Competing ‘merit’ is cultural violence- ‘Merit as pus’
On March 29, 2023, the Union Minister of State for Education shared with the Rajya Sabha the number of dropouts among SC, ST, and OBC students in the educational institutions of India. The debate still revolves around the kind of schemes offered and the funds/fee waivers provided to meet the crisis. This is the last tactic that one in authority uses to rid himself of any blame, or to safeguard the systemic violence that prevents historically marginalised students from completing their education. What is this disease, and why does it still exist in educational institutions and makes them discourage SC/ST students, who are understood as ‘reservation/quota students’?
It is the same state of mindset that regulates ‘merit’ in India and never fails to dub the success of any student from SC/ST backgrounds as an individual achievement while denying her/his identity. It is unsocial and violent. ‘Merit as a pus’ spreads out anywhere following its contagious nature in a body; the metaphor is used to show the foul persistence of the ‘caste system’. One can understand it from the pragmatist scholar Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s view when he said, “Caste is a state of mind,” a mentality that plays on its own terms to maintain hegemonic relations among human contacts.
Finding a supervisor is a battle when a PhD (dalit) scholar  enters a university, only a few teachers take students based on their research topic; they would do a quick ‘background’ check of all the applicants, and ‘prefer’ the most ‘deserved’ not the ‘reserved’ (but no one acknowledges their own privilege that is built on ‘reservations for generations’). I can say this because, during my Master’s days at one of the premier universities in India, I was denied the opportunity to find my preferred supervisor. It’s not because I had no finalised proposal: the reasons for rejection were as petty as an child’s excuse for not attending school . It occurs because of rejection from within the administration’s mind which measures if a student is well-connected in the elite academic circle, which in turn comes from various sources of generational inclusion and exclusion. It rewards one with favours, and punishes the historically marginalised people who dare to cross the border.
Lacking access to the elite academic circle would bring about unawareness, which I realised when my ‘all-hyped teacher’ asked, “When (which semester) did you take my class?” To which I replied, “In my third semester, sir.” His second question was, “What does your father do?” and I replied, “A school teacher.” But this time, there was a pause in our conversation, and I felt deep anguish rolling in my heart. As the first child in my family, an assertive daughter who could come so far to Hyderabad from Assam for higher education, my confidence was shattered. I wondered how could he judge me, conclude that mine was a ‘not-so-progressive’ background, and reject me? After all, I had approached him on the very first day of the semester. It took me years to realise that I needed more than the little little progress I had made in the past, like being born in a family where my father had a decent government job, completing my written examination for admission, and above-average grades in consecutive semester exams.
Why delay SC/ST PhD scholars from submitting their thesis?
Again, in their line of work, SC/ST students could easily find differences in the treatment they received, as compared with ‘general’ students, from common supervisor. The big-shot names floating in academia must counted among those who mostly choose students from dominant social groups. Why do they take only a few (two or three) marginalised scholars in their entire career, mostly when they are close to retirement? But their political correctness dies soon as their unmatched sense of merit is mobilised against historically marginalised students; inflicting humiliation on the professional life of students, as they struggle between surviving and trying to complete their work. The attitude of Savarna faculty is persistently rooted in preserving the ‘great culture’ associated with their ‘lost past’. And bruiting about ‘merit’ is how they go about delaying submission. The process is important to notice as it shows how much harm is inflicted on students’ growth. One who would not buy Savarnas’ idea of preserving those ‘glorifying pasts’ and instead challenge the inequality that existed in the past as well as in the present is surely negatively impacted. The ruling ideology’s integrity is maintained at various levels: by the administrative bodies, the student body, the faculties, and committee members of research programs. Many times, one can see specific conferences and journals which maintain only a limited selection of students.
One can easily see how harassment is never-ending if we look through the process of PhD life and the journey of scholars from different social locations. A strong sense of ‘threat’ prevails in the researcher-supervisor relationship, which is deeply based on everyday behaviour and in their exchange of conversation, meetings, suggestions given by faculties, or facilitating time with any patience for students to grow their voice. This is indeed a professional relationship, not based on a corporate model. Those schemes and fee waivers can never be enough to break the hegemony of Savarna culture that prevails on university premises. To see in detail, I want to bring attention to various schemes meant for all, be it an institutional grant provided for fieldwork or an exchange program, but all are occupied with filthy judgement.
In most cases, SC/ST students are denied, and it is sustained to add hostility to the quality of their work outside of any healthy exposure. Politically aware students are now speaking against the treatment, delaying, or denial of reference letters by their supervisor, or even if they are given, they are of such poor quality that don’t help students in securing better opportunities. In other cases, these students would be barred from participating in certain extracurricular activities (which bring them visibility in an academic circle) and excluded from many workshops and conferences.
I have observed many struggling Dalit women and Dalit students asked to improve their reading and writing skills, but only in SC/ST workshops or special classes, which again isolate them. This is part of the many indifferences played upon students in the name of improving and correcting. In a real sense, it is instead a punishment for not knowing the elite language. Instead of building enough mechanisms for the teaching-learning process and maintaining ‘healthy boundaries’, some faculty members abandon the student to develop their ideas. They would conveniently maintain that distance throughout the PhDs to find a loophole in students’ progress to deny their submission, conveniently making the student responsible for such failure. It is crucial to understand how, most of the time, the works of SC/ST remain outside the scope of any serious attention. Their works are often unread by the supervisor and remain ‘untouched’, they face interruptions in the name of grammatical corrections only to be suggested to restructure them, which more often dilutes their work and understanding. This process is the most vital part of research writing, but it is not the only criteria to fulfil.
Along with that, how to think as a ‘researcher’, which is the core of the research process of knowledge production, is lost, killed by the slow poison in the process. Thus, keeping the question of ‘merit’ dubious, it is put again on the shoulders of a few who are historically denied education to prove it. It generates more harm than any help in any productive sense and actually kicks out the students from their courses. Improvidently led to suicide in many cases, penitently in the hostility to prove ‘merit’ but deny to ‘enjoy merit’ is enough to bring about institutional murder of Dalit and Adivasi scholars in India.
In such cases, forget about any encouragement prescribed to the role and responsibility of supervisors functioning till date in India’s universities, baffled by the caste culture of ‘superiority’, which runs in the discriminatory behaviour of the teacher-student and senior-ideal researchers’ relationships. Besides, it needs to mention how privileged students who suffer from a superiority complex or who instead grow to maintain their entitlement received from their privileged teachers and elite circle, who, every day, get assurance in what they say and how they interpret/talk, are always correct! How is it even possible? Are some students born pandits, as their mistakes are overlooked and their failures are meant for simple brushing, always being welcomed by their teachers, inside and outside the classroom? They are even intended to remain unapologetic towards ‘other’ students in the class, university, or teaching-learning process. This overpowers the impossibility of breaking the silence for many marginalised students inside the school, in their everyday lives as researchers, and even within their surroundings. The sociological-theoretical learning of scholars/faculty quickly vanishes from them when the time is needed to engage with this cause in their circle. Why has no severe engagement been done other than creating SC/ST cells to talk about their muted bodies, but silence is maintained by the institution? Are they proving, again, that these historically marginalised students are unimportant and unmatched to Savarna’s ‘merit’, which fruitfully passes on to the administrative headings/cells if the students want to speak about such oppressive silences and harassment?
Undeniable privileges of the teacher-student relationship are mutually active to transgress student-researcher-teacher progress from a marginalised background. It is more alarming than ever to ask why the present scholarship is meant to be muted in universities and become the target of such normalised atrocities. It is hard to say if it is their visibility or their mere presence that is enough to spike the atrocious nature of punishment in the caste system. As the passing/passed-out scholars from SC/ST hold power to change the employability status of higher education, as they can fill the gap between the notion of ‘merit’ and its harming nature with their research work (a lifetime job for a researcher), the possibility of calling out the gap by employability (which is both economical and cultural) to challenge the socio-political inequality, both their presence and visibility on educational campuses can create an empathetic culture (sensibility towards gender, racial and mental health) towards more nuanced ‘learning’, demystifying skill attached to merit questions which would be bestowed towards pragmatic policy-making process in the larger society.
Employment issue: Making ‘unavailability of teaching post’ for Avarnas
Why do more faculties from SC/ST backgrounds still need ‘to be added’ when nobody asks how they are positioned regarding their role and status, or even in the outlook of the intellect circle? They work in restraining mode, maintaining teacher-student relationships to support marginalised students when they need helping hands. On the one hand, students from privileged communities never find them useful, as the surplus cultural capital they use or occupy can never match the efficiency that runs in the administrative or literary circles of Dalit teachers. Conversely, the marginalised, who become victims of hegemonic culture and politics, find themselves excluded from regular work proceedings, whether participating in the classroom, applying for funds or grants, or participating in students’ politics. They automatically refuse because of the impossibility of Dalit teachers, and sometimes, if they do, they are targeted and punished for prolonging their promotion. But not to take away the responsibility of SC/ST teachers in dealing with such a crisis, even if it is not their students. Their presence in the decision-making position as a committee member or in the schools has power; even if it is limited, they should try negotiating it.
My concern is how these silences are not just students’ struggles to find their voice to stand up for their work but also put them at the mercy of ‘self-help’. Do they need more work to define their research position? The facilitations of the mediators are required to bring a solidarity of ‘community help’ that makes sense in obtaining from the larger society to university spaces. Or, else, their thesis/work would remain in the closed readership of the ‘narrative of caste discrimination’, which is a business venture for many Savarna careers, either by politicising it or being followed only by the growing sense of political correctness! Delaying the work of SC/ST teachers is as common as it is with their students. Where the case of OBC students is better, it is in terms of modifying their works and their apolitical-political words, which are regulated by Savarna circles. Developing the articulation of OBCs more in social media than university spaces is a hard battle. However, the lens on Dalit students always remains static, reproducing that of the unskilled body (as well as their mind). Our voice of struggle is denied the right to be heard and systematically put into the students’ heads to internalise as something ‘unnecessary’ and hold them back from growing academically or declining to achieve fulfilment. They are burdened with an inherent sadness to maintain and a longing for unattainable progress.
In different scenarios, the buzzword ‘self-doubt’ remains close to rationality and maybe most important in researchers’ equipped technique in ‘(re)search’, finding something from the crisis of not knowing and ‘love for philosophy’ to think beyond. Indeed, the scholar’s mind is celebrated otherwise when it belongs to a particular articulation that fits Savarna’s self-made crisis. If that skill is made to be scientifically developed in ‘anything’, why does it shadow all ‘other’ things and not engage with everybody equally? The responsibility of the supervisor is not a care question but the need to concern every student and their needs, which may differ. But overlooking the researchers’ difference lies in those supervisors’ commitment to constantly building their civilisational culture to make the ‘great’ greater, which they perform in and through their work. This is how they find justification in treating ‘marginalised students’ work as incapable’, always incomplete to their idea of skilled thinkers receiving humane treatment and facilities.
Restricted through justification for ‘Representation’.
The present government’s rule on selecting topics for research work in Indian universities is causing a stir among intellectuals. They never seriously bothered when marginalised students wanted to work on their community as much as to break the silence of oppression. They are now lamenting the freedom of research and the researcher’s choice in deciding a topic. The changes in selecting a topic for the National Overseas Scholarship Scheme (NOS) are again overshadowed. It presents their only concern for Dalit researchers as the question of representation: How can a scholar justify or not justify their representation? The scrutiny begins at an early stage. Regarding receiving ‘representation through reservation’ in admission times, dalit researchers continued through surveillance in the time of completing the criteria of merit in the classroom and in passing the synopsis, therein the judgement of passing the topic selection—how well they represent their community’s voice. Now the marginalised students have either learnt the language to defend mere representation questions or comprehend their experiences as valuable. Besides, they are now articulating their ideas and aspirations, stepping beyond the dichotomy of oppressor-oppressed narratology to present how the power relation has been maintained and continued till now as they churn through their research topic in the advanced stage of submission. The indirect backlash comes to those who could possibly and effortlessly question how that hegemony is maintained in their research’s final presentation and voice themselves through their research work. Undoubtedly strategic in the systematic nature of contested merit culture is not to make Dalit’s effort unnoticed but to invalidate their strength as unnecessary, which can only happen by delaying their research process/progress and stopping them from submitting their work. Maybe a glimpse of such research’s title is enough to understand! To understand why they are controlled to re-work, re-read, and re-write? Why are they pushed to leave their PhDs?
A whitish-yellow substance composed of dead white blood cells found in the regions of bacterial infection. I am not using the term to make sense of the beauty standards of caste bodies but how it works as an infection spread by “touch” or “touchability”. To be precise, how the idea of “merit” is maintaining its hegemonic sense in the University spaces in India.
The term is used not to limit the scholarship but to identify how scholars are branded based on a “low-caste” identity. This reminds me of the sayings by Great Kabir, Jaat na pucho sadhu ki, puch lijiye gyan… in his popular Kabir Doha.
My friends in the class who had good relations with seniors informed me that the senior professor takes students to guide only when they take his MA class from the first year.
Refer to casteless societies in India that are Constitutionally recognised as SC/ST. They have politically proclaimed as Dalit-Adivasis, understood as denied building any capital, holding any resources and remaining at the cultural outset.
donna hails from a dalit Bengali family, in Assam. She is currently pursuing her PhD and involves herself in the anti-caste movement, students’ politics and writing about it.
Image: artwork by Kuffir