In IIT Kharagpur, no ST PhD scholar has been enrolled in 17 departments over three academic years. Should we be surprised?

While doctoral admission is merit and candidate-based, the argument for social justice and equality keeps popping up. But does it hold good in 2021?
Pic: EdexLive
Pic: EdexLive

On July 31, 2020, Vikas Meena had received an email from IIT Kharagpur's School of Water Resources, calling him for an interview for a PhD seat. Meena, whose caste certificate has him down as belonging to a Scheduled Tribe, had completed his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Malviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur and had qualified for the Junior Research Fellowship that year. "The interview went well. I gave the right answers to all the questions that the panel asked," he says. This is why he was particularly surprised when he was not selected at the institute.

The same year, he attended the PhD interview in a few more premier institutes including IIT Bombay, where he was rejected. He is now pursuing a second master's degree at IIT Guwahati. "I do not know what went wrong at the interview," he recalls of the IIT KGP interview, that was held on August 7. "A panellist had asked me if I availed the benefits of reservations during my bachelor's and master's and I said 'yes'. That was the only question that they asked me apart from academics," he says.

Vikas was one of the two ST candidates who were shortlisted for the interview by the department. Neither of them got selected. The School of Water Resources is one of the 17 departments of IIT KGP, where no ST PhD student has been enrolled in the last three academic years. In 2020, 15 PhD candidates were enrolled in the school. While 10 belonged to the General category, 4 belonged to OBC and one was from the EWS section. This information was obtained through RTI by a group called the Egalatarians.

While there is nothing illegal in this, politicians and activist groups who campaign for social justice do point out that this is extremely unfair. Recently, when some information received in this RTI was revealed by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, IIT Bombay, it created quite an uproar among students, activists and others.

There have always been murmurs that India's most hallowed portals of education, the Indian Institutes of Technology, have not been known to favour reservation - especially when they are not legally mandated to maintain them in doctoral and post-doctoral studies. 

Between 2018 and 2020, 1,265 ST students, 6,277 SC students and 11,055 OBC students applied to the IIT, which was India's first-ever to be set up. However, close to 96 per cent of the SC, ST and OBC applicants respectively were rejected. This is, however, across departments, across three academic years. IIT KGP is also the IIT with the most number of research scholars.

While it is possible to chalk down a high rejection rate to the mere quality of the candidates, the question of social justice does arise from time to time. Because it is not as if there were no ST students admitted at all.  Barring the 17 above mentioned departments, the other departments have enrolled a few ST students over years. However, the numbers are very low. For instance, the department of Humanities Science had four ST PhD candidates join in 2020-21, marking the highest enrolment from the category across all three academic years. The department had an intake of 58 PhD candidates in the academic year. 

But like a lot of other things, 2020 has set a benchmark of a different kind: Statistics show us that in 2020-2021 alone, as many as 29 departments did not enrol any ST PhD student.

A trend across IITs

It's not as if this is a revelation for people in the echelons of power and government. "Various student groups have brought this to my notice over the past few l years," says Elamaram Kareem, a Rajya Sabha MP from Kerala. In 2020, Kareem had stood up in Parliament during Question Hour and had sought data from the Ministry of Education about the number of PhD candidates in each category in each IIT. The data showed that less than 1 per cent of the total PhD students belonged to the ST category in many IITs.

Kareem, a CPI(M) MP, also added that internal bias could be the only reason why the students from SC, ST and OBC categories are not represented well in IITs. "There is an agenda to keep these communities away from educational spaces," he says. Not quite surprised by the RTI data, Kareem says that he hasn't been able to do enough to work towards implementing reservations in IITs. "We got the data in February 2020. Soon after that, the pandemic happened and I had concentrated on working towards that. Once normalcy returns, I will start my fight again for this cause," he says.

Anybody want these seats? 

At that time, the IIT Delhi Director Dr V Ramgopal Rao had told EdexLive earlier that the lack of applicants was the only reason for the shortage of enrolled PhD candidates from SC, ST and OBC communities. The issue was then taken up by the Students' Federation of India, which launched protests and wrote to the Ministry of Education. Eventually, the MoE had set up a committee in 2020 to investigate the issue, which the SFI claims was based on a representation that they had made. Rao was the chairperson of the committee.

What does the report say?

The committee submitted its suggestions and observations to the MoE on June 17, 2020. Unsurprisingly, it noted that the enrollment of reserved category students in the PhD program is low and needs to be addressed. It also said that this was why the number of teachers being recruited to the IITs was below the mark set by reservation norms. "Consistent with their low enrollment numbers, the number of PhDs graduating from reserved category and interested in pursuing research and teaching as a career choice is low. This is severely limiting the number of reserved category candidates available to be hired as faculty in the IIT system," it reads.

Did they offer a solution? The committee suggested starting a preparatory course for students from SC and ST communities. "During this period they will be exposed to the IIT/IISc/IISER system of research and teaching, do focused work on their targeted research areas along with a faculty. After and during this internship, they may seek admission to regular PhD programmes subject to the selection process, as per the rules of the Institute," it says.

Bridge to where exactly? 

While these classes have been rolled out and it will be some time before the results are tangible enough to be noticed, a recent bitter incident has shown us how there may be resistance from within the IIT ranks. 

In April 2021, Seema Singh, a faculty of IIT Kharagpur's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, was teaching a group of students who had signed up for the said preparatory course, online. In the middle of the lecture, she was heard hurling abuses at the students. She was also heard threatening the students with low grades and also challenged them to take it up with the Ministry of Women Child Development and the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The video of this lecture went viral and had created a lot of hue and cry.

Various student groups asked the IIT to terminate the professor immediately. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes had also taken a suo motu cognisance in the matter. Following this, the professor was suspended and a case was registered against her.

A few days ago the National Commission for Backward Classes had accepted a complaint by the student groups from IITs across the country that sought the professor's termination. One of the demands in the complaint was to admit more SC, ST, OBC students and to implement reservations. In March 2021, another petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking to implement reservation norms in all IITs.

What is at the root of all these problems?

Dr Malavika Binny is a faculty of SRM University, Andhra Pradesh, who did her PhD in ancient history from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She recalls an incident that occurred while she was pursuing her PhD. "A friend of mine, who belonged to an ST community had gone to submit his thesis. While presenting the thesis, an interviewer asked him why he wasn't shaved. He told me how it never occurred to him to be well-groomed before the presentation. I had spoken about this to the particular professor who raised the question. She wasn't being discriminatory, but curious because the other students who presented their thesis had all come well dressed," she says.

Malavika uses this incident to explain how first-generation learners are often inherently disadvantaged because they do not have anyone around them to tell them what happens in an academic event or a presentation. "That friend wasn't confident at all after that. This is one reason why we need interview panels that are inclusive," she says. 

She blames the education system and says that the problem is majorly epistemological. "The way in which rural communities are educated is quite different from that of people who live in urban spaces. This is not their fault, but our education system is to blame. Our textbooks still do not include chapters about these communities," she says.

Acknowledging the prolonged issues of casteism and a lack of proper representation, she says that the institutions must need more faculty members from SC, ST and OBC communities. But what does the data say? Currently, IIT KGP only has one ST faculty member, who is an Assistant Professor. There are 10 SC faculty and 27 OBC faculty members. But the general category boasts of 573 teachers. Attempting to do the math to find the percentages will make you have newfound respect for the decimal system. 

But is there anything that the students could do in a scenario like this, to improve their chances of getting enrolled in India's premier institutes? "I would suggest that they make use of free online resources to learn and understand more. They could associate themselves with groups and organisations that work for their welfare. They can also reach out to people in the academia from depressed classes," she concludes.

We have tried contacting the IIT Kharagpur authorities for a comment on this. However, we did not get a response. This copy will be updated once they respond. 

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