The recent death of the first year dalit undergraduate student, Darshan Solanki, has once again raised the question of the caste discrimination and related biases on the IITB campus. The institutions and support system that the Institute has built over the years in order to deal with the mental stress and the caste related discrimination have rightly come under the scanner. The Student Wellness Centre (SWC), whose mandate is to provide counselling to the students who are facing or having “academic concerns, social (family and peer) pressure etc, leading to feelings of loneliness, low confidence, anxiety, stress, anger and sadness, to name a few,” has not been able to achieve much of its goals. The center does not have wide reach among the student community. And when last year the concerned students pointed out anti-reservation views expressed in a social media post by the In-charge of the SWC and demanded her removal, the Institute did not listen to the demand, except privately reprimanding her following which she deleted her post. The demand to increase dalit-adivasi-bahujan psychologists and counsellors in the SWC was also not given any importance. Similarly, the SC/ST Students Cell which aims to address “academic and non-academic issues and complaints received from the students belonging to the SC and ST communities” has been found to be lacking in its mandate.
It is not that the Institute has not made progress over the years. The increasing visibility of the dalit issues, the increasing representation of the Dalits among the faculty and students, the support system it is trying to build, sometimes reluctantly under the democratic pressure, they all paint not such a bleak picture. However, it would be fair to say that the pace is not satisfactory and a genuine far-sighted radical approach to education and pedagogy is still lacking to address both the academics related mental stress and the overt and subtle presence of caste-related biases.
This has been visible one more time in the interim report prepared by the committee to investigate the death of Darshan Solanki. The committee concluded that the deteriorating academic performance of Darshan could have affected him seriously and termed the death of Darshan as a case of suicide. However, the committee did not look at the structural issues deeply which resulted into the lack of interest shown by the victim in his studies even though the committee itself suggests that JEE-rank differences, computer familiarity and language barrier were some of the possible causes for Darshan to remain aloof and introvert. The interim report also found no specific evidence of direct caste-based discrimination except for the statement of Darshan’s sister. This means that the report does not rule out the indirect or structural/institutional caste-based discrimination. Not catering to the language, computer, comfortability (in a not-so-welcoming new atmosphere) related needs of dalit or other students definitely comes under the purview of discrimination or at least neglect.
It is clear that the Institute has found itself on the wrong side despite taking some of the measures, although incomplete and not enough, to address these issues. This has also forced the Institute to take some damage controlling steps which should have been taken much earlier. For example, the words have spread out that the Institute has already changed the person In-charge of the SWC and fresh advertisements have been circulated to hire dalit-adivasi-bahujan counsellors.
So, what is to be done? The progressive organizations have been calling for creating an inclusive atmosphere by adopting measures such as creating more awareness on caste discrimination among the general IITB community through curricular and extra-curricular activities, strengthening the SC/ST cell, providing the support system to deal with language and computer barriers and so on. These progressive demands are definitely the need of the hour, however, the Institute in its defense would point out that they are already trying to implement these constructive suggestions.
What is happening is that the critics are not happy with the measures the Institute has taken citing the pace, the mandate, constitutional rules and other things, whereas the Institute has been claiming to already have taken certain steps and mentions its continuous efforts to build the campus more inclusive. However, there is one question that has been completely missing from this debate; the need to fundamentally challenge the current student evaluation and grading system.
Based on several research and studies, people like Alfie Kohn have been arguing about abolishing the grades itself. According to Kohn , grades reduce students’ interest in the learning process, their preference for challenging tasks and quality of students’ thinking. They are also subjective and not reproducible. Grades encourage cheating and spoil the teacher’s relationship with students and students’ relationship with each other. Thinking from this point of view, as if the world outside was not cruel enough, the current grading and education system fosters cut-throat competition instead of cooperation among the students and dehumanizes both teachers and students in the process on the campus. What we learn in the process of education (both teachers and students) is no longer considered to be important but how well one has learnt relative to peers becomes the primary focus.
There are of-course practical difficulties in taking such a radical step, however, as Kohn argues that instead of killing such conversation, we should open it more and find meaningful and constructive solutions to the challenges posed. The assessment of the students could be in terms of written detailed comments on the students’ performance, creating portfolios which could be collections of students’ writings and projects and providing opportunities to students to show their own capabilities.
The demand for abolition of grades is a universal demand and yet it should be especially paramount for the students coming through the SC/ST quota whose admission is secured on the basis of reduced cut-off marks. Due to several socio-politico-economic-historical reasons, the SC/ST students therefore start with a lesser training level, but suddenly they are asked to compete with the ‘General’ category students as if the gap in the training level has already been bridged just by making a presence on the campus. It is true that many such students are able to level off this gap during the course of their B. Tech, M. Tech and PhD programs, and this is one of the reasons why these reservation systems in the admission process should continue. But many students find it extremely difficult to bridge this gap during their whole program. This has been reflected in the A. K. Suresh-led committee report to investigate the allegations of the parents of Late Aniket Ambhore, who fell to his death from the sixth floor of Hostel 13 on Sept 04, 2014. The committee found that nearly 70% of students with CPI below 5 belong to the SC/ST category. In other words, there is a need to improve the skills and training level of the SC/ST students who are already facing structural biases. This can be aided by abolishing the grades and making the learning more enjoyable in the process without constant threats (F’s) and bribes (A’s).
To sum, the recent tragic “suicide” calls for a wider debate on the way we teach and the way we evaluate the students’ performance. The overt and not-so-overt caste-based discriminations, structural or non-structural, direct or indirect, need to be removed. But unless we remove a grading system which degrades the students and teachers alike based on the faulty assumption that every student in the campus starts on the equal footing and all it needs is to fill their mind with knowledge following the banking model of education, we cannot even start thinking of removing the inequities that we are talking about.
Amit Singh, Research and teaching worker, IIT Bombay
PS: I thank several friends who helped me correct factual and other mistakes. Any remaining errors are mine.