At 22 years, Vipin P Veetil travelled across Europe on an Erasmus Mundus post graduate scholarship. At 31, he finished his PhD in economics from George Mason University, Virginia and by the age of 33, he was a post doctoral fellow at Sorbonne University in Paris.
Despite his impressive academic track record, the most difficult question Veetil faced within one month of joining IIT-Madras in 2019, as an assistant professor in the department of humanities and social sciences, was – “What is your caste?”
Veetil recalls that the question was put to him by a professor of economics who had taught at IIT-M for over 10 years.
This and other such incidents led the IIT-Madras faculty member, to resign on 1 July 2021. Alleging caste discrimination, Veetil told The Quint in an exclusive interview, “In IIT-M, you can be blind about your caste but others may not be blind about it. They will know or would want to know”.
Veetil has now withdrawn his resignation and is back at IIT-Madras to fight out the complaint he had lodged in July. The 36-year-old assistant professor who hails from Kerala belongs to the Maniyani (OBC) caste.
The faculty member’s allegations about caste discrimination come at a time when the Centre is planning to introduce 27 percent OBC reservation in medical and dental courses across the country.
Complaint at OBC Commission
Veetil has also filed a fresh complaint (a copy of which is with The Quint) with the OBC Commission in New Delhi, requesting the body to investigate the reported case of caste discrimination. In the complaint dated 5 August, Veetil writes, “This letter does not capture all of the discrimination I have faced at the department or the caste dynamics which regulates and shapes our lives at the institute. These will hopefully come up in the course of our interaction during the investigation”.
The two-page complaint could possibly be first of its kind, as it is a faculty member of the institute who has raised an allegation of caste discrimination before the OBC commission.
Earlier, in 2015, a section of IIT-M’s students had accused the institute management of caste discrimination when the administration de-recognised Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC). APSC now functions as an independent student body in IIT-Madras.
While Veetil is gearing up for a long legal battle, what stands out about his journey in IIT-Madras is that, it appears, caste continues to haunt individuals who hail from historically marginalised Dalit-Bahujan communities even when they do well, academically, without constitutional safeguards such as reservation.
‘Denied Opportunity to Teach a Course’
Veetil told The Quint that he had applied for a teaching position at IIT Madras under the ‘general’ (Other Castes) category. He had not used the constitutional provision of OBC reservation.
On account of having studied abroad, Veetil said, “I did not see the reason why I should use the OBC certificate at all. These are provisions which are left to people who have faced real struggles in their lives. As for me, I was not denied education, per say, because of my caste”.
His optimism, however, took a beating within months of joining IIT-M, when his caste background caught up with him.
A first generation college graduate, Veetil claims he was denied a chance to teach a new course in economics and network analysis during his probationary period.
There is no rule which prevents a probationary faculty member from teaching their own course at IIT-M. Veetil’s complaint with the OBC commission says, “the then Head of the Department (HoD) professor Umakant Dash with the support of Chair professor VR Muraleedharan denied” him the opportunity.
Veetil’s complaint further states, “Professor Suresh Babu said that in the first year, my ‘behaviour’ should be assessed”. Babu is a senior professor of economics at IIT-M.
Veetil complaint claims that a few months later, a Brahmin faculty member who was on probation at the same department as him, was allowed to teach two new courses of their design.
“None of the faculty members who had prevented me from teaching a new course, prevented the Brahmin faculty member from teaching his courses during his probationary period,” he alleged. The case went unchecked despite Veetil sending an email to faculty members of his department.
In the email (a copy of which is with The Quint) dated 4 December 2019, sent to the faculty discussion group, Veetil wrote, “I have, however, witnessed at least one incident of discrimination and did intervene on the occasion”.
In response to this, according to Veetil’s complaint to the OBC commission, professor Jyotirmaya Tripathy, who is the current head of the department, wrote that if he “feels discriminated” then he “should go ahead and ‘prove’ it instead of writing such emails”.
Though The Quint reached out to all the four professors named in the complaint, three did not reply to queries. One professor, who denied the allegation, did not want to be quoted in this report.
Keeping ‘Merit’ Alive
Veetil said that he went looking for other teaching opportunities when his complaint was not addressed. “I did not let my work suffer. No one would ask what struggles you have gone through when you apply for a job,” he said. Since joining IIT-M, Veetil has published five research papers, two of which have appeared in highly rated A star journals.
Notwithstanding his good academic performance, when Veetil resigned, trolls on social media accused him of being non-meritorious.
“There were people who said that I got my job through reservation and that I quit because I could not cope with the teaching standards in the IIT. This is not true,” he said. More worryingly, his detractors assumed, by default, that those who exercise their constitutional right to reservation lack academic merit.
Veetil said that the concept of merit is exclusionary, as it mandates people from oppressed categories to keep their performance record impeccable even while facing discrimination.
“How are we supposed to teach our students and publish our papers when we have to do so much of internal fighting?” he asks. Only constitutional protection safeguards people from oppressed castes in academic institutions, he says.
He could raise a complaint before the OBC commission because he has constitutional protection. “Mine is a classic example in which a person makes it to a premiere academic institution without reservation only to realise that they cannot survive without constitutional protection.”
Veetil’s case has striking similarity to that of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at University of Hyderabad, who died by suicide on 17 January 2016, leading to countrywide protests against caste discrimination in institutes of higher learning.
Though he had an SC (Mala) caste certificate, Vemula too had secured a PhD seat under ‘general’ category, or what is known as the merit list. However, when caste discrimination allegedly led to his suicide, student protestors could only invoke provisions of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act-1989 and the constitutional protection it offers, to safeguard his rights, albeit posthumously.
Veetil says, “Many of us are capable of coming in (getting employment or educational opportunities without reservation). But it becomes difficult for us to live, survive and work because at every stage new hurdles are placed along our way”. Veetil took up a job in July at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata.
‘Want to Remain a Public Individual’
The aggrieved faculty member has, however, resigned from ISI because of “health reasons” and has returned to IIT-Madras. The IIT, like most central governmental institutions, allows faculty members to withdraw their resignations within one year of having resigned.
While the IIT has instituted a committee to look into the case of alleged discrimination that Veetil raised, he now wants his HoD Jyotirmaya Tripathy to step down from his role.
“While the investigation is in progress, it would be appropriate for Jyotirmaya Tripathy to temporarily step down from the position of the Head of Department,” he writes in his letter to the OBC commission. According to the assistant professor, Tripathy should step down because as the HoD, he can “tamper with evidence” (email correspondence and online discussions) and can “influence” other faculty members.
Meanwhile, living in IIT-M after stirring up a storm over caste discrimination may not be easy, Veetil says.
“Those who have faced experiences similar to mine are happy that I am back in the institute. I think I have become more of a public individual now because I have decided to work towards ending such cases of discrimination in the institute. I hope to be more active in SC, ST, OBC outfits in the IIT,” he said, adding, “There are educational institutions where similar practices go unreported”. Courtesy The Quint