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Caste

UGC's Committee to Probe Caste Discrimination on Campuses Offers No Solutions

Members of the committee have no track record of tackling discrimination – but do have a closeness to the BJP. Their affidavit in the Supreme Court does not respond to the many issues raised in Abeda Tadvi and Radhika Vemula’s petition.

Mumbai: In response to a five-year-old petition in the Supreme Court filed by two mothers who lost their children to alleged institutionalised caste discrimination, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had set up a nine-member committee to look into the matter. But the committee appears to have more problems than solutions to offer.

Abeda Tadvi and Radhika Vemula filed the petition seeking accountability and adequate mechanisms to deal with caste-based discrimination in university spaces. The Supreme Court, while hearing the matter in July last year, had called the issue “serious” and “sensitive”. Following this, the UGC set up a nine-member expert committee to revisit its regulations and schemes available for students belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other marginalised communities. Since then, the committee has met at least three times.

The committee is chaired by Shailesh N. Zala, former vice chancellor of the Maharaja Krishnakumarsinhji Bhavnagar University. Going by the background of many of its members, it is clear that the members were not appointed for the work they have done in the academic space but for their political affiliations. Take, for example, Zala’s appointment. Before assuming his role as the MK Bhavnagar University’s vice-chancellor, Zala was the vice-president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. He has remained consistent with his political affiliation. After his retirement, he was appointed a presiding officer for the Ahmedabad civic elections.

Another member, Dr Vijay Shankar Mishra, the acting principal of Satyawati College (night college) in Delhi was accused of not following the reservation roster in college appointments. After the staff members employed under Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe quotas retired, Mishra would allegedly issue circulars but not mention that those were reserved seats. The UGC’s decision to take someone like Mishra on board even when he has allegations against him indicating caste discrimination raises serious questions.

Last year, following complaints by Maharashtra BJP MLCs that many ST students availed reservation even after converting to Christianity or Islam, a three-member committee was set up by the state government. This move was widely criticised and called out for its insensitivity towards the tribal community and politicisation of their choice to practice religion. Interestingly, the committee will be headed by Dr Murlidhar Chandekar, the former vice chancellor of Sant Gadge Baba Amravati University, and considered to be a pro-BJP man. Now Chandekar is also a member of the UGC committee.

An affidavit was filed by Prashant Dwivedi, deputy under secretary of the UGC, in response to the over 700-page petition filed by Tadvi and Vemula. The petition filed in the apex court, through their lawyer Disha Wadekar, gives a detailed account of the UGCs inability to protect students from a toxic casteist atmosphere in university spaces. Indira Jaising is the senior counsel in the case.

In January 2016, Vemula’s son Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), along with five other Dalit students, was expelled from the university housing facility for an alleged attack on an ABVP member. As the expelled students intensified their protest against the university administration’s decision, a few days into the protest, on January 17, 2016, Rohith ended his own life. UoH vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile, then BJP MLC N. Ramachandra Rao and two ABVP members (Susheel Kumar and Rama Krishna) were accused of abetting Rohith’s suicide. An FIR was filed against them, but the police failed to take any action.

In Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide case, her suicide note and her mother Abeda Tadvi’s testimony have ensured that her three harassers – senior doctors Hema Ahuja, Bhakti Mehare and Ankita Khandelwal – were immediately arrested. A damning 1,200-page chargesheet was filed against them. They have been accused of torturing Payal for an entire year and hurling casteist slurs at her. Tadvis belong to the Bhil (of the Tadvi sub-caste) tribal community, and Payal was perhaps the first woman from her community to have become a doctor. Advovate Wadekar is representing Abeda Tadvi in the criminal proceedings too.

Also read: Why Payal Tadvi and Rohith Vemula’s Mothers Have Taken Their Fight to the SC

Besides Rohith and Payal’s deaths, the petition also lists numerous other suicides that occurred in Indian universities over the past two decades. While some of these deaths were covered in the media, many of them were covered in an independent study done by a Delhi-based organisation called the Insight Foundation, headed by Anoop Kumar. The foundation had studied these cases and documented the experiences of students who were pushed to kill themselves.

In 2012, as cases of discrimination and suicides were on a rise, the UGC was compelled to notify the UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2012, also called the Equity Regulations. These regulations required all colleges/universities to establish an Equal Opportunity Cell to oversee the promotion of equality in the institution and appoint an Anti-Discrimination Officer to investigate complaints regarding discrimination in breach of equity. Although the UGC introduced the Equity Regulations with the intention to address complaints of caste-based discrimination on campus, the regulations have not proven to be effective or sufficient, the petitioners point out. “They do not provide for an independent mechanism of grievance redressal since the Anti-Discrimination Officer under the regulations and the appellate authority, are the Professor/Associate Professor and the head of the institution respectively,” the petition states.

In the UGC’s affidavit, Dwivedi lists the same rules and regulations that the petitioners have termed as “inadequate” to tackle casteism on campus.

Another major drawback of the Equity Regulations is that it doesn’t apply to faculty members and other employees belonging to SC and ST communities. The regulations also don’t protect victims of discrimination from the hostile environment arising out of their complaints. The petition raises these issues, but the UGC, in its affidavit, has failed to offer any solution.

The petition cites rich data collated through the Right to Information Act from time to time. According to  data revealed under the RTI request filed by Amnesty International India, in 2015-16, only 155 out of over 800 universities have submitted their Action Taken Reports (ATRs) to the UGC. Similarly, another RTI reveals that in 2017-18, only 419 out of the over 800 universities filed their ATRs. The UGC has merely collected their ATRs and not followed up with the universities failing to comply with the Equity Regulations.

The data collected from different universities also shows that many universities don’t have the mechanism till date to address the issue of discrimination and, in some cases, the perpetrators have been let off with just a “warning”.