Watch Out!
Student Media
Body of IITR
About Guide Get Involved

Cover Story

The Merit Myth: An Examination of Casteism in IITs

March 28, 2023

“Once you clear the minds of the people of this misconception and enable them to realise that what they are told is religion is not religion, but that it is really law, you will be in a position to urge its amendment or abolition.”

B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste

In July 2021, Vipin P. Veetil, an assistant Professor at IIT Madras, resigned, alleging caste-based discrimination. According to him, the discrimination came from all individuals in power, irrespective of their political affiliations or gender. This incident sums up how caste is perceived and how caste-based discrimination exists in the elite institutions of the country, like the IITs and the IIMs.

IITs have always been a glaring example of a dichotomy that exists in India with respect to the accessibility of resources. While IITians get good quality education and lucrative packages, the reality is very different for the rest of the country. Such glaring inequality is normalized in conversations by terming this phenomenon as “Merit” and conveniently ignoring the needs and aspirations of the majority. This classist and meritocratic system harms a developing country like India by segregating all resources in the hands of the few. People from the Upper Castes make up only about 20% of the population, yet if you look around you, in campus groups, in student bodies, and in the administration, you’ll hardly find any individuals from the Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi communities.

Through this article we aim to understand what casteism is, how it is seen in Educational Institutions in the country and how it is seen in IIT-Roorkee specifically.


  1. What is Casteism?
  2. Affirmative Action
  3. Looking at Caste in IITs through statistics
  4. The Food Question
  5. The Current Situation in Campus

1. What is Casteism?

Castes are rigid social groups characterised by hereditary transmission of life style, occupation, and social status. The definitions of casteism and caste seem very simple and obvious. Yet, caste, despite being omnipresent, is seldom talked about; especially in privileged circles here at IIT-Roorkee.

The ideas of casteism were corroborated by the existence of books like the Manusmriti, which enshrined these ideas into the very backbone of Hinduism. The Hindu society became synonymous with a vertical distribution of social groups based on their occupation. Over time, as casteism developed, it brought with it the normalisation of certain vices in the society. Discrimination and untouchability were openly practised, social mobility became extremely hard to achieve for people belonging to the lower castes, and the ideas of “exclusivity,” and “uniqueness” of a certain caste group were promoted.

Casteism came with the sense of privilege in people having a better economic status and a reputable occupation, and inferiority in the minds of people doing jobs that were considered dirty. This was exploited by those at the top of this hierarchy, to their own benefit.

The revolution against caste started much earlier, with the likes of Shahu Maharaj, Savitribai Phule, and Periyar working extensively to eradicate casteism from the society. The watershed moment though came with Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar incorporating anti-caste ideas into our constitution. This included any form of discrimination on the basis of caste being illegal and measures for affirmative action, among many others. This made the idea of independent India and the manifestation of it in the minds of people anti-caste in every sense.

While India has progressed immensely both socially and economically in the past 75 years, casteism still prevails- both violently as well as in subtle ways in the society around us. The statue of Manu- the man who codified casteism still stands tall in the High Court of Rajasthan. In the same state, a 9 year old dalit boy was killed in 2022 for touching a water pot meant for upper castes only.

The casteist foundations of Hinduism continue to be glorified in an environment like this, hidden subtly in the form of “cultural practices”. This continues to happen as thousands suffer every single day to live a life of dignity. In seemingly urbanised and modern spaces, violent forms of casteism are uncommon, but casteism continues to be present in the society around us- at our homes, educational institutions, professional workspaces etc. People continue to use the names of certain castes as slurs, completely ignoring the impact that these statements have. Casteist statements and slurs are so normalised in society that you can get away with using them without any consequences. People proclaim themselves to be anti-reservation without having any knowledge or context of why reservation exists in the first place. Let us now talk about how casteism is seen in our own college.

2. Affirmative Action

A. Why should reservations exist?

The denial of casteism and the discrimination that marginalised communities face is almost always from people with generations of privilege who are protected from the realities of the world. An individual with one Dalit friend who could afford to go to the same school as them comes to the conclusion that all Dalits hold the same privilege as an upper caste person, that they’re only pretending to be oppressed so as to benefit from reservations.

Even before freshers start packing up for offline college, a particular murmur tends to punctuate general discussions- the roommate question. Rooms are allotted according to ranks and not branches, and so, obviously, reservation started being discussed. On campus, the awkwardly skirted around subject of reservations lays out bare how students perceive merit, worth, and have an innate difficulty comprehending the way intangible privilege works. Most critics of social justice dismiss it as petty, material consolation. Social justice has a more ‘structural’ purpose- the redistribution of privilege.

Affirmative action broadly refers to a set of policies aimed at achieving such social justice by the inclusion of underrepresented groups, mostly through quotas and reservation. To understand the need for affirmative action, we need to reimagine the meaning of equality. Definitions of equality that phrase it as a simple game of restructuring opportunity ignore how privilege moves over time, translating into cultural and social capital- intangible assets no one accounts for.

In arguing for economic-based reservation as a replacement for caste-based reservation, what is ignored are factors like social networks, growing up in a household that for generations has not had the said opportunities, the inability to navigate this recently acquired social mobility, et cetera.

Have you, or someone in your house, ever asked your help at home to come and eat with you and had them deny, in a way that seems almost unable to comprehend the possibility of eating with you? That’s years and generations of an unconsciously inherited broken idea of self-worth.

Justice DY Chandrachud at a BR Ambedkar Memorial Lecture said:

Castelessness is a privilege in itself. A privilege that only the upper caste can afford.

It’s important to reimagine affirmative action at the very crux of a healthy democracy, because we really aren’t beginning at a place where the playing field is level. We need a broader perspective on the nature of substantive equality, a distribution of rights and opportunities that accounts for historic, and systemic discrimination. We need to learn the true meaning of merit and worth- not some abstract ideal of skill, but a representative and inclusive space for growth and learning. This is vital for both, a holistic democracy, and uplifting every individual’s understanding of self-worth.

Years ago, people like Ambedkar, and later, Kanshi Ram, realised the importance of creating a political consciousness among minorities and marginalised groups and how important affirmative action was to achieving true social mobility. But today, those conversations have died out. The simplest thing to realise here is that a platform where ‘all voices are heard’ is of no use where some voices are just faint, disappearing whispers

B. Busting common myths around Reservations

The purpose of reservation is to provide representation. This is the exact same principle as needing Student Representatives in college bodies so that the administration does not have the power to make decisions that affect you without your say. People tend to get the need for student representation and even women representation in administration but often ignore caste. The most repeated form of hate that Dalit and Bahujan students face on campus is the constant reminder that they “stole a general student’s seat”. As of 2019, only 30% of India’s population belongs to the general category. 54.5% of the total seats are reserved for 70% of the population. Saying that someone stole a general student’s seat is illogical.

A common argument used against reservation is how it will lead to incompetent graduates. People claim that reservation has led to ‘mediocrity’ in the country. This is because, according to them, reservations enable people who are ‘less capable’ to have an ‘unfair advantage’ over the ones who are ‘meritorious’. If it wasn’t for reservation, they claim, only the most meritorious students would become doctors or engineers or scientists. The only reason that the country is not moving forward is reservation, they say–. Otherwise, we would be one of the most developed countries.

Most of these claims are made by people who are in engineering or medical fields where reservation is only helpful in getting admission into an institute and not in getting the degree itself. Anyone who has graduated from these institutes has had to go through the same examinations as a general ‘merit’ student.

Then comes the argument that even if one manages to join a college through reservation, they cannot cope with academics. That they cannot compete with general students not only in entrance exams but also during their stay in college as the only reason that they are a part of any college is reservation. Otherwise, they do not have any ‘merit’.

To be ‘meritorious’, one needs economic as well as cultural resources. While ‘merit’ is considered a neutral parameter to judge a student, social structures on the other hand are not neutral. This ‘merit’ is another form of discrimination. It does not take into consideration how the upper castes are transforming their caste capital into modern day ‘merit’. As the supreme court explains, “a ‘meritorious’ candidate is not merely one who is ‘talented’ or ‘successful’ but also one whose appointment fulfils the constitutional goals of uplifting members of the SCs and STs and ensuring a diverse and representative administration”.

We need to acknowledge that only upper caste people being allowed to go to schools in the past was a form of reservation in itself. What is being given to Dalits and Bahujans now is counter-reservation. It’s more of compensatory reservation to make up for all the times that their communities were denied basic human decency. Reservation is definitely not sufficient, but is a necessary step for minimising caste-based discrimination.

Among the few who do understand the need for reservation for the marginalised communities, many of them claim that the ‘truly marginalised’ are not able to avail the benefits of it. The ones who are grabbing all the seats through quotas are rich and non-meritorious. There is no evidence that only the rich students are using reservation. However, let us assume that it is true - only rich, untalented and incompetent students are taking most of the seats offered through reservation. Are only the rich, untalented and incompetent upper caste students grabbing all the seats offered in the general category? Since upper caste intellectuals believe that the success of general category students is only through hard-work, why can’t they believe that the success of reserved category students is also through hard-work? In addition to this reservations for Economically Weaker Sections and Non-Creamy OBCs has also come up after independence, which gives reservations to individuals who are not economically privileged. Therefore, it can be acknowledged that discrimination on the basis of caste, and not having access to resources are two different things, and that reservations for both can co-exist in the same paradigm.

3. Looking at Caste in IITs through Statistics

58% of students who lose their lives to suicide in IITs, NITs and other central institutions belong to these marginalized communities. Most dropouts and students who were expelled are also either Dalits or Bahujans. Instead of examining the conditions that lead to such statistics, people are very quick to claim that this is why reservations are bad even for those who avail them.

As recently as April 2021, a video circulated on the internet. A professor from IIT-KGP was seen abusing SC/ST students in an online class. They were even taunting students to complain about them to the SC/ST Ministry. This clearly shows that the professor is confident that the upper-caste dominated administration would protect them. Another blatantly casteist incident is the closing of Krishna Gate. In late 2019, IIT-M shut the gate connecting the campus to Vellacherry, a Dalit populated area. More about this - IIT Madras Under Fire For Casteism After Shutting Off Gate Leading To Dalit Community

In 2011, Manish Kumar, a Dalit student of IIT-R, commited suicide ‘due to depression’ as stated by the police. However, Manish’s family claims that casteist abuses from their peers, inaction of administration and being forced to live outside of campus instead of acting on their complaints lead him to completely losing faith and henceforth, ending their life. Source - The Death of Merit: Manish Kumar (IIT Roorkee) [A Documentary]

Casteism in “institutes of national importance” isn’t only faced by students. Multiple professors have resigned in the past three years owing to caste-discrimination. Less than 3% of faculties among all IITs are Dalits. Reservation rules for faculty hiring are already violated in IITs. Out of the 6043 faculties in IITs, only 149 are from SC and 21 from ST communities. As of 2018, out of the 745 faculty posts at IIT-R, only 12 of them are filled up by Dalits. Thirteen IITs - Kharagpur, Bombay, Kanpur, Ropar, Gandhinagar, Bhubaneshwar, Jammu, Goa, Bhilai, Indore, Jodhpur, Palakkad and Patna have zero faculty members from ST communities.

Data - AS267.pdf

Moreover, in 2020, a government panel along with Directors was supposed to suggest measures for the effective implementation of reservation norms. Instead, they recommended that IITs should be exempted from reservation for faculty hiring as they are “institutes of national importance” and “in order to compete with other top institutions in the world in terms of excellence, output, research and teaching”. This implicitly suggests that the panel believed that the presence of Dalits and Bahujan faculties in their institutes has led to a decrease in the ‘quality’ of the institute.

4. The Food Question

Why is non-vegetarian food not available in all canteens across the institute?

Why is non-vegetarian food served in different plates in the Mess of all hostels?

Why did students in Azad Bhawan protest for a week to ban non-vegetarian food in their Mess?

These are questions that even the most “liberal” individuals would think twice before asking. The concept of non-vegetarian food being impure is so ingrained in the minds of an average Hindu, that they are seldom able to see the inherent casteist roots that their “Pure Vegetarian” attitude has. What is so pure about being a vegetarian anyway and why is non-vegetarian food associated with a lack of hygiene, when the same can very well be true for vegetarian food also.

The answer to all of these questions is the concept of “Purity”, made for and by the upper caste Hindus to keep their hegemony on all aspects of social life. It was majorly through food that Caste Hindus justified the existence of untouchability in society. It was because of the food habits of Dalits that they were demonised for centuries and continue to be “othered’.

A majority of individuals in this country are non-vegetarians. Except Rajasthan and Punjab, all states in India have non-vegetarians in a majority. In states like Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland, this number is beyond 95%. Dalit food ‘preferences’ were a mode of survival. At a time when Dalits were denied the right to things as basic as water, food practices were never a choice. They ate whatever they could get their hands on, which is everything that Brahmins didn’t eat. The food hierarchy places those who do not eat meat at the top, those who eat meat but not beef in the middle and those who eat beef at the bottom. Beef, the easiest available food, became a chief part of Dalit cuisine because the upper castes didn’t want it. According to the latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) figures, more than 70% of the beef-eating population is from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), 21% is from other backward castes** **and only 7% belongs to the upper castes. Caste is indeed ingrained in modern India’s eating habits. Upper caste people, whether or not vegetarians, oppose beef eating. Food has always been used by upper castes as a tool of humiliation.

Having different utensils in the mess is nothing but a form of segregation, reinforcing existing societal divisions and furthering the concept of purity of certain individuals and the impurity of others. While not consuming non-vegetarian food is a choice, why is there a need to have separate utensils when the utensils are being washed between uses? There is also a need for people to introspect and understand where this disgust towards non-vegetarian food actually comes from, why vegetarianism in India is almost always related to caste, and why it is of utmost importance to unlearn such biases.

5. The Current Situation in Campus

An SC-ST Cell exists in colleges like IIT-Bombay and IIT-Delhi and its aims include addressing academic and non-academic issues and complaints received from students and staff belonging to the SC and ST communities. There is a dire need for such a cell to exist in our institute for the reasons stated above. An SC/ST Employees Welfare Association does exist on paper in our institute. When WatchOut! tried to verify the existence of such a cell, we found that it does not hold meetings/meet on a regular basis. Moreover its working has hardly any bearing on an average student.

A recent case of a student from IIT Bombay shows how important such a cell is. Our college needs a student led body which promotes diversity and equality on campus to build a discrimination free environment. A SC/ST Cell in particular can ensure that very strict actions are taken against individuals promoting caste discrimination and support is provided to students from marginalised communities. The situation currently, is abysmal to say the least, with the SC/ST Cell existing merely in name.

Disclaimer: Since the last caste census was conducted in 2011, and it’s findings were thought to be unreliable, there is a general disagreement about the percentage of each caste. However we have tried to use the most recurring numerical data. We do however recognise that some sources might disagree with our data