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The cost of caste in India’s universities

Written by Diego Maiorano.

Last week I was supposed to give a couple of lectures at the University of Hyderabad, India. However, the students there – some of whom are on ‘indefinite’ hunger strike – had locked most university buildings and were not in the mood to let normal academic activity to be restored.

A few days before, on 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student, had hanged himself to the ceiling of one of his friends’ room, sparking off the students’ protest. In India, between 2007 and 2013, 25 students ended their lives on campus; 23 of them were Dalits (former untouchable castes) like Rohith himself. Indeed, his caste identity – which relegated him at the very bottom of India’s social order – is what brought him to kill himself. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity”, Rohith wrote in a very poetic suicide note. A few weeks before, in a letter to the Vice Chancellor, Prof. P. Appa Rao, Rohith had suggested to equip all Dalits students’ rooms with “a nice rope” and to provide them with poison “at the time of admission itself”.

The events

Rohith’s ironic suggestion to the Vice Chancellor was in protest against his decision, taken in December 2015, to expel himself and four of his (Dalit) friends from all public spaces of the university – including the dorms – and to freeze his stipend. Since then, they had been sleeping in tents mounted in the campus.

The ruling of the Vice Chancellor, which reversed a decision taken by his predecessor a few months earlier, concluded an internal inquiry conducted by the University’s authorities on an altercation between students belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) (an organisation comprising mainly, but by no means exclusively, Dalit students, including Rohith) and the President of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABPV), a right-wing (and mainly upper caste) students’ association closely associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The President of the ABPV, Susheel Kumar, was allegedly attacked by ASA students in August 2015. The episode, students told me, was part of the normal political life on campus, which often result in more or less violent clashes.

However, the local BJP MP, Bandaru Dattatreya, who is also a junior Minister in the central government in Delhi, felt the need to write a letter to the Minister for Human Resources and Development and party colleague, Smriti Irani, who in turn urged the Vice Chancellor to take action against the ASA students. The decision to expel them followed. Rohith’s suicide transformed what was a local political conflict hardly reported in the vernacular press, into a major national debate.

Upper Caste Dominance

A few (upper caste) students I talked to think that the episode, however unfortunate, is not one of discrimination, but of excessive punishment. However, this argument – which is shared by a few (upper caste) faculty I interacted with – fails to take into account the broader picture: Dalits are still discriminated against on a daily basis within and outside universities.

Anthropologists and political scientists tell us that, since India became an independent country in 1947, caste has lost importance as the ideological criterion for social stratification. Democracy and education contributed to spread egalitarian values among India’s society. Accordingly, the caste system – which, over centuries, has proven to be highly adaptive to changing historical circumstances – has changed dramatically over the last decades and it has now come to denote not so much hierarchy, but difference.

While there is no doubt that these processes are indeed taking place, it is equally doubtless that India’s society is still overwhelming dominated by the upper castes in general and by Brahmins in particular. Their dominance is particularly evident in those sectors associated with professions traditionally occupied by Brahmins: education and journalism are two prominent examples. Specularly, jobs considered impure or demeaning by the Brahminical ideology (such as cleaning) are overwhelming performed by Dalits.

In one of the few papers trying to assess upper caste dominance over India’s institutions, Aashish Gupta and his co-authors show that, in the city of Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh), 100 per cent of the office-bearers of the Press Club; 89 per cent of the Hospital doctors; 77 of NGO representatives and 76 per cent of University faculty are upper caste (whose share of the adult population is just 21 per cent). In another study Subodh Varma found that, in 2011, out of 1324 top government jobs in the central ministries, only 50 were occupied by Dalits.

The dominance of the upper castes on India’s institutions has two important consequences, that lie at the heart of the protests in Hyderabad. First, Dalits (and, to a lesser extent, lower caste) students face discrimination from the very beginning of their educational journey. Some Dalit students told me how they were forced to seat at the back of their classroom during primary school or how they were served food in special plates reserved for “the untouchables”. Yashica Dutt, one of the few Dalit journalists who has very recently “come out” as a Dalit, started a blog where Dalit students narrate their daily humiliations and discrimination’s, which offers a violently upsetting portrait of the largest democracy in the world. At the University level, discriminations are (usually) not as blatant as in primary schools. But they are nevertheless occurring on a daily basis, as reported in this upsetting series of articles, that show how Dalit students who manage to reach higher education institutions – against all odds: only 4 per cent of them do so – still have to fight against a system that seems to be structured against them.

The second consequence is that Brahmins and upper caste students are able to pocket most of the jobs in the formal sector that the Indian economy produces. In a context of prolonged “jobless growth” like in India, the inequality of opportunities stemming from one’s economic background (that are present in every society), get reinforced by the caste system that, however less hierarchical than in the past, still relegates Dalits to the bottom of the pyramid and exclude them from most working opportunities. For Dalit women the situation is even worse, as they carry the double disadvantage of gender and caste discrimination.

It is not surprising then that the students from the stage shouted against “Brahiminical terrorism and oppression”. It is by no means certain that the Hyderabad protests will turn into national movement against the dominance of the upper castes. But it is significant that the issue raised so much attention at the national level. Educated students cannot tolerate for much longer that their value is “reduced to their immediate identity”.

Diego Maiorano is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations, he tweets at @diegoemme. Image credit: CC by Ashwin Kumar/Flickr.

Published inAsia and PacificIndian subcontinentInternational Politics

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