“Bloody bastards”: India’s elite IITs have a history of deep-rooted casteism

Wrinkles to iron out.
Wrinkles to iron out.
Image: YouTube/IIT Kharagpur
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A video of a professor calling her students “bloody bastards” has sparked outrage around how minorities are treated at India’s elite institutes.

In a video that went viral on social media on April 25, Seema Singh, a professor at the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur (IIT-KGP), can be seen and heard foul-mouthing students and berating them after she thought some of them had not stood up for the national anthem.

The video was first posted on the Facebook page IIT-KGP confessions.

The video was shot during Singh’s Prep English Course, which is meant for students from the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and persons with disabilities. The one-year preparatory class is aimed at helping students from these communities to secure a seat the following year if they make the cut-off but are unable to get direct admission.

“This video is connected to the larger issue of reservation. If you notice, the very nature of the course is based on the merit-based education system, wherein it is assumed that SC, ST, OBC students are not eligible to study here; that they need a preparatory English course to enter this institution,” said a member of Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), an IIT-Bombay (IIT-B) student body that promotes the anti-caste ideologies of BR Ambedkar, Periyar EV Ramasamy, and Jyotirao Phule.

In the clip, Singh threatens students that she will “give zero marks to everybody, all 128” and calls them “shameless creatures of prep course.” She then says, “when will you learn sense you idiotic people of prep course?”

The professor is also seen challenging the students to complain about her to the ministry of women and child development and ministry of SC/ST/Minority (coined ministry of social justice and empowerment now).

“She is aware of the power and immunity she holds as a faculty member,” the APPSC member said. “She knows that the savarna-dominated IIT administration will protect her from any backlash.” (Savarna refers to those belonging to one of four upper castes. SC/ST students come from the lowest caste, Dalits, and tribal backgrounds.)

IIT-KGP is considered among the most prestigious colleges even among the IITs. The college’s list of notable alumnus includes Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, and former Reserve Bank of India governor Duvvuri Subbarao.

“In the IIT system, we do not support such language. We will take some action,” IIT-KGP registrar Tamal Nath told daily newspaper the Hindu. Quartz’s e-mails to Singh, Nath, IIT-KGP director Virendra Kumar Tewari, and head of humanities and social sciences as well as SC/ST student coordinator Narayan Chandra Nayak went unanswered at the time of publishing.

Seema Singh and the law

Since the video started making the rounds on social media, there have not only been calls for Singh’s termination, but many say there should also be legal action against her.

A case can be registered under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, Rahul Singh, general secretary of National Dalit Movement For Justice, told Quartz. “She knows they are SC/ST community members and even then she’s using such language,” he said. Once a First Information Report (FIR) is filed, the police investigation has to be concluded within 60 days, and after a charge sheet is filed, a special court must complete the trial within 90 days,” he explained.

Systemic casteism at IITs

Although India outlawed the caste system in 1947, at the country’s elite engineering institutes, casteism—both implicit and explicit—is rampant, according to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of social justice organisation Equality Labs.

Soundararajan was horrified but also unsurprised by the leaked footage “given that dalit bahujans across the country have been speaking out of horrible casteism that is ingrained in IIT culture,” she told Quartz. “Caste violence goes on in these campuses because of the administration’s refusal to address this as a structural problem.”

The discrimination starts even before candidates bag a seat.

For starters, getting into an IIT is pretty expensive. The fees for the coaching classes in Kota, Rajasthan—the hub of IIT entrance test training institutes—can surpass Rs5 lakh ($6,702). This alienates students from marginalised backgrounds who cannot afford these courses.

Then, the reservation policy at IITs—that holds 15% seats for Scheduled Caste, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes, and 27% for the Other Backward Classes category—has largely been skirted.

In 2020, as many as 12 departments in IIT-KGP, 15 in IIT-Delhi, and 16 in IIT-B did not admit a single SC student into their PhD programmes.

Between 2012 and 2017, nearly every undergraduate student expelled at IIT Kanpur belonged to the SC/ST /OBC/PwD category, “suggesting a systemic failure in addressing caste discrimination and accessibility on campus,” a post on user-generated content platform Youth Ki Awaaz noted.

Meanwhile, grievance redressal systems for caste-based complaints at the universities are lacking.

Even if action is taken against Singh due to the media glare on the incident, people worry such incidents will recur in the future.

“I know very few universities that would allow such behaviour from professors outside of India but because of caste apartheid, there is an acceptable level of impunity related to dominant caste professors who violate professional norms” said Soundararajan. She suggests system-wide caste equity training with a clear redline that any violations will lead to suspension and termination. “These policies must be enforced and the setting up SC/ST grievance cell on all of these campuses with real power for investigation and enforcement must be done,” she said.

Casteism beyond the classroom

There are issues around caste that extend beyond just the students.

Towards the end of 2020, a panel comprising directors of various IITs recommended that the colleges be exempt from caste-based quotas in faculty hires. The resistance comes even after the 23 IITs are meant to reserve posts only at the entry-level. And if they don’t find suitable candidates, they can de-reserve these posts after a year.

At IIT-Madras, the caste politics went beyond the campus walls when the institute shut the gate connecting it to a majorly Dalit residential area Velachary, citing “heightened security threat” from “undesirable elements” who hang out near the gate and to prevent the sale of “banned substances” and “assault on women” students.

The residents took issue with this caste-based discrimination that shut residents off from employment on campus, kept their kids away from schools they’d enrolled in on IIT land, and took away their right to worship at their temple on campus grounds.

What’s more, is that the conversations around these issues are often hushed. Odile Henry, a professor of sociology at the Université Paris 8, who was researching caste discrimination at IIT-Kanpur from December 2014 to December 2016, alleged that her research was cut short because she participated in a discussion on the suicide of University of Hyderabad research scholar Rohith Vemula. Vemula left behind a heartbreaking suicide note speaking of caste oppression and prejudice.

Now, alumni of various IITs, including some from Kharagpur, have come forward to share personal stories of pervasive prejudice.