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From politics to talks by anti-caste thinkers: Dalit students resist bias

A generation ago, Dalit students were intimidated by hostile conditions in higher education. Today, with rising Ambedkarite discourse, they strike a confident note

india Updated: Apr 11, 2018 10:19 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Members of student organisations gather at the North Campus to express solidarity with University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula, whose suicide on the campus had triggered nationwide outrage on Dalit and minority-related issues.
Members of student organisations gather at the North Campus to express solidarity with University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula, whose suicide on the campus had triggered nationwide outrage on Dalit and minority-related issues.(HT File Photo)

When Somnath Waghmare moved back to Mumbai last year, his heart was filled with hope. A first-generation college student, the 28-year-old’s parents had moved back to Sangli during the waves of mill closures in the 80s that crushed many weaker-caste working class families. Now, armed with a college degree and dreams to last a lifetime, he was ready to make his mark in the maximum city.

But standing between him and his goal was one thing: The institutional caste divide and bias that weaved itself into the fabric of every institution he enrolled in.

“Caste is your first identity in the college, the classroom is more a caste-room,” Waghmare says.

Throughout his graduation and post-graduation, Waghmare faced a torrent of casteism – both covert and overt.

Professors made “quota students” stand up in class and identified them publicly, students often formed caste-exclusive groups, even at elite institutions such as Pune University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and there was little help available for new students to surmount the difficulty of English-medium instruction.

“Once, I was even told, you don’t look like a Dalit. So what is the image of a Dalit you have in your mind?” Waghmare asks.

A generation ago, students such as Waghmare would have been intimidated by the hostile conditions that ensure that higher education in India remains a caste minefield. Data from the latest round of the National Sample Survey Office show upper-castes with almost five times as many post graduates as scheduled castes.

But today, armed with a phalanx of fresh blood and rising Ambedkarite discourse in universities, many Dalit students strike a confident note.

“I never got scared because of the Ambedkarite movement. Earlier Dalit students were scared, now no more. This is the Rohith moment,” he says.

Waghamre is referring to Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who hanged himself after months of alleged caste discrimination. His death uncorked pent-up anger and frustration that lashed campuses across India and galvanised students from marginalised backgrounds.

“Ambedkar’s call for education unshackled the minds of Dalits, who had been conditioned to believe their low-status was karma,” explains Amit Thorat, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Sociologist Kalpana Kannabiran agrees. A professor at the Hyderabad-based NALSAR University of law, Kannabiran details the hostility she faced in class, from upper-caste students whenever reservation or caste came up – even from top-performing students. “Atrocity means many things, it also means complicit neglect,” she says.

Dalit students have much to be angry about. A 2017 study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of 6,000 people between 15 and 34 years of age showed that graduate Dalits faced the highest frequency of caste discrimination among social and age groups. More than 40% of upper-caste youth reported themselves as students, but just 25% of scheduled caste respondents said so.

Read | Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary: Education still a Dalit dream

This is not all. Young Dalit graduates face discrimination while appearing for their first job interviews – in 2007, professors Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell found that young Dalits stood a significantly less chance of being called for an interview when compared with equally-qualified general category candidates. Shaming and public humiliation over reservation is common.

The resentment isn’t limited to some campuses. At Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad University, Dalit students often find themselves squeezed out during hostel placement or classroom teaching.

“Last year, I was taking classes when another upper-caste research scholar barged into the classroom, hurled casteist abuses at me and forced me to leave,” said Arun Kumar, a research scholar pursuing DPhil in medieval and modern history. Sachin Ben, a student of MSc chemistry at Sagar’s Dr HS Gour Central University in Madhya Pradesh, said scheduled caste students had complained of being given less marks during practical examinations.

“We know that such type of discrimination subtly exists,” he added.

Students have opened up various avenues to resist such attitudes. At places like the UoH and JNU, Dalit students have formed separate organisations – distinct from both left and right-wing groups. This, they say, helps deal with the everyday discrimination. “Sometimes the hostel authorities ask us, you don’t even get two meals a day at home, how dare you question the quality here,” alleges Venkatesh Chouhan, a research scholar. “Earlier, the students were silently suffering discrimination. Now, they have been able to come out openly,” he says, referring to the Ambedkar Students Association.

At JNU, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association publicly dissociated itself from left-wing groups that have dominated the campus and claimed to speak for Dalits for decades.

“Here was an academic culture in which students speak fancy English and use academic jargon. Many students from marginalised communities do not know such jargon. Therefore they are sidelined. The way politics was done was also exclusive. Thus students coming from the margins do not identify with it,” explains Bidyanath Karam, a member.

Many universities are unpleasant even for Dalit teachers. At Delhi University, a professor who has taught for a decade says he has witnessed students and even teachers hurl caste abuses and single out “quota students” for bias. “To many of my colleagues, I was the SC teacher for a long time,” he says. The liberal intelligentsia present in these spaces was of little help, he adds, as their tone was patronising and they wanted to assume control. The Dalit activism on campuses is a mirror of the wider churning across India that has seen the commuity’s anger spill into the streets and take control of the national narrative. Shraddha Kumbhojkar, a professor at the University of Pune, believes it is logical that universities are acting as the cradle for Dalit consciousness. “This is a field where ideological mentors are available. Once Dalit students see the promise of egalitarianism, they become aware that things are rightfully theirs and being denied,” she adds.

She is right. Countless Dalit students are resisting caste bias in myriad ways today: From student politics and organising themselves against fee hikes at Lucknow’s Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, to organising film screenings and talks by prominent anti-caste thinkers in UoH, JNU and TISS.

Waghmare himself is now a budding filmmaker and busy shooting his latest feature on the lives of two anti-caste stalwarts, having finally tasted success after years of repelling casteism.

“One thing Ambedkarite movement has done is made everyone say they are against caste. Even if it is lip service.” That’s a start.

(With inputs from Srinivasa Rao Apparasu in Hyderabad, Rajeev Mullick in Lucknow, K San deep Kumar in Allahabad and Anupam Pateriya in Sagar)