Round Table India
You Are Reading
In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities

In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities

nidhin shobhana1


Nidhin Shobhana

In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities (with special reference to Jawaharlal Nehru University)

Setting up the Stage

nidhin shobhana1The ‘idea’ of a university and its connections to democracy, nation-building and knowledge production have been historically discussed and debated by several social scientists and policy-makers in great depth1. Such discussions have often avoided perceptive historical analysis of social structures and actions which established shaped and sustained universities. In other words, the ‘idea’ of the university is often not contextualized in the specific histories of its place or players.

 This essay would think of Universities as a complex system of buildings, committees, senates, courts, councils, financial budgets, affirmative action, student’s unions, teacher appointments; dominated by historically powerful groups, endowed and subsidised by the nation-state in various degrees. Such a view is not new2. Nevertheless, this essay also identifies Universities as dynamic places of on-going political struggles by all groups (and not just the marginalized or excluded). These struggles could be inside (university streets, courts, selection panels, staff quarters etc.) or outside the universities, shaping its future in many different ways. However, these groups historically embody unequal social, economic and cultural power. Thus, the politics of the historically oppressed to enter various ranks of the university should always be studied along with the politics of the historically powerful to sustain their influence, not concede to opponents or make compromises of varying degrees. Thus this essay understands university as a tangible reality marked by specific, conflicting histories (of social groups, their mobilizations and places) and not simply as an abode of ‘unmarked, abstract, priceless knowledge’ suspended in a national scale. Again, the ideational and tangible aspects of a university are not exclusive to each other. They share a reciprocal relationship.

 University is visioned as a contested terrain of political, strategic opportunities. S.D.S Chaurasia in his dissent note to the First Backward Classes Commission quotes Dr. Ambedkar3, to clearly underline the connections between higher education, power and politics. Ambedkar was of the opinion that it is important for the Backward Communities to occupy strategic posts or key positions in the Government by creating highly qualified professionals. For Babasaheb, education was a political tool to democratize notions of power at multiple scales (including the individual psyche and knowledge). This could have been done only by establishing strategic influence in the working of the democratic polity (Chaurasia, 1956: 75)

 A departure from dreamy notions about Universities or for that matter Higher Educational Institutions (henceforth HEIs) can be substantiated only through a historical investigation of Modern Higher Education in India. While a thorough investigation is beyond the purview of this essay, I would share a few glimpses for sure. To begin with one can ask questions such as – Who were the main players and ‘collaborators ‘ in the project of stabilizing HEIs in India. What were their social and political affiliations? How did they shape and organize Higher Education in India? How have they influenced the culture in universities? How did they control processes of knowledge production? How did they imagine, what bell hooks5 would call, a learning community? How did they forge an ‘intra-national community’ of teachers and students, especially the former? Who were excluded from these processes and how did processes of ‘inclusion’ begin?

 These questions are both historical and sociological. Philip Abrams6 points out at the sociological value of thinking about the present as a product of the past. In other words, one turns to history in search of ‘deeper and more realistic understanding’ of present scenarios. However, such an activity in historical sociology cannot be seen as a mechanical attempt to sense ‘laws of patterns or tendencies’. Historical sociology is an attempt to understand our reality as historical. The question of higher education is dealt with a sense of history precisely to understand present-day struggles and politics. They are not new questions. In fact they have been oft-repeated by anti-caste scholars in various forms, forums, languages and regions. I would refer to at least a few of such scholars in my essay. I would only repeat their questions and possible answers to arrive at the curious case of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (hereafter JNU) as a ‘National’ University.

Notes from the Past: Historicizing Universities in India

Syed Nurullah and J.P. Naik7 in their book chronicle the history of Education in India. They specifically dedicate three chapters on the establishment and growth of Indian Universities. They also tangentially discuss on the systems of learning which existed prior to British intervention. These reflections are based on the enquiries conducted by British officials or missionaries in early 19th century in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Such enquiries point out at the processes through which education was almost always ‘confined to the Brahmins or the mercantile classes’.

Even before the establishment of Indian Universities in 1857, the first set of ‘modern’ colleges was set up with the help the British in early 19th century. These colleges were modelled as per the pre-existing systems of learning, specific to Brahmin-Savarna Hindus and Muslims. Poona College, established in 1821 in one such example. Dongerkery in the ‘History of the University of Bombay 1857-1957’8 writes –

 The Poona Sanskrit College, later known as the Deccan College was founded, in 1821, by Mr. Chaplin, Commissioner of the Deccan, as a Sanskrit College, exclusively for the benefits of Brahmins. It was supported by a fund known as the Dakshina Fund, being a collection of pensions and allowances previously paid by the Maratha State to Brahmins and subsequently devoted by the British Government to encourage learning among the Brahmins.’ (Dongerkery, 1957:2)

The chief objective of the college was to ‘preserve the attachment of learned Brahmins’ who, according to the British ‘severely suffered by the change in the government’. More importantly, such encouragement was important as the British realized that Brahmins had ‘considerable influence over the feelings and conduct of people at large’. E.A.H. Blunt in his 19319 book calls Brahmins the ‘natural leaders of Indian society’.

 A portion of the Dakshina Fund (which was exclusively meant for Brahmins) was set apart for the award of what was called the Dakshina fellowship in 1857. In other words, from the beginning of the nineteenth century we find ample evidence which proves that modern education of Brahmins was subsidised and rewarded. Exclusive colleges were built for their ‘preserve’. The study of Sanskrit was deemed essential for every ‘Indian’ student. This condition clearly favoured the Brahmins over the others. Similar colleges, exclusively catering Brahmin-Savarna interests were set up in cities like Calcutta and Banaras (Dongerkery, 1957).

 The history of Calcutta Sanskrit College is also marked by deliberate attempts to maintain caste privileges by denying opportunities to lower castes. A.K. Biswas documents10 how Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar as the Principal of Calcutta Sanskrit College along with Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea clearly stood against democratization of Higher Education in Colonial India. A.K. Biswas quotes the letter written by Vidyasagar on September 29, 1859 to John Peter Grant, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, opposing the Charles Woods Dispatch of 185411 which proposed ‘mass’ education. Vidyasagar writes –

“An impression appears to have gained ground, both here and in England, that enough has been done for the education of the higher classes and that attention should now be directed towards the education of the masses… An enquiry into the matter will, however, show a very different state of things. As the best, if not the only practicable means of promoting education in Bengal, the Government should, in my humble opinion, confine itself to the education of the higher classes on a comprehensive scale.”

Vidyasagar, who is revered by many, categorically advocated for confining education to ‘higher classes’ (both men and women). In the same essay, A.K. Biswas points out that a wealthy man from the goldsmith community was denied admission in Sanskrit College by Vidyasagar due to the ‘low-caste’ status of goldsmiths and in the interest of the ‘upper-castes’ attending the colleges. Thus, the idea of a ‘learning community’ was effectively narrow and did not include the majority.

 Similar instances can be found across India. For example, Dr. Palpu, a pioneer of lower-caste mobilizations in Kerala, in his book ‘Thiruvithamkotte Ezhavar’12 (Ezhavas of Travancore) meticulously documents the democratic struggles carried out by Ezhavas to enter schools, professional colleges and government jobs in Travancore. He records the attitudes of the Savarna bureaucracy who either denied or delayed jobs to highly educated Ezhavas.

 Though modern colleges were also established under the banner of missionaries in Bombay, Madras, Agra, Delhi and Calcutta, they also catered chiefly to the Brahmin-Savarna groups of the country. Commenting on this period, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, in his essay ‘Christianizing India’ points out that the Missionaries initially aimed at converting Brahmins and other ‘upper castes’. They tried to achieve this aim by setting up Colleges, Schools and Hospitals. The major benefits of Christian institutions were reaped by the ‘high caste Hindus’.

 The Charles Wood Despatch of 1854, which is considered the Magna Carta of Modern Education in India also made it clear that it was their intention that every opportunity should be given to the ‘higher classes’ for the acquisition of a higher European education “the effects of which may be expected slowly to pervade the rest of their fellow countrymen and to raise in the end the educational tone of the whole country’ (Dongerkery 1957:10) Such was their belief in the ‘downward filtration theory’.

 What one finds is a successful mobilization of an educated Savarna Public sphere through modern education in India. Such a mobilization in real, tangible terms would not have been possible without the colonial ruler. From the inception of the first set of Universities in 1857 (and even before that), one finds a close collaboration among savarnas across regions. However, it goes without saying that certain regions dominated over the other. For example, the first committee which decided the technicalities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Universities had ‘Indian’ members who mostly resided and worked in Calcutta in close collaboration with the Colonial Government. And all of them belonged to the ‘upper-echelons’ of the caste society, mostly Brahmins. Even the lone ‘Indian Christian’ was a Brahmin Convert – Dr. Kedar Nath Banerjee.

 In other words, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Universities which covered the whole of present-day India (and more) under its jurisdiction, had members from particular castes and particular regions who built close links with the then ruler, deciding its fate and culture.

 Similarly, as one goes through the silver jubilee report of Pune University, one finds out that the University was established in 1949 after a long standing ‘movement’ of petitions and resolutions by the Maharashtra University Committee (formed in the wake of the 1926 Bombay University decision to sanction regional universities in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat) and Marathi Sahitya Sammelan (which included the resolve to establish a university for Maharashtra time and again in its conferences). The official history makes mention of several Brahmin individuals who actively vouched for a university in Pune. The formation of an official committee in the early years of the 1940s to look into the specific details of the proposed Pune University was practically an All–Brahmin Committee, with a late addition of a Muslim aristocratic member. Again, the Brahmins who were part of the committee were mostly from the urban areas of Western Maharashtra. The nexus of already existing colleges (especially Fergusson College under Deccan Education Society) and the powerful decision-makers is evident as one goes through the report. This nexus had direct implications on the culture and economics of appointments and admissions in Pune University. For example, till the silver jubilee celebrations of Pune University in 1974, all the Vice-Chancellors were Brahmins. The Chancellors were upper-caste Congressmen – a generous mix across regions. All of them claimed present or past affiliations with colleges and universities established in 19th century and first half of 20th century. The ‘national’ scale was practically a playing ground for mobile upper-caste western educated men facilitated by the technological and industrial progress ushered as a result of western modernity.

 Late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed the rise of Savarna nationalists who established colleges across the country with the help of the grant-in-aid provided by the Colonial Government. Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is a product of these efforts.

 Annie Besant who played an important role in shaping Modern Hinduism through her ‘elementary and advanced textbooks’ on Sanatana Dharma , founded the Central Hindu College, Banaras (along with Bhagwan Das) in 1898. Later, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya joined hands with Annie Besant and endorsed the idea of a ‘fully residential college for Hindus’. It should be noted that BHU was a product of a newly mobilized Brahmin–supremacist nationalism. It involved long periods of associational activities, journalism and lobbying with Congress through the Madhya Hindu Samaj (which perceived promotion of Hindi as its cultural activity) and Hindu Mahasabha in late 19th and early 20th Century, conducting its operations majorly through Allahabad14.

 The network of colleges and universities, prepared the Brahmanical elite (across religion) to readily possess government jobs. The rise of Indian National Congress during the same period consolidated the position of these groups further. For example, S.R. Talukder in his essay titled ‘Indian Civil Service Examination and The Savarna Merit’15 tells us how ‘upper’ caste Indians consistently underperformed in Indian Civil Services despite having non-discriminatory schooling in missionary schools and colleges, consolidation of land ownership through Permanent Settlement of Zamindari System, political power through Indian National Congress and cultural supremacy in every walk of life. In order to redress this ‘non-meritocracy’, they made use of Indian National Congress as a pressure group. British administration provided several measures , such as ‘reservations’, ‘relaxed age limits’, ‘priority in specific appointments’, ‘examination in Indian centers’ and ‘political nominations’ for the Brahmanical elite. Ultimately, the numbers tilted in the favour of upper-caste Indians only after Europeans persistently backtracked from ICS after World War–I. Bhagwan Das16 notes that the Brahmins in Madras and the Bhadralok in Calcutta colonized the advantages of the new educational policies and captured most of the posts available in the administration. Even the Senates and Syndicates formed as a part of the organization of Universities, were playgrounds for a Savarna educated class to push its politics forward. For example, the appointment and recommendations of the Indian Universities Commission in 1902 were strongly opposed by Ferozshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale on the grounds that the commission did not have an ‘Indian’ member from its inception and the suggestion to limit the Senate to hundred individuals would make its nature ‘European and official’. (Dongerkery, 1957: 45, 46)

 The first century of Indian Universities is strongly marked by the identity politics of the ‘Indian educated classes’, often lead by Brahmins, conveniently divided on religious lines, addressing their demands to the foreign ruler and keeping lower-castes mostly at bay. Their identity-based politics worked effectively by forming pan-Indian organizations and collaborations.

 Talukder (1998) points out that 15th August 1947 was a ‘day of miracle’ for the Brahmin-Savarnas. It laid bare all the important positions in public institutions for upper-castes. Newly independent India was an open field of public institutions which required to be ‘manned’. This historical opportunity was constructed by graduating socially sanctioned caste supremacy to legal authority in multiple modern spaces, including universities. In this process they forged a ‘national’ address for themselves.
I think, this preceding note on the history of HEIs in India, their growth, ways of functioning and emergent culture would help one move towards the specific case of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Contextualizing JNU and its demography

 Drawing from the All India Survey on Higher Education (hereafter AISHE) Final Report 2014-15, JNU accommodates a mere 0.02% of all student enrolments in HEIs. Its demographic share among Central Universities is as low as 0.9%. Again, Central Universities as a whole, with national jurisdiction, educate just 4.7% of all students in HEIs. On the other hand, State Public Universities accommodate nearly 85% of all students in HEIs17. Central and State Open Universities accommodate more students (5.06%) than all Central Universities put together.

 The demographic insignificance of JNU or for that matter all Central Universities is a result of how they were historically conceived. They were conceptualized as specialized spaces to aid the operations of the nation-state. Satish Chandra in the silver jubilee memoir of JNU18 observes that the basic objective of central universities ‘in the widest sense‘ was to promote national integration. I would get back to the idea of ‘national’ universities in a short while.

 In spite of their demographic insignificance, Central Universities along with ‘Institutes of National Importance’ (which enrols a mere 0.58% of all students in HEIs19) capture centre stage in union budgets (irrespective of overall cuts in allocations)20, ‘national’ media reportage, or political economy of anglophone publications, international projects etc. They are embodiments of ‘national importance’ in their décor and architecture. They are also manned with ‘individuals’ and groups who have occupied or continue to occupy several powerful national positions. Further, many ‘national’ universities claim to have engendered a ‘national’ culture. JNU is often seen as a forerunner in such productions. For example, Rajat Datta21 in his essay describes JNU in the following words –

JNU is precisely that kind of island, a microcosm awash with India. All languages, regions, castes and communities inhabit the built and open spaces of this island. A colleague once remarked, if you want to have a Bharat darshan come to JNU.
[…]JNU epitomises that argumentative India. Freedom of expression and dissent are encoded in this university’s DNA.

The ‘idea of India’ is sustained through a complex network of public institutions which can range from the Parliament to the police outposts in remotest areas. It is important to note that all institutions are not invested with equal power. Universities and especially ‘National’ Universities are a part of this complex network, with considerable gate keeping powers in matters of knowledge production and consequent policy impacts. Again, Universities or HEIs also do not enjoy equal access to power or resources.

 The AISHE 2014-15 classifies higher educational institutions in twelve different categories in India – Central Universities, Central Open Universities, Institutes of National Importance, State Public Universities, State Public Open Universities, State Private Universities, State Private Open Universities, Institutes under State Legislature Acts, Government Deemed Universities, Deemed Universities –Government Aided, Deemed Universities-Private, and Other Institutes. Further, these twelve categories are further classified as on-campus and off-campus colleges (they can be government/government aided/ private management colleges). A growing number of these affiliated colleges offer professional courses and are controlled by private managements22. The questions of resources, opportunities, access to state power through individual experts or centres is highly uneven with a clear hierarchy.

 The social composition of the teachers and students in these hierarchies of HEIs bring to fore how Universities not only reflect but also reproduce socially-sanctioned structures of caste, class and gender and consequent access to resources or ‘national’ power. While a lot has been written about the changing student composition in public universities23, there is an informed silence about teachers in the Savarna Academy. A startling example is the number of SC, ST, OBC and Minority women in ‘Institutes of National Importance’. All of them put together accounts to a mere 2.3% of the total number of teachers in 74 ‘Institutes of National Importance’. Take a look at the Table 1 below – 

nidhin national table

The case of Central Universities is only slightly better, where on-campus and off-campus centres and teaching departments of the Central Universities have 6.1% SC, ST and OBC women faculty members. 3.6% of all teachers are Muslim women. However, these numbers are hardly comparable to their populations. The situation looks better in the case of affiliated and Constituent Colleges. However, it should be noted that the job contracts in these colleges are much more precarious than University departments. Take a look at the following Table 2 –

nidhin jnu table1

One can deliberately reduce the question of numbers of historically exploited groups in Institutes of ‘National’ Importance as a matter of non- implementation or slow implementation of ‘reservation policies’. However, such an answer is ahistorical and narrow in its intention. The process of ‘including’ the oppressed in spaces overpopulated and controlled by the privileged typically begins only after consistent struggles by oppressed groups. The time involved in this process of resistance by the oppressed, is a time of opportunities and expansion for historically privileged groups. The time and conditions which enable ‘inclusion’ are crucial in any discussion on the entry and exclusion of oppressed groups into public institutions.

 The skewed numbers undeniably tell us about the ‘national importance’ of different social groups. The question of who ‘mans’ national institutions and how do they produce a national culture in the absence of any representational justice in key decision-making bodies is very important. This over-representation is a result of the continuing strength of a historically enabled savarna public sphere..

 Further, as I have argued elsewhere24, the notion of achieving a ‘microcosm of India’ through representation justice at the ‘national’ scale is riddled with problems when we grow mindful of the fact that India is made up of 5000 castes and tribes with several sub-groups, genders, speaking distinct languages, residing in varied geographies, involved in diverse occupations.

 Having placed JNU within the problem of ‘national’ universities (in some detail) based on AISHE 2014-15 Report, I am now in a position to exclusively discuss the case of JNU in order to illustrate the historical processes which explain skewed numbers and cultures.

JNU’s History, Culture and Numbers

The layout of the new campus, conceived of as the residence of a family, with interspersed faculty houses and hostels […] the intellectual milieu of commitment to changing the world and making it better and egalitarian one […] There was a grandeur in the conceptualization of JNU which bore the mark of Mr. G. Parthasarathy’s vision’ (Harbans Mukhia in JNU: The Years, 1996: 97)

The JNU Bill was passed as a ‘necessary’ legislation on 16th November 1966. This passage was preceded by a Joint Selection Committee set up for the purpose of establishing a ‘national’ university inspired by the experience of the Australian National University. However, it took three more years to lay the foundation of JNU in 1969. The establishment of JNU was followed by that of North-East Hill University, Hyderabad and Pondicherry Central Universities in 1970s.

 The idea of a ‘national university’ with an all India jurisdiction is a culmination of several historical processes. Along with the creation of an Independent India, one of the most important processes has been the intra-national creation of an active savarna public sphere which claims ideological, regional and linguistic diversity. We tried to catch glimpses of this historical formation in an earlier section. It operates as a self-sufficient national community which controls media systems, political, cultural and economic resources. They constantly talk to each other, historically sharing common schools, colleges, universities, public offices, libraries and speak more or less the same language.

 If we look at the biographical details of the founding members of JNU one would soon realize that most of them were well-networked second or third generation English educated Savarna Men. For example, the founder Vice-Chancellor of JNU was G. Parthasarathy , a western-educated Tamil Brahmin whose father N. Gopalswami Ayyangar was a civil servant with Madras Presidency. Ayyangar went on to become the Dewan of Kashmir and also a Minister in the first Nehru cabinet. G. Parthasarathy completed his education from Oxford University. His paternal uncle, A. Rangaswami Iyengar was the editor of The Hindu. Parthasarathi himself served in the editorial board of The Hindu before venturing into a diplomatic career. He was also the first representative of Press Trust of India in London25 . In short, he was part of a well-oiled system of national infrastructure through his caste kith and kin. He was extremely close to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He is remembered as the ‘architect of JNU’ and the author of JNU’s liberalism. He also served as the chairman of ICSSR for ten years. The diversity that this group of anglicised savarna individuals could possibly claim is that of region and language. The sectarian, provincial nature of their associations and conversations need to be underlined. While Universities are imagined as democratic spaces where individuals (irrespective of where they come from) can participate in the task of knowledge production without intimidation and fear, it is ironical to observe that such ideals were imagined and executed from social and geographical locations which stood in conflict with large sections of the society. Very clearly, the subordinated majority were kept aloof of any decision which would have an irrevocable, lasting impact on their educational and social mobility. This ‘lack of democracy’ in the formative years of universities should be taken very seriously in any discussion on ‘exclusion and inclusion’ in Higher education. What is often celebrated as the culture of a university is an uncritical acceptance of its ‘high-handed’ history.

 The idea of JNU as a ‘national’ university was imagined and executed in Delhi. More specifically, it is imagined in brick and mortar in the last ridge of the Aravalli ranges (Lochan, 1996: 14).

 To begin with the last ridge of the Aravalli ranges (likened to an uninhabited stone quarry in the Memoir) was progressively emptied out of its ‘particular social features’ to aid a ‘national’ imagination. In the silver jubilee memoir of the university we find no mention of the local communities, their social, economic and political contexts. There are no answers to questions such as – How did they benefit from the university? How did they respond to its establishment? How many alumnae were created from the castes and communities in the immediate neighbourhood? How many of them became teaching and non-teaching staff in the university?

One may argue that none of these ‘local’ (read as parochial) questions are relevant to a university imagined at a ‘national’ scale. For example, N.L. Sharma26 in his essay observes –

But I always wondered why there were no students from the adjoining villages, like Munirka, Ber Sarai, Masoodpur, Mohammedpur, at JNU. I did not find even one student at CSSS during 1972– 2003. There are economically well-off people in these villages, but they hardly have an understanding about JNU.

It is interesting to note that Sharma holds the local ‘wealthy’ communities responsible for not ‘understanding’ JNU (and not the other way round) and further in the essay pits them against the ‘rural’ students from remote parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The making of a ‘national university’ clearly requires a clean, ahistorical, non-conflicting canvas where one can forge the imagined nation, literally. Accountability at a ‘local level’ would not serve the national purpose.

 The process of ‘nationalizing’ a place also features in the naming of canteens, hostels and staff quarters in JNU. Thus, this Aravalli range has Periyar and Nilgiri as ‘places’ within its fortification. This is how the claim of being a ‘microcosm of India’ is forged into the system of naming. The process involves the symbolic violence (or collateral damage?) of deleting local names, features and histories. Clearly, the ‘local’ is subsumed, invisiblized or held in contempt by the so called ‘national’. Further, this national space (imagined in the national capital) produces professional knowledge which muffles all linkages of power between the ‘national’ analyst (often with international publication contracts) and the ‘regional’ object of analysis. Bourdieu calls this the intellectual division of labour in his book ‘language and symbolic power’. For example, in the case of N.L. Sharma’s observation quoted above, we have a ‘national’ analyst personified as N.L. Sharma commenting on the ‘local communities’ around JNU, totally oblivious about his own identity, institutional and linguistic resources which legitimize his study (a non-evidence-based gossip!) of the other. This unaccountability and arrogance of socially powerful academics is a product of ‘Indian’ nation.

 Having said that let me move towards the student composition of JNU which is often celebrated for its ‘national character’. Given below is the list of the JNU Student’s Union Presidents in the first 20 years of its existence. –

  nidhin jnu presidents

(Reproduced from JNU: The Years, pp. 188)

 The fact that most of the Presidents of JNU Students Union in first twenty years are ‘upper-caste’ men from certain regions is symptomatic of how the ‘national character’ of the student body was socially hierarchized on the campus. Like the ‘national’ elite which founded the university, the leadership of the student body was also drawn from the same class/castes of individuals.

 It is this group of individuals who are revered for the introduction of ‘deprivation points’ for historically marginalized sections in 1974. One finds such reverence in Prakash Karat’s essay on JNU27 in 1975. However, young Prakash failed to talk about the composition of teachers or key-decision making powers in JNU neither did he contextualize ‘deprivation points’ in the larger movements for social justice led by backward classes and dalits outside JNU. The seventies are crucial for it marked a series of political movements led by backward castes and Dalits in many parts of the country. Several such regions stand at a social distance from Delhi. For example, Karnataka had seen exemplary efforts by backward classes in organizing a politics of ‘affirmative action’ to topple the power relations in public life. Similar efforts were seen in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar etc. Sixties and seventies witnessed the formation of State Backward Classes Commissions across India.

 In fact, Siddhartha College in Mumbai made admission of backward classes along with SCs and STs its specific goal in the sixties itself, at a time when University of Bombay still had no ‘specific goal’ for the backward classes . Similar attempts to recognize backwardness and provide opportunities in one form or the other existed since the beginning of the 20th century in the peninsular southern states. Thus the novelty of JNU’s ‘deprivation points’ cannot be substantiated in the light of lower-caste mobilizations across India.

 In 1983, three years after the submission of Mandal Commission Report, the JNU administration set up a New Admission Policy Committee under the chairmanship of Bipan Chandra. Prakash Karat in the same essay footnotes the opposition of Bipan Chandra against the implementation of 20% reservation for SCs and STs pointing out reasons of quality and merit in 1974.This committee proposed a 15% and 7.5% reservation for SCs and STs respectively. This proposal was in line with the government policy of 1982. However, filling SC and ST seats were conditional to the marks obtained in the admission test. The Memoir Committee points out that NAP dismissed social and economic deprivation, quite in opposition to the emerging political discourse on backwardness fuelled by the assertion of lower castes across states in India. In other words, JNU’s official policy did not resonate with the concerns of the political moment.
The Memoir Committee observes that national leaders like Chowdhary Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar condemned the admission policy and ‘hoped that the JNU mandarins would withdraw the so-called merit based policy till the Mandal Commission recommendations were fully implemented’ (Lochan, 1996:27). The same report points out that the numbers of Scheduled Castes and Tribes remained below 11% (less than 50% of the sanctioned number of seats) of the total enrolment until 1987.

 Thus, the politics of deprivation points and reservations in admission were dormant and crippled with problems until the 1990s (marked by Mandal agitations). In 1982, a group of students wrote a short letter in EPW pointing out at the limitations of the system of deprivation points for socio-economic backwardness. They point out that teachers can manipulate the scores in VIVA and written exams to dilute or nullify deprivation scores.

 In spite of drawbacks in JNU’s politics of inclusion, the Silver Jubilee Memoir does not approach the question of caste with any seriousness or criticality. A good illustration is the following paragraph from the chapter titled ‘Reflections on JNU Culture and Tradition’ –

 […] In spite of a slightly caste-based pattern of admissions, one can notice that individuals are not addressed by their caste titles but by their first names. One would find more of Prems, Nandans, Firozs, Alpanas than Pandeys, Mishras, Khans or Srivastavas. (pp.201-202)

 The choice of surnames are instructive, However, I would not delve deeper into it. The ‘problem’ of caste is seen as an individual choice in the cultural realm. Thus, shedding it off and being ‘national’ and casteless can be achieved by addressing individuals by their first name.

 It is also interesting to notice the informed silence in the memoir about the social, caste composition of teachers. Even a cursory look at the organization of the university, with its focus on academic autonomy, would make it clear that teachers yield a lot of power on what should enter the classrooms as knowledge. Also, being appointed as a teacher in a ‘national’ university located in Delhi would mean proximity to ‘national’ power and authority. Going back to young Prakash Karat’s essay one finds evidence of the powerful multi-job profiles of the faculty members in JNU in the 1970s. He points out –

Vice- chancellor B D Nag Chaudhuri is too busy to be a full-time employee of the university (he is also foreign National Science Academy; director, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., Bangalore; head, Indian delegation, Indo-US Joint Sub-commission on and Technology; and member, Indian team of the Indo-US Joint mission on Education and Culture) […]

Rasheeduddin Khan, professor, Centre of Political Studies, is a member of the following bodies: Rajya Sabha; Council of Social Science Research; Indo-US Joint Sub-commission on Education and Culture; Board of South and West Asian Centre for Friends World Institute (of USA) Bangalore since 1967; American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad; and Executive Committee of the Institute of Asian Studies since 1965. He has additional onerous tasks on the boards of studies, selection commissions and examination committees of 26 Indian universities.

 Very clearly, many of the faculty members ’embody’ the authority of the nation-state in its multiple institutional forms. The economic implication of such embodiment is a matter of serious investigation. The social composition of teachers is important to make better sense of ‘who’ embody positions of national importance and at what point of time.

Cultures of Inclusion through Numbers of Inclusion: Appointment of teaching and non-teaching staff

On 26th April 2016, the Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe under the Chairmanship of Faggan Singh Kulaste submitted a report on the status of SC/ST reservation in teaching and non-teaching posts at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The report briefly captures the time taken by JNU to actually implement SC/ST reservation in teaching posts. It was in the Executive Council meeting of 1983 that JNU resolved to make provisions for SC/ST reservations to the extent of 15% and 7.5% respectively at the level of Assistant Professorship. This decision was a result of the official policy adopted by the Central Government to provide SC/ST representation (proportionate to their national population) in 1982. However, this resolution only had a marginal impact.

 It took fourteen more years for JNU (i.e. 1997) to adopt rules and guidelines for implementation of reservation policy. It is interesting to note that the first resolution comes after twelve years of JNU’s inception. This resolution was followed up and made effective only after the silver jubilee of the University.

 Again, it was only in the year 2000 that the Executive Council decided to approve and implement reservation (at Assistant Professor Level) on the basis of post based roster. Further, SC/ST reservation for the post of Professor and Associate Professor were applicable only since 2007. However, it was actually implemented after adoption of UGC Regulations’ 2010 by the University in 2011 and the 1st Advertisement with SC/ST reservations for Professor/Associate Professor was released in November 201130.

 68 SC posts and 38 ST posts remain vacant even after six years of UGC Regulations 2010. The Committee expressed its ‘displeasure on the insouciant attitude of JNU with regard to SC/ST recruitment in teaching posts’.

 When the Committee enquired about the reasons for not filling up these posts, JNU stated that the main reasons for not filling up the vacant positions was that in some cases no candidates had applied, particularly at the level of Professor/Associate Professor, and in a few cases candidates had applied but did not fulfil the essential qualifications and specializations advertised. In some cases the candidates had not made up to the prescribed Academic Performance Indicators (API) score. Finally, in some cases the Selection Committees had not recommended the candidate(s) for appointment. (Committee Report, 2016)

The following table, dated 19.01.2016 gives us a better picture of the number of filled and unfilled teaching seats among SC, ST and OBC in JNU –

nidhin academic branch 

For me the most hammering detail in this glimpse of SC/ST reservation is the number of years that lapse in pendency and non-implementation of policy decision. These denials and delays characterize every stage in the bureaucracy of affirmative action. Starting from policy resolution in the Executive Council to official advertisements and appointments, the time taken should be quantified in economic and social terms incurred by communities. Their struggles of entry were waged outside the universities and forced their way into it through politics. One needs to also account the economic and professional opportunities and expansion of historically powerful groups in the University during the same time-frame. Drawing from Philip Abrams , this ‘time’ can be simultaneously described as both a continuing moment of ‘lower-caste’ assertions and also as ‘time taken by the powerful to conditionally ‘include’ the opponent’. A combined description brings to fore the power relations in this process of ‘inclusion’. The power vested in the selection committee and officialdom of the university to ‘realize’ the rights of marginalized communities cannot be underestimated.

 Santhosh and Joshil Abraham in their essay titled ‘Caste injustice in Jawaharlal Nehru University31‘ categorically point out how upper-caste faculty members have consistently lobbied against implementation of reservations for marginal sections. They point out that in a note submitted to the Vice-Chancellor of JNU in 2010 the former vice chancellors and emeritus professors such as Y K Alagh, T K Oommen and Bipin Chandra, argued that if excellence was compromised in the name of ‘inclusion’ the worst victims would be the marginalized sections themselves as the ‘well-off’ would fly to universities abroad.

 Santosh and Joshil point out that this argument ‘uncreatively mimics the Gandhian idea of trusteeship’. What seems interesting is the continuing resilience of the savarna academy in conditioning, delaying and denying the rights of oppressed communities in university space.
From the above table one can understand that the percentage of SC, ST and OBC teaching staff in JNU is 9.9%, 2.6% and 4.7% respectively. It should be noted that the percentage of ST and OBC teachers is less than the national average for Central Universities as per the AISHE Report for 2014-15 (An updated survey may show an improvement in National average). Similarly, it should also be noted that even after 34 years of implementation of reservation for SC and ST at the Assistant Professor level their combined strength (17.8%) or individual strength ( SC : 13.2% ; ST: 4.6%) is less than the prescribed reservation among filled posts. Similarly, even after 10 years of OBC reservation less than half of the prescribed quota (11.28%) has been achieved among the filled posts. I think these processes of tiring denials and delays deeply mark the culture of a university.

To further press this point, the following table which appears in the report proves extremely instructive (pp.9). The table compares advertisements for SC/ST non-teaching posts with actual recruitment. Out of 46 posts advertised for SC teaching positions in 10 years only 20 were filled. The number looks comparatively better in the case of Scheduled Tribes.

nidhin st posts adv

The Committee pointed out that reservation were not applicable to certain categories/posts in JNU. They include the posts of – Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, Finance Officer, Controller of examination and Librarian (all tenure positions). The Committee pointed out at the need to ensure SC/ST representation in these posts. In the light of this observation, it should be noted that the maximum number of SC (24%) non-teaching staff are part of Group C employees. The following table was part of a response filed by JNU to a question raised by P.K. Biju M.P. in the Parliament, dated 14.03.2016 –

nidhin non teaching posts

nidhin teaching posts

It should also be noted that as per the Deputy Registrar’s response32 to the Parliament, between 2009 and 2013, JNU had not appointed a single SC cook. In spite of 10 sanctioned positions. On the other hand, 141 Safai Karamchari positions were exclusively ‘chalked out’ only for SCs. This proves how JNU efficiently reproduces caste in sites of labour like any other institution in India

In lieu of a Conclusion

 In this essay I have only tried to provide certain accounts on history, culture and numbers pertaining Universities in general and JNU in particular. However, even such a primary exercise proves that the ‘national culture’ claimed by ‘national’ universities cannot really stand the test of historical scrutiny. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during his time as the Senate member of University of Bombay underlined the need to ensure the participation of all elements of ‘national life’ in the working of a University. However, the founding fathers of JNU did not act accordingly is proven beyond doubt. The claims of inclusion are shallow and do not extend to teachers and key decision-makers in the University. The picture has been slowly changing only in the Post-Mandal era with serious delay and denials. However, this does not mean that the Savarna public sphere has stopped advancing its politics. The need to juxtapose the continuing fights of oppressed groups with stories of continuing manipulations by privileged groups is of prime importance.

 In a speech delivered by the present General Secretary of JNU Student’s Union she observes that ‘There is nothing more radical than a Brahmin fighting Brahminism’33. This declaration captures the culture of JNU. It is not an observation without historical precedence. Time and again, political heavyweights and scholars have revered JNU for the sight of a predominantly upper-caste public sphere in the National Capital fighting against oppression. Prakash Karat’s essay used in this paper in an example of the same. National Universities provide a playground for a savarna public sphere to graduate its identities as ‘radical’ and ‘liberative’ and consequentially pat each others back. This activity is a structural culmination of historical processes. However, the irony of this cultural politics is also captured in the Brahmin General Secretary’s declaration as the ‘Brahmin’ continues to remain ‘Brahmin’ in every fight.
For Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi students and teachers entering Universities such cultures would not provide any critical or psychological solace. On the other hand, its rejection would help us build positive identities.



  1. For example, even a cursory look at the Charles Wood Dispatch of 1854 or the Indian Universities Act of 1857 would be sufficient to find paragraphs after paragraphs legitimizing the idea of a university in modern times.
  2. Althusser in his conceptualization considers educational institutions as ‘ideological state apparatus’ devised by the ruling classes to control the masses. Similarly, Gramsci describes the intellectuals drawn from powerful groups as ‘officers of ruling classes designated with functions of social hegemony and political government’
  3. The first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in the year 1953 after consist protests and the resignation of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar precisely for the non-appointment of the Commission among other reasons. The Commission under the leadership of Pune Brahmin Kaka Kalelkar submitted its report in 1955. In a letter written to the president of India, post submission, Kaka Kalelkar rejects ‘caste’ as criteria to plan reservations. Shri. S.D.S Chaurasia was a member of the Commission. His 67 page dissent note generously quotes from the works of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to make a case for caste as the valid criteria for reservations. (See Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Vol III Minutes of Dissent, 1956)
  4. Aloysius G. (2005). The Brahmanical Inscribed in Body Politic, Critical Quest: New Delhi
  5. See Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
  6. Abrams, P. (1982). Historical sociology. Cornell University Press.
  7. Nurullah, S., & Naik, J. P. (1951).A history of education in India during the British period. Macmillan.
  8. Dongerkery, S. R. (1957). A History of the University of Bombay, 1857-1957. University of Bombay.
  9. Blunt, E. A. H., & Blunt, E. (1969). The caste system of northern India: with special reference to the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Delhi: S. Chand.
  10. See A.K. Biswas ‘ Universalization of Education: India in a trap’
  11. The Charles Woods Dispatch recognized the failure of focusing only on the education of the ‘higher classes’ (read as upper-castes) and discredited the ‘Downwards Filtration Theory’. See A.K. Biswas
  12. Palpu Dr. (2014). Thiruvithamkotte Ezhavar, Sithara Books: Kayamkulam.
  13. See Golay Wasant Hari (1974). The University of Poona (1949-1974): Silver Jubilee Commemoration Volume, The Pune University Press.
  14. See Renold, L. (2005). A Hindu education: early years of the Banaras Hindu University. Oxford University Press.
  15. See S.R.Talukder (1998), ‘Indian Civil Service Examination and Savarna Merit’, Blumoon Books : New Delhi
  16. See Das Bhagwan (2000), Moments in the History of Reservations, EPW, October 28, 2000 (retrieved from
  17. See All India Survey on Higher Education, Final Report 2014-15 to calculate the total number of students in Central Universities, studying in Constituent departments or affiliated Colleges. The total number of students is 15, 41609. On the other hand, the total number of students in Higher Education is 3, 21, 77,486. The enrolment in JNU as per the Monsoon Session Orientation speech of the Vice Chancellor is around 8000.
  18. Lochan, K. (Ed.). (1996). JNU: The Years: an Anthology by the Silver Memoir Committee. Popular Prakashan.
  19. As per AISHE, 2014-15 the total enrolment in Institutes of National Importance is 186966
  20. In the year 2012-13, Jawaharlal Nehru University received 4618.61 Lakhs as funds from UGC and Foreign Bodies.
  21. Datta Rajat (2016). The Spring of 2016 and the Idea of JNU, Economic and Political Weekly Vol LI No. 09 p. 10-13
  22. Academics for Creative Reforms (2016). What is to be done about Indian Universities? EPW, Vol L No. 25 p. 25-29 / this commentary is primarily authored by teachers from Delhi University and JNU. They do make a case for teacher accountability but do not spare any thought on the social composition of teachers.
  23. For example, see Deshpande Satish (2016). Public University after Rohith-Kanaihya, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol LI No. 11, 32-34; also See Academics for Creative Reforms (2016). What is to be done about Indian Universities? EPW, Vol L No. 25 p. 25-29
  24. See Remembering GP : The Gentle Colossus, The Hindu, July 07, 2012
  26. See Sharma K.L. (2016). Why India Needs JNU, EPW, Vol LI No. 23, 15-17
  27. See Prakash, K. (1975). Student movement in JNU. Social Scientists, 3(10), 47-53.
  28. See Altbach, P. G. (1972). The university in transition: An Indian case study. Sindhu Publications.
  29. The political nexus in appointment of teachers in 1970s is captured by the fact that in 1975 JNU advertised 80 posts for its School of Life Sciences in a single newspaper affiliated to Communist Party of India. (See Lochan, 1996 : 196)
  30. Sixth Report on Ministry Of Human Resource Development (Department Of Higher Education) titled “Role of Educational Institutions including Universities, Technical, Medical and Engineering in socio-economic development of SCs and STs – Implementation of reservation policy in Jawaharlal Nehru University”. Presented to Lok Sabha on 27.04.2016 Laid in Rajya Sabha on 27.04.2016, Committee on the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Retrieved from :
  31. See Santhosh, S., & Abraham, J. K. (2010). Caste Injustice in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Economic and Political Weekly, 27-29.
  32. Based on the response filed to the Parliament by JNU deputy registrar on the status of new sanctioned appointments, dated 8th August 2013 and the reply filed by deputy registrar to MHRD, dated July 25th 2014;Material for reply to Rajya Sabha unstarred Question No. 1136 for 16.12.2013 asked by Shri Ali Anwar Ansari regarding “Reservation policy in Central Universities”. Also see
  33. This speech was delivered by the General Secretary on 14th October 2016 in front of JNU administrative block. I thank Heba Ahmed, a research scholar with JNU for this information.


Nidhin Shobhana is an artist and writer


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.