If you speak up, it brings down your chances of surviving: Why IIT Madras professor Vipin Veetil called India's top engineering college out for casteism

In a conversation with EdexLive, Vipin Veetil opens up about instances of casteism that he had experienced in India's premier institute, IIT Madras
Vipin had sent his resignation email in July (Pic: EdexLive)
Vipin had sent his resignation email in July (Pic: EdexLive)

After an eventful month and a half, Vipin Veetil is hopeful of returning to his teaching position at IIT Madras. An Assistant Professor of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vipin had resigned from the institute in July, after writing a much-publicised resignation letter calling out what he felt was "caste discrimination" in the institute.

In what appears to be a strange turn of events, he has withdrawn his resignation, citing "personal reasons" — but only after filing a complaint with the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) seeking an investigation into all of his claims against IIT Madras, on August 5.

Even though there has been data about how most of the premier educational intuitions in the country have very few faculty members from SC, ST and OBC communities, this is probably the first time that a faculty member in one such institution has openly made claims about instances of caste discrimination.

But why aren't more people speaking up? Vipin says, "There are good reasons why faculty members don't come forward to talk of issues regarding the intersection of caste and education. If you look at the people who hold the higher ranking positions at many Indian institutes of eminence, historically most of them have been Brahmin men. There is a problem calling them the 'General Category'. They are from a specific community that is part of the general category. What this means is that if people speak up against them, it only brings down their chances of surviving and working, let alone flourishing in specific institutions. It also reduces their chances in the country as a whole. Because irrespective of the institution that they go to, there are members of a certain community who make appointment decisions."

The 36-year-old Erasmus Mundus alumnus adds that he is an unmarried and childless man who lives with his two dogs and that it allows him certain flexibility (to call these things out). "However, I would have done the same if I was married too," he says, adding, "There are people who have written to me, from IITM, about how their children go to certain schools, where they've faced problems. It's not easy for them to bring up these issues."

Of the 596 faculty members employed in IIT Madras in May 2021, 515 of them belong to the unreserved category and 62 are from the OBC category, besides 16 SC and 3 ST faculty members. This data was released by the institute while answering an RTI.

Vipin was one of that 62 people.

We were in a conversation with the academic, a week after he had emailed his complaint to the NCBC. Excerpts from the conversation:

In your (now public) email to the faculty of IIT Madras, you have mentioned that there were "multiple specific instances of discrimination" against you. Could you recall any of these incidents?

There is an institutional fear-mongering mechanism (in IITM) that I have experienced. Towards the end of my probationary year, I had raised certain issues relating to caste discrimination. However, a senior professor of my department had told me that I must apologise and that I must make my peace with people against whom I've made claims. He said that, otherwise, my probation might be extended or my job may be terminated. He made it sound like he was a well-wisher. This is a very institutionalised process of psychological harassment by playing the good cop.

READ ALSO: One year after Payal Tadvi: How Indian campuses have normalised casteism and failed to provide a safe space for marginalised students
Formerly, there was also an incident where I had written to the department when another faculty member was granted a new course and I wasn't. I had asked if rules are different for Brahmins. The same professor told me that instead of writing an email, I should go to court. I felt bad. I said if we go to the courts for this, we will spend all our days doing that. At one point, I was so humiliated that I stopped going to department meetings. At that time, he had asked me what happened. He said, 'I don't remember anything. Can you explain?' This is just another way of psychological torture.

A lot of institutes however say that there is no adequate representation of faculty from across castes, owing to a lack of candidates...

Why don't you have enough candidates? One reason is that people don't meet the criteria requirement of "merit" to be a faculty member at IIT M. Another reason is that they have discriminated against people from other castes and not recruited them. Caste in India is a way of life. It was how society was organised. The people in IITs or educational institutions come from the same society.

In faculty recruitment, there are no objective criteria. Biases can occur at any stage. It first occurs while advertising positions. They may be advertising because one of their brethren has gotten a particular skill and they want to hire him and hence have mentioned requirements that are only met by him. Then there can be biases in vetting CVs. It is not that they haven't appointed any Dalits or people from backward castes or non-brahmins because they are not there. They don't hold these positions because of who the directors are.

Now that you have spoken up openly about these issues and you may go back to campus soon, how do you think it will affect your career? Aren't you scared of the possible repercussions?

The principle that I follow is what Krishna elucidates in the Gita: Do your duty, but do not concern yourself with the results. Consequences will take care of themselves. At the end of the day, you have got to sleep in peace. That is a matter of dignity. And to remain calm, I practice Vipassana, a Buddhist mindfulness meditation technique. Calmness is important when you are engaging in social action.

Why did you wait for this long to register a complaint with the NCBC?

Because I am naive. This is my first job in India (Prior to this, Vipin was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Paris) and the caste aspect of things came to light only after I joined the institute in March 2019. The first attempt (that I made) was to address it internally. The first email that I wrote was in November 2019. I had also written to the department head in February and March 2020 with another caste-related issue. In April 2021, I had raised another issue. I only got to know about the institute's grievance committee only recently. After I complained to the grievance committee, I had put in a request with the committee saying that my department head against whom I have complained must step down temporarily from that position, since he is one of the accused. The funny thing is, the grievance committee now wants to meet the faculty members from my department and these appointments are being arranged by the HOD himself.

When Vipin had tendered his resignation, EdexLive had written to IIT Madras, seeking a response. While the institute's spokesperson declined to comment, they added, "Any complaint received by the Institute from employees and students is attended to promptly through the established process of redressing grievances."

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