Do students from marginalised communities at JNU expect to be failed by professors during PhD admission interviews?

While the varsity has said selection committees are not provided with details on the student's caste, students claim that there is simply no shielding them from discrimination due to personal bias
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

There are protests underway at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) regarding the alleged discrimination against students from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and other marginalised communities during the recently concluded PhD viva-voce for admission into various centres at the varsity. It may be trite to say that there is a protest at a university like JNU, but this particular one has deeper ramifications.

Raghav* has spent the last few days confined to his room, unwilling to join the protest. He applied for a PhD at centres in the School of International Studies. He doesn't wish to reveal his name, or what his proposal/topic was because he remains afraid that the lecturers may recognise him and jeopardise his career. He wrote the JNU Entrance Exam (JNUEE), where he secured 70 marks out of 100. The JNU system for PhD admissions through the JNUEE draws 70% of the qualifying marks from the written exam and the remaining 30 from the viva-voce. Raghav's tally after the conversion was 49 marks, and he required about six more in the viva, to meet the SC cut-off of 56 marks out of a total 100.

He had applied to two centres and was hoping to crack at least one. While he says he missed answering a couple of questions in his first interview, the panel had shown interest in his proposal, which he had managed to explain quite satisfactorily. The interview went on for more than 10 minutes, and Raghav walked out feeling confident enough about getting the marks he needed to cross the cut-off. 

He couldn't have been more wrong.

"I got 1 out of 30 in that interview. I don't understand how that is possible without some sort of malpractice involved," Raghav tells Edexlive. "The second interview was an ever more bitter experience. They humiliated me from the start. I said I had a couple of topics to speak on, and the dean said, 'Don't be over-smart with me.' They asked me none of the questions I was expecting related to the topic. The interview lasted for just about five minutes, and at the end of that, they asked me to go back and read up," recalls Raghav. He was marked 2 out of 30 in the second interview. 

Profiling encounters of the strange kind

Raghav claims that the selection panels already have a list of students they favour and want to award the PhD seats to — suggesting the existence of predisposition, automatically rendering them unfair to other students. However, the greater issue here is that students from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes categories have been voicing stories of absurd markings and outright humiliation against the selection panels at JNU for the past month. 

For students who have qualified for a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), their admission is based 100% on their performance in the viva. Pranet*, a JRF-qualified student who applied to the JNU for a PhD, believed he had done well enough at the interview. A topper in his MPhil batch, the student also heard from some of the faculty that he had done a good job, and the selection panel had appeared to like his proposal. With the qualifying marks for his category set at 30, he expected to score them relatively easily.

Dead wrong, once again.

Pranet was awarded 20/100. He also appeared for the JNUEE viva voce after that with the same proposal and the same answers to the questions set by the same panel. This time, however, they were not impressed. They wrapped up the interview quickly, and when the marks were revealed, he had been awarded 5/30. "I am not alone though. 15-20 people I know personally have had similar experiences. A lot of ST students haven't scored above 1-2 marks in the interview. JNU has a caste discrimination problem, and students from marginalised communities are bearing the brunt of it," says an exasperated Pranet.

Amidst the clamour of protest against the alleged discrimination, the JNU administration put out a notice dismissing the claims. "The members of the PhD Selection Committee who conduct the viva voce are not provided with the information regarding the categories of the candidates in order to eliminate any bias and prejudice whatsoever," read the statement. Edexlive reached out to JNU for a word on the issue, and the varsity stood by its statement and called its admission policy "fair, transparent and inclusive." It has also claimed that observers are appointed for the committees to ensure no discrimination takes place. 

Here's the question. Is personal bias inevitable?

Observers are important. They ensure regulations are followed and serve as an ethical watchdog in most cases. "The UGC appoints these observers," claims Prof Subhajit Naskar, a Professor at Jadavpur University, who has had some experience studying at JNU. "However, the panel itself has no representation, and the universities professors are more powerful than the observers and their casteist actions cut through these measures," he adds. 

While it is true that the varsity doesn't provide information on the student's caste background to the selection committee, the students, and Prof Subhajit believes that that serves little purpose. "The surname gives it away. You cannot hide caste when they have the student's surname. Then they also judge these students based on their appearance and their command over the language. They do not need information on the caste to stereotype against students from marginalised communities," claims Subhajit, who was also awarded 1 mark in his PhD interview in 2012. 

Politics also have a role to play. "Not a single person who has been vocal against various issues in the university, who has been class representatives or a school counsellor at JNU has been awarded reasonable marks in these exams. This is the story across the university," says Uday*, who applied to the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning after clearing JRF, and was scored 36/100. Uday says that there has been a structural change away from a transparent democratic process in recruitments and admissions to a more authoritative system in the last few years. "A grievance helpline or email ID should be provided to report these issues, and an inquiry committee should be set up. There the process of formation of panels, and the criteria on which marks are allotted should also be made public," suggests Uday.

Raghav, like Uday and Pranet is also a current student at JNU. However, he says that he has always kept to himself, and has not participated in protests and activities. "I am from the North East, and I don't feel like I belong in those spaces all the time. I gave my best at the interview, and it is demoralising that I was treated that way and not awarded marks either," he rues.

How do we ensure course correction?

The protesting students have demanded that the JNU administration reveal a list of students who were selected, and implement the recommendations of the Abdul Nafey Committee Report (2016) which said that the weightage given to the viva voce should be reduced from 30% to 15%. They also say that a category-wise marks list is the need of the hour. The alleged involvement of the Vice-Chancellor in the appointment of panel members has also been questioned by the students who said that a fair panel of judges across centres should be constituted.

The discrepancies in the duration of the interview are also drawing flak from all quarters. A student's knowledge and learning in a particular subject cannot be judged in 5-10 minutes of an interview, said Dr Abha Dev Habib, treasurer of the Delhi University Teachers Association, at a protest at DU against the alleged discrimination. "There are a limited number of PhD seats, and many departments don't have a reserved seat. Students being awarded 1 mark in the viva makes no sense, and it is extremely demoralising. When the posts are so few, people get relative ranking," she tells Edexlive.

Prof Sudhir Satar, who has been teaching at JNU as Assistant Professor for about eight years now says that while it is true that the committees are not provided with the student's caste and category details, and there are observatory bodies appointed, it is difficult to say that there is no discrimination. "In personal interviews, individuals have all kinds of biases. But within the system, there is no mechanism through which caste-based discrimination can be done. The lecturers aren't supposed to know to which social category the student belongs. However, if the students are complaining, then there is probably a need to look into the system, and make it more transparent and accountable," the professor believes. 

He cites the example of the viva-voce procedure at the Centre for Political Studies, where he teaches. "The students are judged on three different parameters within those 30 marks. This makes the process more transparent and participatory," he tells Edexlive, adding that committees are supposed to have representation from members of marginalised communities to ensure that no discrimination happens. 

No way home?

Amidst the vocal protests both online and on campuses, Raghav has stayed confined to his room. The despair in his voice is obvious as he says, "I did not apply anywhere else, expecting to get a seat here. All my friends and seniors have to say is, 'We told you so.' They had said that such instances of caste-based discrimination are common at JNU, and there is a good chance I will not get the seat. But I wanted to believe in the system. I have been in shock ever since I saw that I got 1 out of 30 in the interview. I have stopped taking calls from my family, and it has taken a huge toll on my mind."  

He adds that even apart from the interview, professors are stingy with marks for students from Dalit and Adivasi communities. "It is a dream for a student from marginalised communities to get an A+. They shut you down when you try to answer in class. They don't give high scores even when you've written a great paper."

That's the problem when you're a marked student.

*names have been changed to protect identity.

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