It is a common myth perpetrated by upper caste faculty, students, politicians, and media that caste superiority and casteism is exercised amongst uneducated people in the villages, and not amongst the educated in urban and academic spaces. The myth of city colleges and classrooms being caste-free stems from the unidentifiability of the conventional practice of untouchability, which is the only practice of caste-based discrimination that has been legally codified. Article 17 of the Indian constitution outlaws untouchability, but not the caste system that finds expression in multiple practices such as differential access to education, modes of travel, clothing, and eating habits.
Discriminatory practices based on caste have expanded and continue to perpetuate caste hierarchy in the present day since they have masked their exploitative character. This is evident from the experiences of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (henceforth DBA) students and faculty, who are routinely discriminated against because of their lower caste status by upper or dominant caste faculty and students. Hence, it is crucial to identify and codify what constitutes caste-based discrimination, especially in classrooms, city colleges, and institutes of higher education.
Caste, and particularly of ones belonging to a lower caste, has always been a crucial factor in blocking access to higher education. Sukhadeo Thorat observes:
“The participation of SCs in higher education was also very limited. In 2001, little more than 5 per cent of SCs aged 20–24 were reported to be attending post–higher secondary education. Their presence in vocational courses was miniscule. The pattern of enrolment in higher education indicated that SCs were in a highly disadvantageous position com- pared to non-SCs/STs. Also, SCs and other marginalised social groups from the Muslim, Christian and Sikh religions suffered from lower access to higher education as compared with their higher-caste counterparts.
Educational deprivation among SCs and the social inequities they are subjected to are largely attributed to the historical and cumulative socio-economic and structural deprivations they have suffered for centuries. Poverty among SC households is primarily responsible for the poor educational enrolment of SC children. Studies have amply established that among the main causes of the high magnitude of never-enrolled, out-of-school children and the high rate of school dropout are poverty and discrimination.” (Thorat 109)
While Thorat discusses the economic reasons that discourage Dalit students from completing college or university education, caste-based discrimination in the city colleges and classrooms has remained largely undiscussed as a cause for the lower statistical representation of DBA students in higher education. Most DBA students and faculty are unable to enter the institutes because reservation policies are not followed, and simultaneously DBA students and faculty are discouraged from occupying ‘unreserved’ seats. Those who are able to gain entry, with or without reservation, are discriminated against because of their caste in multiple, humiliating ways that are an extension of the criminal act of untouchability. Caste-based discrimination in the college campus or classroom is not performed in the manner of conventional untouchability, and hence casteist perpetrators evade penalization by saying that their acts may be discriminatory, but are not criminal. It is crucial that the institutions create a mechanism that recognizes contemporary caste-based discrimination as criminal and seeks to empower DBA students and faculty. Institutes need to create a mechanism through which caste-based discrimination can be challenged and casteist perpetrators are penalized, thereby securing the interests and welfare of DBA students and faculty.
In some cases, the caste-based discrimination of DBA students and faculty is reported, but institutes have continuously failed to establish a robust mechanism to recognize and counter caste-based discrimination practised by its dominant caste faculty and students. The social psychologist Yashpal Jogdand observes the predicament and humiliation of Dalit students in the classroom:
“In India, especially in premier educational institutions, Dalit students are perceived as representatives of the caste system that is kept alive because of wily political leaders and an unnecessary affirmative action policy. Dalit students, therefore, are not seen as occupying their rightful place in the classroom but as a liability of a history and policy nobody wants to acknowledge. They are the problems that slows the teacher down. The very presence of Dalit students in the educational institution is conceived as illegitimate because of the marks of material extravagance such as a car or a high-level government post their first-generation learner parents own. When Dalit students get politicised by encountering revolutionary thinking and struggle of Ambedkar, Phule and Marx. They become trouble makers that should be kept at a distance. Untouchability, thus, continues if not in physical then in psychological forms.” (Jogdand 9)
The consciousness of caste superiority runs deep in dominant caste faculty and students, who find multiple ways to discriminate against DBA students and faculty and continue the heinous practice of untouchability in new forms. Mostly, DBA students and faculty refrain from reporting caste-based discrimination on campus because reparative and punitive measures are never taken.
In the last few years, some DBA students and faculty have found the courage to report caste-based discrimination, following which several committees, reports, and guidelines have been formed to tackle caste-based discrimination in the classroom and on campus. In 2007, a committee headed by the ex-UGC chair and Dalit intellectual Sukhadeo Thorat found rampant caste-based discrimination against Dalit and Adivasi students in AIIMS Delhi. The committee reported that these students were discriminated against in teaching, evaluation, social seating, and events of cultural participation. They were ragged and humiliated because of their lower caste. Furthermore, the institution had failed to provide remedial classes to help the Dalit and Adivasi students learn English.
Despite the recommendations of the Committee, neither do most institutes have a functional Equal Opportunity Cell that monitors the implementation of reservations for DBA students and informs them about scholarships nor do they implement reservations for faculty. In 2013, the UGC (University Grants Commission) released regulations for the ‘Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions’ where it directed higher education institutions to take measures to safeguard the interests of students without prejudice to their caste. As per the regulations, the institute was supposed to penalize differential and discriminatory treatment based on caste and instate a mechanism through which caste-based discrimination such as revealing someone’s caste, calling a student “reserved category”, separate seating amongst students, or discriminatory grading could be reported. Caste-based discrimination was supposed to be brought to the attention of an “Anti Discrimination Officer”, a position that is unheard of in most institutes of eminence or higher education. Despite recommendations of expert committees and guidelines instated by competent authorities, institutes refuse to instate a mechanism to protect DBA students and faculty, thereby perpetuating caste-based discrimination on campus and in the classroom. One of the reasons for the lack of implementation of regulations and suggestions is that the task of implementation of guidelines has fallen into the hands of casteist Savarna faculty, which is a part of the perpetrator group that practices caste-based discrimination. These guidelines and recommendations have deliberately not been implemented, and hence, need wider public reflection and a call for action.
Multiple accounts can be found in books and social media of DBA students and faculty reporting caste-based discrimination in classrooms and on campus. The grassroots anti-caste activist Manisha Mashaal narrates the discrimination she experienced in college because she was a Dalit:
“One the very first day of college, I quickly realized that in India’s abodes of higher education, untouchability ran silently rampant. Most students immediately split along caste lines. Upper caste students asked me the name of my caste before they asked me my own name. When they found out I was a “quota” (reservation) student, that was all they wanted to do with me. They refused to talk to me, share notes with me, study with me or eat with me. The three other Dalit girls in my class had the same experience. We stuck together and stayed within ourselves.
The discrimination I was subjected to in college ranged from subtle to direct. During an NSS (National Service Scheme) camp, we were asked to do our own chores, cook, and clean-up. When we were sweeping, an upper caste girl complained that she was being made to do “ the work of ‘Chude’ and ‘Chamars’ ”. I was deeply hurt by the bluntness of her abuse and I accused her of casteism. As our argument escalated, professors reprimanded me for being argumentative but did not even attempt to warn the upper caste girl. That day, one Dalit professor took me aside and consoled me saying “Manisha, our battle is larger than this. There’s much we have to do. We have to strategise. Let this go.”” (Mashaal, “There Were Times When I Thought It Would Be Better to Die”)
This is the reality for most DBA students in college. They are socially isolated, made to feel inferior, and discouraged from being vocal and opinionated. Mashaal’s account underlines the necessity of having DBA faculty on campus, who can empathize with DBA students, offer productive solutions, and create real change with the support of institutional power.
Discriminatory experiences leave long-lasting scars on DBA students and faculty and have a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing. The Bahujan academic Ravikant Kisana describes his traumatized mental health because of caste-based discrimination and writes:
“I come from a Bahujan background. My dressing, spoken English and pop-culture knowledge got modelled to fit Savarna standards through a decade of a very painful cultural adjustment, comprising of being bullied, humiliated and ridiculed throughout school and college. So, on first glances, I am not jarring to the ever-scrutinizing Savarna eyes. Visually and superficially, I am allowed to ‘pass’ through to some social spaces which I otherwise would not have access to. But the rules of this access are very contingent to adhering to the Savarna social norms. You are never very far from being put back into place. Caste politics run deep.” (Kisana, “Suicidal Ruminations of a Frustrated Bahujan Academic”)
Kisana describes the difficulty in carving an image that resists caste-based profiling and the entailing discrimination. ‘Passing’ is not aspiration to be a Savarna, but a survival mechanism through which the fatality that accompanies being a lower caste is avoided.
DBA faculty are discriminated against through the process of hiring by committees and departments that are constituted solely by savarnas, and by students who feel “quota” teachers are “worthless”. Maroona Murmu, an Adivasi professor at Jadavpur University, recounts the caste-based discrimination she experienced as a professor:
“I have seen heads of the departments, even colleagues, looking at certain surnames and saying that these people are academically worthless. I have heard that people do not think that I have much to say because I look like an African. I have also heard that Dalits and Adivasis should be given separate crematorium space because they do not lose their ability to pollute the savarnas even after death.” (Kar, “They reduce me to a “meritless” Adivasi: Maroona Murmu, Jadavpur associate professor”)
There are numerous accounts and analyses of caste-based discrimination, or what Murmu terms as ‘academic untouchability’, against DBA students and faculty in institutes of higher education. Experiences of caste-based discrimination are traumatic and harmful, and need to be identified, codified, and addressed. Caste-based discrimination in city classrooms, and broadly university campuses (including online and offline spaces of interaction between students and faculty) can be segregated into two types: passive and aggressive, both of which have detrimental effects on the mental wellbeing of DBA students and faculty.
Passive caste-based discrimination can be classified as profiling of DBA students and faculty as per their last name, physical characteristics, presuming their intellectual capabilities, and stereotyping them as “reserved category”, “quota people”, or “SC/ST/OBC”. It is the subtle blocking of opportunities of advancement, such as differential grading of the same quality of papers of upper and lower castes, blocking the promotion of a DBA faculty, deliberately keeping reserved seats vacant for years on grounds of not finding “quality candidates” for filling the posts, and so on. Many DBA students report that upon reading attendance lists, upper-caste professors release a sigh of dismay when they come upon identifiable surnames from the DBA community, and add that “oh, you are from that community, I know how poorly you will perform”. Similarly, upon finding out that a DBA faculty is going to teach a class, upper-caste students presume that the teacher will sub-par or simply “bad”. This works in the other way as well, that upon encountering a bad teacher, most upper-caste students presume that the teacher belongs to the “reserved category”. It is in line with the false rhetoric of meritocracy propagated by upper castes. Practices of profiling are so deeply indoctrinated within upper-caste faculty and students, that they always treat a student or faculty depending upon their position in the caste hierarchy: with respect if they are upper caste, and with disrespect if they belong to a DBA community. Passive caste-based discrimination does not leave any physical scars but creates trauma whose wounds run deep.
Aggressive caste-based discrimination is calling students and faculty by their caste names or casteist slurs, using abusive language, discriminatory behavior such as separate plates in the hostel mess or separate seating in class, physical or sexual abuse, public harassment, and using institutional mechanisms to discriminate against DBA people to expel them. DBA students and faculty routinely experience passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination at the hands of upper-caste students and faculty, who refuse to acknowledge all of the above as caste-based discrimination. Since the constitution outlaws untouchability but not the caste system, new practices of caste-based discrimination are widespread in academic spaces that are overrepresented by upper castes. Therefore, the need of the hour is an elaborate and continuous codification of the kinds of caste-based discrimination experienced by DBA students and faculty, the sensitization of upper castes about what constitutes caste-based discrimination, and the implementation of strict reparative and punitive measures, depending on the severity of the caste-based discrimination. This can only be achieved by encouraging, appreciating, and cherishing the presence of DBA students and faculty on campus and in the classroom, by allowing and enabling them to take the lead to form committees that have the power and the institutional backing to counter campus and classroom caste-based discrimination. DBA students and faculty must be given the power to identify, report, and punish caste-based discrimination on campus and in the classroom.
The anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian asserts that institutes of eminence like IITs have helped convert caste privilege into what is now popularly considered as ‘merit’. Merit has acquired brahmanical overtones and continues to perpetuate caste hierarchies and savarna power. By converting caste capital into social capital, dominant castes have ensured the consolidation of their power in institutes and professional spaces. Subramanian draws on the research of Satish Deshpande, who observes that upper castes have rebranded themselves as ‘casteless’. This allows them to further the false argument that caste exists because of the state’s policy of reservation, and not because of social discrimination practiced by them. Subramanian notes that the upper castes’ self-representation as ‘casteless’ has even led sociologists like Andre Beteille to assert that caste is now irrelevant amongst urban professionals. The false disavowal of caste goes in-hand with a “strategic caste-blindness” that Jogdand notes is adopted by institutes when it comes to safeguarding the interests of DBA students. Jogdand asserts that caste-based discrimination is a major stressor and is responsible for the killing of Dalit minds, and the caste-blindness adopted by institutes contributes to the same. Institutes shy away from developing mechanisms to address caste-based discrimination on campus since the administration feels it will harm the ‘reputation’ of the institute. By pretending to be caste-free spaces, institutes do not take sufficient preventive or reparative measures for the well-being of DBA students and faculty, and thereby make people from the DBA community feel that they are unsafe in the institute and it would be futile to make complaints about caste-based discrimination, which is rampant across higher education institutes in India.
Therefore, it is crucial to create a robust mechanism through which all students and faculty can learn to identify and report passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination. While DBA students and faculty need to feel secure in reporting caste-based discrimination, non-DBA students and faculty need to be sensitized about what constitutes caste-based discrimination from a DBA perspective. Students and faculty need to acknowledge that if they have not seen caste-based discrimination on campus, it is not because it does not occur. They have had the privilege: of their surname, an influential background, or fluency in English, which has saved them from caste-based discrimination. Most DBA students and faculty experience violent caste-based discrimination on campus or in the classroom. Rather than forcing DBA students and faculty to hide their experiences of caste-based discrimination, the institute needs to develop permanent SC, ST, and OBC committees that will check the following on campus (as proposed in a change.org petition by Doctoral Research Scholars of the Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi):
1. The committee should consist of DBA professors, who are sensitive to caste-based discrimination. It should be headed by a Chief Liaison Officer, from the DBA community. The contact details (email and mobile) of committee members should be made available on the institute website.
2. The committee should appoint DBA student representatives from each department and year who will amplify and follow up on student complaints.
3. The committee should create an online portal where DBA students and faculty can make complaints regarding passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination perpetrated by upper-caste faculty and students. The complaints should be resolved within a specific time frame (like 30 days).
4. The committee should provide a strict procedure of resolving the complaints, such as counseling, suspension, or termination of the offender, depending on the nature of the caste-based discrimination.
5. The committee should ensure mandatory caste-sensitization workshops for all students and faculty, outlining the prohibition of passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination, casteist slurs (such as ‘chamaar’, ‘bhangi’ or ‘shudra’), revealing someone’s caste identity, abusive language and harassment, and discrimination through institutional protocol. It should outline the procedure for reporting passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination on campus, whether experienced or witnessed.
6. The committee should ensure that all departments are following the institute’s reservation policy in faculty hiring and student entry. All hiring committees should have members from the DBA community.
7. The committee should create a mechanism (like reimbursement) for individual therapy and counselling for aggrieved DBA students and faculty who have undergone harassment.
8. The committee should meet at regular intervals, and give monthly reports to the Chairman, Director, and Deans.
9. An annual report of the committee should be published by the institute.
Furthermore, the committee should be in consultation with DBA leaders and thinkers from the country, who can give recommendations and guidance from time to time. Institutional measures to combat caste-based discrimination are necessary to help aggrieved students and faculty who feel compelled to go to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes as a last resort.
Passive caste-based discrimination can easily transform into aggressive caste-based discrimination if left unchecked, as was evident in the murders of Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi. Often, deaths of students and faculty from the DBA community only come to light after they have been suffering from unchecked passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination for a long time, and have found no institutional support. The institute’s administration either refuses to acknowledge that the deaths of DBA students or faculty were a result of unchecked caste-based discrimination or sets up a committee to investigate the perpetrators but only as an eyewash and offers no resolution. On 26 April 2021, a video circulated on social media by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle of IIT Bombay, brought to light the casteist behavior of Professor Seema Singh at IIT Kharagpur, who can be seen abusing DBA students and calling them “bloody bastards”. Professor Seema Singh was offering remedial classes in English for DBA students(as recommended by the Thorat committee). Hence, she knew the caste of her students when she chose to abuse them. Unlike the previous cases of caste-based discrimination, for once there was overwhelming video evidence of the discriminatory behavior and attitude of the professor. This helped the DBA community publicize and seek immediate action for the accused, forcing the NCSC to take suo moto action against her. In light of the professor’s email titled “sincere apology for unintended words”, it should be argued that DBA students were not the incidental victims of her abusive behavior. These events do not just “happen” to the DBA community. Perpetrators like Professor Singh are often aware of their privilege and the lack of courage in the DBA community, thereby exuding confidence that their actions will not have repercussions. In all cases of harassment of the DBA community, the institution has been complicit with caste-based discrimination. This must change, and for that to happen, the mechanism through which caste operates in the classroom needs to be brought to light. Institutes must instate mechanisms through which caste-based discrimination in the classroom and campus can be reported, recorded, and resolved.
Jogdand, Yashpal. “Pursuit of Life of the Mind in Contemporary India.” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/34394067/Pursuit_of_life_of_the_mind_in_contemporary_India?auto=download. Accessed October 10, 2019.
Kar, Arunima. “They reduce me to a “meritless” Adivasi: Maroona Murmu, Jadavpur associate professor.” The Caravan, https://caravanmagazine.in/interview/maroona-murmu-adivasi-associate-professor-on-facing-discrimination. Accessed 16 May 2021.
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Sitlhou, Makepeace. “India’s Universities Are Falling Terribly Short on Addressing Caste Discrimination.” The Wire, https://thewire.in/caste/india-universities-caste-discrimination. Accessed 10 May 2021.
Subramanian, Ajantha. “Making Merit: The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Social Life of Caste.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 57, no. 2, 2015, pp. 291–322., www.jstor.org/stable/43908347. Accessed 10 May 2021.
Thorat, Sukhadeo. Dalits in India: Search for a Common Destiny. Sage, 2009.
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Aarushi Punia is a Doctoral fellow in English Literature and a University Grants Commission Senior Research Fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. She is researching on Palestinian and Dalit Literature. She is developing a comparative framework that enables the examination of narrative strategies adopted by Palestinian and Dalit writers while opposing the modern, carceral state. She has presented her research at several international conferences and has published articles related to gender, caste, and Palestine in Mondoweiss, New Politics, The Quint, News Laundry, and Philosophy World Democracy.