bahujan community vote once in four or five years, while Brahmins vote much more frequently.
Now we also want to be part of the committee where we vote – ultimately making decisions on the resource allocation in society that we have no say in. It is a tax funded institution, money is taken from us.
If you want to run your own institution, bring your resources. You cannot have a tax funded institution which is not accountable to the general public.
How can discrimination and other concerns be addressed effectively?
Within the government system, there is no incentive to recruit on the basis of merit. Because the pay of the director is fixed, so it doesn’t depend on how well the institution does. It is not like if you teach poorly, students will leave and you will lose money. Even if students leave, you will still get money.
Firstly, reservation should be imposed so that all communities have their numbers and representation. And a system where the director and dean positions are on rotation so that people from all castes are part of decision making. And reservation should be there in the IIT-M board also, this needs to be quick.
The education system needs to open up widely. The supply side needs to open up massively- Oxford, Cambridge and numerous American universities want to come to India. The elites have always been able to send their children to foreign countries for studies and now the Bahujan people want that quality of education.
Typically, private institutes in India are able to open up because they have social and financial capital. I would love to raise the money to start a private university, but I have not inherited wealth and cannot use the money made from stock exchanges, as by law, institutions cannot run for profit.
Because we don’t have a thriving supply side in education due to the regulatory burden, it hurts the people unequally, especially those who have historically not had access to education.
Earlier (before the BJP government), foreign institutes could not come to India because of socialism and Marxism...as Americans are imperialists and what not. But still their children went to study there. Now, institutes are not allowed to come because of nationalism, so the elite always have some kind of grandstanding ideology. But they don’t bear the cost, instead we bear the cost. Now we are not willing to bear the cost, we want that quality education, open up the education system and let people come in.
We want an open recruitment system so that Bahujan members are not preyed on by the social network of Brahmins and upper castes.