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  • Navya Asopa

Affirmative Action at Ashoka: Where Do We Stand?

Updated: Jan 10

On December 11, 2019, Ashoka set up a University Diversity and Inclusion Committee, with the aim of making recommendations to the Vice-Chancellor. Under Malabika Sarkar, the then VC and pro-VC Venkat Eshwara, the interim Committee planned to conduct diversity sessions and set up a formal office in 2021.

The committee submitted the recommendation report to the Vice Chancellor’s office in December 2022. It was told to wait for the new VC, Somak Raychaudhary, to look into this. Since his joining, he has not met the Committee.

Although the committee is mandated to meet at least once in two months with four members as the quorum, The Edict found through a conversation with an anonymous source that the presently 7-member committee has not held a meeting this year due to the lack of official initiation. 

Initially, as a 15-member committee, it underwent changes in 2021 where one student representative, for UG and YIF each, was elected to the board and the total number of members was reduced to 7. However, since the end of the 2021-22 academic year, fresh elections have not been held. Both Bhavya Soni, the UG’21 representative and Radhika Chhabra, the YIF’21 representative, have graduated from the University. No updates have been relayed to the student body yet regarding new elections.

The Committee’s responsibility is “to initiate, foster, coordinate, evaluate and effectively communicate the diversity and inclusion activities[…]that support the goal of enhancing the environment for diversity, inclusion and equity across the University,” read the email sent by the Office of Registrar in 2019 notifying the Ashokan community of the members constituting the committee. 

“We made recommendations for affirmative action for admissions of students as well as hiring of faculty, better inclusion measures around caste disability and trans identity,”  informed Bittu, Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology. “Ashoka doesn’t have a caste-based reservation and it should,” he said when asked what affirmative action meant for the committee.

“Admission and employment at Ashoka University is on merit. Financial aid is based on the university’s assessment of the individual’s financial needs,” states the last page of the official Inclusion and Diversity Report for 2021-22.

Unlike public universities in India, Ashoka does not have a caste-based reservation system in place. In the NIRF rankings of 2022, Ashoka had submitted only 183 socially challenged (SC+ST+OBC) students on its rolls across all UG batches out of a total of 1603 students.

“We wanted to do a [caste] survey of both students and faculty…From what I know, the survey never went out, because that would be the baseline,” said a previous Committee member who wished to remain anonymous. They added, “It is not hard to imagine that the donors to Ashoka don’t think in caste terms.”

Reservation is legally mandated in public universities. In private universities, it is open to the state government’s discretion—the Haryana Private Universities Act, 2006 lists the quota requirements for universities to follow.

“A minimum of 25% seats for admissions in the university shall be reserved for students of the State of Haryana, out of which 10% seats shall be reserved for students belonging to Scheduled Castes of the State of Haryana,” reads Section 35 of the Act.

However, based on a report by the Indian Express, the University violated the 2006 Act by not admitting enough students from the Haryana domicile and giving them fee concessions.

The University denied such allegations by mentioning its financial aid programme. The spokesperson from Ashoka University commented that they were providing financial aid to batches, beyond the requirements of the Haryana Privates Act.

The administration claims that a caste census is not possible as category-wise details are not made public during admissions. 

Some students have resorted to collecting survey data themselves. Ninety-seven (97) out of a hundred and nine (109) UG’25 respondents belonged to the General category, based on a caste survey conducted by Ayan Khan, a UG’25 student, in November 2022. There are a total of 690 students in the UG’25 cohort. Only ten students said they were from the OBC category and one student from the SC and ST categories, each.

Eighty-nine per cent (89%) of the UG’25 respondents came under the General category. While the survey does not speak for the entire student population of Ashoka, the trend of upper-caste domination is evident in other cohorts too.

With the beginning of a fresh ‘Merit-cum-Means’ scholarship for upcoming undergraduate Science students, the ‘need-based’ financial aid also stands challenged.

“The University claims that financial aid will bring diversity but it has little realization that Indian society is divided on the basis of caste,” remarked Manan, a Political Science student. He also claimed “It is a superficial step towards building an inclusive campus,” 

“We are blind to those categories [SC/ST]. So we don’t track it,” said Vineet Sabharwal, Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives and Financial Aid. While elaborating on why the Aid team follows a caste-blind process, he said that the Financial Aid policy is based on the commitment to bridge the gap between what a family can pay as compared to the total fee. 

On creating quotas, Vineet stated "In sort of principle and spirit and philosophy. We are delivering our promise to the...marginalized ... castes and categories … But we don't want to create a quota out of it because we don't want that 1% to then get an advantage when they should not.”

He further stated that the onus lies on the Outreach team to get marginalized caste students from diverse schools to apply. The Edict tried reaching out to Vikram Bawa, Senior Director of Outreach for a comment on the same. We received no response after multiple requests.

Anil Kumar, an MLS student and the founder of the Social Justice Forum at Ashoka, has been advocating for an Anti-Discrimination Cell on campus. The Cell aims to “deal with discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, disability of access to education at any type or any level”.

In November, this year, the Forum put forth an ultimatum of 14 days to the administration to form the Cell. The VC responded on the 17th of November, promising a Student Grievance Redressal Committee and an Equal Opportunities Cell to address cases of discrimination. These are said to be functional by mid-February.

Kumar, however, held to his apprehensions. “How do we expect impartiality when we know the biases of administration due to lack of diversity within themselves?”, he asked. The proposed committees are meant to have elected student representatives as members. On this, Anil said, “They have said that people will be elected to these committees. So now the Forum will release posters and demand caste census among students and employees so that we know how truly diverse the university is.”

Agar diversity hota toh university ghabrata nahi census karne se” [If the university were diverse, then it (administration) would not have been scared of conducting a caste census,” he noted.

Some private universities in India have an affirmative action system in place. In a similar non-profit private university, Alliance University, Karnataka, certain provisions have been made.

Along with the financial aid programme, the University offers a 20% tuition waiver for reserved SC & ST students in its Bachelor’s (BBA, BA LLB,  etc.) and Master’s (MBA) admissions. The University, owing to its private nature, does not have an official mandate to reserve seats.

However, Madhukar G Angur, Chancellor of Alliance University, told the Deccan Herald,

“We are doing it out of our commitment to social justice. It’s entirely a voluntary initiative.”         

At Ashoka, amidst a principle of financial aid, the realization of the Committee’s initiative faces many challenges.  NOTE: This article has been edited on January 10th, at 3:00 PM to provide additional context for quotes and improve clarity.

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