Preeti Koli and Ritika Koli
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said: “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reform unless you kill this monster.” (Ambedkar, 1936)
Caste-based microaggressions are not new to any of the Bahujan students who manage to enter educational spaces which are historically and predominantly upper caste spaces. We get to hear casteist comments filled with hatred from upper caste folks on a regular basis. When I was in the last year of my under graduation, I still remember how a friend of mine made a casteist remark on getting into DSE. Dalit to them is the one who is malnourished, poor, and always begging to get basic things to survive-
“hum bhi muh par kalikh laga lete hain aur DSE ko jake bol denge hum SC hain, hume admission dedo sir (We’ll also put soot on our face, go to DSE and say we belong to a scheduled caste, give us admission sir)” were the exact words of my friend.
For them, our admissions are an easy matter: this comes out from ‘their’ understanding of reservations. It is just a normal thing for upper castes to make jokes about somebody’s caste, to degrade someone on the basis of their caste, to make them feel uncomfortable whenever they can. A Bahujan goes through this mental torture in his/her daily life which doesn’t matter to these upper caste people.
This article aims to contribute to the growing area of research in inclusion (which cannot be studied without exclusion) by exploring caste-based experiences of marginalization by Bahujan students in higher educational institutions. The purpose of this paper is to review these experiences and to bring out the daily life struggles of Bahujan students that take a toll on their mental health. This article is a joint effort by two Dalit women who are first-generation learners to reach higher education spaces. After getting into DSE, the true face of this so-called prestigious institution came into light. Even after inclusion, it excludes Bahujan students on a daily basis.
The experiential part is shared by Ritika Koli who is currently pursuing Masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and the analytical part is written by Preeti Koli who is currently a Ph.D. Scholar of Education Studies from Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University, Delhi.
DSE is not for the marginalized
Education and its emancipatory nature are just theory, in practice the educational institutions thrive by suppressing the ones they intend to uplift. This contradiction in education is widely celebrated in Indian academia in almost every institution. It can be studied through a critical analysis of these institutions, the practices, and processes in higher education. The educational institutions of India uphold strong Brahminical values which are inherently hegemonic in nature. Brahminical here connotates the caste privilege which places a certain caste-class group in a superior position when compared to the others. It has been observed, in recent times, that DSE is becoming much more similar to elite private institutions which constantly put marginalized students on the edge.
There are not one but several instances that show how DSE preserves the casteist nature of academia by systematically oppressing marginalized groups. In this essay, we are focusing on the Economics department of DSE.
First of all, based on the reservation policy, the department reserves only a few seats for students from SC, ST, OBC, and EWS backgrounds and that’s how the enrolment ratio proves the lack of Bahujan students in these departments. Furthermore, DSE is a hub of dominant upper caste professors and hence there is a lack of Bahujan faculty too. Both student and teacher ratios combined give a clear picture of the environment of DSE which is mostly upper caste dominated, in terms of quantifiable data. Besides enrolment and faculty composition, the actual university environment, which might not be quantifiable, can also be studied to see the Brahmanical nature of higher educational institutions.
Evaluation and Assessment
One of the recent cases in the economics department of DSE was where they failed eight students in one of the papers called Ecotrix (I was one of them). They were given an absolute zero on the basis that the scripts were not received as the exams and classes during COVID were online. Students, however, denied the claim and asserted that they submitted the scripts but they were not sent in the given time frame due to technical and network errors. It should be noted that 5 out of these 8 students were from SC and OBC backgrounds. They sent the emails saying that it was a technical error and not something in their control to which they got no replies from the authorities. After which they made several visits to the college during COVID to clarify this situation.
On these visits, they were only harassed by both the administration and professors because they requested that the copies be rechecked. Students were concerned because zero in one paper will lead to curbing future opportunities and the final result will show a lower percentage that will further restrict placement opportunities too.
This instance led us to talk about the placement cell. The economics department of DSE is charging for placements from students; this should be otherwise included in the course fee. This can be thought of as the university’s move towards privatization. The additional placement fee is mandatory for every student and the amount is 16,000 INR which is in addition to the course fee that is around 7,800 INR.
In a desperate hope to secure a better future, some of the students paid the course fee plus the placement fee that the university is charging even when marginalised students cannot afford it. After the placement payments, there is no guarantee they will get good placements or not. The nature and structure of academia further marginalizes them in the garb of the false concept of ‘merit’ that these universities weave. For example, the criteria for selection in a few top companies is completely based on marks. Caste plays an important role in this, as in how many students from SC, ST, and OBC backgrounds are shortlisted by these top companies. We all know that private companies shortlist students by looking at their CGPA, work experience, internships, and academic achievements. Also, some companies strictly mention in their job descriptions that – “The company has a strict eligibility that only the students with a CGPA equal to or more than 7 (and no backlogs) can apply.”
This was not informed to the students by the college before registering for placement. The 8 students, who were issued an ER scored zero marks in one subject, because of which their CGPA dropped below 5, now they can’t apply to any of these companies.
Furthermore, from the various lists of the candidates shortlisted for placements, it was observed that students from general, EWS, and a few from OBC backgrounds are shortlisted in top companies. This is how students from Dalit and tribal backgrounds suffer the most.
We also circulated a google form to gather more data on the situation. Out of the batch of 330 students, 60 students belong to SC/ST category, according to the admission list. It was purposive random sampling and hence the form was sent to 26 students belonging to the SC and ST backgrounds. What we gathered from the data was that the majority of students registered for placement. The remaining students stated that they did not register due to lack of confidence, motivation, financial problems, lack of awareness, or they had no idea at all about how to prepare for the placement process. Those who applied to every company until now, were not shortlisted by any company. Even if they appeared for the first round in most of the companies, they were rejected in the interview process.
The placement cell asks students to bring their laptops while attending the meetings, tests, etc., of companies that come for the placement. The tests that are conducted online require them to download software on which they are to take the tests. A lot of students while taking the tests complained that their laptops shut down in the middle of the download, to which the individual mentors who are assigned to the students just asked them to seek help from family or relatives. This software doesn’t work well on students’ laptops. This whole situation of qualifying in the tests to move to the next round only caters to students who have good quality laptops with stable internet connections, who are a minority. Thus, a lot of students get filtered and this prevents thier movement to further rounds, which is only a marginalization of students coming from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds.
Students who don’t own laptops or possess low-budget student laptops without any internet connection are left behind this way.
We asked students- What other options do they have if they are not selected by any company? Most of them responded that they will try for government jobs and others will go for higher education or search for off-campus jobs.
Other reasons for not being shortlisted include- no achievements and awards, no internships, no work experience, CV not up to the mark for the company’s profile low marks, and lack of positions. Even after paying the placement fees, there’s no guarantee that these students get into the top rank companies. Though the placement cell guarantees jobs for every student but here, it can be clearly seen that these students will be left to take up jobs with low-cost packages ranging from 3-8 lakh rupees only; while on the other hand, high packages range from 15-24 lakh rupees which mostly go to upper caste students.
The hidden and subtle way of oppressing Dalit and Adivasi students keeps the caste structure intact, and this is reproduced every year. Once again the students from Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds are made to feel inferior. They are made to settle with what they currently have when compared to other students (read upper caste).
“This strategy of degrading others to advance oneself is not new” notes Mosse (1994).
Besides oppression of students, there are instances of academic oppression too. This article is incomplete without mentioning the great economist Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Delhi School of Economics, also known as one of the most prestigious institutions of Delhi University for post-graduation in Economics, offers numerous courses to its students but there is not a single article, speech, or topic in any of the main and elective subjects so far by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Even if his area of work doesn’t match the course syllabi, he wasn’t even mentioned in the orientation of the course or any of the talks/lectures. The name of Dr. Ambedkar in the University premises (which was mostly held in virtual mode for this session) is nowhere to be heard and is completely absent.
Moreover, the course structure has papers by different authors. One of the chapters in the course of second-year students is authored and edited by Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat who is a renowned economist, an ex-UGC chairman, and a Dalit thinker. But he is not given any authorship when other articles and readings are given credits right in the beginning. It is understood that even if the book is authored by Prof. Throat himself, individual chapters don’t have the author’s name on them. The question then arises- Isn’t it the duty of the concerned professors to provide the cover page of the book along with the particular readings which entail all the details about the book? It is problematic knowing that the students are reading a chapter in their course without knowing the name of the author. Students who need to read further readings by the particular author will not be able to do so. When the details of other authors are shared, why do teachers feel it is okay to leave out the details of an author who has a considerable amount of work in the area of social justice and equity in Economics?
What does aspiration mean to young dalit women?
Aspirations of Bahujan students are very much linked to their parents. Looking at us studying in reputed universities with higher degrees they hope for better futures for us, and positive social mobility. We are first generation learners to get into higher education. Most of our relatives don’t even understand the degrees we are pursuing, they look up to us to in hope of moving further. Moreover, being a girl in a middle class dalit family which invests in its childs career, it always means to focus on one’s career and live a ‘respectable’ life, on par with upper caste standard of living. There is dissatisfaction among our parents until we get good and secure jobs, even if we are pursuing good education. When it comes to the link between higher education and employment, it becomes difficult to make them understand the systemic oppression we face in these universities. I have been under a lot of stress ever since I got into DSE. A lot of students in the questionnaire also shared the same views. It shatters our confidence which is already low among bahujan students. This stress builds due to the competitive environments of these university spaces which reproduce the dominant caste cultures–from dressing, speaking with confidence to having an attractive resume.
Bahujan Economists- Creating safe spaces in the dominant university environment
A noteworthy credit is at last given to the students who carved out spaces for themselves in these places owned by those in power. Bahujan Economists- a collective student group founded and initiated by students of DSE themselves creates a somewhat safe space for those who are struggling. “Bahujan economists- a platform for researchers, scholars, students, and professors of economics belonging to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Other Backward Class communities to collaborate and support each other. Such a platform could also work towards increasing representation in the discipline and putting forward the perspectives of these communities, which has hitherto been absent” writes Deeksha (2021). This group comes and holds meetings to support and help each other in academic as well as mental struggles. This is a safe space and a breather to the students who otherwise remain silent, suppressed, and powerless in the spaces of dominance. This collective has been taken to other states and central universities too and is continuously growing. All the stress that students from marginalized backgrounds go through is dealt with in the sessions of Bahujan economist meetings.
Groups like Bahujan economists not only exist to create safe spaces for Bahujan students but they are also countering, resisting, and challenging the dominant power structures in a predominantly upper caste university environment. Moreover, this group is helping young Bahujan students build networks across universities with intellectuals, scholars, and organizations working in similar areas, an opportunity that is often absent for bahujan students.
Access and enrollment ratios are only the tip of the iceberg, although they are equally important to study. But there is a lot that is to be studied when we talk about inclusion which is incomplete without studying it in relation to exclusion. All the above instances show the further marginalization of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds if they somehow get admissions in these top-ranked universities. The mere inclusion on the basis of access in these universities, doesn’t guarantee our success and upward mobility. These universities are not for the marginalized.
Until then, “Great boast, little roast”.
Ambedkar, B.R. (1936). Annihilation of caste : an undelivered speech. New Delhi: Arnold Publisher
Deeksha, J. (2021). A new wave of Bahujan solidarity seeks to break down barriers in India.
Preeti Koli is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the School of Education Studies- Dr. Ambedkar University Delhi. Ritika Koli is a second-year Master’s student of Economics at Delhi School of Economics. She is also Senior Coordinator of Bahujan Economists for the current session in DSE.