The historic Hindu College of Calcutta, later named as Presidency College and currently known as Presidency University, has conventionally been an academic space almost exclusively occupied by the upper caste Hindus. The minorities of India, particularly those who are now known as SCs, STs, and OBCs and those who constitute 85% of India’s population, had a tough time entering, establishing, and asserting themselves in this so-called liberal educational space. This explains why almost all the big names associated with Presidency College are either Brahmins or upper caste Hindus. Even the historic Bengal Renaissance, which some famous Presidencians were a part of, quite systematically excluded the question of caste-based marginalization in Bengal.
Meghnad Saha, the legendary physicist who hailed from a Sudra background, faced discrimination related to interdining in Presidency’s Eden Hindu Hostel as he faced restrictions on social intermixing at the then Presidency College. The untouchables of India, now known as the Scheduled Castes, were, however, not allowed to cross the threshold of this predominantly Hindu institution for over a century and a half. Arguably, the greatest damage to Bengal was done by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who ruled the state for 34 years. The CPIM had a stronghold over Presidency College and the stakeholders at Presidency continued promoting an urban Brahminical ideology masqueraded as progressive leftism. The CPIM leaders and Presidency ideologues completely ignored the caste question, violently resisted caste-based reservation, and ensured that nobody could use the vocabulary of caste discrimination in their protests against institutional oppression. Issues concerning gender, religion, and class received some attention but nobody debated caste within the premises of Presidency. This implies that almost all political movements organized by the students or alumni of Presidency College were inevitably trapped in a Brahminical consciousness. They simply failed to see the world with the eyes of a caste-subaltern.
A historic change occurred in the life of the 200-year old institution in 2010 when Presidency College was converted into Presidency University. By virtue of being a University that had to strictly follow the UGC rules regarding caste-based reservation in academic recruitment as well as with the decline and fall of Communist rule in Bengal, Presidency, in its new avatar, came as a boon for the caste-subalterns. Every academic department had to recruit teachers and students following the constitutional policy of equity and democratic representation in public universities. Presidency was filled, thus, with a fair number of recruits from the traditionally excluded SC, ST, and OBC communities. It is no wonder the conversion of a College into a University was strongly condemned by the so-called well-wishers of Presidency (all of whom hailed from an upper caste background). These self-declared Brahminical guardians of Presidency lamented the decline of Presidency’s standard due to such recruits. What they actually feared, however, was the destruction of Presidency’s educational space colonized by Brahmins for two centuries. In the name of merit, a discourse which is not rare at today’s Presidency either, these guardians made the new recruits feel completely undeserving.
The truth, however, was the opposite. Each of the so-called reserved category recruits had an excellent academic graph that indicated their incredible struggles and achievements. Even though they were initially humiliated on a daily basis by a Brahminical academic community at Presidency, many of them fought back and demonstrated that they were some of the best minds of contemporary Bengal. To a great extent, thanks to their commitment to their community, caste issues started being discussed and debated at Presidency. Seminars, conferences, and talks started being organized on a regular basis and all these contributed to an ongoing caste-sensitization in the Presidency campus. It seems that the interests of 85% of India’s population, the SCs, STs, and OBCs, are now a matter of concern for some of Presidency’s stakeholders. A true democratic spirit is set to pervade the campus, at least theoretically.
The latest development in this effort of building a caste-sensitive campus at Presidency is All About Ambedkar (www.allaboutambedkaronline.com) – a webzine dedicated to closely reading the works of Babasaheb Ambedkar. The website has been built by the students of the Department of English, Presidency University, under the close supervision of Dr. Mahitosh Mandal, an Assistant Professor of English of the same University. Some of his colleagues including Professor Priyanka Das and Professor Rajat Ray have extended their full support for the project. In the introduction to the webzine, Dr. Mandal, its founder and editor, writes, “This project is based on a simple premise: Ambedkar deserves to be read. … From being suppressed and not published for decades to being ignored in the academic space, Ambedkar’s books have not reached us. But times are changing. Ambedkar is no longer considered to be just a ‘reservation leader’ but, as many argue, as ‘the father of modern India.’ For us, Ambedkar is primarily a thinker – perhaps, the most original, rigorous, and provocative thinker India has produced.”
Although focused on Ambedkar’s works, the webzine broadly aims at creating electronic resources for the advancement of Caste Studies. The articles published and sought for publication are wide ranging and include close overviews of Ambedkar’s texts, reviews of books on Ambedkar and Caste, discussions on caste-related violence, exploration of the theme of caste in film and literature, and analysis of the issue of caste in contemporary Indian politics. The webzine is a valuable digital archive also because it, under the banner of “Similar Projects,” provides links to almost all the leading anti-caste news portals and archives available online.
All About Ambedkar thus promises to be a significant platform in initiating open discussions and debates regarding the caste question so far neglected by the academia at Presidency in particular and in West Bengal in general.