Round Table India
You Are Reading
The myth of ‘Departmental Politics’

The myth of ‘Departmental Politics’



 Deepali Salve


Ever since I got into university for higher education, one word that I have constantly heard is “politics”. As I did not face casteism/exploitation till my graduation, I was far away from experiencing what casteism exactly is! There was an illusion in my mind as a child that teachers engaged in beating only upto the school level. But that illusion had begun to slowly disappear.

Some misconceptions were triggered in my mind for some time before and after my tenure in the college — that there was a lot of “politics” going on in colleges but it was not politics, I’d say it’s casteism. There was a fear in my mind—as to how things would work out in the ‘political’ education system, what problems I would have to face and why I would fall prey, even when there was nothing wrong with me. Such questions were consistently popping up in my mind, hence I started looking at everything with suspicion and inspecting even the little things.

Well, what is politics? When all the upper caste people, from the office clerk to the department head, mentally harass the students without any reason, it is called ‘politics’. There are generally two groups in the classroom, the upper class and the lower class. By the way, it took me a while to understand that there was a direct relationship between class and caste. But when I entered the school I became consciously alive. Many students kept in touch while traveling to other places for seminars, lectures, or academic studies and then we would discuss topics ranging from university canteens to departmental classrooms. Information about new programs was exchanged and personal experiences were shared. There used to be a lot of conversations about the problems that arise in higher education, the mental/physical difficulties that come along while facing them.

One of the problems that constantly comes to my mind is the fluency in English. SC/ST students with a vernacular medium background suddenly find it very difficult to hear and understand advanced-level English. The experiences of students from marginalized backgrounds stand testimony to the fact that having to answer questions in English, in front of upper caste students who are proficient in English and as a result leading to this direct and indirect comparison, comes off as a great humiliation.

Ultimately, it means that this confusing term ‘politics’ in the university comes from caste-privileged backgrounds, from their regular practices. What exactly is this ‘politics’? It is every sort of help a student receives when they are very close to a teacher, or when a group of upper caste students sit with the upper caste teacher in the teacher’s cabin to discuss Marx, Lenin and feminism. On the other hand, teachers exclude students who do not belong to a particular caste and do not cooperate with them. The teachers exclude or sideline them with excuses like “I’m busy, ask other professors”. It took a long time for me to realize in the second year of my Master’s that when it is said that a particular professor is deliberately harassing a certain student, there is a reason behind it. And the reason is that, their caste identies that clings to both, the student and the teacher. What that professor is doing is not politics, but outright casteism.

My reason for having noticed all this is my reading of anti-caste literature, attending seminars, conferences, lectures and experiencing daily casteist incidents. And all this has created a perception that the caste is behind class. Since it included both savarna and avarna students, I have also mistaken the term casteism for ‘politics’. But now I am clear that to practice politics is to practice casteism. Now I know the castes of the students who told me that “this is a problem many students face, it’s departmental politics”. ‘Politics’ is such a cute and innocuous name to call this phenomenon.

There are two reasons behind this. One is that if you and a person of your caste are abusive, and it is difficult to accept that it is a casteist act, because where, one may ask, is casteism in modern India now? Hence, this is not casteism, this is “politics in educational institutions”. The perpetrators of casteism in education are consciously aware that the students who are being exploited come from socially and economically backward communities.

*However, this is seen from a class angle, not from a caste angle, because from their hegemonic and hierarchical point of view, the Marxist/feminist revolution in India has not yet taken place, so the struggle against the discrimination that is taking place is a class struggle instead of caste struggle.*

Let’s look at casteism in the Brahmin campus politics. One can see how clever the exploiters are—on the one hand, they try their best to reject SC/ST students during the admission process itself. Despite all these efforts, if some of these students manage to secure admission, they formulate two types of strategy against them—

1) the student is assumed to be very weak and in need of constant support. The teacher then shows the student false sympathy and encourages her to perform the “bichari” (needy) rather than to become “vichari” (thoughtful). The student is then given feminist, Marxist, Gandhian literature to maintain their caste supremacy at the ideological level. This makes the student think that the teacher is very good, that he/she values them more than the others, that they are the teacher’s favorite student. But these naive students don’t know that they are pampered just to be used for any departmental work. If you look at the division of labor at any event in a university, school or college, you will notice that casteism is at the very root even if it is not at the tips, and it is seen in action.

Some of the tasks of these naive students include manual tasks such as tidying up the chairs in the hall, placing water bottles on the table, recording the event outside the hall, overseeing the preparation of meals and looking for the professor’s lost bag. This ensures the exploiter and the exploited both are happy. The work assigned to savarna students include the conducting and hosting of functions, the entertainment of the chief guests, preparing questions for them at the end of the seminar and the responsibility of preparing the report of the event.

It is now clear that this ‘politics’ which is evident from this division of labor is in fact casteism. It was the ‘revolutionary’ upper-caste feminists who perpetrated it, who started the Women Development Cell and pretended to discuss SC/ST issues. They have not stopped there. They visit the slums and preach on issues such as de-addiction, domestic violence, and financial problems.

2. Now, if another student has successfully passed the admission process and he/she is fearless, fully aware of discrimination, then that student has to face another level of discrimination. This creates a situation where the student has two options. One is to drop out of education (and to permanently forfeit socio-economic change) or to attempt suicide. The other option is to deal with conflicting situations. Such as the many difficulties all the professors force SC/ST students to face in accessing the scholarships given to them, the frequent university visits for documents from the department, the endless wait for that one signature which would enable them to use the library services, the barrage of vague excuses to keep the computer or study room shut (“how can we keep it open for just one student?”) All this makes the journey of this struggle mentally and physically exhausting, and very few students decide to teach the Brahmins a legal lesson or to fight against the casteist education system.

But there are also SC/ST students who tolerate everything and focus only on getting a degree. There can be two reasons for tolerating institutional caste discrimination. Brahmanical patriarchy is a pest in the society, and so we cannot expect it to vanish easily from bahujan society. Girls are aware that their parents support their education by enduring much hardship. They are also aware that having never seen the police/court/office, their parents might put an end to their education. They don’t want to bother them or tarnish their own image in society. They think that nothing can be done without education.Further they also think that if they take legal action, other members of the upper castes will harass them even more. In the end, the girls continue to endure it all.

The same thing happens with boys. They also suffer oppression because their family has a poor economic situation hence they think education is the way out. If the male child is the eldest in the household, the responsibilities increase even more. Ensuring the education of younger siblings by working, and losing the opportunities gained through socio-economic struggle is not easy for bahujan students. This opportunity is after all the fruit of the struggle of many generations and of great men like Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar who stood for social justice in the society.

The children of ‘settled’ people, immersed in their ego of hegemony and wealth, are not aware of such a situation. Or it can be said that their ancestors have not allowed them to be aware of it. While savarna students may or may not know anything, they know exactly how much wealth there is in the family. So they can easily afford expensive classes and buy seats with a lot of money. And not only that, these people insult bahujan students as ‘freeloaders’ by opposing reservation and the SC/ST Act. If we look at it, there is not a single educational institution in India where bahujan students do not have to face casteism.

But modernity has changed its appearance. It is now common to sit together in the canteen to have a meal, drink tea, and discuss various issues. Only when the subject of bahujan people’s rights, entitlements, representation comes up, people leave the subject. Or we hear stuff like: “Even after getting 90%, general students (i.e. Brahmins) do not get admission in a good educational institution due to reservation”, “False cases are being filed against some persons under SC/ST Act even though there is no crime”, “The Indian Constitution was not only drafted by Dr. Babasaheb but also by other people”, “Dr. Ambedkar was constantly supported by the Brahmins”.

The struggle to convince us of this is ongoing. But while saying all this, there is no concrete evidence. The fact of the matter is that the one who used to sit on the ground now sits on the chair. And he who did not have the right to education is now teaching everyone. This is not tolerated by savarna people. Since they cannot see their hegemony/Brahmanism slowly eroding, they work to stop Bahujan students not with deceitful thoughts but with cowardly attacks. Very few students from the SC/ST community have the opportunity to do research. Such chances give a new twist to their social and economic situation. They also inspire and empower the next generation. One would think that doing research is not such a big deal. Someone might even think that inserting ‘doctor’ next to your name is fun. One would simply have to receive a non-NET fellowship from UGC for four-five years, live a hostel life, travel all over the country in the name of great seminars, conferences and workshops, and after four years you would become a ‘doctor’. Is it really that easy? And especially for SC/ST students?

Not at all. Not as easy as it seems. One has to suffer tremendously, mentally and physically, for the word ‘Doctor’. Until the degree of ‘Doctor’ falls into the hands of the student, he/she cannot say with full confidence that he/she will get the doctorate degree. At every step of the process, they (the brahmins) give him/her unbearable mental anguish so that he/she has to give up his/her education. And they often succeed.

When mental distress becomes unbearable, he/she feels it is okay to give up on research. I have seen many friends who thought so. And their experiences with frustrated faces showed how they had to deal with racism. It is ironic how Brahmanical professors who try their best to upset the mental balance of SC/ST students, ensure their own children stay in the same educational institutions and do research on the mental health of many students and get degrees.

Who doesn’t need to be treated for a distorted mindset? It is very important to tell them that there is no benefit in treating patients, it is the caste system and Brahmanical mentality that has to be treated first. And for both these things, savarna people do not have to go to Dalit settlements and do research. They are in dire need of treating the dharmashastras which are the root cause of the disease in their own homes, settlements and villages. The network of the Sangh is spread across all educational institutions, from the bottom to the top. So there is very little chance of getting any other kind of research guide than a Brahmin one. And then the struggle between the Brahmin guide and the Bahujan researcher begins.

Those who come to academics with privileges due to their caste are the first to question the quality of Bahujan students. For example, these questions are asked: “How did you get an admission in PhD?”, “How many marks did you get?” Those who ask such questions are the ones who give low marks to these researchers. But still, they want to know how much merit a bahujan student has.

This is because, as stated in the Manusmriti, a Brahmin is considered to be intelligent, superior and learned at birth, even if he does not have the intellect.

So they look at the fourth varna of the varna system through Manu’s eyes. And then begins the journey of research and exploitation. There are many students like Dr. Rohith Vemula from Hyderabad Central University, Dr. Payal Tadvi from the prestigious Nair Hospital in Mumbai, and Fathima Latif from IIT Madras, who have been murdered by the Brahminical people in the education system. Some cases come out while some cases are concealed.

Therefore, the names of certain schools, colleges and universities are included in the list of those who uphold casteism. There is no need to misunderstand that there is no casteism or racism in the educational institutions whose names are not included. Casteism is there too, only it is termed as ‘politics’ to hide the castiest practices. Therefore, Bahujan scholars, who are studying in these institutions and survived, should discuss casteism with the younger generation, guide them, and stand firmly by them. Otherwise you will be engrossed in making your own class, and keeping your Brahmin partner and Brahmin friends happy. On the other hand, your brothers and sisters will continue to be exploited. Then there is no point in saying “stand with your sister/brother” after an academic murder has taken place.



Deepali Salve pursuing a PhD in Sociology from the University of Mumbai and this is where she completed her M.Phil. M.Phil dissertation assesses the perception of caste, gender and intersection of Scavenging women. Her research interests are social and economic status of Scavenging women, social stratification and inequality, women Labour issues and issues related to Girl child education.