Exploring Educational Apartheid In N Sukumar's 'Caste Discrimination And Exclusion In Indian Universities'

In his book ‘Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection’, Dr N Sukumar traces the prevalent caste-based discrimination and abuse that student from marginalised face.

Disfiguration of Image by Prabhakar Kamble

Sukumar, N.
Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection.
(United Kingdom: Routledge, 2022)
First published 2023

Hands versus Brains: Educational Apartheid in India

For centuries, the hierarchically structured Indian society denied access to knowledge to the lower castes and women, thereby safeguarding the privilege of certain socially dominant castes. This social exclusion was reinforced through custom and law, and the dismantling of such an edifice of social apartheid was not an easy task. The colonial rule inadvertently created spaces for the marginalised communities to access educational opportunities. The missionaries had a commendable role to play in this process. 

It is possible to locate the emergence of the idea of ‘merit’ when the untouchable castes and women sought to gain education and the socially dominant communities worked to preserve their interests. It became essential for the latter to qualify and associate merit as particular socio-cultural values embedded within a specific community, which is legitimised through academic institutions. Thus, there occurred a gradual transformation of ‘privilege’ into merit, or as Satish Deshpande points out, the conversion of caste capital into modern capital, and nowhere is this more seamlessly embedded than in our modern temples of learning. He points out that the story of how upper castes transform “their caste capital into modern capital” is not well known because “it runs with the grain of the dominant common sense”. When it is seen and heard, it is in other guises: “It appears to be a story about something other than caste, like the story of nation-building for example, or the story of a great and ancient tradition modernising itself”. 

By contrast, the political encashment of caste by lower castes is a recurrent, publicly debated theme. The result of this asymmetry, Deshpande maintains, is that upper castes are naturalised as the “legitimate inheritors of modernity” while lower castes are hyper-visible as the illegitimate purveyors of caste. André Béteille argued that caste has gradually withered away in urbane locales and is only ‘visible’ in its political manifestation. The compulsions of occupation operate rather differently in the different sectors of the Indian economy. Among engineers, doctors, scientists, civil servants, and managers, the obligations to one’s occupation exist independently of the obligation to one’s caste and to some extent displaces it. Until the 19th century, Hindu intellectuals could argue with force and conviction about the significance and value of caste. Their counterparts today, who are still mainly of upper caste, have lost the capacity not only to explain and justify caste, but even to describe it coherently. He goes on to state that it is only the policy of reservations that is keeping caste alive in present times. Caste has ceased to play an active role in the reproduction of inequality, at least at the upper levels of the social hierarchy where it is no longer an important agent of either social placement or social control. The recent attack on caste by egalitarians of both radical and liberal persuasions is misdirected even where it appears well-meaning. Caste should be attacked for its divisive role in electoral politics rather than its active role in the reproduction of inequality, which is relatively small and clearly declining. The role of caste in politics is neither small nor declining. Caste is no longer an institution of any great strength among the influential urban intelligentsia; but it is an instrument of great force in mobilising political support in the country as a whole. Equality, at least at the higher levels of society, can no longer be significantly advanced by attacking caste.

Even if Béteille’s arguments are accepted at face value, what explains the backlash against the Mandal Commission Report and the increasing exclusivity of academic spaces in the name of ‘merit’? While discussing universities as institutions, especially in the context of Delhi University, Béteille makes a case for the former to provide meaning and legitimacy for its individual members. He highlights different aspects of university life — academic leadership and standards, gender and social relations, politicised campuses, etc, but there are scanty references to caste. The surprising omission, in an article published in 1995, is the lack of any engagement with the Mandal politics, especially since Delhi University was the epicentre of the anti-Mandal agitations. Within the educational domain, the correlation between the ‘general category’ and castelessness assumes an additional charge when you consider the alternate term for the ‘general category’, ‘merit-based’ admissions. The semantic equivalence between the general, the casteless, and the meritorious reinforces the idea that those who fall within the general category do so, not on the basis of accumulated caste privilege, but by dint of their own merit. By definition, then, those who fall within the “reserved category” do so by virtue of their caste. This categorical distinction between the meritorious/casteless and the reserved/caste-based has profoundly shaped the debate around educational equality in India. The general category can take recourse to what Bourdieu calls an “imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties” to argue that it is the system of reservations, and not historical caste privilege that produces inequality and undermines the modern republican ideal of equal citizenship. In the process, upper castes evacuate caste markers and inhabit the “meritocratic norm” while lower castes become “hyper-visible” as castes whose very presence and relationship to the state are signs of India’s incomplete democracy.

The narratives from the field provide credence to the embodiment of caste in academia not through the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) students, faculty or administrative staff but as reflected in the most elite of India’s educational institutions, the IITs. “We thought it was beneath us to do something as dull as put together a piece of machinery,” one told me:

That was for people in other engineering colleges. We had a greater emphasis on math and physics, a lot of problem solving on paper…you do modelling, you think about writing formulas, equations, and less about doing something with your hands. Because we always thought that we should use our brains, not our hands. That was the mindset we had…it wasn’t explicit, but it was understood. No one was going to say that but it was understood if you came through the system, took the exam. God gave you your brains so you should use them. Hands are for other people who don’t have brains.

Cover of Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities by N Sukumar

For Ajantha Subramanian, such attitudes of IITians echo both the colonial state’s caste sociology and the Hindu textual correlation between caste duties (Varna Dharma) and parts of the body. Interestingly, her study also reflects the internal hierarchies of this ‘meritocracy’. The sole focus is on information technology rather than civil and mechanical engineering. The latter is left for ordinary engineering colleges. The IITian’s perceived capacity for abstract thought that makes him least suited for the shop floor and perhaps even for the engineering profession more generally is what corporate recruiters she interviewed identified most readily as their (IITians’) unique virtue and what makes them best suited for the knowledge industry. 

Recruiters and the news media in the United States resort to broad-brush racial typologies in characterizing IITians’ intellectual capacity with reference to India’s “long tradition of conceptual mathematics” or Indians’ “knack for numbers”. Private sector employers trade quite blatantly in assumptions about relative skills and knowledge when distinguishing graduates of different institutions. When she interviewed corporate recruiters from the software industry in Chennai, they typically distinguished the Madras IITian from other regional engineering graduates by their unsuitability for the industrial workplace. A few even pointedly opined that “Tam Brahms” were especially well-suited for the upper echelons of information technology work. The merit conundrum also exists because the popular assumption is that the university is the site of knowledge production. As Kancha Ilaiah points out: 

When I talk about our illiterate parents, I am not even for a moment suggesting they are unskilled people…For example, my mother was an expert wool thread-maker, she was an expert seedler; she was an expert planter. My father was an expert sheep breeder. Each caste group acquired lot of skills in its own sphere…Many of our farmers have scientific skills. They know when it will rain. They can tell us what natural signals would bring forth certain climatic changes. They know where a bridge should be built.

(Dr N Sukumar’s book Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection is published by Routledge.)