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Vice-Chancellor addresses Social Justice Forum in Townhall: “Administration is not currently prepared to conduct a caste census”

The Edict's Politics Newsdesk

On 22 March, the Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University, Somak Raychaudhury and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Rama Malik addressed the Social Justice Forum’s (SJF) enduring demands in an open meeting with the student body. The VC said the SJF’s primary demand for a caste census inclusive of students, faculty and staff is not currently viable for the University.

The VC said Ashoka University’s administration is not currently prepared to conduct a caste census. Incoming students are voluntarily requested to declare their caste, however, the VC said requesting “personal data from [Ashoka’s] staff, students and faculty which is not necessary for the running of the university” goes against the “principles” upon which the University was founded.

The VC also said that according to the voluntary process of providing data, 35% of the respondents did not specify their caste.

In the meeting, SJF members responded to the VC’s claim saying the caste census would be anonymous, thus not compromising personal data. It would also concretise the actual numbers of students from marginalised backgrounds present on campus, specifically the number of students belonging to each constitutional caste category. The University’s NIRF report only provides aggregated data on the combined percentages of SC, ST, and OBC students, instead of for each of these categories individually.

The SJF also issued a fact-check document on 24 March, forwarded via email to students, faculty and teaching staff through the Student Government, which said: “The VC’s claim of forcing people to share personal information is false as the request by the SJF explicitly states that the requested census will be completely anonymized and that it's not looking for specific caste categories, but constitutional categories, ie. General, OBC, SC/ST.”

The VC said the university is committed to increasing diversity and addressing issues regarding discrimination. The Equal Opportunity Cell (EOC) is in the process of being formed to address issues of discrimination marginalised students and groups on campus face.

In November 2023, the Vice-Chancellor committed to the EOC being operational by early Spring ’24.

Bittu, Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology and a member of the committee to form the EOC, says the EOC is technically operational; it is currently in the process of setting up policy and sourcing widespread student input because the EOC needs to include a broad range of student voices and opinions.

Regarding the SJF’s demand for an annual series of talks titled the Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, the Vice Chancellor said that while the University is open to conducting an annual lecture series in conversation with faculty members, he cannot promise it will be titled the Ambedkar Memorial Lecture. He said he would leave it to the committee of faculty members and students to decide on the speakers and topics.

The SJF’s fact-checking document says the title, ‘Ambedkar Memorial Lecture’ is significant because of its “historical importance and symbolism for marginalised caste students”.

Regarding the SJF’s third demand for the removal of late-fee payment policies that “disproportionately affects marginalised students from low-income households”, the VC said that as of Spring ’24, 65% of late-fee payments were incurred by students paying full tuition.

35% of students, according to this statistic, are on some form of financial aid.

The VC also claimed no IDs were blocked. He said the administration made a “proactive” effort such that three warnings were given to students who were incurring late fees. In each case, the VC said, the administration sat down with the affected students to work out ways of paying fees and revise their financial aid policies.

SJF members responded in the meeting, and later in their fact-check document that “In the same room that the VC claimed that no student accounts or IDs were blocked, there were multiple students who came forward saying their accounts were, in fact, blocked.”

The Vice-Chancellor also said he did not want issues to be directly sent over to him from the student body with “an email saying [the VC has] 48 hours left to answer, otherwise there will be a dharna.”

The SJF’s fact-check document says, “The first communication from the SJF about the caste census occurred on the 4 December 2023”, three months before the sit-in.

The SJF also sent an email to the Vice Chancellor’s Office, reiterating their demands on 12 March and began the sit-in protest at the Atrium on 21 March. This email said: “Our call for protest will cease if and when the admin gives us written assurance that a comprehensive caste census (including students, faculty and staff) will be conducted within a feasible timeline.”

The Vice-Chancellor also said the SJF should have approached him through the Student Government (SG) since it is “the Student Government’s job […] to raise issues on behalf of the students with the authorities.”

In a comment to The Edict, Sankalp Dasmohapatra (UG’24), President of the Student Government said: “[The Student Government’s] job is also to represent student perspectives. When it comes to matters of caste, we don’t have a representative SG… we cannot afford to let the discussion feature only SG members when none of the SG members can adequately represent the positions the SJF does… as a representative body for students from marginalised communities.”

“[The VC] seems to view the Student Government as the only legitimate body to represent student concerns. We don’t want that to be the case,” Sankalp said. “There are times when we need to bring in stakeholders external [to the SG] to help with that process.”

Aditi Warrier (UG’24), Speaker of the House of Representatives says: “We don’t want to monopolise any form of [student] demand… We believe all student groups can approach the VC in whatever way they deem fit.”

The SJF’s fact check says: “SG has expressed solidarity with SJF’s demands and as a majority savarna body, SG cannot represent the demands of the marginalised caste students.”

Aditi and Sankalp also confirmed that while the SG is administratively identified as one of the only legitimate mediation channels between students and the administration, there is no formalised mechanism for discussions and negotiations between administrative bodies and the SG.

“The only formalised process is that there is a commitment for a number of meetings [between the SG and the VC]. There is an established precedent for how those meetings go and who is involved in those meetings, but, again, all of this is based on precedent. None of this is written down anywhere except for [the commitment towards] two meetings a semester,” Sankalp said.

Aditi believes the SJF’s protest was able to put pressure on the administration that the SG’s approach could not. “We hadn’t been able to meet with [the VC] privately for a while. The protest happened, and he called us on his own. We didn’t even have to request a meeting,” she said.

The SG has been advocating to include SJF members in its meetings with the Vice-Chancellor regarding the caste census and the Equal Opportunity Cell.

The open meeting concluded with the SJF reaffirming its commitment to continuing the sit-in until the University fulfils its list of demands. Members announced the protest would shift outside campus gates on 26 March, Tuesday, if no progress is made towards fulfilment.

As of 30 March, Saturday, the protest is in its fifth day of continuing outside the University’s main gate. It is expected to continue indefinitely till all demands are met.

On 28 March, Thursday, members of various administrative bodies including the Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Bhaskar Mishra and Pooja Manaktala met members of the SJF and protestors along with representatives of the SG and various faculty members. The Edict will release updates from this meeting soon.

This article frequently quotes the Social Justice Forum’s fact-check document, issued on 24 March 2024, through an email the Student Government forwarded to students, faculty and teaching staff.

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