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From Attacks On ‘Quota Students’ To Lower Marks, How Caste Determines One’s Campus Life

The experiences of Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students and professors across the country highlight how upper caste friends and colleagues make them feel worthless.

Artwork by Sunil Abhiman Awachar
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“The value of a man has reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility.” 
—    Rohith Vemula

These unforgettable last words of doctoral scholar Rohith Vemula, who died by suicide due to embedded caste bias that determines the fate of millions in Indian educational campuses, resonate every day, sometimes in the name of Darshan Solanki and sometimes as Payal Tadvi. The list is endless.

The systemic abuse of the marginalised students in Indian universities not only reveals cracks embedded in our education system, but it also shows how the savarna —upper caste— imagination of ‘casteless’ merit reproduces the bias. What is merit all about? Anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian says it is nothing but a construction to hide the caste privilege of upper caste students. The experiences of Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students and professors across the country highlight how upper caste friends and colleagues make them feel worthless.  

Maroona Murmu, an Adivasi professor at Jadavpur University who faced casteist abuse in 2020, wrote, “I have seen heads of the departments, even colleagues, looking at certain surnames and saying that these people are academically worthless. I have heard that people do not think that I have much to say because I look like an African.” 

Naturalisation of these slurs shape the Bahujan experience in the Indian universities.  

A study conducted by Forum Against Oppression of Women along with Forum for Medical Ethics Society and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Maharashtra point out how the academic community from marginalised groups is either subjected to direct casteist abuse, physical violence, or the institutional efforts to discard the constitutional guarantee of reservation. This report came out in the context of medical student Payal Tadvi’s suicide that immediately rocked the nation but couldn’t move the boat enough to pre-empt Darshan Solanki’s alleged suicide last month. 

One of the major reasons of such discriminations as cited in different studies happen to be the lack of representation of scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST), and OBC professors in the campuses. According to the data of the Union Education Ministry as presented to the Lok Sabha in 2019, in 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), only 149 faculty members are SC while 21 belong to STs among the total strength of 6,043. This amounts to a 3 per cent representation in contrast to their 17 and 9 per cent share in population.  

How does the presence of upper castes in powerful positions affect the marginalised students? Basant Kanaujiya, a Dalit PhD scholar at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU), Lucknow, explains, “Until 2013, we had a Vice Chancellor from the Scheduled Caste community and things were going smoothly. However, the moment a savarna VC was appointed, we started suffering.” 

BBAU, a central university, according to its special foundational act, provides 50 per cent reservation to SC and ST communities.  

“The first thing the new savarna VC did was to hike the fees by around 20 times. Earlier, the application form for SC/STs used to cost Rs 75, but he made it Rs 750 after taking the charge,” says Kanaujiya, adding that the hostels for SC/STs were also allegedly filled by upper caste students, making it impossible for the marginalised groups to access affordable education. 

Kanaujiya says, “The double whammy of fees hike and the unavailability of hostels led to the unfulfillment of reserved seats as our people couldn’t apply for it.” 

Using this as a ground, the Pichhda Varg Jana Kalyan Samiti, an OBC-dominated organisation led by some university lecturers, went to the court to abolish reservations. Besides questioning the constitutionality of section 3 of the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation and Admission) Act, 2006, they also asked for 27 per cent reservation for OBCs. However, after a long-drawn movement by the Dalit and Adivasi students, the provision was kept intact.  

Kanaujiya says, “It was not the first time when it happened. In 1999, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to the Centre, they took the similar effort to abolish the reservation but due to the resilience of the professors from our community, they couldn’t succeed.”

This discrimination is not limited to the reservation only. 

“The upper caste faculties also try to give us less marks in PhD and M Phil entrances to prevent our admissions,” adds the Dalit scholar who himself allegedly suffered due to the lower marks given by faculty members. He was even allegedly denied permission to see his answer copies as he filed Right to Information (RTI) applications twice.  

A report prepared by former University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairperson Sukhdeo Thorat along with KM Shyamaprasad and RK Srivastava that looked into the allegations of differential treatment of SC/ST students at AIIMS Delhi noted the discrimination in the evaluation of papers. Around 76 per cent Bahujan students, according to the report, said their copies had not been examined properly, while 88 per cent of them noted that they received less marks than expected. The discrimination could be found in the viva-voice as well. The report showed 85 per cent of the marginalised students think that they didn’t get enough time to be with the examiners. These findings certainly back Kanaujiya’s allegations. 

The students are, however, marked as ‘casteist’ when they raise their voices against the everyday oppressions. Krishna Mohan Lal, a PhD scholar of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, says, “Firstly, caste is embedded in your identity when you enter the campus. But it becomes more prominent when you are part of the movement and assert your rights. Dominant caste people, some of whom have feudalistic mindset, actually make you villain if you raise your voices.” 

Lal, who did his graduation from Banaras Hindu University (BHU), says he saw there how groups among students were divided along caste lines.

“The friendship among the students also used to depend on their caste location,” says Lal, adding that situation in TISS is quite different. 

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“You can see that most of the marginalised students who died by suicide belong to science institutes like IITs or medical profession. In social science universities, we have the space to argue and we can debate,” notes Lal, who did his M Phil on Dalit movements. 

The discrimination nevertheless is not limited to the efforts to abolish reservations or casteist slurs. Kanaujiya alleges that BBAU authorities don’t even send emails regarding counselling to marginalised students until the last moment. 

“Thus, most of our students can’t even turn up for the admissions. You can see how many students have dropped out only because this,” laments the Dalit leader of BBAU.  

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In this backdrop, when the IIT committee that investigated Darshan Solanki’s alleged suicide couldn’t find a caste angle, the question comes again — Is it another effort by savarna authorities to invisibilise caste in the campus? The answer perhaps lies in demised Adivasi scholar Abhay Xaxa’s words I Refuse, I Reject and I Resist:  

I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank, 
I am not your project or any exotic museum object, 
I am not the soul waiting to be harvested, 
Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested, 
I am not your cannon fodder or the invisible worker, 
or your entertainment at India Habitat Centre, 
I am not your field, your crowd, your history, 
your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory, 
I refuse, reject, resist your labels, 
your judgments, documents, definitions, 
your models, leaders and patrons, 
because they deny me my existence, my vision, my space, 
your words, maps, figures, indicators, 
they all create illusions and put you on pedestal, 
from where you look down upon me, 
So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar, 
I make my own tools to fight my own battle, 
For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!” 

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