Interview | 'There Is Nothing Meritorious about IITs,' Says Prof Who Resigned Over Casteism

Vipin P. Veetil speaks about his journey at IIT Madras and what really goes on inside India’s ‘Institute of National Importance'.

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Last month, Vipin P. Veetil, resigned as an assistant professor at IIT Madras, alleging that he faced caste-based discrimination. In his firmly worded resignation email, he stated that “the discrimination came from individuals in a position of power, irrespective of their claimed political affiliations and gender”. Snippets of his email were circulated widely on the Internet, throwing light on the issue of caste-based discrimination at IIT Madras.

Allegations have been made over time that casteism thrives in IITs. From the casteist and ableist remarks of professor Seema Singh at IIT Kharagpur to the violation of reservation for faculty recruitment across its campuses, Veetil’s is symptomatic of a much larger issue. In fact, as of 2019, IIT Madras was already under the heavy scrutiny of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes when the institute reported five alleged deaths by suicide within 11 months.

Also read: ‘Disgusted’: Over 1000 IIT Alumni Write to Kharagpur Director on Professor’s Casteist Abuse

While we hear considerable outrage against caste-based discrimination faced by students from the marginalised communities within IITs, faculty members are not exempt from such mistreatment either. RTI data from 22 of the 23 IIT campuses across India reveals that “none of the 22 IITs [in this study] have more than six teachers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes community, while 18 of them have ten or fewer candidates from the Scheduled Castes category. Seven IITs had ten or fewer faculty members from the other backward classes community”. Moreover, a Newslaundry article quotes the experience of Subrahmanyam Sadrela, an associate Professor at IIT Kanpur:

“…soon after Sadrela’s appointment, he says some of his colleagues said his appointment was “wrong”, that he didn’t deserve to be a faculty member at the institute, that he could not speak English perfectly and was mentally unfit…Sadrela was slapped with charges of plagiarism in his thesis and threatened with the revocation of his PhD degree, almost a year after he alleged caste-based discrimination in the campus.” 

Obsession with ‘merit’

As India obsesses over the value of “merit”, it becomes increasingly important to hear the stories of those impacted by caste-based discrimination. Does the argument for merit truly make sense? How do caste dynamics play out in educational spaces? What does standing up for yourself yield in a predominantly upper-caste institution? I had the opportunity to hear directly from Veetil. He spoke about his journey at IIT Madras and what really goes on inside India’s ‘Institute of National Importance’.

When I first tried reaching out to Veetil, I was told categorically by a student that he did not wish to talk to the media. Weeks later, surprised by his response to my email, I asked him what made him change his mind.

“Now, since the media has lost interest, I have gained interest!” he laughs. “I started receiving calls from several prominent news platforms. But one of the things I did not want to do was just give news bytes because this kind of a case requires extensive, thorough treatment. Knee-jerk reactions don’t help. Only two of some 20 media outlets mentioned that they want to do long-form writing on the issue. I also felt like my mind needs to be a little distant from the issue to engage with the media. I took a break for 2-3 weeks and went to Kodaikanal. Now, I’m willing to speak at length about the events that have occurred.”

Recalling his early days at the institute, Veetil says that his experiences with caste started even before he had officially joined IIT Madras as an assistant professor, some time in July 2018.

“As a postdoctoral fellow, I had been applying for several jobs at universities, and IIT Madras called me for an interview. I had my interview in the morning; no complaints about that process. But in the evening, I was sitting with another individual who had come to apply for the same position. A car drove in, and a man stepped out of the car, 60-65 years old perhaps. He was from the Brahmin caste; his janeu was falling out of his shirt. He picked a key from the guesthouse reception and returned almost within the next five minutes shouting furiously at the receptionist. The latter – I do not know which caste he was from – was shaking and shivering, must be around 25-26 years old.”

“The issue was as simple as this: someone accidentally gave him the key to a room that had not been cleaned. All he had to do was let them know that he requires the key to a cleaned room. The receptionist was profusely apologising, but this man kept shouting, ‘How dare you give me this key?'”

“I intervened by saying, ‘You can’t shout at him’. He had luggage and was probably coming in from the airport. I pointed out that if he tried this behaviour somewhere abroad, say, in the US, people would call the cops. He’s a violent man, and this would not be tolerated. The man kept his hand on my shoulder, sort of physically intimidating me, and asked me, ‘Who are you?'”

Veetil describes this as his first glimpse into the sense of ownership a man with such privilege can have at IIT. “I realised that the fellow being shouted at could not even do anything about it: he’s a contractual employee, his manager is also a Brahmin, the director of the institute is a Brahmin. And this receptionist has a family to take care of.”

He reports that there were also times when people at the institute openly asked for his last name to figure out his caste. “Sometimes, I’d be surprised that they’d ask my last name. Sometimes I would not tell them. And sometimes, people would ask me differently: ‘Are you a vegetarian?’ which is a proxy for finding out your caste. You would overhear certain women speak about how someone in their family is getting married to a Marathi Brahmin girl. So you would know those caste conversations are prominent on the campus.”

Contrary to what one may assume, Veetil’s resignation mail was not the first time he had written to the institute to address the problem of caste-based discrimination.

Also read: IIT Madras Faculty Member Resigns Citing Caste Discrimination at Institute

“I think one of the first emails I wrote was about six-seven months after I’d joined IIT Madras. It was sent to all 700-800 faculty members, including the director, IIT core members, everyone… I had asked about the caste composition of deans and directors at IITs. As far as I know, all the directors of IITs since its founding have been Brahmins, so have been the vast majority of deans.”

“All I asked for was some data in a one-line email. Suddenly, there was a surge of emails sent to me saying, ‘If you go down the line that Vipin is suggesting, this institute would be destroyed’. But I hadn’t even said anything! People may have assumed that I was pushing for more reservations, but I hadn’t said anything myself. One person said that statistics are a way to lie – and you should know that these are fairly intelligent people! They are professors at IIT with PhDs in very technical subjects. They were trying to insinuate that the hiring system must be just as the directors are hired by the Government of India, the deans by the Directors, so on and so forth.”

“In response, I wrote them a long email highlighting that in government organisations, there is little to no incentive to hire based on merit. If I am an employee with a fixed salary, I have no incentive to hire on the basis of merit. If anything, I have all the opportunity to hire based on my caste preferences, my ideological preferences, my gender preferences, or my regional preferences. I wrote an elaborate email explaining this, citing literature in economics to substantiate my argument. I presented this as an opportunity for the institute to recognise this lack of incentive and be self-reflective, observe how people of one caste or regional group tend to get hired or promoted. This email, again, got a fair amount of pushback.”

A class in session at the IIT Madras's department of physics. Credit: IIT Madras

A class in session at the IIT Madras’s department of physics. Source: IIT Madras.

‘No redressal mechanism for casteist abuse’

Despite raising the issue of rampant casteism at IIT Madras multiple times, Veetil did not feel that there were adequate grievance redressal mechanisms in place that would truly offer a safe space for marginalised groups to be heard.

“I have now filed a complaint with the institute’s grievance committee. But I got to know this committee only after I worked here for two years and four months. And I got to know through personal efforts while I was trying to file a complaint with the OBC commission – which I have done now as well.”

“There is no orientation telling you that there are mechanisms in place if you are facing trouble, which parties you can approach – none of that. The one place where we do have some kind of functionality is sexual harassment. We do get some sort of training owing to the Government of India legislation. That gives you the details of who you can approach and what the protocol is, but there is no such thing for caste-related questions.”

“Again, how well these things function is another matter. But formally, you don’t even know that these protections exist. Besides, this grievance committee is not specific to caste. If you see the email that I’d written, I had said that the government should institute a panel to study the experiences of people from marginalised castes on campus. The larger idea is that there should be a specific SC/ST and OBC cell in the same way that sexual harassment complaints are dealt with in a specialised manner.”

When asked about the importance of caste-specific grievance redressal committees, he says, “All societies are societies in transition. You never step into the same river twice. But some societies are more in transition than others, right? India is particularly a transitional society. In the next 20-30 years, you would see many first-generation professors, first-generation judges, prime minister’s economic advisors, government council members. In the last 20 years, we have seen first-generation college-goers. Now, they will be seeking jobs in positions their parents simply did not have access to. As they get these positions, it is crucial to have systems in place where we don’t assume prior knowledge – because oppressed groups are not necessarily getting this prior knowledge from their parents and their grandparents.”

“This is something that the United States does well: they have this whole orientation at workplaces and universities. Because they have so many people from outside the country, they are very transparent about how their system works. This is something we need to do in India. It’s not that we don’t have it solely because of ignorance – withholding information is a way to maintain caste hegemonies.”

Veetil is not hesitant to call out the “people in power” who he accuses of discrimination. “In my case, there were four people who were primarily involved. And then, of course, some people are sitting on the fence. The ones who are quiet are also as liable as anyone else. They want to play the game on both sides.”

“One of the four people is the chair professor at the department. He’s been here for donkey’s years – did his PhD at IIT Madras, got a job at IIT Madras, and he’ll retire in three years. He’s well entrenched in the system – a very powerful man. Two others involved are the department heads – one was the head when I joined, and one who is the head currently. The last person is also a professor who has worked here for, I believe, more than two decades now.”

“These are all people who decide whether an assistant professor should be promoted, an assistant professor to a complete one. They define which resources to float to whom, from housing to pay. They also ascertain who has access to certain facilities on the campus. Overall, they are people capable of creating hurdles in your academic and professional life.”

So, what were these hurdles? “One month after I joined, I mentioned that I want to teach a new course called Economic Network Analysis – nothing in the course content is offensive to anybody. In fact, it could be terribly boring for some. I want to point this out because the trouble that arose was not because of the course. It’s not like I was teaching Economics of Discrimination. A small committee makes important decisions in the department, the department consultative committee, which said in an email that I could not teach this course because I was on my probation period. This email was being passed around, and someone called S, who was upper caste but not a Brahmin, said that ‘this is the time to observe his behaviour’.”

“One or two associate professors pointed out that there was no such rule prohibiting one from starting a new course in the first year, and in fact, there had been people who had done the same within their first year. But you should know that lots of people in the department already know each other and there is a network of doing favours for each other back and forth. I did not come into this department knowing anybody. I do my work, and that should be good enough.”

“I asked them to give it to me in writing that I cannot start the course in my first year, and they refused to do so – it was just an arbitrary decision. Here is also where the question of merit comes in. There is no objective judge of merit in this system; there is a fair amount of arbitrariness at every level. I felt down, confused, didn’t know what was going on or whom to approach.”

Further elaborating on the fallacy of a “meritorious” institute, Veetil talks about a strange incident he allegedly caught at IIT Madras.

“Months go by, and I see the chair professor of the department doing something very strange in the recruitment process of PhD fellows. They’ve divided the entry into economics department into three: economics, technology in public policy and health. Usually, there is an entrance exam and then two interviews. The chair professor in the department had been writing and grading the questions for the entrance exams for the “technology and public policy” track for more than 10 years! There’s no other professor who’s written or graded the paper for years. So, we had a public institution admitting students without adequate checks and balances!”

As Veetil raised this issue, he made several suggestions to make the admission process more fair and inclusive. He reportedly encouraged that more than one person write the question paper and that more than one person, who had nothing to do with setting the questions, also grade each paper. He also reported that he suggested they stop recording the students’ names and simply note their role numbers instead.

“How is it that this institution has gone on for so long recording the names of students? The name will tell anyone the gender, religion, and caste of the person. This is not acceptable because nobody is beyond the deeply ingrained biases in India – I am not beyond it either!”

“Still, so far, there was no clear case of discrimination that I could make. But I was really upset about three months after that. In 2020, a new person joined the department by the name of A. He’s from the Brahmin caste. He floats two new courses in his first year, and both are approved! When this was happening, I explicitly asked the question, ‘Are the rules different for Brahmins?’”

“None of the four people who created trouble for me in starting a new course raised any issue in A’s case. Even the person who said my behaviour needs to be ‘observed did not say a word against A. Is it that if you’re from a backward caste, you are more animalistic and, I don’t know, you go around biting people, which is why you need to be ‘observed’? And if you’re from a privileged caste, your behaviour is naturally decent? The same associate professor who supported me when I was advocating for my course brought up the issue: ‘You didn’t let Vipin teach.’ But nothing came of it, and they pushed through their agenda. I was very disappointed.”

‘Merit at IITs is a fallacy’

Once again, the system is made such that “merit” is constantly questioned in those coming from marginalised groups. “This also takes energy away from your research and your work. I hope you don’t face similar challenges, but you may face problems as you advance in your career in areas that a specific group dominates: this could be gender, religion, caste, among others. You have to prove yourself and advance in these spaces solely through your work! When you are forced to fight the opposition, your energy deviates from this work. Then they get the opportunity to say that your work is not ‘good enough’.”

“Again, this is where the question of merit and caste, merit and gender would come in – they are deeply interwoven with each other. Think of it as a carpet; you cannot just pick on one thread and separate it from the others. That would move other threads in the carpet as a whole.”

He mentions that those who stand against the system get implicitly punished: “Some assistant professors have struggled quite a bit themselves in trying to get a promotion because once you start raising your voice, you are punished by the system. People can always come up with some arbitrary reason as to why they did not promote you.”

Also read: Caste and Meritocracy Keep India’s Top Institutions Running. At What Cost?

Veetil laughs at the IITs’ preoccupation with “merit” and how they used it to justify not filling in reserved seats in faculty recruitment. “Usually, the tone that I hear when I hear about reservations for women, someone from a backward caste or any under-represented community, is that ‘Oh, these people need extra support,’ you know? Even people who sympathise with the idea say things like, ‘Even though they are not as good in terms of merit, if we “support” them, they might perform better.’ At this moment, they think of it as a ‘compromise’ to enable the long-term ‘meritorious’ recruitment of people from these communities. But why do you presume that you are currently recruiting based on merit at all?”

“You see, there is no entrance exam to be a professor at IIT or to be in the prime minister’s economic advisory council. There are a series of judgments, in fact, based on a broad set of criteria that you can’t pin down. If you look at Indian society over the last thousand years or so, there is no reason to presume that people would not exhibit their preference for caste, gender, region, and others. There is no merit! This is what I pointed out in my long-ish email – and that didn’t go so well.”

He explains how his “merit” was disregarded during his time at IIT Madras:

“The currency within which we operate are journal publications, in scientific journals. These journals are ranked. One such ranking agency is the Australian Business Deans Council (ABDC), and they rank journals by A*, A, B, C and so on. I’ve had about 4-5 publications in journals, of which two are in A* ranked journals. And this man X, who created so much trouble for me, has only one A* publication! This is despite all the decades he has spent here, all the PhD students he has had and all the resources that have been allocated towards him! Even this one A* publication of his is co-authored with 21 people. In my publications, one is co-authored with two other people and the other with just one. So, it is fallacious to think that merit somehow is a determining factor of success here.”

Post his resignation, the conversation online was not just in support of Veeting; many opposed him and believed that his allegations were baseless. He reads out some of this opposition from Twitter. “One person has left a comment on my resignation: ‘What discrimination? He got admission to his degree and post-graduation studies through his caste quota. He had no fees for admission forms. Also, his job, he grabbed based on his reservation category. Till here, he did not find any discrimination between general and reserved category.’ This is one person. Another person says, ‘Reserved quota students expect students to respect their mediocre skills. They won’t get a job without a quota. Good that he quit.’ The general perception is that I was just not good enough.”

“Here’s the fact of the matter: My undergraduate degree is under the general category. My post-graduate studies and PhD studies are from outside India. I even got into IIT through the general category. I never used my OBC certificate. I only got it after I began to be discriminated against because I needed constitutional protection.”

“Now, I want you to note that it’s not that IITs do not follow reservations. They have implemented reservations very well for the last 50-60 years – reservations for Brahmins. That too, mostly for male Brahmins. And more recently, for female Brahmins, but in a limited way. But their implementation is great, right?”

“What we are talking about is counter-reservation. We want to remove this reservation system. We want a truly open and meritorious society. I shouldn’t even have to say this; it is so obvious.”

Biased system

Interestingly, soon after Veetil’s resignation, the IIT Madras administration held a meeting with Arun Halder, vice-chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. An article on The Hindu reported that the IIT Madras director “assured him [Arun Halder] that there was no discrimination”. I asked Veetil if he has any thoughts on this conclusion.

IIT Madras. Photo: IIT-M official website.

“I’m glad you asked! I do have some thoughts. The Tamil press had a go at the NCSC and asked the vice-chairman, ‘How did you find out that there is no discrimination?’ And this person essentially says that he had asked the administrators, who claimed that there is no such discrimination at IIT Madras!” he laughs.

“One of the questions which were asked was that if there is no caste-based discrimination, why is it that the SC/ST seats have not been filled? For instance, in my department, as far as I know, we have only one person from a Scheduled Caste of the three dozen or so faculty members. I could be wrong, but the number is not going to be very different. Of course, this is not the only metric – we also have to look at how one is treated once they come into the organisation. Nonetheless, it’s an important metric: why haven’t the seats been filled? This commission member responded to the Tamil media by parroting the line that the IIT administration has previously said: that they have not found people who qualify for these positions. I don’t know; this may be true. But how do you go about establishing this as the truth?”

Veetil describes an elaborate study that needs to be conducted to reach any conclusion about the presence of caste-based discrimination at IIT Madras or to determine whether these seats are left empty because of a genuine lack of talent.

According to him, it is not something one can conclude within a matter of hours in conversation with a biased administration that will naturally try to defend itself. “The whole point of the NCSC is to uphold the rights of the people from Scheduled Castes! It is not to simply believe the IIT Madras administration but to study whether their claims are true or false. Such a study would require at least six months, if not a year, with experts from various fields for it to be a thorough exploration. It needs massive amounts of resources to be pumped into this. I am baffled beyond imagination as to how this man was able to ‘figure this out’ within a matter of a few hours!”

In addition to the fact that the rules for reservation are already violated in IITs, a recent ministry of education panel actually advocated for IITs to be exempt from reservation in employment altogether. Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan also defended IIT Madras when asked about the caste-based discrimination within the institute.

“Also, note that the caste census in India has not been released, so the constitution of OBCs in the population is far larger than the current reservation percentage accounts for. So, when we talk about filling these seats, we are not talking about a proportionate representation – it is the minimal representation that is not fulfilled,” clarifies Veetil.

The fact that the NCSC and IIT Madras have both concluded that the institute is free from caste-based discrimination has severe implications for the study the grievance committee is still conducting on Veetil’s case.

IIT Madras has most recently even told Times Now that the institute does not allow any form of religious or caste-based discrimination to occur, and that proper grievance redressal mechanisms are in place. This stands in contrast to what Veetil had to say.

“If the administration has claimed that there is no discrimination at the same time that an inquiry into my case is still in progress, how objective can this investigation be? They already seem to have a conclusion! There are serious issues here.”

I asked him one final question: “Is there hope for change?”

“It’s essential to understand that no one person, government or ideology is going to ‘fix’ everything. I used to have these grand beliefs, and this is not how my life has turned out. I used to think, ‘If I get the best grades at the undergraduate level, life will be all good. If I get my PhD from this university, life will be great.’ Many of these things have indeed happened, but frankly, life has not been as great as I thought it would be! It is all an ongoing process. The more we look at day-to-day matters, the more we raise issues at small levels, the more we are likely to progress as a society without violence erupting in the process.”

“One thing I’d also want you to notice about India is that all this discussion about the Left and the Right is fallacious nonsense. What it always comes down to is caste. Whether it is a presumably communist person who is the head of a department or an RSS follower who is the head of a department, they’re always Brahmins. This is important to note because many people get used as cannon fodder for ideology in India, to initiate conflict or violence with an opposing group, whoever that may be. But ultimately, when it comes to these elite positions, these decision-making positions, marginalised groups get left out.”

Veetil explains how there is little to no incentive in the government to hire based on merit. “Quite honestly, I’d have to give you a somewhat disappointing answer. I think it’s good to push for reservations to be more actively pursued. I think it’s good to push for the study that I had asked to learn about the experiences of people under the SC/ST and OBC category in the institution. It’s good to have permanent representation through an SC/ST commission and an OBC commission. All this is good to do.”

“Nonetheless, at the end of the day, there is minimal incentive in the government system to hire based on merit. All we can do is put some pressure on the government to do better. Now, we cannot just look at IITs individually and focus on internal changes but must also look at the education system as a whole. The government regulations right now make it difficult to start a university for profit, which is one thing that would incentivise people to recruit on the basis of merit and not caste-based privileges. We need more freedom for women and backward castes.”

“For many years, we were not able to do this in the name of socialism. The Left felt that the Americans were imperialists. This may be true, but we (marginalised castes) have different problems. For us, Americans can be friends! We may find that people with a different colour of skin have been more friendly to us than the people who have the same colour of skin. More recently, the idea of allowing foreign universities in India is at times rejected in the name of nationalism. So this is the interesting thing: whether the ideology is socialism or nationalism, it’s the women, the backward castes, who bear the brunt of their ideals. We bear the cost of it. It is the group of elite who sit in air-conditioned offices which benefit from peddling these ideologies.”

As we acknowledge the mammoth task that is transforming India’s education system inside out, Veetil laughs, “We can only do as much as we can. It is all a social process.”

Manasi Pant is a gender and sexuality campaigner at Jhatkaa.org.

Note: An earlier version of this interview identified Vipin P. Veetil as an ‘associate professor’. He is an assistant professor. The error is regretted.