The ‘Deserving’ and the Damned
Can the IIT crisis be fixed?
I. Surviving IIT
Student suicides, as one IIT professor allegedly put it, are now “routine.”
Soon after the IIT Madras campus was rocked by its third suicide this year, a photograph did the rounds on student groups. It showed hostellers playing cricket, indifferent to police personnel in the background who had arrived to investigate a death that had taken place a few hours ago. The incoming batch of freshers cope with dark jokes about what will cause the next campus suicide. Back in 2019, IIT Madras announced the installation of hostel ceiling fans that would (it claimed) prevent anyone from using them to die by suicide.
So far, the institutes have tried to respond to calls for better mental health on campus without acknowledging one crucial factor: just who are these students? When two students – both from Scheduled Caste communities – died by suicide in IIT Bombay and Delhi respectively this year, institutes, despite allegations of casteism, boiled it down to this: “deteriorating academic performance,” and being an “introvert.”
It’s come to a point where ministers have raised the issue in Parliament. Government data shows alarming dropout and suicide statistics. In the wake of suicides, dropouts, and allegations of caste discrimination, the IITs have, at long last, acknowledged the crisis. “IITs should provide all support systems for students and should have zero tolerance for all kinds of discrimination. Students in IITs should be the face of new India with no discrimination and ready to be global citizens,” the Education Minister said, at the 55th IIT Council meeting earlier this year.
At the Council meet, all 23 IITs’ Directors decided to enhance support to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students. For reserved students, they promised English training and preparatory courses to help them catch up with their more privileged peers. They’ve even instituted an “exit option” for those who cannot cope, allowing students to leave after three years with a BSc. degree.
In April, the Director of IIT Madras announced a “happiness website,” which offered steps to improve one’s “gaiety index.” The next day, the fourth suicide took place.
A Right to Information response in May showed that of 19 grievance cells for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students across 23 IITs, 16 are defunct.
If none of these measures seem to work, it’s because they overwhelmingly fixate on the “problem” students.
The trouble at the IITs, however, is rooted in a different problem. Recognizing it starts with looking at the students who are the institutes’ most prized assets.
II. “The Ideal Student Does Not Struggle With Grades”
“It is necessary to debate the fundamental question whether, just because a group of people [Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe students] cannot cope with a certain level of education, they should have the veto power to deny such an education to the rest.”
– V. Indiresan, IIT Madras director from 1979 to 1984, on the 1973 SC Reservations
Nikhil* is a memorable student on the IIT Madras campus. He was born and raised in a small town in Assam, then moved to Hyderabad after his 10th grade to join the most successful coaching institute, FIITJEE, in preparation for the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) – the notoriously competitive entrance exam for IITs. FIITJEE is not, he quickly specifies, one of the “factory” institutes like Narayana and Sri Chaitanya, two of the biggest IIT-aspirant centers in the IIT-frenzied states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They are known for preparing IIT aspirants through rote learning – a pedagogy that faculty and many students blame for the declining “quality” of students who get in.
Nikhil made it in his second attempt. In the mid 2010s, he completed a Dual Degree in Electrical Engineering. “Of course, in a middle-class family… parents want their children to do better than they did,” Nikhil says. “I thought IIT would be a good place to go, because as a kid all I could care about was getting a job and making good money out of it.” Today, he has done just that.
By his admission, Nikhil didn’t particularly excel in academics during his time on campus. But this wasn’t as much of a problem for him once he joined a coveted department.
“I felt very privileged – not everyone gets to get into an IIT, and I got into one of the better ones,” Nikhil says. He speaks fluent English with ease and confidence. In college, he didn’t worry about grades as much, nor was he very interested in his chosen field of study. Instead, he was passionate about design.
And so, as per his seniors’ advice, Nikhil tried his hand at everything the institute had laid out for students like him, including design. He learnt that the opportunities at IIT weren’t confined to academics – it was everything outside the classroom that would truly shape him as a person. In his first year, he was a volunteer to a hostel secretary. In his second year, he participated in cultural and tech fests. In his third year, he was the design head at these fests.
“I was a ‘jugaadu’ guy in college. I could do many things, I organized many fests, I started clubs, I printed T-shirts and sold them to department and hostel people,” he says. He believes jugaad is the quality that sets an IITian apart from others in professional life. “How do you get coffee at 3am in the morning? That’s ‘jugaad.’”
In his fourth year, Nikhil was placed as a product manager. In the management role, he says people perceived him – and IITians in general – as “out-of-this-world creatures.” A few companies later, he graduated to being the design head at a top start-up. By Nikhil’s admission, the IIT brand is what helped him climb the ladder even when his first job had nothing to do with what he studied. “You get a lot of respect that a fresh grad from elsewhere wouldn’t get.”
Nikhil was popular among everyone, especially his seniors. His “interaction” with them helped him get better, more confident, more charismatic, and more prepared for the professional world that lay ahead of him. An “interaction” and “orientation” are euphemisms in IIT lingo for initiation rituals that seniors put freshers through. For some, it involves ragging (unofficially, of course, since ragging is banned in most parts of the country, thanks to anti-ragging legislation). These kinds of interactions could play out as humiliation, physical or verbal abuse.
For Nikhil, though, interactions involved some light embarrassments – with the added benefit of seniors asking him what his hobbies were and directing him to other like-minded seniors who could help him hone his interest in graphic design. It wasn’t without the mandatory embarrassment of other interaction rituals – he doesn’t specify what – but these were, for him, personality-building initiations into a circle of lifelong friends, mentors, and acquaintances who would go on to serve a valuable role in his career. They helped him learn to laugh at himself – “that makes you a much more outward and open person. All your inhibitions are gone. Whether it’s a future employer or customer, you can build a connection with them,” he says. He loved hanging out with seniors; the seniors loved hanging out with him. “Today, if I take any company in the world, I’ll surely know someone or the other who works there. If I need any information, they’re just a ping away on LinkedIn.”
As any engineer would say, jugaad is how you apply the smarts you have. Nikhil applied it to make his way to the top doing what he was most passionate about. For others, the only option was to apply it to not get left behind.
“I went into IIT with a lot of expectations. IIT was a fantasy. As soon as I got in, the disillusionment began,” says Charan*.
Charan, an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur from the Electronics and Electrical Communication branch, is from a small town in Andhra Pradesh. He studied in Narayana, the best IIT-prep school the town had to offer. His IIT coaching began in 9th grade in the same town. He was good at academics. So good, in fact, that his teachers used to discourage him from using reservation so that he could “save face,” and show the world that he didn’t need them – that he could achieve a good rank in the open category. But he availed of it anyway, just to be safe. He got it on his first attempt.
The cracks started to show in his first semester as an IITian. The pedagogy he was used to previously was different from the types he encountered at IIT. The environment was hyper competitive – not cooperative, as he thought it would be. “These people are competitors more than they are our friends,” he says about his realization in the first year.
His “interactions” with seniors were beset with questions about his JEE rank. The answer would give away one’s “category” – in other words, whether they got in through reservation or not.
“There was a [student-made] portal. Enter anybody’s name, and their JEE rank and category is displayed,” he said. It was like a “curiosity game.” If anybody underplayed their reserved status, they were outed – and “people made a mockery out of them.”
His close friends used to lie about their caste. “Many others suffered more because they didn’t own their caste, which worsens the discrimination. When you own it, you’re filed away as a certain ‘type’ and left alone. When there’s any ambiguity, they [seniors and peers] probe further.” That was the environment on campus, in hostels, Charan says. “I used to introduce myself as a Scheduled Caste student, because I had caste consciousness. I was never afraid of being called Dalit.” But even in owning it, he says, the baggage of having to constantly justify one’s presence in an IIT “never leaves us.”
Among the general IIT student body, there’s a tacit acceptance of the notion that being from a marginalized caste is synonymous with poor academics, because of how reservations offer admission on a lower cut-off score for these communities. It was an idea that took root many decades ago. The IITs are directly administered by the central government and are autonomous in their functioning. This meant that, at their inception, they didn’t follow any reservation norms – until they had to by decree. In 1973, the IITs implemented 15% and 7.5% reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively for the first time. Till date, however, many RTIs have found IITs to be flouting reservation norms in PhD and faculty admissions; as recently as 2020, a panel of IIT directors and registrars asked for IITs to be exempt from reservation in faculty hiring. Being “institutes of national importance,” the panel stated, meant that it was necessary to claim this exemption “in order to compete with other top institutions in the world in terms of excellence.”
It’s an eerie echo of a 1983 document, in which IIT Madras’ Director registered his deep disagreement with the 1973 reservations, saying, “Some members of the [Parliamentary Committee on Scheduled Castes] have gone so far as to say that what we need is an Indian standard and not an international standard of instruction… it is necessary to debate the fundamental question whether, just because a group of people cannot cope with a certain level of education, they should have the veto power to deny such an education to the rest.”
Applying jugaad, then, looked different for Charan. The problems he was intuitively solving for weren’t the kind you could put on a resume. While his peers used itto pad their resumes from day one, Charan used it for evasion. He learnt to evade seniors at the mess. He evaded humiliation about his identity by cultivating a group of kammas – he strategically showed appreciation for their favorite movie star, Jr. NTR (“it’s called symbolic interactionism in sociology,” he says).
“Most of the first year is designed in such a way that it helps people with the best ranks. The syllabus is based on CBSE 11th and 12th – the gap begins here,” Charan explains. Like many other students, he didn’t have exposure to the CBSE pedagogy. “We thought it would be a new beginning. Instead it felt like the beginning of the end.”
Each IIT has more than 20 departments of study, or branches. At the end of the first semester, students have the opportunity to switch to a “better” branch if they have a high enough CGPA. But their shot at a 9.0 CGPA is determined by a system of relative grading that punishes low performers, keeping them on the backfoot, and rewards the students who came in with the advantage of access to the right syllabus. Both research and many of the students interviewed for this article cite this grading system as one of the key factors keeping reserved students lagging behind. Failing a first year course, or prerequisites for other courses, leads to a pile-up of courses that prevents many from graduating on time. No student is allowed to take more than a fixed number of credits per semester – not even to catch up with backlogs and finish on time.
One more factor Charan had to optimize for: evading the dreaded extra year on campus, which can be triggered by failing just one course.
“The switch from being good at school to staying back extra hours in the lab while everyone else was enjoying themselves was not easy,” he says. “People with low grades are identified as those with reservations.”
Charan says that he didn’t have the luxury of exploring lucrative research projects in fields he liked, like machine learning – the few professors who guide students only consider those with high CGPAs and the necessary course prerequisites. It isn’t an option for anyone with significant backlogs.
Other IITians reported similar jugaadi hustle just to stay afloat. Namita’s* first year at IIT Madras was occupied with figuring out how to pay the fees. Since 2008, the annual fees for undergraduate students have risen three times, from Rs. 25,000 to more than 2 lakhs presently. Students from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students and those whose families earn less than Rs. 1 lakh annually have concessions and waivers. But Namita, who belonged to an OBC community, could not avail of these. She began her education feeling resentful – towards her parents, towards other reserved students with scholarships, towards professors who taught in inaccessible English, and towards peers who moved through campus life with ease and confidence. She distanced herself from peers who made jokes about reservation – all of whom were unaware that she had availed of it.
The JEE, the mass examination that determines aspirants’ entry into an IIT, didn’t always exist. Until 1961, the selection criteria into the IITs was far more nebulous – academic scores and interview-based admissions frequently favored children of bureaucrats, civil servants, and the upper-caste elite. But the JEE later emerged as a unifying, fair means of entering the institutes – the exam was meant to “reject” not “select” students, as a former IIT Delhi director put it.
Many complain that reserved students aren’t up to par for an IIT. So for reserved students alone – who qualify for admission but don’t get a seat in any of the IITs yet – the institutes offer year-long preparatory courses to help these students catch up with their more privileged peers. But, at the end of the year-long course, irrespective of their JEE rank, it is faculty members who decide whether the students are caught up enough. In 2021, a video of an IIT Kharagpur preparatory course faculty member hurling casteist abuses at reserved students showed there was something deeply wrong with this process too.
Many point to the dearth of representation among faculty as the problem. Last year, Assistant Professor Vipin Veetil resigned from the humanities department at IIT Madras, citing caste discrimination. According to Kiran Kumar, from the All India OBC Students Association, this is the most urgent challenge at IITs today. Ideally, faculty members from reserved categories could provide a support system for reserved students who face harassment or isolation. But the IITs are notoriously obscure about their faculty hiring processes. In order to skirt hiring applicants from reserved categories, they simply declare “No Suitable Candidate Found (NSF),” Kumar says. The spots are then either left vacant or are occupied by upper-caste faculty.
In most cases, these professors are not equipped to understand where students come from. Each student is assigned a faculty advisor, some of whom enroll struggling students into an academic rehabilitation program. This, reports one student, usually comprises another faculty member offering banal advice on how to study better, like taking notes and attending classes.
Alternatives to faculty support exist too. When a student does get a seat in an IIT, they get to seek help through peer-mentorship programs. But according to Charan, this doesn’t matter, because the assigned mentors – usually class toppers – don’t understand the reality of their mentees’ lives. When he approached one such mentor, he was asked why he was struggling with such an “easy” course.
“The purpose of education is to expand the capability of the students… There will be variation across students, but the job of the teacher is to give as much to all students and improve all their capabilities,” says Sukhadeo Thorat, economist and former chairman of the University Grants Commission, decrying teaching attitudes at IITs that favor the top students. “The sympathy has to be for those lagging behind.”
This is how Charan sums up his IIT experience: “We’re sitting at the same table but not offered the same food.”
III. “The Ideal Student Is Entrepreneurial”
“Today, IIT graduates are at the forefront of some of the best start-ups in India. These are start-ups that are also at the forefront of solving so many national problems.”
– Narendra Modi, IIT Bombay Convocation, 2018
Arvind*’s professors at IIT Madras were extremely supportive of his ideas when, in his second year, he and a maverick group of friends began to take up consulting gigs to solve “real-world problems.” Arvind studied in multiple cities growing up and, like Nikhil, went to the FIITJEE coaching class. He describes himself as having come from a “middle-class” family. And like Nikhil, his exposure on campus was facilitated through his first-year “interactions” with seniors, who helped him get perspective on the opportunities available in IIT. He took up problem-solving, and joined a prominent tech club on campus.
Arvind had no trouble balancing academics with this: “we were super engaged in what we were doing, it felt like fun, hanging out with friends and doing cool things rather than a stressful environment per se.”
In Arvind’s second year, when his group presented the successful results of their first few consulting projects, IIT Madras’s Director and the Dean of Students at the time took notice. “The next day, the dean called us to his chambers and told us about a multi-crore government project [that came to IIT Madras], allowing us the opportunity to solve it before passing it on to the profs.” The project involved importing components from Germany, which would cost 6 crores per unit – Arvind and his team, however, solved it for 8 lakhs per unit, a savings of a little over five crores for the central government, with a budget of tens of thousands of crores that year.
He says he couldn’t have done what he did without the support of his professors – “no prof needs to wake up at midnight to be with second-year students trying to do something.” But they “came down to various office meetings, helped us with pricing on the product, what we should do, shouldn’t do. There was also a physics prof who wore a muffler and came to a testing site at midnight,” he says. Arvind is now the co-founder of a startup that he describes as the natural extension of the work he was already doing.
When asked about students who face a hard time once they join an IIT, he says, “The Institute should not mellow down anything that it’s doing – the real world is going to be 10x tougher.” Apart from the professors, Arvind credits senior support as one factor that helps someone push through. “[Seniors] are always available if you need anything. They reassure you. When someone fails, breaks up, it’s not the end of life.”
“Having a great set of mentors, friends, juniors, etc, is all that you need. If you have a good set of people, they can help you with jobs. The first people you reach out to when you need support are these,” he continues. He met the people who would become his co-founders from this pool of people. One was a third-year student who would supply gyaan when Arvind needed it as a fresher; another was a senior by one year, with a propensity to treat freshers to lunches and dinners.
The government project, along with the support he received from his professors therein, was instrumental in Arvind’s success. He and his group of co-founders sought to take the next step in solving deeper tech problems, and started up. He still sat for placements: “coming from a middle-class family, there’s no way my parents would accept me not going for placements.” But Arvind did them one better – he became the IIT entrepreneur the nation’s parents dream of.
Arvind was from the OBC category.
Through the ages, the “ideal” IIT student was the child of civil servants, bureaucrats, and high-ranking members of India’s upper-caste elite. They then went on to hold similar positions themselves, reinforcing the myth that academic brilliance and prowess was the perquisite of the privileged. This, in turn, reinforced the idea that there was a “right” way to be upper caste – well-networked, well-spoken, well-adjusted. It’s why, Ajantha Subramanian, in her seminal text The Caste of Merit, argues, many OBC students who fit this mold are considered honorary upper-caste students,
“Quota doesn’t matter once you come in,” he says.
Akash* is a graduate from IIT Bombay. From a small town in Uttar Pradesh, Akash attended a residential school and then, having been selected by an NGO for JEE prep, attempted the exam. But he didn’t get a high enough rank. He then did it again through Super 30, the training group famous for helping underserved students crack the JEE.
He got in.
At first, his goal was to earn good money – ideally, as a private-sector employee. His father was a daily wage worker; an IIT would help him realize his aspirations, he thought. But today, he’s preparing for the UPSC — the civil services exam. The problems began in the first semester, when he found the English in classrooms inaccessible.
“I understand English, but the pronunciation here was different. It took some time to understand,” he said. In his experience, speaking to the professors in Hindi gave them the implicit impression that he was a “below-average” student. It was not for a lack of trying. He describes his first year as chaotic and difficult. “The competitive environment makes you feel alone.”
Akash is a founder of an organization too. In his second year, he started an NGO to help school children who drop out re-start their education – it was an idea that was an ode to the people who helped him when his family couldn’t afford to pay his tuition fees at IIT. He didn’t receive any institutional support to start his company. Far from helping, Akash recalls his professors being hostile, dissuading him from ever approaching them outside the classroom. He was disillusioned with the culture of collecting positions of responsibility (PoRs), which go on to be equated with achievements that pad resumes. For Akash to start his own organization, he sought help and support from outside IIT Bombay.
Akash was a Scheduled Caste student, but nobody asked him directly what caste he belonged to. Instead, he says, it played out in subtler ways. “On the surface, you may not see anything. But you feel left out from the inside.” He spent longer hours studying, but didn’t find support groups to do it with. Many times, he felt unable to complete projects. He was demoralized by a low CGPA. The focus was on passing, and there was no time to focus on research and extra projects.
When he and another student failed a course, they both requested a professor’s help. The student who made the request in English got it. Akash did not. “Who speaks in Hindi? People who come from villages. Who are the candidates who come from here? Usually reserved students. That’s how it plays out,” he says.
“The IITs were part of a broader state commitment to technologically driven modernization as the engine of national development,” writes Ajantha Subramanian. “Self-rule [after the British] was to reset the terms of economic and political life by ushering in a more robust state commitment to the linked goals of technological and social development.”
But social development – a priority that had the most gains for the marginalized, and the least for the privileged – receded into the background. Capital – in all forms – took its place as the national priority.
The cultural resources – both inherited and acquired – that an individual has are what sociologists call embodied capital. Subramanian argues that JEE ranks and the subsequent accruement of the “right” personalities on campus both constitute embodied capital for an IITian. Upper-caste students who go to IITs reconstitute themselves as casteless, getting in on “pure merit.” They successfully convert their historical privilege into cultural and financial capital. Through the advent of liberalization and its ideology of reaping material rewards through hard work, caste and social capital have merged seamlessly with financial capital.
“The privatization and transnationalization of professional engineering transformed the relationship between state and economy and gave ‘nation-building’ a very different meaning,” Subramaniam writes.
It automatically puts somebody from Akash’s background at a disadvantage. Akash’s organization would have benefited from funding, which is often predicated on his performance, connections, and confidence. Crucially, it’s also predicated on the idea. A program to re-admit students isn’t likely to have returns on investment, which automatically disqualifies it from the venture capital world.
This is a world that does, however, look favorably upon other IITian ideas – those which reap rich rewards for everyone involved. It’s also a world in which IITians themselves are deeply entrenched.
Gayatri*, a former employee of a tier one venture capital firm, who is also an IIT alumnus, says that IIT students have more advantage in terms of getting their foot through the door. “[Venture capitalists] tend to pick folks from IITs because there is a skew, in terms of founders, towards these institutions.” The skew exists because IITians in the VC firms identify and invest in their own cohorts. “I think the biggest value is just in terms of the network… you hear things faster.” The product itself is less important – early stage VCs evaluate ideas in a manner that’s “super gut-driven,” she says.
The IIT infrastructure facilitates easier access to capital, which by default expects returns. This is, some argue, contrary to the purpose of IITs, which were established to develop the country. 2018 data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development shows that IITs comprise 1.18% of the nation’s students; however, they receive 26.96% of the nation’s total education funds. “As publicly funded institutions, they have a dubious record of delivering on their original goal of producing nation-builders and modernizers. They have produced little knowledge or thought leadership on how India works, nor have they generated many grassroots innovations,” says Namit Arora, the author of Lottery of Birth and IIT Kharagpur alumnus.
“Success [in an IIT] is seen almost entirely in individual materialistic terms, detached from ideas of public service and civic responsibility, or developing well-rounded personalities through a measure of liberal education to make better citizens,” Arora adds. “Even cultivating genuine interest and wonder in science or the engineering profession is not a conscious priority at these institutes.”
For public institutes who take the lion’s share of higher education funding and resources, much of the capital and revenue generated by its most successful exports goes private. “Are the IITs able to address the problem of manual scavenging, and are these technocrats able to produce technology that is necessary for everyday human concerns?” asks professor N. Sukumar, who extensively researched caste in higher education. And as professor G. Aloysius, an anti-caste historian of nationalism, scathingly puts it: “These people have not solved a single problem in the country.”
Two ideas, two IITians – but only one is celebrated.
IV. “The Ideal Student Is Well-Networked”
“I am convinced that our alumni network, much like Harvard and Stanford, will soon become one of the many reasons for future students to select IIT Kharagpur as their destination of choice.”
– Vinod Gupta, CEO, InfoUSA
Mohit* is the founder of a unicorn in the real-estate space. He graduated from IIT Bombay in the early 2000s. He was from the general category, but in many ways, Mohit didn’t immediately fit the profile of the typical student whose path to IIT stardom was readily laid out. He was “middle class,” his grasp on English wasn’t as strong as some of his peers, and he came from a small town in Rajasthan. His first instinct was to leave and go home, because he felt like he didn’t belong. “I was not an extrovert, I was very homesick when I first got there… then your friends, your people, your professors, your mess managers, come together and explain how everything works. This is the best bond, it gives you an invincible feeling that everything can be achieved,” he says.
By his own admission, Mohit’s success as an entrepreneur had less to do with the education he received and more to do with the people he met at IIT. “I didn’t know anything about coding, the world was changing fast. In IITs, more than education, it is the circle and environment.”
He participated in plays, volunteered with secretaries, and made an effort to mingle with seniors. He got involved in sports and in the student body elections – a famously formative experience in networking and politics. The IITs don’t allow official political party affiliations. But the experience of student elections can mimic the politics of real life. It’s an exercise in knowing the right people, appealing to a demographic, promising to address their needs, and developing a base of “vote banks.”
Mohit’s experience taught him essential life lessons in terms of networking. He keeps in touch with others like him from his batch – CEOs of companies like Ola, Oyo, senior partners at venture capital firms, etc. “You were in a gathering of the smartest people; it gives you some amazing connections,” he says. But neither he nor anyone he knows ever judges those who don’t “make it” in quite the same way, he adds.
Senior mentorship – post the “interactions” – can cement startup dreams and go on to form a powerful network. “The network plays an extremely big role,” Mohit says. Like Arvind, he also found one of his co-founders in his neighboring hostel wing, someone who was two years senior to him. “These guys become your ideas box… then, with his connections, we got our third cofounder from IIM Ahmedabad.”
Mohit didn’t immediately start up while he was still a student, the way Arvind did. He was placed in a startup as an employee after graduating, but was left unsatisfied. “I realized, in a big machinery I’m a small bolt. But nobody knows the value I add to the machine and, besides, I may not even be that valuable.” His dream of making it big on his own was fuelled by this drive to make a unique impact. “I got married, my wife was expecting. I don’t come from an extremely rich family, we are a general middle-class family… I thought maybe I should take a plunge, I should do something where I can add value both to society, myself and my family.” This was when he tapped into the network – and found the people who would go on to help him build his billion-dollar idea.
“There’s something called choosing a path, there’s something called how smart you are, there’s something called destiny,” he says.
Loneliness at an IIT can be all-consuming, but there’s a slow build to it. “A lot of people say, ‘oh, seniors are very helpful.’ But… seniors can only help when you are in a position to approach the seniors. But that hierarchy is very strong between a senior and a junior, and that often becomes very toxic, which is why I didn’t have very good relations with my seniors, especially in my own department,” says Prem*.
Prem graduated from IIT Bombay in 2020, from the Engineering Physics department. He studied at a coaching center he was able to attend for free; the center had a program for children of members of the police administration. He got into IIT because it seemed logical – he was good at math and physics. But something about IIT’s atmosphere felt alienating. “I felt like I didn’t fit in because I found the whole system to be very regressive,” he says.
He wasn’t from a reserved category, but he was the “wrong” kind of general category. He didn’t have a plan; he didn’t work backwards to hit all the milestones, he didn’t zealously participate in the cultural fests or the entrepreneurship programs to check these boxes. He just wanted to learn physics, which he was passionate about. By the end of his course, he lost all interest in pursuing the subject too.
“These spaces remain inaccessible to people who don’t perform well,” he said.
Unless, of course, you belong to a closed circle of peers and seniors, all of whom were able to pass the initiation rituals. To Prem, the campus bred a culture of obedience. “You have to respect your seniors. You are expected to do that irrespective of whether the seniors respect you.”
Eventually, he was tired of the seniors. “It’s like, I don’t want to interact with you. So, why are you trying to harass me, why are you trying to talk to me or make me do things?” What he went through, too, was not officially called ragging. It’s an “intro” session. Among the things he saw were first years being gathered up, forced to drink alcohol even if they didn’t want to, even stripped. They’re asked personal questions. They’re also hit, in a ritual called “GPL” – gaand pe laath (a practise wherein students lift another student and kick them from behind). “I’ve seen people collapse during that,” says Prem. When seniors do it, peers imitate. And the hierarchy continues. “You have to do it, or you’ll be shunned. Seniors won’t help you in any way.”
Prem struggled with his mental health – and his very identity. “There were a few seniors who didn’t like the way I was… a lot of seniors tease students who are different, who are queer.” There was nobody who dared challenge the hierarchy and stop it from happening. Prem distanced himself. “Towards my final year, I literally had no friends.”
Only a very small group of people have good relationships with their seniors, Prem says. These are the students who end up with PhDs abroad and other plum opportunities. “It’s very rare to see students do it all by themselves.” Outside the system, post his fresher year, Prem was excluded from everything. He says you don’t see the good side of anybody from his vantage point – outside the closed networks. “You slowly just go into the background. Nobody knows you exist, unless there’s a batch picture being taken.”
Seniors play a huge role in students’ trajectories on campus. They groom freshers to positions of responsibility and go on to take them under their wing. But very few are chosen.
Many other IITians, both former and present students, described similar experiences. One said their vocabulary alienated them – though they rose up the ranks in a leadership role, they were ultimately dropped due to their “lack of cultural capital.” Not being fluent in speaking English, not hanging out in the right spots, not knowing the right (Westernized) pop-culture references, all played a part in students from Bahujan backgrounds opting out of extracurriculars altogether.
Just like some OBC students are considered “honorary” upper-caste students, as Subramaniam wrote, some students from unreserved communities are shunned for their lack of confidence, finesse and English proficiency – they’re the “wrong” kind of upper caste.
Caste isn’t just a category. It’s also a set of prescriptive characteristics. Exclusion, then, isn’t based on the identity of a student but on what the identity is meant to connote. It’s why there’s a right way to be upper caste – and it’s these students who are included. Life in an IIT, then, is determined by a narrow criteria for inclusion, rather than a broad criteria for exclusion.
But when exclusion is so finely layered, it’s harder to see than discrimination. Raghav*, who graduated from IIT Madras in the early 2000s, considers the institutions fair. “It’s a pet peeve of mine, but there’s a lot of talk about how there’s racism or casteism on campus… I can’t speak for everybody, but I think the majority of the group, we just got along,” he says. “We all had our meals together, played together, studied together, it was a democratizing experience for me.” Mohit agrees: speaking for all the IITs, he says, “there is absolutely no caste-based discrimination in any of the IITs.”
But discrimination is certainly not an anomaly. When Darshan Solanki, a Dalit student at IIT Bombay, died by suicide, much of the conversation centered caste discimination – not for the first time in IITs. It manifests overtly: “It was quite interesting how these young students would say that there would be very subtle, or overt jokes that would be thrown at you. And if you have hidden your identity, then you are privy to the very nasty conversations that go on about others,” says Swati Kamble, an anti-caste researcher and activist who conducted a group discussion among IIT Bombay students.
Thorat says it’s possible to tackle both exclusion and discrimination from the root. Having conversations about it – through mandatory courses about inequality, caste, religion, and gender – is key. “Once you talk [about caste], you realize what’s wrong,” he says, adding that he advised IIT Bombay and Delhi to launch measures to sensitize upper-caste students, rather than focusing on marginalized students as being “weaker.” “There should be courses, roundtables, discussions, and conferences so that students get exposed.”
But sans programs to educate students, the networks only get tighter as more new students join. The fear is that the less exclusive IIT is, the more diluted the “brand” gets. For instance, when IIT Madras began discussing the launch of an online BSc in data science – which doesn’t require JEE scores – many students protested. They felt insecure about the brand they’ve attached themselves to. “This is an attempt to dilute the very idea of IIT Madras. If IIT Madras becomes so easy to get into, then it will lose its sheer competitiveness, which goes against the very idea of IIT… How will you differentiate yourself?” one student wrote to the general student body in an email. “What would you call an online BSc student, are they also an IITian?” asked another.
Even among existing students, the fame and renown attached to the IIT brand often goes to only a few undergraduate students. A PhD student from the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle at IIT Bombay, says that PhD students come from less prestigious, state-college undergraduate backgrounds – but as doctoral students at IITs, they produce the lion’s share of IITs’ research output. Still, much of the credit and acclaim goes to IIT undergraduate students for the social and cultural capital they acquire from entering the international MNC pipeline. Indeed, as Subramanian noted, with the evolution of caste norms around merit, transnational mobility became a way for the upper castes, against the increasing “infiltration” of the lower castes in the IITs, to distinguish themselves from the non-meritorious. As a result, PhD students, who exist outside the pipeline of transnational mobility, don’t fit into the brand. And so many don’t consider them to be IITians at all.
What the IITs are really doing to help students catch up socially and culturally doesn’t do much to help. For those who don’t have the networking chops to get into the circles that give people a career boost, some institutes offer mandatory life-skills courses that are meant to help people learn emotional health, personal hygiene, and communication. Lessons vary from learning CPR to greeting everyone with a wide smile and repeating the phrase “I love myself.”
V. “The Ideal Student Gets the Best Job”
“Now you are Engineers… and this world today…takes shape more and more under the hands of Engineers.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru, at IIT Kharagpur’s first convocation, 1956.
Nirmal* chose his department because it felt to him like the next best option after the top three branches at IIT Madras. The way this department in particular was sold to them, he says, was that it was a bit of everything from the top branches. “The placement statistics also seemed pretty good. Back then, it was marketed as the third or fourth best placement records.” He was eyeing a “non-core” job, which had nothing to do with what he studied. He wanted, he said, the fabulous life of consultants.
But it was a long road to get there. The prep for placements spanned over several months before the actual day of interviews.
It begins with resume shortlisting. For many, this is a multi-step process: drafting one, running it by batchmates, finding seniors – who are already familiar with the process and understand what companies want – to give their feedback. “You can also talk to people who are in the firm, because they know better about what the company is expecting,” he says.
The most daunting part of the process is the interview, but there are ways to hack it. Enter: case prep. All consulting roles require applicants to solve business problem statements during the interview stage. Consulting aspirants work backwards from here: they get a hold of the problem statements that companies have asked over the years and practice them in mock interviews with peers in groups of two or three. This goes on for two to three months.
At the same time, shortlisted students get allocated “buddies” from companies they’ve been shortlisted for, who help them understand what it’s like to work at the company.
Then there are the events, also organized by the firms themselves. Many invite shortlisted candidates to a dinner at a luxury hotel, with corporate presentations and senior executives – like partners and managing directors – in attendance. “They’ll share their experience with you, you can connect with them on a one to one basis… at a roundtable, you can chat with them over dinner.”
All this seems like a lot of work students do on their own, sans support. Nirmal acknowledges that. The bulk of it requires having the right peers, a support structure, the networking skills, the grades, the resume.
The institutes themselves barely play a role in securing these placements for the students. Nirmal spends some time thinking about what the institute does to help students who don’t have the above plus points. The career development cell organizes resume-making sessions, and guides students on the requirements for different profiles. A case club compiles interview problem statements into a book that anyone can use. “There’s no other aid the institute provides, this is mostly it.”
Knowing people in the firms while competing with others who don’t is something Nirmal acknowledges is a conflict of interest. “It’s not explicitly not allowed,” he says. Usually, the people students approach redirect them to someone else themselves, he claims, because of the conflict of interest: they’re the ones who will be looking at the resumes to shortlist them. But “knowing them is inevitable,” he says. “You’re in their teams [in college activities], and then one year later they graduate.” But companies do their best to avoid such conflicts of interest and make sure the hiring decisions are completely independent, he adds.
Nirmal had held a leadership role at the tech fest – a position he acquired after years of holding smaller leadership and coordinator positions in the lower rungs of the ladder, before climbing up. If there are patterns to which leadership posts are linked to the highest placement records, it’s because of the trickle-down knowledge capital. Leaders get placed and pass on what they know to their subordinates in the team.
Nirmal’s IIT Madras placement story had what he called a “satisfying ending.” “I knew most of the competition had already gone away because they already got pre-placement offers. I felt my resume would make it through, I had enough credentials,” he said.
It was a time of global recession and tech layoffs, and companies hired fewer people. Nirmal was one of them – he made it through all the consulting shortlists and was given an offer by the first company he interviewed for: one of the biggest consulting companies in the world.
Nakul* graduated in 2001 with a job in Motorola. It paid around four lakhs per annum – which was enough at the time to support his family who lived in a slum. He maintains he has tremendous respect for the IITs. He didn’t begrudge them the fact that he got an ordinary job at the end of it, an outcome which was far from as good as it got. Still, it provided what he needed.
But he went on to pursue the civil services, attempting the UPSC examination. He is now an IRS officer.
The problem, he says, isn’t the inaccessibility of the top jobs. It’s the narrative that reserved students are inherently unsuccessful. This isn’t true – they may not, he says, get the best-paying private sector jobs that IITs are known for, so many opt for something else entirely and prove their mettle. According to him, many students from SC/ST/OBC backgrounds join the civil services in order to give back to their communities – and to reclaim prestige and self-respect. It’s what he did.
Charan, who went to IIT a few generations later in pursuit of the best opportunities, got placed in the second phase of the placements drive, in a job that didn’t pay well. He was in the IIT for an equal shot at the famously life-changing opportunities he aspired to – realizing, too late, that he didn’t begin on a level playing field. The IIT dream is sold as a ticket to a world of opportunities. But in their bid to polish and finetune their “best,” the IITs end up ignoring everyone else.
Too busy trying to keep up with an education that didn’t consider him, Charan had a below average CGPA – he felt that he couldn’t go up the ladder no matter how hard he tried, and his efforts began to decline. He had a small community of friends, but not the circle with the toppers and leaders who could open doors by association. He encountered the familiar initiation rituals. He didn’t conform or obey, as was expected – risking being labelled as an “opt out.” “The more you pacify seniors, the better your chances [succeeding in placements].”
Charan participated in a few activities, but not as “effectively” as others – he did not convert them into resume points.” For instance, Charan was passionate about films, and he knew more about cinema than the people in the film club. He didn’t have the self confidence to consider joining them formally, or apply to be its head. He liked dramatics, but the drama club – comprised of members who were used to Shakespeare in school – looked down on Telugu plays. He took on hostel responsibilities, but acquiring a formal leadership role was laden with more “orientation” programmes, a comfortable academic background, becoming friends with the hostel bigwigs, becoming “yesmen” to seniors. “I felt it was a toxic environment, and I didn’t aspire to more.” Without seniors, there are no mentors for leadership roles, and nothing, consequently, to add to a resume.
In the end, lacking any of the critical support his peers received, Charan grew disillusioned with the placement process itself and gave up his mediocre job offer. He opted to study for the civil services exam instead.
Tellingly, among those who stay in the race, the resentment for “quotas” runs deep – even towards those who aren’t reserved. Sana*, for instance, a final year, general category student at IIT Roorkee is well-positioned for a good placement offer. She is one of the few exceptions to the pattern of women not being welcomed into tech, design, and other clubs. She finds the environment exclusionary and hostile to women – but her fluency and pronunciation in English shields her from reproach.
She has, however, heard the way her male peers talk about women who get placed in coveted companies. They insinuate that companies only hire women to fulfil a diversity quota and make suggestive remarks about a quid pro quo arrangement.
They call these women “QC” – “quota ch**ths”(a misogynistic slur in Hindi).
IITs collect placement data on the basis of branches, core/non-core jobs, salary, and gender ratio – but not caste. “There is absolutely no question of reservations in placements,” says a staff member at the placements office in IIT Madras. “That is a very good thing.”
They maintain that what matters is aptitude, coding skills, mathematics, case competition, and soft skills. That it takes a specific type of student to acquire them isn’t a point of consideration.
Around 2,000 students enter the placements process each year from each IIT. Most BTech and Dual Degree students, according to the placements team, opt for non-core placements. Around 60% to 80% of registered students receive job offers. Of these, only around 50 or so students from each IIT get the one crore packages that make the news. Out of 10 days allocated to companies during placements season, the first three are allotted to the best companies, who get to snap up the “best” students.
Many think the most meritorious method is to only ask candidates for details about their scores, resumes, JEE ranks, and sometimes their 10th and 12th board marks. The ultimate decision, however, is left to companies – whose hiring criteria continue to be shifting and opaque. Not wanting to disincentivize the best companies from arriving on campuses to recruit, IIT administrators don’t question their placement decisions. “Companies treat all students fairly, depending on their knowledge,” says one student placement coordinator.
This, despite the fact that “After 2008 [following the expansion of education reservations to OBC communities], private sector employers have become vigilant about only hiring general category students,” as Subramanian wrote. Questions about an applicant’s JEE rank are a dead giveaway.
As Swati Kamble points out: lacking social capital is equated with caste; possessing social capital is equated with merit.
VI. Sunk Costs
“The upper castes owe lower castes a social debt for reserving education for themselves.”
– Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman of the University Grants Commission
Exclusivity as a goal, according to Namit Arora, is not problematic by itself: “In a modernizing country, it is important to build institutions that stand for excellence and high standards, which then has the effect of making them ‘exclusive.’ This is laudable as long as they are built equitably and serve the public good.”
Not everyone agrees. “Why are these institutions not looked at as commons? Why are they exclusive, despite public money poured into it?” asks Swati Kamble. In this year’s union budget, IITs comprised 29% of the total Education Ministry’s budget, leading critics to note that the disproportionate investment impacts the quality of other public education institutes in the country, precluding their chance to thrive and train students better. “We should improve the quality of all educational institutes. It’s wrong that a few institutes get a lot of funding. [The government] neglects state and public universities where the bulk of the students go… You have to improve the quality of all public educational institutions,” says Sukhadeo Thorat. “[The government] gives all the funding to IITs and IIMs, and says state universities are lagging behind.”
The results are almost nefarious: IITs remain the only public, generously funded institutes (succeeded by NITs, which also go by JEE scores) to offer the “best” higher education and, therefore, chances at socio-economic mobility. For those who don’t get in, private universities – which aren’t bound by reservation norms and are prohibitively expensive – are the next best alternative. As Ambedkarite sociologist Ravikant Kisana points out, ” With the… dozens of private universities that have popped up (mysteriously after the implementation of OBC reservations in admission), a veritable pipeline of manufacturing eliteness has been set up.”
For a shot at getting the best out of India’s education infrastructure, then, every student goes through an exam that, in the IIT Delhi Director’s words, is meant to reject, not select. But in an unequal society, some argue that it’s a filtration process to only admit the students who conform to the established order – of valuing theory over practice, and aspiring to white collar jobs over service. “Besides this idea of a one time exam, that makes or breaks your future, there is no holistic methodology to assess students and the circumstances from,” Kamble adds. Further, as public institutes, the IITs are bound by reservation norms to admit students equitably, but are not obliged to extend the same kind of affirmative action once students are enrolled. “They’re notionally thrown open to all citizens,” says Aloysius. “These are all institutions of higher earning, not learning.”
The exclusivity is intertwined with the lofty goals that IITs were set up to fulfil. Seven decades ago, when India grappled with what independence would truly mean, nationalists ventured that we would need our own engineers to [re]build the free, democratic nation. They wouldn’t just be any engineers – they would be the best.
IITs are deemed institutes of national importance, as per the IIT Act of 1961. When India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke at IIT Kharagpur’s first convocation, he had a vision in mind: “Here… stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolically of the changes coming to India.” Keeping their importance for the country in mind, the first campuses were set up to represent India in the south, west, east, and north at the time: Madras, Bombay, Kanpur, and Delhi.
An ideal IIT student, then, was someone who could be at par with the best of British engineers at the time; the vehicles to ensure India was capable of technical advancement without the British. They were, at least in theory, bootstrapping, enterprising and ambitious individuals who wanted to serve the country and aid its development. The hope was that they would propel India from being an unlikely, underdog democracy containing a thousand different cultures into a global superpower – with ‘development’ being the path to get there.
So why do IITians hardly ever go on to professionally become engineers, as they were meant to?
“An aversion to hands-on labor and a preference for white-collar work within each discipline,” says Namit Arora. “Theoretical knowledge is valued far higher than hands-on skill. This largely comes from caste-based notions of knowledge and its scant dignity of labor.”
Ajantha Subramanian notes that in the half-century or so before independence, engineering had emerged as the point of contention between the colonial administration and the nationalists. The colonial state relied on British engineers to build out technological infrastructure. This was antithetical to the nationalists’ vision for self-rule, and they made a case for training Indians to become as competent in the profession. The vision brought up the urgent need for quality technical education. The British conceded ground – but not without a crucial compromise with the nationalists. They were willing to support the effort and offer training. But Indians weren’t willing to forgo hierarchical forms of labor. If they were to become engineers, they would have to be exclusively so – not sharing space with lower-caste (Shudra) communities who were already skilled in workmanship and technical craft.
Ultimately, it meant that engineering knowledge was decoupled from engineering labor in order to preserve upper-caste status at the top of the caste hierarchy. By this point, and by the time the IITs were inaugurated as citadels of learning, engineering was equal to status. “By the mid-twentieth century, artisanship and engineering were poles apart, with engineering perceived as a coveted, high-status profession best suited to the high-born. The value of engineering as a profession was thus intimately linked to its disassociation from the “tainted” technical labor of the lower castes,” Subramanian writes.
As a discipline, engineering is a hands-on skill. But the IITs’ insistence on prizing the theoretical over the practical – rooted in caste-based notions of the value of work – led to engineers who weren’t as equipped to fulfil their destinies as nation-builders as they were meant to be.
In Subramanian’s study of IIT Madras in particular, she found that the Madras Presidency was the most extreme case where colonial administration was intertwined with caste-based anxieties, such that “categories of Brahmin and non-Brahmin became foundational units of administrative sociology.”
It’s arguably no coincidence then that, in many ways, IIT Madras is the epicenter of the national conversation about what is happening in the IITs. Four suicides took place in a single semester this year – an unprecedented rate even for institutes infamous for the problem. For five consecutive years, however, it has retained the top spot in the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF).
The IIT crisis today, then, isn’t a problem of marginalized students being unable to cope. It’s a crisis best explained by the fact that these were high-status institutes created for a high-status ideal student. By extension, they did not imagine anyone else to be a part of their legacy.
In 1968, a study by sociologists C. Rajagopala Jaspal Singh offered a bleak conclusion, arguably sealing the IITs’ fate: “It has already been pointed out that the IITs are engaged in producing what may be termed a class of potential elite, and our findings have established that this potential elite is itself being recruited from the higher strata of society almost to the neglect of the lower strata. Accordingly, IITs as educational institutions seem to make only a limited contribution to social mobility.”
This hasn’t changed yet. As Aloysius puts it, “Most people [in India] are living in a kind of substandard and survival diet. The surplus [of resources] goes into empowering the life of a very small section of the people in the name of these institutions.”
In early June at IIT Madras, there was word of a wellness camp taking place in one of the hostels. The hostel is an old building, tucked deep inside the heart of the lush forest in which the IIT Madras campus is located. The summer heat makes the trees wilt in stillness, creating a fetid atmosphere one would have to wade through. Inside the building, the quad only hosts a troop of monkeys, screaming into the blistering heat. A tiny room on the ground floor hosts a lone psychologist in a white coat, who is temporarily there to assess the mental wellbeing on campus.
“We’re conducting a survey for a week – we’re from Kilpauk Mental Hospital,” she says. The team was speaking to students as well as staff and faculty to take stock of the perceived problem – deteriorating mental health. It’s unclear whether they’re here to take a survey, or provide counseling, or both – but for a limited time. “In my opinion, it’s not because of IIT, it’s because of their own pressure. They wanted to achieve something – there’s a lot of competition,” the psychologist says. “Parents are spending money on them, they have to satisfy them. That’s why suicides are happening.”
But it’s hard to say whether any number of mental health interventions can save students from an institution for which only one kind of student is visible and worth investing in.
Across India, lakhs of students dream of getting into an IIT to make it in life, the same way many notable alumni before them had. Freshers recite the names and achievements of famous alumni, almost like prayers; their LinkedIn profiles becoming the altars of worship and study. They’re even called institute “gods.” The superstardom of the alumni greats make IITs attractive to the whole country, fueling competition unlike any in the world. Just take it from the placards distributed across the IIT Madras campus: “You beat lakhs of other students to get in here. Feel proud to belong to IITM!”
IITs and IITians are both sentimental and grandiose about their value as institutions, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as people. But here is the secret of the IITs: their best aren’t engineers. Their students are engines — for a vision of India that’s premised on hierarchy, self-interest, and a sustained interest in reserving the best opportunities for the elite few. Only a certain kind of “ideal” student can have the good life that was promised – and it comes at the expense of all those who were told, falsely, that it could be them.
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
Note: the author of the piece is an alumna of IIT Madras.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.