The turmoil in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University last year has prompted a rare conversation on social inclusion in the most rarefied levels of academia in India – science research institutes.

Earlier this month, a team of scientists publicly released the report of their investigation into events leading to Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad Central University last January.

The most remarkable thing about the fact-finding mission was that it happened at all. In undertaking it, the scientists showed more initiative, and interest, than their community has ever done in the business of general universities.

Three Bangalore-based physicists – Suvrat Raju from the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, and Prajval Shastri and Ravinder Banyal from Indian Institute of Astrophysics – interviewed students, officers and faculty members at the Hyderabad Central University campus over two days last July. They are from elite research institutions that have few students, let alone organised unions and student movements. As centres of excellence, they are exempt from reservation. They see little turmoil on their home turf and confront few of the issues of insensitivity or discrimination familiar in the public university system.

The unlikely trio of investigators was supported by a network that is admittedly small but spread across India. It includes scientists based in Chennai, Kanpur, Allahabad and Kolkata.

Discussions over email and during meetings in February and March last year – when Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University repeatedly featured in the news because of student arrests, protests, and police action – yielded a number of recommendations and raised still more questions on the inclusion of Dalits and other marginalised groups, social justice and academic freedom.

“The body of Indian scientists as a whole often tends to steer clear of such discussions,” said Raju. “We are trying to change that.”

Going beyond reservation

Shastri said that if reservation at the time of admissions is the only effort toward social inclusion, the campus will simply reflect the pattern of marginalisation in society outside. Just admitting disadvantaged students is not enough.

“For education to be transformative, you need steps that go well beyond reservation,” said Shastri.

The higher-education regulator, University Grants Commission, requires universities to appoint anti-discrimination officers.

Scientists argued that anti-discrimination cells, akin to women’s cells, would be more useful.

“An anti-discrimination officer cannot really take action against the vice chancellor,” Raju pointed out. “A cell, with representation from students, academic and non-academic staff could be more effective. It should also have members from outside the University.”

The scientists also argued that restructuring the study programme to include foundation or preparatory courses would bring up to speed all students – reserved and general category – together.

“Our country is diverse, and a flexible course structure is necessary to account for the fact that students – both in the reserved and general categories – enter with varying levels of preparation,” said Raju. “Those who are better prepared could be given the option of giving a ‘drop test’ and skipping the foundational courses”

Education outside classrooms

Casual inquiries brought up allegations of discrimination in common areas and hostels.

“We were told there is segregation at the point of getting into hostels,” said a scientist. They heard of other allegations of discrimination too, and now argue for a more comprehensive set of measures that goes beyond admission, evaluation and classroom interactions.

“A significant part of education happens outside classrooms,” said Srikanth Sastry of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. At an event of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, he was struck by how most alumni remembered “all the other things they did”.

“Academics need to find ways to enable that,” said Sastry. “Most don’t consider it a part of the academic process but it really matters because students spend a formative part of their lives in universities.”

The report on Hyderabad Central University was circulated within this insular scientific community before its release. A cover letter signed by about a dozen members urged colleagues to participate in “such exercises…taken up by independent groups of academics” and continue the discussion.

How it began

This loose group started forming after the derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle by the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras administration in May 2015. Several members of the group are themselves IIT alumni or have friends and former students in them. A few are IIT teachers.

“We do not have an organisation and felt we needed some kind of grouping,” said Raju.

In the winter of 2015, some of them signed petitions against the murder of the scholar MM Kalburgi. Another petition was composed in response to the arrest of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University last February. But by March, petitions were not cutting it anymore.

“We were shaken by the events at Hyderabad Central University,” said Shastri. “We read about the vandalism and police action but the videos circulated shocked us most. There could be no dispute about the extent to which the police went. Since this is an academic institution, we do feel some sort of kinship toward it.”

Sastry thought it was time each institution created for itself “a charter of academic freedom”.

“In this case [Vemula’s], a minister was writing letters,” he said, referring to the four letters the Ministry of Human Resources Development sent to Hyderabad Central University after minister of state Bandaru Dattatreya urged it to press the central university to act against what he referred to as “anti-national” elements on its campus.

“But it is not necessary that pressure will be exerted only that way. Institutions must decide how to respond to external pressures and what traditions to protect.”

Small, privileged community

The response to their speaking up has not been entirely encouraging. The scientists agreed that it “started a conversation” in their insular world, but led to some tension too.

“I got some ironical comments and questions about other cases based on the presumption that I would not be sensitive to them,” said one. “We need to break out of this and have a conversation.”

Although authors of the Hyderabad Central University report were unsparing in their criticism of both the government and the university administration, challenges to the establishment are not taken too kindly by the scientific community.

“Scientists in privileged institutions are generally discouraged, either tacitly or explicitly, from asking uncomfortable questions,” said Raju.

Added Shastri: “The implicit assumption behind centres of excellence being exempt from reservation is perhaps that, over time, things will right themselves and the community on campus will reflect the diversity in society. That is not happening and we must ask ourselves why.”