On a sunny day in early 2017, Sundar Pichai, Alphabet Inc.’s chief executive officer, returned to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, in West Bengal, to speak before 3,500 students. Welcomed as the “rock star” leader of the “world’s most innovative company,” he reminisced about skipping classes and meeting his college girlfriend—now his wife. He also pitched Google to the soon-to-be-graduates in attendance. How many wanted to work there, the interviewer asked. Hundreds of hands went up. “Wow, maybe we should open a campus in Kharagpur,” Pichai joked.
As far as feeder schools go, it doesn’t get much better for Google than the network of 23 ultracompetitive, government-funded IITs. Every year hundreds of their graduates join the world’s biggest tech companies. In 2003, when the school system celebrated its 50th anniversary, Bill Gates delivered a keynote speech praising grads who’d come to work at Microsoft Corp. over the years, noting that the company had, in turn, invested more money in the IITs than in any other institution outside the U.S. and the U.K.
For all the IITs’ proficiency at training and placing students, though, the coders, programmers, product developers, and engineers fanning out to global tech bring with them the troubled legacy of India’s caste system. On-campus, students are surrounded by—and in some cases participate in—a culture of discrimination, bullying, and segregation that targets fellow pupils from India’s Scheduled Castes, also known as Dalits. The IITs officially discourage such harassment, but the prejudice against these students remains quite open.
Caste in India speaks, as race does in America, to centuries of social, cultural, and economic divisions. Unlike in the U.S., though, India has since 1950 had a national system of affirmative action designed to undo the legacy of bias. Among its provisions are ones that help Dalits and other oppressed groups get into and pay for college. For nearly half a century, IIT admissions have been subject to a reservation system that’s still hotly debated on the campuses. In recent years, the schools have opposed attempts to extend affirmative action to faculty hires, arguing it would dilute the quality of the applicant pool and undermine their meritocratic image.
The IITs are notoriously cutthroat, starting with the admissions process. Some 2.2 million people have registered to take the 2021 entrance exam, to vie for roughly 16,000 slots. About 15% of those are allotted to students from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and another 7.5% to applicants from the Scheduled Tribes (STs), indigenous people who’ve faced marginalization and whose status has also been formalized by the constitution. To fill those slots, universities sometimes offer seats to students with test scores below the cutoff point— though not as far below as is commonly assumed.
Caste-based resentment at the IITs can run high. In one video posted on YouTube in 2018, a student poring over a pile of books is labeled “GEN,” for general pool, while the two students sleeping nearby are identified as “SC” and “ST.” In another post circulated widely among IIT groups last year, a student suggested Covid-19 should also give preferential treatment to the marginalized groups. “My dear Corona,” it said in Hindi. “In every sphere SC/STs get first preference. So if you can, please look into the same.”
Dalit IIT graduates who’ve managed to land jobs in the U.S. say that such attitudes can be found there, too. Last year a Dalit graduate of IIT Bombay filed suit in the U.S. against Cisco Systems Inc. and two of his fellow alums, saying he’d experienced caste-based discrimination at their hands while the three of them were employed at the company. The accompanying publicity prompted a wave of complaints about caste discrimination in American tech— allegations that seemed to blindside the industry.
Amit Jatav, a Dalit from Karauli, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, remembers catching “the IIT bug” in high school, where he excelled in chemistry, physics, and math. His father, an elementary school teacher, and his mother, a fieldworker, scraped together money from relatives and local lenders to send him for a year of test prep. He took the entrance exam in 2017 and got into IIT Delhi on his first try.
Jatav’s classmates quickly identified him as Dalit. He’d been educated in Hindi-language schools, and his English was poor. His clothes were worn and shabby. He didn’t have a smartphone. In an environment where entrance exam scores are status symbols, Jatav had placed relatively low, marking him as a “quota” student. He heard loud comments saying he was at IIT only because of his “category” instead of “earning it rightfully.” He wasn’t invited to study groups, dinners, or social events.
“I struggled with my studies, but nobody helped,” says Jatav, now 21 and in his final year. “The attitude was: He’s a Dalit, let him struggle.”
The caste system traces as far back as ancient India. It comprises four core strata, with the Dalits lying outside and below. (The word “Dalit,” in classical Sanskrit, means “broken.”) These divisions still permeate life for many Indians, dictating how they work and worship, eat and marry, own land and vote. More than 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billion people are classified as Dalits.
In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi fought to eradicate practices separating Dalits from others, such as preventing them from entering Hindu temples. After independence in 1947, India’s first minister of law and justice, Dalit campaigner B.R. Ambedkar, wrote recompense into the constitution he helped draft. The move banned discrimination based on caste and guaranteed the government’s ability to secure representation and unlock opportunity for people who’d lacked both for centuries. India introduced an affirmative action program in 1950; within a few years it was reserving seats in colleges for oppressed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a practice it extended to the IITs in 1973. (An exception is made for “the creamy layer,” the official term for lower-caste people who’ve managed to achieve high status and economic security, who aren’t eligible for the quota system.)
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