The scrapping of internal assessment will not ensure complete elimination of discrimination and sexual harassment on the campuses, but it will surely address a major part of the vulnerability of girls and members of depressed classes to those with an evil mind.
The Kerala government has shown a model that India can follow by deciding to scrap the system of internal assessment of students in colleges. The move could not have come a day sooner.
Internal assessment had become a tool for exploitation at the hands of the teachers and supervisors, some of who behave like predators. Particularly vulnerable are girls and students belonging to depressed classes, who still face discrimination of various kinds at schools, colleges and offices. Instances of girls and Dalit students driven to the desperate act of taking their lives due to harassment by their supervisors have become more frequent. The worst part is that only a small percentage of cases get reported as such. Most cases go unreported or are attributed to anonymous reasons.
The pain suffered by Fathima Lateef, the humanities student at IIT Madras, who left a poignant suicide note as screenshot on her mobile phone before taking the extreme step shakes the conscience of even the unkindest among us. The message identified one of her professors as her tormentor. It is a different matter that a breakthrough in investigations has not happened yet although her parents have been moving heaven and earth to seek justice.
Discrimination against Dalit students is so widespread in our educational system that it has stopped raising an eyebrow. The forms of abuse that these children face are often so stigmatising that they can no longer endure and consequently there has been a steady increase in the number of suicides by Dalit students. It has been found that out of 27 cases of suicides that occurred in educational institutions between 2008 and 2016, 23 were Dalits, who suffered discrimination rooted in caste-ridden minds.
The problem of sexual harassment of students by their superiors in institutes of higher learning is so acute that the UGC issued strict regulations in 2015 to prevent such incidents. The regulations recognise the imbalance in the equation between the students and their teachers and administrative staff, which can adversely affect the students’ future by lowering their grades and taking away extra-curricular opportunities from them. This made the students particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.
The regulations define sexual harassment as ‘unwanted conduct with sexual undertones if it occurs or which is persistent and which demeans, humiliates or creates a hostile and intimidating environment or is calculated to induce submission by actual or threatened adverse consequences’. The unwelcome acts and behaviours could include physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks or any objectionable act of a sexual nature ‘whether by way of physical or spoken or unspoken conduct’.
The regulations look good on paper, but their application leaves much to be desired. For instance, each educational institution is supposed to have an internal complaints committee to deal with alleged sexual abuses, but in most cases, the complaints do not reach the committee. Even if they do, things get hushed up there.
One would expect elite institutions such as IITs and medical colleges to be free from this menace, but, unfortunately that is not the case. Some of the most high-profile cases of recent times have taken place in these premium institutions, including those of Lateef and Payal Tadvi, the young Adivasi doctor at Mumbai’s Topiwala National Medical College, who was found hanging in her hostel room due to alleged harassment by her seniors.
Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the country’s premier institutions, has been involved in several such cases. The story of Balmukund Bharti, a final year MBBS student hailing from Kundeshwar village in Madhya Pradesh, who took the extreme step in 2010, had created a nation-wide storm, similar to the one caused by the death of Rohit Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad in 2016, although some questioned his Dalit origins.
It was the series of incidents in AIIMS that had forced the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry to institute a three-member committee headed by SK Thorat, the then UGC chairman, to study the issue. The committee found the existence of various forms of caste-based discrimination against marginalised students both by their classmates and faculties. The UGC regulations were drawn up on the basis of this report.
The scrapping of internal assessment will not ensure complete elimination of discrimination and sexual harassment on the campuses, but it will surely address a major part of the vulnerability of girls and members of depressed classes to those with an evil mind.K Raveendran is a senior journalist. Views are personal.