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Indian academic spaces remain ‘filter-kaapi’ publics: Sipping Chai, Reasoning Prof. Amartya Sen

Indian academic spaces remain ‘filter-kaapi’ publics: Sipping Chai, Reasoning Prof. Amartya Sen



Indian academic spaces remain ‘filter-kaapi’ publics: Sipping Chai, Reasoning Prof. Amartya Sen

Dickens Leonard M

dickensI wish to write on a lecture that went undelivered, an appeal that never materialized! On 19th December, 2013, Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate, was conferred, yet another, honorary doctorate at University of Hyderabad. The event was dramatic, colorful, dynamic, yet, tragic; for he received his Honoris Causa, and, did not deliver his speech on “Are Coffee-Houses Important for Education?” to the disappointment of many thoughtful coffee-drinkers. Instead, he lectured on how to educate oneself, to agitate organically: on caste, discrimination, development, social-criticism, dialogue and debate, informed public argument, and, yes, with a hell-a-lot-of China and Kerala-Model comparisons.

The investiture ceremony was duly “interrupted” by “Raju-Venkatesh Solidarity Committee,” by students who stood as groups, with raised posters, wearing black ribbons around their mouths, in silence. The posters went: “Does Caste enter into Coffee-Houses?”, “Talk about Caste Discrimination”, “Stop Sambukha Vathas“, “Don’t Evict PhDs to give PhDs”, “How do the administrators take accountability?”, “How to Debrahmanize our Coffee-Houses”, and “How do you counsel the faculty?” Vehemently, some moments later, the Dean of Economics, a senior Dalit professor, was taunted, mocked at, clapped-off, and made to stop his critical introduction, and appraisal to Prof. Sen, by a sizable public, which exhibited its dis-engagement with difference, visibly and so-very-sensibly. An authentic Indian way to initiate a “Coffee-House” lecture, normatively and institutionally!

When Prof. Sen started, what followed were questions, cries, and appeals from students, who broke their silence: “Sir, stop talking about your coffee-houses, talk about caste discrimination in higher education and universities … people are getting killed in these institutions, do you want your doctorate on our deaths?” Prof. Sen took a moment, changed his topic, and sarcastically, but, repeatedly reminded, amidst laughter, that he is not giving a lecture on the “Coffee-Houses.”

Sens protest 2

What Prof. Sen spoke instead was an important lesson to be educated, about the public he imagined, consciously participated, and co-produced. Perhaps, he spoke of the authentic “Filter-Kaapi” publics1. It was an attempt, perhaps, at that moment, to renew and retain the hierarchical, cultural past in the political, epistemological present, at the public institutional spaces in India. He drew, perhaps, a pernicious epistemological divide between the Coffee House and the road-side Chai-Shop.

The public enjoyed, booed, and was swayed over by the intelligence of this man – a nobel laureate – who could tackle non-civic bodies, with agitated minds and actions sans education. “See you are not following your Ambedkar!” was the taunt. Now, Prof. Sen, who quoted Adam Smith copiously on dialoguing and democratic practice, forgot his “Moral Sentiments,”2 so as, to apply it here, in order to think, act, and understand, and empathize consciously; for he did not, wasn’t prepared, and wasn’t “competent”! Perhaps, he believed, along with the jeering crowd, that the Coffee-Houses should be noise-less, silent, and visibly “caste-free.” Now, the caste-consciousness and practices, of “Filter Kaapi” publics, that generate violence and annihilate the marginalized, should be unraveled and unpacked.

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I argue that the “show” should be understood as a failure of understanding, intentionally, by the “Filter-Kaapi” public, so as, to fundamentally reject and annihilate bodies and minds which protest and oppose them, courageously. Humiliation, taunts, and crisis management are reductions of presence, itself! The Dalit voice is ontologically never human enough for them; it has to remain noisy, lousy, and nauseating3. It has to thrive, institutionally, only by foregrounding, an impossibility of justice, in the context of injustice. By doing so, the noise remains haunting, threatening, and interrupting, or one may say, epistemologically breaking4; while “Filter Kaapi” publics remain preferring and serving only that, which is “aromatic” and “filtered.” Denial is Rejection. This is the obnoxious, Indian way of augmentative discrimination, which cast(e)s itself as “argumentative.”5

The Power of/to ‘Silence’

The “Raju-Venkatesh Solidarity Committee” had undertaken an innovative, indefinite hunger strike against the Vice Chancellor Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy and the UoH administration, which was halted due to an essential failure of understanding.6 Due to which, the committee protested, through silence, democratically, at the investiture ceremony. In the context of failure, it is necessary to understand the protest by the Dalit-Subaltern students as politically and epistemologically different and ground breaking.7 It is political because of the possibility by Dalit groups to educate, agitate and organize as counter public spheres, much continuously and openly.

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However, I would like to extend it to the question of epistemology, i.e. knowledge practice and its space. The political actions fundamentally de-institute, as well as, constitute a moral compulsion on the gate keepers of institutionalized knowledge spaces, say the ‘Filter-Kaapi’ University authorities, to act and respond. And they contravene epistemologically, with their excessive traditional power and the caste-capital which they possess: through their english-jargon, through their emotional autocracy, through their management skills, through their ‘modern’ sociality, and ‘untouching’ caste-civility. The creative use of silence and hunger, by the Dalit-Subalterns, as protest, is responded to by an authoritarian use of caste-resources of knowledge, so as, to ‘silence’ the question of discriminated presence. While Dalits use their silenced bodies, as an epistemological mark of discrimination, to compel moral reason and legal action; the ‘Filter-Kaapi’ public taunt and jeer at these attempts, violently, so as to silence and erase them continuously. It augments caste as a category of knowledge production and annihilation: through their Darshana and Vakhya, that silence and invisibilize ‘untouchable’ voice and presence! The “Filter-Kaapi” public’s jeer and mockery at the critical presence of Prof. Nancharaiah, Dean, School of Economics, at the ‘UoH Coffee-House’ on 19th December, 2013, is a demon from the past that haunts!



[1] Partially inspired by A.R.Venkatachalapathy’s title and argument of “In Those Days There was no Coffee: Coffee-Drinking and Middle-Class Culture in Colonial Tamil Nadu.” Chalapathy’s text studies the coffee-drinking culture in Tamil Nadu to record a cultural-history of the making of dominant caste cultures. However, I’d like to use the phrase ‘Kaapi-House Public’ to refer to particular kind of caste-consciousness, which masks itself as institutional rationality as response to Dalit struggles.

[2] Adam Smith’s 18th century magnum opus “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” has inspired many a radical thinkers to conceptualize the idea of moral sympathy. He proposes the theory that the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves, and the morality of their own behavior.

[3] Refer Gopal Guru’s intriguing and incisive argument on Rejection, Reduction and Humiliation titled “Rejection of Rejection: Foregrounding Self-Respect” (2010).

[4] Thanks to Arun Asokan, PhD Scholar, UoH, for foregrounding the idea of ghost-presence, haunting, and erasure of ‘being’ as a concept to understand the caste-modern response to Dalit presence in academic spaces, in a discussion. Arun argues that Dalits are always perceived as ghosts, who belong to a different time, apparently, from the past, who occupy the present, ‘modern’, spaces that are populated and designed by the ‘upper’ castes. Hence they haunt in their presence, and in their deaths, in these incompatible spaces.

[5] Thanks to Chitti Babu Padavala, PhD Scholar, IIT-B, for using the term ‘The Augmentative Indian’ in his Face Book status update on Amartya Sen. He reads Amartya Sen’s unwillingness to address the question of caste, anti-caste thought, and Kashmir, as a perfect example of augmenting and not argumenting.

[6] Refer the YouTube video “Failure of Understanding: An Open Debate with Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, VC, UoH.” The note says “This engagement, on the fifth day of hunger strike, at the Shopping Complex, envisages a failed understanding of democratic protest that the students (mostly marginalized) initiated; and also, the failure of the ‘system’ to understand that institutional lapses can be due to caste, that discriminates and annihilates the Dalits, particularly. In fact, the video uncovers the caste-mask that is invisibilized.”

[7] Joby Matthew, PhD scholar, UoH, argues that there is a fundamental need to understand the student protests on Dalit suicides at UoH, differently. He understands the strike as “historicizing”, and argues that “the anti-Mandal discourses on reservation created a huge divide between the reserved groups and non-reserved groups; and it even posed the question of ability and merit in a derogative sense, therefore the genealogy of the anger on reservation is linked to the anti-Mandal agitation to a certain extent, but it is deep rooted in the Indian caste system, which still prolongs in higher educational institutions.”


Please read other related articles:

Report on Recent Dalit Student Suicides at University of Hyderabad: by Raju-Venkatesh Solidarity Committee

Indefinite Hunger Strike at University of Hyderabad over Suicides: by S Swaroop Sirapangi

Another Dalit Student Killed by the Casteist UoH Administration: by United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF)

Caste in Question: Re-Reading the Recent Hunger Strike in University of Hyderabad: by Joby Mathew




Dickens Leonard M is a Research Scholar at Center for Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, University of Hyderabad.

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