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Campus Arena: The Politics of Dalit Identity

Caste being one of the most integral parts of Indian society, naturally has its roots entrenched within the education system and university spaces, giving a new perspective to the caste-class alliance. Let us dive into the nuance of Dalit identity under the ambit of the academic arena.

Image Credits: The Print

The Indian framework of social justice has an explicitly stated aim of ensuring access to education for the Dalit masses who have faced systematic oppression and inequalities for centuries. The right to a dignified life includes the upliftment of people through provision of quality education. However, reducing the social effects of the caste system in the academic arena has primarily been a stark challenge for the Government. The Dalit masses suffer from low rates of literacy and primary education enrolment because they have been targeted by an oppressive societal framework throughout history, that has denied them equal access to material or social resources and opportunities such as education.

The responsibility of social justice and upliftment of Dalit community, being parented by the Indian government ever since independence, has been rather politicised and derailed from the actual goals. Lack of large scale efforts to eliminate caste discrimination, coupled with few attempts to increase the accessibility to and appeal for education, have contributed to the slow progression of Dalit literacy. Combined with the unchanging social norms and behavioural patterns, the impetus to pursue education as a Dalit student, is continuously marked with social harassment and mental trauma at every level.

Casteism in Indian Universities:

Indian universities have indeed become a hotbed of caste discrimination, with the higher education framework seemingly the worst perpetrator of casteist parochialism. Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University and author of Affirmative Action in India writes, “What is proposed as a remedy for caste-based inequalities and discrimination, viz., affirmative action (AA), is perceived in the popular imagination to cause inequalities and injustice in a world where, presumably, none existed before the introduction of AA.”

Talking about the policy of reservation, where it was once made for the upliftment of the oppressed masses, it has in practice produced a dual stigma for the Dalits: firstly, in playing of the caste card, and another as rendering the Dalit community a giftee of state provisions. As per a report by The Hindu, more than 60% students enrolled in the DU UG course in the year 2019 belonged to the General Category, while only about 3% of the students each were admitted under the ST and EWS categories, which have an assigned proportion of 7.5% and 10% respectively. Among the SC students, though 15% reservation has been allotted to them, only 10.94% of students were given admission and the same goes for the OBC, admitting 20.96% rather than the assigned 27%. The ST and SC enrolment rates in higher education are substantially lower than their corresponding proportion in the population.

The students are actively targeted in classrooms, societies, and other campus spaces is gut-wrenchingly evident. Souvik Biswas, a first-year student from Hindu College, pursuing History honours, alleges similar experience of exclusion faced by him during a society's interview. He added, "Though it was an online interaction, that particular incident made me feel very uncomfortable which was an unexpected blow for me. When I told them that I belong to the Bahujan community, their tone during the interview substantially changed and I was targeted and made uncomfortable by their deliberate questions around my identity and status quo."

The Bahujan students face hostility in the form of mockery; they're shamed for their grades, for lack of social capital, and primarily targeted for their reservation status quo in the institution. A research paper by Rakesh Kumar Maurya portrays how majority of the college students belonging to the Dalit community face caste based prejudice and discrimination from the upper caste students as well as faculty members.

The people interviewed during the course of professor Maurya’s study stated that these caste-based prejudices and discrimination only increase as Dalit students move towards higher education degree programs, alleging that discrimination doesn’t exist in the form of mockery or mental segregation alone, but in other more insidious forms as well. The report of the Thorat Committee, following grave and widespread allegations of differential treatment and discrimination against students from Dalit and other marginalized sections of society in higher education institutions, stated that many students complain of active as well as passive discrimination in higher education institutes such as paying less or no attention to Dalit students in class, assigning lower marks/grades to Dalit students in practical examinations, and creating hurdles in PhD registration and completion. The report also stated the response to the caste bias by high caste teachers, with about 76 per cent of the respondents reporting that the examiner had asked the caste background, about 84 per cent mentioning that their caste background was asked either directly or indirectly, and almost 84 per cent mentioning that their grades were affected because of their caste background.

Suicides or Institutional Murders?

Another parable that needs to be connected is the caste composition of suicides in university spaces. The notorious case of Rohit Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad, who was suspended from his education, fellowship, and hostel due to his involvement in the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and forced to commit suicide, is still alive in our memories. Vemula wasn’t the first individual to encounter such fatal oppression and institutionalised discrimination in the academic arena.

There is a documentary film under the name of Death of Merit, that brings up the subject of Dalit students enrolled in reputed institutions of higher education across India, highlighting the dire straits of students who underwent extreme traumatic experiences on account of vicious caste-based discrimination, and were forced to resort to such extreme measures as suicides. Out of 25 students who committed suicide between 2007 and 2013, 23 were Dalits. The allegations revolving around the aspects of discrimination, humiliation, and exclusion have been strongly denied by the higher education institutions, with a sublime line of argumentation that these suicides took place because those students were unable to adjust to the rigorous educational environment of the institution. On the part of the Government, there is a similar trend of deeming these suicides as isolated incidents. Ironically in all these cases, depression is cited as the main reason behind the suicides, the triggering social environment is ignored and the blame shifts with remarkable ease on the victim itself.

Undeniably the institutions are aware of the discrimination framework, they also possess official evidence to prove its existence but they simply fail to acknowledge it. The Universities have never struck a balance in enquiring about public reports and show laxity in following their recommendations. They have even failed to follow respective UGC directives on caste based discrimination. The UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations of 2012, provide detailed guidelines against caste discrimination. The provisions include creation of Equal Opportunity Cells, appointing Anti-Discrimination Officers and developing pages on websites to register complaints of caste-based discrimination.

Within two weeks of Vemula’s death, UGC sent a letter to the vice-chancellors of all universities recapping the recommendations. A September 2016 letter, informed colleges that MHRD and the National Human Rights Commission were seeking vital feats. Between 2011 and 2018, the Commission sent seven commands to all universities to adopt various provisions and begin action. But notably the tone and language of these letters, nevertheless, do not require strict compliance; most universities do not follow the equity guidelines and these guidelines lack the spine to tackle non-adherence. Not surprisingly the UGC has taken no action against non-complying universities.

A survey of 132 institutes by academics revealed that only 42 had information that could enable students or faculty to access the EOC/SC-ST Cell or lodge a complaint. Only four of 15 “institutes of excellence”, only four of 13 IITs established before 2008, and none of the six first-generation IIMs had this information.

Iniyavan M, the President of Ambedkar Students Association at the University of Hyderabad, alleged in a Media statement that when the students use these institutional methods to complain, they have to face the consequences. He added, “A lot of them are first-generation learners; they have a lot at stake. The university creates a fear psychosis to stop students from complaining. Also, the onus to prove discrimination falls entirely on the student.”

The key question arising here doesn’t revolve around the discourse that caste-based discrimination can challenge people’s self-esteem leading them to internalise the stigma, but primarily around the interrogation that why these people have been ignored by the system, by the so-called educated people themselves. The Bahujan students in the Universities might form a small proportion but they have the unique language of history to delineate which is indeed a very important voice. Their heirloom started to knit, even much more before Vemula’s death. The examples of the JP movement and Dalit Panthers portray that the Dalit students have been at the social and political front, constituting a prominent response in the freedom cry.