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Understanding Caste & Casteism in Higher Education and Academic Institutions

Understanding Caste & Casteism in Higher Education and Academic Institutions

Lata P M


Lata Pratibha Madhukar

Lata P MCaste is deep rooted in the Indian collective consciousness and subconsciousness, this article is based on my experiences, standpoint and understanding of caste and casteism in higher education, academic institutes and among educationists. It aims to give a rationale for the urgent introducing of Phule-Ambedkarite ideology and perception in the realm of education, based on anecdotal and factual evidences. Further, it attempts to explain the need to develop an understanding of the relevance of Phule-Ambedkar consciousness in different domains of knowledge production and for the creation of an egalitarian society that is protective and nurturing of all human beings and nature, and progresses towards wisdom.


Key words: Phule-Ambedkarite consciousness, education, casteism, discrimination

Caste bias among educationists

On 16th January 2016, I presented a paper at the Indian Institute of Education, Pune, titled “Absence of Phule-Ambedkarite consciousness in Higher Education and Academic Institutes”. Local and national level educationists were present there, as I started talking about Jotirao Phule-Savitribai Phule, Shahu, Babasaheb and Periyar’s contribution in education, some of them became restless. A senior educationist had this to say, “What is the contribution of Phule? He was just teaching in the school established by the British.” I was surprised to hear such a version in a Gandhian institute, as this version is totally plotted and recounted by the RSS. Then, I responded by asking, if there was such an opportunity available for all to teach in British schools to Shudra, Atishudra and women, then why had no learned person from upper castes/Brahmin caste taken the opportunity to teach? Why did the contemporary reformists not open any schools for women, at least for their own community, between the period 1848 to 1900?

A chronology of facts to keep in mind with regard to women’s education: the British had established the first girls school in 1816 when Mahatma Phule and Savitribai were not yet born; Jotirao Phule was born in 1827 and Savitribai was born in 1831. And, Pandita Ramabai was born in 1852 when Savitribai Phule was already established as the first woman teacher in India, and had by then, opened two schools for girls and women from all castes. 

Until then, no school for girls was opened by any upper caste person anywhere in India, before Phule did so. I tried to tell the audience quietly, the actual history of education in India starts from Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule in 1848. I was surprised to know that in their history of education, they knew Macaulay, a colonial agent of education, but not the person, the first Mahatma before Mahatma Gandhi who really started giving education based on truth seeking. And that it was the first time in Indian education wherein Savitribai and Jotirao Phule had included equality, freedom, equity, non-discrimination, humanity and human rights as basic values.

If, in an educationists’ conference, people did not have the basic understanding of history of Indian education, then where and what should we expect? I was also asked to conclude my paper in five minutes. One educationist also tried to provide me information about how Manusmriti too was in favour of women’s rights.

As in the past, I was getting annoyed again at this real or deliberate ignorance, I waited to see whether any one was there to talk in support of my position. There were three research scholars who later on questioned  the senior educationists on their awareness about Phule. I realized that there was no use wasting my time among people who were convinced that Manusmruti and our old heritage was the golden one, though it was based on discrimination. I could get a sense that even among those educationists who were admiring Mahatma Gandhi and J.P.Naik – did they really want to give justice to Nayi Talim and J.P.Naik’s/ Chitra Naik’s educational work for deprived children in rural India? I observed that such people were also defaming ‘Gandhi and Naik’s school of thought that education was for all, by ignoring Phule-Ambedkar’s contribution in education.

After returning back, I started looking at the history of education in India written by many writers, for example, Sunil Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar’s work. They have given a detailed history of female education in India, they have referenced all missionary schools founded by Baptists in 1819 and indicated that Mr. Radha Kanta Deb was one of the founders. In the south, the missionaries had started girls education in 1821 in Tirunelveli; other missionaries had opened Hindu Balika Mahavidyalay in 1849, J.E. Drinkwater Bethune was its founder. In this book the Sarkars do not mention Phule at all. They ignore the history of education for women started by the Satyashodhaks and sidelined it by mentioning Arya Samaj and Prathana Samaj and the very well documented history of education by missionaries. From their work, we get to know that the founders of women’s education in Bengal, South India and Punjab were British missionaries, as well as that most of them were Baptists.

Phule never tried to convert to Christianity, but had taken education in the Scottish missionary school. He is the first person who founded a school for women from all castes, and did not work for a missionary school or Baptists, as had the others who are very well documented in such lavish history books. It is really surprising and very eye-opening that a 550 page book on social history of India, where history of education and women’s education is a subject, has completely ignored Phule’s contribution. Pandita Ramabai was born in 1852, 4 years after Savitribai Phule’s teaching profession had started; along with Jotirao Phule she was the pioneer of women’s education in India, yet, only Ramabai finds mention in their book. Also mentioned in it is the born Brahmin, Maharshi Karve.

It is very much evident that Sarkars’ history is biased for they cannot claim they did not have research access to locate these facts due to language limitation etc. As they have followed missionary newspapers, gazettes etc., how then, did they not see Bombay Guardian 1853, Dnyanodaya 1853 wherein details of the news about Phule’s girl’s school were prominently published? In the preface of the book, both the writers have written that they did not mention about Phule or little about Ambedkar because they want to write about them separately, and the reforms they brought about among higher and middle castes. It is quite interesting that such famous historians don’t know that Jotirao and Savitribai were the pioneer of the shelter home for ‘Brahmin’ widows.

Social reformers like Phule and Ambedkar envisioned reform for all women including Brahmin women; Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar resigned from the parliament on the issue of property rights of Hindu Brahmin and all middle caste women coming from landholding families. He said that, ironically, it was the same women from upper castes who did not understand that he was trying to get them rights. This was not for his community or its community’s vested interest, because women from his community were not from landholding or propertied backgrounds. But one thing is really proven that if such arguments, such as the one by the Sarkars in their preface, would have been given by any Dalit-Bahujan scholar, his/her research would be banned or denied recognition.

Nevertheless, the renaissance of Dalit-Bahujan people and their journey to establish Phule-Ambedkarite ideology is the only answer to such higher caste prejudices, fundamentalism and revivalism of Manusmruti.

On the basis of evidences of these factual errors, deliberate and calculated omissions and biases, how and why should Dalit Bahujan scholarship believe in such elaborate texts and in such historians, where even a single line is not written about the pioneers of school education for Shudra-atishudras, girls and women from all castes in India and just a paragraph of justification is given on page no. 9, to avoid controversies?

If such texts are erasing the factual history of subalterns, there is no doubt that educationists from that school will propagate the same version proving Goebbels theory.

Based on my learning from the past, I have applied a strategy to withdraw myself from such superficial gathering of educationists, who are conditioned to be caste and gender blind. I have decided to give my time to my own research and activism, to bring out such deliberate omission of the history of subalterns. My agenda is to widen the spreading of Phule-Ambedkar consciousness in higher and all educational levels. I found as I played a vital role in activism, my role of truth seeking will contribute to bring out and preserve the history of subalterns, tribals, minorities and deprived, marginalized, excluded sections including women.

I told myself this, after observing this dearth of consciousness about the pioneers who propagated fundamental rights of liberty, equality, fraternity and equity for peace and social justice.

It is the need of the hour to take this agenda to the students and youth and not among the conditioned people who use the language of change but want pedagogists to be just instructors and not be visionary and motivators.

On 17th January I heard about Rohith Vemula’s death. I was shocked to see the result of this hatred about Phule-Ambedkarite students, against the bright scholarship emerging from all deprived sections of youth. I could not stop myself from involving once again in activism to get justice for Rohith and many more such students who are really motivated by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s directive:”Educate, Agitate and Organize”. Rohith’s death has reaffirmed the need for spreading Phule-Ambedkar’s, Shahu-Periyar’s, Savitri- Fatima’s, Mukta Salve-Tarabai Shinde’s ideology and conscientization at all levels of education, especially in higher education. 

(Please read part 2, which addresses some of the issues brought up after Rohith’s tragic death, including inter-caste marriage rights and merit vs caste identity arguments, here) 



 Lata Pratibha Madhukar is a Writer, Activist and researcher, currently doing her Ph.D. from TISS and CSD Hyderabad. Her email is: