Rohith Vemula’s ‘social death’ has had a disastrous impact on students, scholars, professors and the Dalits in general across Tamil Nadu. It has opened doors for having debates to understand the plight of Dalit students who study Masters and Ph.D, at the higher educational institutions of India. My friend and research scholar, who is pursuing his doctorate in Chennai, wrote an article recently in an leading English daily, which briefly speaks of the general circumstances of Dalit students. According to him, even Dalit professors humiliate Dalit students more than non-dalit professors. To what extent is the statement honest? Is it true or merely a jargon? The readers, especially non-dalits, who had read the column, would have been perplexed.
We might have heard about many incidents of cruelest behavior of the caste Hindu professors against oppressed sections. A short time ago in Tamil Nadu, a Dalit youth who wanted to do Ph.D, got the seat under the guidance of a caste Hindu professor. As the student belongs to scavenging caste, the professor used to compel him to come to his residence not for the lessons or discussions but for cleaning his home. And whenever the student used to go to his home, even for proofreading, he insisted that he do the cleaning work. The student, furthermore, was asked to help out the professor’s wife in drying her clothes and to carry out other domestic chores.
Another student who is studying the subject of beef eating and social exclusion did not/could not get any government fellowship till today as the title, probably, makes the government of the day upset. The topics or the subjects, in most cases, Dalit student wishes to explore is not taken into consideration. If the topic consist words like Ambedkar or Dalit, the respective supervisors would be harassed so as an alternative they suggest the students to change the topic or change terminologies to something like poor, disadvantaged, deprived, and economically backward.
‘Quota students, SC students, fellowship students’ – these are the comments that Dalit students mostly encounter from other groups at the ‘Indian’ educational campuses. These abuses are comparable to what characteristically happens every minute in the Indian villages where predominantly caste Hindus, who have power over economic and political spheres call Dalits by their caste names with added filthy adjectives. This necessarily need not be done by fellow students but also the teachers as well as the other staff. When I joined M.Phil course at Madurai University, a service staff member in the office introduced me to the HOD as ‘sir, SC student, new admission’. Since then my caste has become so discernible to them that it kept exasperating me, wondering what is the need for revealing my caste, with self-evident specification imposed on me, without my consent?
Students like the humiliated youths mentioned in the above episodes or Senthil Kumar or Vemula who have died because of continuous torture and discrimination, or ‘chain of events’ as enunciated by many scholars, suffered at the hands of caste Hindu professors. Many Dalit students, indeed, have been encountering many insidious forms of sufferings at all universities and research institutions. But this is also a myth that those students from oppressed sections who work with Dalit professors are not discriminated as much as the ones working under caste Hindu Professors. In fact, it is assumed to be beneficial for both – student and the professor. We must introspect at this juncture whether Dalits students, who are pursuing their doctoral degrees, are at ease in the hands of Dalit professors or do professors really guide them without any exploitation?
Generally, we invoke discrimination only if it is done by non-Dalits or caste Hindus or occurs in the context of Dalit VS non- Dalit, not within Dalits. We, therefore, hardly ever discuss the issues of Dalit students working with Dalit professors. The incidents narrated in this paper attempt to draw your attention to understand and explicate the author’s personal experiences and of others like himself. The paper stems from the experiences that were found by the author in the course of his study and interaction with students. The author, aware of these issues, does not intend to present a negative image(s) of Dalit professors, who failed to offer ‘pedagogical accountability’ but to provide an overview as well as to highlight the obstacles that Dalit students face in the current research programmes. On the other hand, he strongly felt that the paper would intercede as a means to initiate a conversation between students and professors.
Slow learners not proficient in English or those who do not pronounce English well could not become prominent in Mathematics and Science subjects as compared to the students from other communities. These are the prejudices about Dalit students that are still ingrained in professors’ ‘caste minds’. One of the Dalit students who achieved top rank in the higher secondary school examination got admission at one of the premier institutions in India. One day in the classroom, he was humiliated by his professor who asked him, ‘how did you get admission here? By your caste quota?’. The student, who got the seat under the general category based on his marks, felt that the professor not only put him down in front of the whole class but the whole community. Supervisors love to tempt the students to cry out in front of them. In the very first year, students are made to feel they do not have adequate knowledge to pursue Ph.D. As a result, they lose hope on themselves and the subject. If you are married before joining, they would ask why you got married. If you are not married they would say, ‘go and get married to someone and do other work. Do not come here’. Comments like these are not only made by ‘others’ but also expressed by Dalit professors.
Students of Dalit community are selected even by Dalit professors usually after having a long conversation with the respective students. Even these decisions are made in order to show their sympathy to the entire community, as if they are socially concerned. A Dalit student, who has worked earlier as guest lecturer, is pursuing her Ph D under a Dalit professor for more than four years without any agreement on her research title or design or without receiving any academic guidance.
Another girl student coming from rural and poor background doing her Ph.D, comes across sexual threats and sexual comment everyday, though she courageously refused the advances right away and reprimanded the person concerned. She was selected by the same professor with promising words like ‘since you and I are from the same caste, we should work mutually so as to be trouble-free’. As she regards education, especially Ph.D, as an important dream of her life; she has tolerated all this from day one to the present. The professor also intervenes in her personal matters and controls her mobility such as – whom to speak and where to go. As his attempts at sexual exploitation have failed, eventually, he attempted to seize as much money as possible from her monthly fellowship, which has mounted up to lakhs now. (Listen caste Hindu students, who murmur about Dalit fellowships, there are countless bitter stories)
A handful of Dalit professors generally show off themselves as ‘gatekeepers’, exceptions are there, of the Dalits students in front of other faculty members and the institutions, especially when academic discussions take place. But to the respective students group they as matter of fact, hardly ever, guide, encourage and help academically (or in other ways) related to the subjects that the students want to work on. They, in fact I have personally experienced this, try to construct emotional bonding with students by simply keeping the photograph of Ambedkar or pictorially representing his legendary quotations in their rooms. But unexpectedly, their actions remain inconsistent to this and create a ‘false consciousness’ among the students. However, the young scholars still believe the teachers who speak of Ambedkar or of caste issues, whoever they are, would guide them satisfactorily.
Ideally students expect, in any case, positive attitudes from the professors. In contrast, some of the Dalit professors have also been wounding Dalit students psychologically by continuous daunting, just as others do. The crucial part is that they also very consciously opt for and prioritize their attention to the students – choosing from their own sub-caste first then from other caste groups. In some way, thus, Dalit professors also exploit students. So the hope in the minds of young students, who come with passion to do research, gets dashed. Dalit professors and intelligentsia need to think of special preparation for Dalits – who can be average or bright students, who may have studied in rural, government schools and colleges with inadequate infrastructure – in order to foster them. Students cannot be successful on their own without some encouragement or support from Dalit academia; therefore they need help from every corner, particularly from among the educationists if Dalits really have to liberate themselves from the oppression. If we paraphrase Freire, pedagogy of the Dalits should be practiced by not only non-dalit professors but by the oppressive Dalit professors too.
B. Prabakaran is an independent researcher and author of three books on Ambedkar. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org