Marginal Identities, Mainstream Institutions: Caste and the Academia

Prashant Negi

Prashant Negi is Officiating Hony’. Director, Centre for Distance and Open Learning and Assistant Professor, Dr. K. R. Narayan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India and Managing Trustee, Centre for Development Studies Shimla. This article is an excerpt from his speech that he delivered during a talk program on ‘Combating Caste Stigma in Academia: A Tribute to Rohith Vemula’ organized by Dignity Initiative, Kathmandu, Nepal as part of Discourse for Dignity Series.

On 17th January 2016, a 25-year-old Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Chakravarti Vemula committed suicide by hanging himself with a blue banner of the Ambedkar Students Association in his friend’s hostel room on the campus of the Hyderabad Central University, India allegedly to protest the “reduction of the value of man to [his] immediate identity and nearest possibility”. With the incident mobilizing instant and widespread protests and opinions around the issue of caste, its symbolism was hardly lost. Symptomatic of hierarchical arrangements existing within institutions of higher learning, the incident underscores the manner in which competing inequalities of identity and class are being articulated in the Indian academia.

Consider this, between 2007 and 2011, eighteen cases of suicides – 15 for science and 3 for humanities and allied disciplines – were documented in institutions of higher learning and national repute for students belonging to the marginalized social groups (MSGs) [figures mentioned here are indicative not exhaustive]. Though, many within the academia and otherwise believe that Rohith’s incident was isolated and one-off, statistics suggest that caste atrocities in contemporary India are only increasing and that students alike others, frequently face attitudinal biases in varying degrees, forms and contexts, some of which are discussed below.

First, there seems to be dissonance between normative and descriptive aspects of the role that institutions of higher learning perform in leading social change. Ideally, an institution of higher learning is expected to de-caste and de-class its incumbent(s) of entrenched societal prejudice(s) that they have socialized with. In actuality, it is in these very institutions that identities takes formative shape – accruing largely to them (the institutions) being neither ideologically nor categorically differentiated from the society in which they are located. Procedurally, it is rather difficult to ascertain whether the former process takes precedence over the latter, but in terms of agency, the role of one’s identity and how it standardizes social interaction is most definitely brought out. Rohith’s suicide therefore, should be interpreted first, in terms of how the social is constructed and thereupon, how it characterizes academic interactions based on inequalities of status and power.


File photo: Arts Faculty, Delhi University/wiki

Second, Indian academia is undergoing profound transformation in terms of its enrollment patterns –hitherto disproportionate access in higher education is gradually being addressed owing to affirmative action policies and growing aspirational levels among people from the MSGs. With enhanced access, diversity in institutions of higher learning is increasing alongside formation of peer groups based on caste and other structural identities. Such groups then often compete for social capital, and conflicts among them are commonplace. On the one hand, diversity seems to be celebrated and on the other, identities are seemingly getting fractured and further entrenched. While elaborate institutional mechanisms to address caste discrimination exist within almost every institution of higher learning, yet most seem wanting when it comes to the issue of addressing caste conflicts.

Third, while access to higher education has largely been enthused by reservation policy, its beneficiaries are subjected to stigmatization and ridicule by extending the logic of merit and efficiency. Despite merit being a cognitive ability, the argument that is wrongly attributed is that people from the MSGs lack merit and produce outcomes that are less efficient. Interestingly, no statistical evidence is provided to support this claim. Correspondingly, much research in recent times, points towards the inversely proportional relationship between differences in entitlements and physical, financial and human capital, and cognitive abilities. Further, the facts that merit is not hereditary and that diverse environments produce optimum outcomes are also negated. Presently, the proportion of the MSGs in institutions of higher learning is about 4, 14 and 30 percent for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Castes respectively.

Fourth, though, ‘access’ and ‘participation’ constitute key indicators of social exclusion, the issue is merely not of increasing access and of proportional representation to the MSGs – at the core are issues of equality and fairness of treatment. Both these epistemological issues pertain to philosophical aspects of social justice and circumscribe essential questions within the debate: Can we be equal? Is equality possible? Can we be fair in our orientation and treatment? There is sufficient literature to believe that the predicate of equality, as articulated in the Constitution of India, itself is unequal: as it does not take into account the unequal conditions that others bring. Contextualized to the present debate, equality is merely a formal and legal conception; whereas, the need for it is to be substantive, taking into account the disadvantages of capital, identity and power.

Fifth, it is argued that institutions of higher learning have developed complicated mechanisms to subvert rights and entitlements to people belonging to the MSGs. Two instances perhaps can be contextualized – one, of student enrollment and the second, regarding faculty recruitment. Recently, in one of the premier central universities of India, it was alleged that research scholars from the MSGs were being allocated low and arbitrary viva-voce marks, despite performing satisfactorily in them. It was widely believed that this was deliberately done to ensure that students from the MSGs do not compete for general seats – the law in India allows people from the MSGs to compete for general quota seats and in case of their selection in the general quota, their seat(s) is/are allocated to a person(s) from the MSG second higher in merit. By implication, deliberate allocation of fewer marks to a MSG student ensures her/his selection into her/his category and thus, unfavourably impacts their overall enrollment ratios.

Employment and its relationship between social mobility hardly requires any elaboration. It is, however restricted access to employment that constitutes the problematique. Let us consider herein the case of Delhi University (DU) – one of the biggest and most premier universities of India. In 2014, the Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA), in its press statement elaborated that despite the university requiring substantial expansion after the implementation of the Other Backward Caste (OBC) reservations in 2008, it imposed a blanket ban on fresh recruitments, due to which the number of vacant positions grew to an alarming 4,500 from 2010 to 2014. It was further alleged that the university used its own 200-Point Reservation Roster rather than one demarcated by the government. It was further contended that of approximately 10,000 teaching positions in the DU, the total numbers of those from the MSGs was a mere 650. By not advertising duly sanctioned positions (teaching as well as non-teaching), delaying advertisements, not following the roster system or by simply extending the clause of ‘Non-Found-Suitable’ in the section committees of candidates from the MSGs, the universities routinely subvert reservation policies.

Sixth, general attitudinal biases, differential treatment and stigmatization instill a feeling of discrimination and humiliation among students from the MSGs. The wide gap between increasing psychosomatic stress and lack of coping mechanisms within the academia makes the situation even more complex.

It is hardly surprising, therefore that institutions of higher learning in India mirror and sometimes stimulate ideas and beliefs that are counterproductive to the ideals of equality, social justice and egalitarianism.