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Castaway in Hyderabad

The recent rustication of 10 Dalit students of the Central University, Hyderabad, is perhaps a case of `contemporary casteism'. A report by the ANVESHI LAW COMMITTEE.

Dalit students ... Waiting for justice

THE rustication of 10 Dalit students of the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) on charges of violence is an incident surrounded by controversy. It raises questions that have serious implications for higher education in India, as well as for Dalits as they assert their right to education.

If we were to overlook the high attrition rate of Dalit students, the HCU would appear to be the university of the future. In 2001, the University Grant Commission's (UGC) NAAC awarded it five-stars and it was named one of five new centres of excellence in the country. Moves have been initiated to "improve" its academic and infra-structural functioning. One of these reforms, the constitution of a central purchasing committee (CPC), primarily to check alleged corruption in the student-managed hostel messes, precipitated the incident.

On January 10 this year, a group of senior students went to the chief warden's office with a list of grievances regarding increasing mess charges and the demotion of a Dalit warden to the care of "sanitation and gardening". The discussion soon became unpleasant: the chief warden and another warden said that they were not answerable to the students and instructed the security staff to ask them to leave. A melee ensued.

The next day, in response to demands from the teaching, non-teaching staff and students' associations, the vice-chancellor summoned some of the local executive committee members. The wardens presented their report. Within hours, the 10 students were rusticated "forever". The police had already taken away six of them to the Chandanagar police station, where they were detained. When the first fact-finding teams arrived on the evening of January 12, they found around 30 students huddled in a park taking stock of the situation, glancing warily at a police jeep nearby. "This is sheer injustice," the students said. "There was a minor scuffle which started because the warden abused the students and held one of them by the collar. How can the administration expel the students without an inquiry? Some of the boys rusticated were not present at the warden's office. This is a `casteist' decision — the boys expelled were Dalits, they were leaders of the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's Students Association (ASA)."

The faculty felt that though no one had been injured, the assault on a faculty member constituted a serious offence. There had been a history of rough behaviour by the ASA. It was time the university took a firm stand. "What makes the Dalit students so angry." "Perhaps the memory of historical oppression." How is it that all the students who were rusticated were Dalits? "It's just an unfortunate coincidence," said the vice-chancellor. "I am not casteist. Please don't give this a casteist slant. The assaulted warden also belongs to the SC community."

Who are these students? What is the social capital that they represent?

Talking to six of them was a revelation. All of them are children of agricultural labourers and first generation university students. Five have passed the University Grant Commission's NET, with four of them being UGC/CSIR fellows. While two have jointly authored papers in international journals, one had stood first in the graduating batch in his college. Most of them have done menial work throughout their student life to help see them through university.

Despite hardship, they were proud of their accomplishments. One remembered how his father had got an electricity connection for his hut to celebrate the boy's entry into college. Another recalled how during the holidays, four of them — friends in the village — one SC, one BC and two Muslims — would cycle to his hut and share a meal.

However, all this was overshadowed by problems in the university; each is embittered by the way he has perpetually been "on probation". They were resented just for being there, watched while they ate, suspected for their corruption, hounded for their misuse of State facility. Their angry response has been seen as violence. Ignored in the classroom, mocked by teachers as well as students, it was as if the notion of adolescence that mitigated the boisterousness of their more fortunate counterparts, did not apply to them.

At the beginning of their downward academic spiral, they were granted the relaxation in the marks required for admission. Next, curricula tailor-made for the urban upper-castes left them stranded. The main hurdle was English. Try as they might, they were never able to improve. What was this metropolitan norm which made these competent students "unteachable"? This question is important since several upper-caste mofussil students do manage to bridge the language gap.

Part of the answer is a new form of ostracism. The Dalit students' experience of university life is one of being admitted only on sufferance. Omnipresent resentment at their presence in the classroom, mess halls, in the evaluation process, assignment of research topics, and not least, administrative fiats. One of them said nobody had spoken to him for a year. Another said that all his assignments had been rejected.

Even more painful has been the kinds of epithets hurled at them by some student groups. Notices calling them "pigs and uncivilised, violent brutes", adorn the walls.

Is this not the secret life of caste prejudice in our times? The greatest perpetrator of contemporary casteism, it would seem, was — not so much their village pump, high school or mofussil college — it was the metropolitan university! This violence has left its mark on Dalit students. Yet to the unreflecting eye they can appear as isolationist, self-serving and even criminal.

There are other issues at stake. New Dalit students who have to "adjust" to campus life find a cold upper caste faculty and students. These students have no assistance when it comes to using the library, understanding administrative procedures, learning hostel culture or tackling the myriad problems that confront a newcomer in an institution and in a city.

This is where the ASA plays a crucial role. Many of the younger Dalit students will vouch for the fact that had it not been for the support they received from the rusticated students they would have discontinued their studies. The ASA claims that it first tries to solve problems through negotiations. But an unsympathetic and biased response sometimes pushes the ASA to adopt an uncompromising stance, especially on issues that have a vital bearing on Dalit dignity. Sadly, they point out (for it is they who have paid the real, considerable personal and academic costs for this), only aggression seems to ensure results. This has proven ground enough for the university's interpretation of ASA assertion as a manifestation of rowdyism, violence and criminality. The January 10 event involved another such focus of "ignoble" political activity: food, mess costs, dignity and corruption.

If we look at our universities through the lens of this incident, the picture that emerges is disturbing. Dalit students arrive with a degree of self-respect and considerable competence.

Years of social labour and community investment have gone into making each of them. The history behind this incident of rustication shows that these students' capabilities are being systematically annihilated by contemporary casteism. The challenge for our universities is to put together the resources to recognise that Dalit students represent new social forces that are a valuable national asset.

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