Caste on the campus

However much we try to brush it under the carpet, every now and then a Rohith Vemula forces our attention on the sensitive issue of caste in the country. The Sunday Magazine team discovers the new contours of discrimination

February 06, 2016 04:54 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Not every Dalit student leaves a well-written and poignant note in English that will be considered worthy of sympathy and outrage by social media, but our colleges and universities leave behind many a Dalit student who wants to get ahead.  Students from Dalit and Adivasi groups have for long spoken of the exclusion they experience in the most elite institutes of the country. Many of them come to higher education institutions at great personal cost to themselves and their families, not just in terms of the finances involved but also social opposition. Far from acknowledging their struggle and facilitating their progress, the education system resists this democratisation by asserting its supremacy, clout and control over them at every turn.  Asking about the JEE rank in class introductions (ranks can give away ‘general’ and ‘reserved category’ status of students), the separate roll calls for reserved category students, the caste privileges that masquerade as ‘merit’, the privileges that are reiterated during so-called reservation debates, the attitudes of teachers, non-teaching staff and upper-caste peers towards reserved category students, the withholding or delaying of the grant of degrees and scholarships and, in fact, the very ways in which instruction is designed to cater only to English-speaking, computer-literate urban students and the ways in which knowledge itself is constructed — these are just some of the myriad ways in which educational institutes tell Dalit and Adivasi students that they do not belong in these spaces.   These ordeals do not present themselves in the form of documentary evidence of caste discrimination. But the large number of suicides by Dalit-Adivasi students and the pattern of their campus experiences give a sense of how caste is present in insidious but very real ways inside educational spaces. According to a documentary titled  The Death of Merit  by the Insight Foundation, 18 Dalit students committed suicide in the four years from 2007 to 2011. How do we wish these deaths away?  Yet, the collective denial of caste bias on campuses continues. It takes away accountability from educational institutions and from society as a whole. And the suicides continue. Five Dalit academics talk to  Sunday Magazine  and tell us about their lived experience of campus life.


“Being Dalit has politicised me”

(S. Santhosh a Dalit youth doing his PhD in Mathematics at Layola college, Chennai. Photo : Shaju John)

“They don’t know my name. They don’t know what I’m studying. But everyone on campus knows my caste. Even the tea-seller. That I am a Dalit Christian,” says Santhoshkumar Selvaraj, a PhD scholar of Mathematics at Loyola College in Chennai.

Santhosh describes his encounters with casteism on campus as “nano discrimination” — a veiled taunt here, a covert exclusion there — shadow lines that erode identity and self respect.

“But this has politicised me,” says Santhosh, who is a core committee member of the Dalit Student’s Federation, which has just united with the Joint Action Committee for the Annihilation of Caste that was set up after Rohith Vemula’s death.

“It wasn’t so bad growing up in my village [in Viluppuram district]”, he says. His parents are both daily wage agricultural labourers in Sathiyakkandanur village. “My father studied till class three, but he dreamt of a full education for me”. Santhosh remembers how he used to always sit on the back bench in school (“maybe I was shy”), but he went on to become the first graduate and the first PhD scholar in his village.

But Chennai has been different. In 2013, he says, a faculty member asked a classroom to sit according to caste.

“We wrote a letter to the top management demanding action against this and other discriminatory statements the lecturer had made earlier.” No action was taken but an apology was made. “We said we don’t want an apology. An apology is not justice,” he says.

The principal of Loyola College, Rev. Dr. G. Joseph Antony Samy, denies that the incident had anything to do with caste. “Such things do not happen in Loyola". According to him, the lecturer in question had asked the class to segregate into groups according to their academic specialisation. “It was an advanced statistics class, so the lecturer asked the physics, mathematics and commerce students to sit in separate groups," he says.    

Santhosh describes how fellow students told Dalit students that academic standards had dropped in Loyola because of "you people" and because Dalits get "concessions”. One faculty member summoned Santhosh personally to tell him that the academic record of Dalit students was “poor” — when in fact, actual records showed class toppers and also a high pass percentage from the community, says Santhosh.

“And then there is the word I hear all the time, and not just in college.” The word is a Tamil casteist slur. “They say, ‘you speak like one,’ ‘you dress like one’, ‘you eat like one’.” 

Santhosh's response is always the same: “I tell them it is because of you that I dress the way I do; that I don’t have land; that I don’t have money; that my parents and grandparents did not have education. It is because of you.”

“But wherever I go I also say that I am proud that I come from the Dalit community.” His email id begins with ‘thegreatdalit’.

“The word Dalit has educated me,” says Santhosh.


“I asked for water and was asked my caste”

(IIT Gandhinagar student Prashant Ingole in his room. Photo: Vijay Soneji)

Prashant Ramprasad Ingole, 28, is a PhD student in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar, who spends much time reading, mostly Dalit literature and Dr. Ambedkar’s writings. When he is not reading, he appears withdrawn and lost in his thoughts.   He is pursuing a doctorate in Dalit literature and visual culture.   

He is diffident to talk in English because “it’s not the language [he] studied in, either in school or later.”   It takes nearly 45 minutes before Prashant  open up and start to talk candidly. He grew up in a tiny village called Sakhardoh in the Washim district of Maharashtra. His father left his mother and two sons for another woman.  “Due to fights at home, I had a very difficult childhood. My father never took care of us. My mother died of cancer in 2014. Now there are only two of us in the family — my younger brother and I,” he says.  

  “I have a language difficulty,” he says. “Many times I am not able to communicate or explain as effectively as others from an English medium background. Mocking my poor English, they often say that it’s only because of reservation that I am here in this institute.” Before enrolling for his doctorate in IIT, Prashant did an M Phil from Central University, Gandhinagar. When he was in Class 10, he recalls attending a wedding in his village, where a lady asked him about his caste before offering him water. “I asked for water and I was asked my caste. I was taken aback and left the function,” he says, describing the first instance of caste discrimination he ever faced.  

Later, he faced something similar when he had a job selling kitchen equipment. “It was in Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh; I was selling cooking gas pipes. When I entered the kitchen of a house to replace the old pipe with a new one, the lady of the house asked my caste and then asked how dared I enter her kitchen.”

After a brief argument, he left the house. “I left because I was scared; I was by myself in an unknown area, in a new state…”  

He has not since experienced such open discrimination but even in elite institutions like Central University or IIT, he is subtly made aware of his caste and identity at every step.  


“Your English is good, how did you learn it?”

(Professor Vivek Kumar at the JNU in New Delhi. Photo : R. V. Moorthy)

Uneducated Dalits, who live on the margins of society, are often at the worst end of caste injustice, as they have little avenues where they can speak out. But does economic stability, proven academic merit or intellectual stature shield a Dalit from bias? Not necessarily. The contours of discrimination change, but the hierarchical mindset stays as solid as ever. Professor Vivek Kumar, who teaches Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, talks of exactly this. An accomplished scholar of the Dalit movement, the professor’s expertise ranges from globalisation to the social sciences. Despite his vast academic credentials, he rues that his persona has been “reduced to [that of] a Dalit professor,” a crude exclusion and stigmatisation of his identity. “When I sit on TV panels, I am introduced as a Dalit chintak — a hyphenated identity. It is a process of reductionism, where personal identities are sidelined.

This is casteism,” he points out. The professor talks of how his whole knowledge has been reduced to that of being a ‘Dalit’, where he is called in to discuss only Dalit issues. It’s a subtle curb on his freedom of expression, he notes. “[Upper caste] people sit and comment on the fate and voting pattern of 16 crore Dalits.  But during the 15 years I have been teaching, I have never been called to a discussion on Savarnas, not once. Where it really matters, I am kept away. But Dalits from across the country call me.”

The professor’s academic work is highly acclaimed but he says he is seldom quoted in research papers, whereas upper caste names are cited easily.  “Just to state an instance, a research paper on the Dalit diaspora was published in a well-known publication but the [upper caste] person did not deem it fit to cite my work, even though I coined the term! The knowledge of a Dalit is not entertained. How do you measure this kind of bias?”

The bias against Dalits today is often subtle, sophisticated and packaged in ornamental and metaphorical language. “During an interview for a lecturer post, I was asked, ‘Your English is so good, how did you learn it?’ Would they ask this of a general candidate?” he wonders.

In his opinion a Dalit is tolerated as long as he is silent, but an assertion of opinion is not acceptable. “I am loud. I may be outgoing. People cannot digest that. If you are taking a stand, you will be sidelined, on one pretext or the other, and not allowed to function smoothly.” The lack of representation of Dalits across fields — judiciary, power, media, industry, bureaucracy and civil society — clearly indicates that the exclusionary system in institutions will continue. 


“You look like a trouble-maker…”

(‘Lenin’, M.Sc student. Photo: N. Bashkaran)

He was named after a 19th-Century German philosopher, but he does not want to be named. “Call me by another name,” he says. And we agree upon ‘Lenin’.

Names and localities are dead giveaways of caste identity. Lenin learnt that on the first day of college five years ago.

“My friend and I sat on the last bench.” As soon as the professor entered, he scanned the room and asked the two boys where they were from. 

“The second I said the name of my village, he asked why my shirt sleeves were rolled up and my collar left unbuttoned.”

Lenin noticed that every other boy in the class had rolled-up sleeves and an open collar. 

Lenin and his friend were summoned to the front benches. “You look like a trouble-maker; you must be watched,” said the professor. 

“My village Nochipatti and its surrounding villages have a dominant Scheduled Caste population; anybody would know.” 

His indignation was short-lived, since he had paid Rs. 8,000 as semester fee. For a family of four siblings and no steady income, pride was a luxury. Barely 18, until then he never had faced caste profiling.

In the class of 65, only three were Dalits, and they stuck together. “Two or three of the staff told the other students to keep away from us lest we get them into trouble.” 

It set in motion a three-year long recurring sense of alienation. “Any trouble anywhere, even outside the college, I would be summoned to the staff room,” says Lenin.

In practical terms, what most affected his future prospects was the internal marking. “We invariably got 10 or 12 out of 25 in internal tests when others were given 20.” He graduated with 70 per cent marks. Lenin today is studying for an M.Sc degree in a Dharmapuri college, but his graduation marks are a gnawing reminder of systemic prejudice. 

His college was run by an elite dominant intermediate caste. Any perceived Dalit identity markers were systematically erased. “Students were not allowed to wear a black shirt or Ambedkar pendants.” 

Ironically, Lenin’s college was affiliated to Periyar University, and yet found the black shirt sported by Periyar unpalatable. “It used to irk me even though I never owned a black shirt,” smiles Lenin. 


“Who will till the fields?”

(Ajay Kumar, PHD Scholar of Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow at his hostel. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt)

The casteist jibes of the upper caste headmaster in his native village in Unnao still rings clear in PhD scholar Ajay Rawat’s ears — ‘ Tum aahiv sudhr sakha, tumre baap ke baap ke baapai utar aave, tabbhu tum na padh pahi-yo (You Shudras! Even if your fathers and forefathers come down, you will not be able to learn)’.

In rural Uttar Pradesh, even Rawat’s first name is an issue. Since caste identities are forged early, Dalits are not allowed a naming convention. They must take the names suggested by the upper castes. “Names are allotted to us on the basis of the day we are born or on a colour, like Bhure, Ram Bharose, Budhwari. We are not allowed the dignity of a proper name so that our names can help identify us as Dalits,” says Rawat, whose ‘ordinary’ name was made possible by the intervention of a teacher.

Rawat is a Pasi, and studies at the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.  Not only are Dalit identities labelled, their children are systematically demotivated to stay away from education. “The greatest fear of the upper castes was that if Dalits studied, there would be no one to work the fields. Dalits would then start demanding better wages and rights. We were terrorised into dropping out,” says Ajay.

Ajay chose to fight against the odds. In class, when he touched a water urn to offer water to a teacher, the offending utensil was ritually purified. Like most other Dalit boys, he had to clean the classroom floor since upper caste boys could not be expected to do menial tasks. The anecdotes are plenty, but if protective laws and better awareness have reduced the more blatant examples of caste injustice, they now manifest themselves in other, subtle and re-packaged, forms.  In a culture that places high value on education, the more attractive subjects are automatically made out of bounds for Dalits by financial barriers.

Ajay finds glaring similarities between his life and Rohith’s. He talks of favouritism and upper-caste lobbying, and the regular derision because Dalits avail reservations. Ajay says he is “hurt” by the open snubs from teachers and officials when they hear of his academic accomplishments. For instance, when he received the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship, officials questioned his merit. “For them, it was a fellowship gone waste,” says Ajay. “ My stipend has been delayed for one and a half years now. They use every trick and law in the book to make our struggle harder.”   Untouchability might not be direct anymore. As Ajay says, “the professors invite us to their cabins, drink tea with us.” But clearly, the roots of bias run deep.


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