Unveiling Institutional Casteism

Unveiling Institutional Casteism

April 14th marks the celebration of Ambedkar Jayanti, a day dedicated to commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Born in 1891 in Mhow, Maharashtra Dr. Ambedkar was lovingly called Babashaheb by the DBA (Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi) community he championed. Born into an oppressed caste-location, Babashaheb endured the marginalization of caste as he was growing up. Therefore, he tirelessly fought against the deep-rooted injustices of the caste system in India. In drafting the Indian Constitution Dr. Ambedkar ensured the foundation for a more equitable society. Ambedkar Jayanti is not merely a symbolic event but a reminder of Dr Ambedkar’s unwavering commitment to social justice and equality.

Ambedkar’s Legacy in the Anti-Caste Movement

Dr. Ambedkar consolidated the groundwork for the anti-caste movement in India. His critique of the caste system brought in an intellectual discourse of reevaluating the history of caste and its system of ostracization in the Indian context. He actively mobilized people to question the oppressive structures that perpetuated caste-based discrimination. His seminal work, “Annihilation of Caste,” remains a cornerstone of anti-caste literature, challenging the very foundation of the caste system and advocating for its abolition. Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy continues to inspire generations of activists and scholars, shaping the discourse of the anti-caste movement in India and beyond.

Institutional Casteism in Indian Campuses: A Harsh Reality

It’s been decades since Babashaheb’s activism and legacy, yet the caste system is still very much interwoven in the social fabric of the Indian subcontinent, and it shows up in both overt and covert ways. Institutional casteism is a covert form of discrimination that lurks within various institutions, like schools, workplaces, and even government bodies. It speaks to the lived realities of caste-oppressed persons who face systemic barriers due to their caste identity within these institutions.

Despite legal and constitutional safeguards against discrimination, institutional casteism remains a harsh reality on Indian campuses. Caste-based discrimination manifests differently, including unequal treatment, social exclusion, and systemic barriers to academic and professional advancement. From being harassed by faculty or peers because of one’s caste identity, missing out on opportunities of mentorship and placement, being barred from entering certain spaces, to even acts of violence, institutional casteism can take many forms. Moreover, Dalit and marginalized students often face obstacles in accessing educational opportunities and resources, which undermines their academic performance and overall well-being. Studies reveal that a person’s caste identity can affect their life satisfaction and holistic wellbeing; caste discrimination can have serious mental health fallouts, and lead to anxiety, depression, and complex trauma. It can lead to physical symptoms like insomnia, changes in appetite, neuroimmune and chronic illnesses.

Ashoka University’s Equal Opportunity Cell

Since Rohith Vemula’s demise, there has been a growing recognition of the prevalence of institutional casteism in educational institutions across India. Ashoka University, located in Haryana’s Sonepat district, has taken a proactive step towards addressing this issue by establishing an Equal Opportunity Cell. This initiative comes in response to student-led protests calling for a caste census and greater inclusivity on campus. The Equal Opportunity Cell aims to create a more equitable environment for students and faculty members by addressing caste-based discrimination and promoting diversity and inclusion. The students had a comprehensive list of demands including a change in the fee payment protocol, a caste census that would be done anonymously and include students, faculty and other staff, and an annual lecture that would invite guests from marginalized communities to address social justice issues. The university has given the green signal to the annual lecture as well.

Institutional Casteism Affects Faculty and Staff too

However, institutional casteism also targets teachers from marginalized communities who encounter discrimination in terms of career advancement, pay disparities, verbal harassment and lack of recognition for their contributions. The insidious nature of institutional casteism not only perpetuates inequality but also undermines the fundamental principles of equality and social justice that are expected to be the foundational pillars of educational institutions.

The case of Dr Ritu Singh, a former ad-hoc teacher at Delhi University, highlights the challenges faced by Dalit academics in Indian higher education. Dr. Singh’s protested by setting up a pakoda stall outside Delhi University, after being terminated from her position due to alleged caste discrimination. The incident underscores the structural barriers and injustices faced by marginalized communities within educational institutions. Her resistance sparked public outrage and raised important questions about the treatment of Dalit academics and the need for greater inclusivity and fairness in academia.

Statistics Cast Light upon the Issue

Research has shed light on the pervasive nature of casteism in Indian higher education institutions. These studies reveal that caste-based discrimination is not only prevalent but also institutionalized, affecting marginalized students from the admission process to daily interactions in classrooms and hostels. Discrimination often takes subtle forms, such as assigning menial tasks, unfair grading practices, and purposeful neglect of academic and employment opportunities. These further compounds the existing socio-economic structural barriers that a DBA student has to already contend with. There is a reported rise in suicides that are linked to caste-based discrimination on campuses. The suicides of Payal Tadvi and Rohith Vemula serve as stark reminders of the very real consequences of institutional casteism and the urgent need for systemic reforms.

However, with growing awareness and the diligent activism of anti-caste collectives, a constructive change is visible. The recent student elections at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) marked a historic moment with the election of the first Dalit president in nearly three decades and the first-ever BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association) nominee to the central panel. This milestone reflects a growing recognition of the importance of addressing caste-based discrimination and promoting inclusivity in campus politics. The newly elected student union aims to address various issues on campus, including infrastructural improvements, gender sensitization, and inclusivity initiatives.

Bringing Awareness and Advocating Measures

Bringing awareness and advocating measures to combat institutional casteism is crucial for fostering a more inclusive society. This involves educating individuals about caste-based discrimination and its impact, promoting diversity and inclusion, advocating for policy reforms, engaging with marginalized communities, conducting research, and launching public awareness campaigns. Following are some measures that can address casteism in educational institutions:

  1. Educational initiatives that raise awareness about caste-based discrimination and sensitize individuals to issues of privilege and unconscious bias vis-a-vis casteist practices.
  2. Promoting caste inclusive language and affirmative practices on all levels of an institutional framework.  
  3. Having stricter policies when it comes to caste-discrimination within the institution and affirmative action programs.
  4. Listening to the voices of the DBA community, instead of making assumptions about their requirements.
  5. Having diversity and inclusion drives can ensure representation to DBA communities to address their needs and make effective policy changes.
  6. Addressing the intersections of caste and gender identity, caste and ability, caste and sexual orientation and working towards addressing these structural gaps in systems.
  7. Having an anti-caste informed and affirmative mental health professional who can address the concerns of DBA folx on a campus.
  8. Promoting awareness campaigns that challenge casteist myths and stereotypes.
  9. Investing in DBA faculty and workers to promote better representation across the campus.


In conclusion, addressing institutional casteism on Indian campuses is imperative towards fostering a more equitable and inclusive space across Indian campuses. By acknowledging the pervasive nature of caste-based discrimination and advocating for systemic reforms, educational institutions can strive towards creating a more conducive environment for learning and growth. Supporting Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi students is not just about ensuring fairness; it’s about harnessing the diverse talents and perspectives they bring to the table and fostering innovation and excellence in research and output. Only through collective action and unwavering commitment to social justice can we truly honour the legacy of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and build a more inclusive future for generations to come.

Written by Usri Basistha and Akanksha Singh

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