Thursday, May 26, 2022

Caste Out Of Campus: Apartheid Methods Of Public Classification Lead To Prejudice

It is beyond comprehension why the classification of categories needs to be made public in our universities. The identification of one’s caste, much like that of race, sex, or even gender, is a private matter.

Caste Out Of Campus: Apartheid Methods Of Public Classification Lead To Prejudice
PTI Photo

Universities in India are suspect these days over who enters campus and who belongs there; who are real students and who are goons posing as students. But one university recently made news, not over who gets in, but about who gets shut out.

On December 25, 2019, IIT-Madras permanently closed down one of its gates. Popularly known as Krishna Gate. This gate connected the campus to the Velachery neighbourhood. As reported by Nikhila Henry in a recent Huffington Post article, the IIT administration cited “heightened security threat” from “undesirable elements” who live around the gate, causing a threat to female students as well as trafficking in drugs. The gate, they felt, opened to a dark zone, and the closure was the institute’s attempt to secure itself against its shadowy inhabitants.

Many of the residents of Velachery are Adi Dravidar Dalits. They see the closure of this gate as a symbolic rejection of their presence in the neighborhood. It also comes across as a violation of a 60-year-old contract between the university and the community. Locals point out that when IIT-Madras was being set up, it took at least 76 acres of land belonging to the Dalit community following agreements between the Sarpanchs of Velachery on one hand, and the state authorities and the IIT-leadership on the other. In return, the community was promised access to the campus through the Krishna Gate, employment at the institute, the right to worship at their temple, and preferential admission of their children in the local schools.  

The closure of the Krishna Gate signals an abrupt termination of this contract. It sends a message that is loud and clear. But beyond that, it has serious real-life consequences. The open gate nourished local businesses that catered to the student population, ranging from photocopy shops, eateries, to small repair shops, all of which, as well as neighborhood real estate, now face serious possibilities of diminution or closure.


“This has become a norm,” an employee of IIT-Madras says on condition of anonymity. “I see this everywhere. University campuses have poor localities around and then they either shut it down or designate it for laborers to enter at a scheduled time. This all has been happening citing security reasons.”

A large group of students, who have submitted a petition to reopen the gate, feel that the institute’s rejection of its Dalit neighbours, to whom they owe much, is failure of the promise on which the IITs were built – as venues of nation-building, embracing the diversity of its population, and nourishing paths of access to the disenfranchised. It is a rude reminder of the fact that the exclusion of the people outside is inseparable from the people who are let in but never really accepted.

Among the high proportion of dropouts from IITs and other premier engineering colleges in India, as I pointed out in an earlier column, an alarmingly high proportion is from the historically excluded communities such as the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward castes. Recent investigations have made it clear why. An article in the Economic and Political Weekly points out that “Most dropouts since 2008 have belonged to scheduled caste and scheduled tribe backgrounds.” Several universities have tried to address it by setting up remedial classes and other modes of training.

The Sukhdeo Thorat Committee was set up by the central government in 2007 to investigate severe allegations of caste harassment at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. It found disturbing evidence of such harassment against students from marginalized caste backgrounds. The SC/ST students were forced to segregate in specific hostels, away from upper-caste students, who put the former through serious abuse and violence. And it was not limited to students. Several teachers, too, behaved in a hostile or indifferent manner towards students from the backward castes, especially after they found out about their caste identities.

Especially after they found out. Whether or not a person from a historically excluded group should assert their identity has been a longstanding subject of political debate, as with racial minorities in the US and South Africa. Journalist Yashica Dutt has written movingly about her story of “coming out as Dalit” in her memoir of the same title. That is a right that must be given to the individual, who will own the responsibility of claiming one’s identity or to “pass” as a member of the mainstream, if they can, and if they decide to do so.

Whatever be the ethical status of asserting or passing in the US, when it comes to affirmative action procedures benefiting minorities, American universities maintain a strict policy of confidentiality. Family Education Rights and Privacy Acts (FERPA) protects the privacy of student records, including their ethnic identity. This is where many Indian institutions commit a grave violation, by putting out admission lists which indicate admitted students under two categories: “General” and “Reserved.” Often it’s much more than that. A student from a public university says, “under the category column, they mention: General, OBC, SC, ST and not General / Reserved”. Many of us, who studied at such universities, are familiar with such apartheid methods of public classification.

It is beyond comprehension why the classification of categories needs to be made public in our universities. The identification of one’s caste, much like that of race, sex, or even gender, is a private matter. They are important information to take into account while institutions try to make space for communities historically excluded. But making that information public is nothing short of inviting prejudice in a society that still remains suspicious of their right to enter the university campus.

In the end, this amounts to a way of branding students based on what “gate” they have entered the campus through. The historical significance of that “gate”, alas, is all too easily lost across the short-lived social memory of the privileged.

(With research input by Harshita Tripathi)

Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education, and is the author of several books, including, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar. Views expressed are personal.