Caste-Gender Matrix and the Promise and Practice of Academia

Varsha Ayyar teaches sociology at the Centre for Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
15 December 2017

The dilemmas arising from the “list” and the “statement” have compelled us to reflect on contemporary feminist politics and concede that cultures of sexual violence are pervasive in academia. This article attempts to contextualise the dilemma from a (Dalit/ex-untouchable) feminist perspective. It underlines the unresolved caste question in the academy and the Indian feminist movement. Brahminical patriarchal violence, misogynistic caste cultures, the social composition of committees that adjudicate “due process,” lack of faculty diversity, as endemic features that affect women and vulnerable communities. The article underscores that women from Dalit backgrounds are specifically vulnerable, and the existence of such a list is a result and response to institutional failure. Yet the possibilities of misuse of such lists show vulnerabilities of both, victims of sexual violence and the alleged perpetrators in a charged political climate where such tools can be used against “progressive” and anti-caste Dalit voices. 

Academia is and widely regarded as a critical and emancipatory space encouraging critical conversations and debates, and most importantly, challenging conventional power structures. For some, academia might be merely a transactional space—for socialising the next generation, a depoliticised instrument of imparting educational degrees, teaching and conducting research, or simply a profiteering enterprise. Yet, for women and those coming from marginalised communities, universities are progressive, assuring spaces and instruments for upward mobility, social change, and personal and collective transformation. Additionally, critical humanities and social sciences engage with theories of injustices, social identities, difference, power inequalities, stratification, etc. making these disciplines appealing for the marginalised and oppressed. 

Despite the promise of what institutions of higher education “ought to-be,” these promising spaces inexplicably transmute into sexist, racist, elitist, casteist, “killing fields”[1]  devoid of compassion, which thwart academia from reaching its emancipatory visions. Thus, on the one hand, the sacred, revered academia is the fortresses of learning, a central site of knowledge production and subversive resistance. On the other hand, the space is also a powerful apparatus—a site and spectacle of vulgar abuses of power with pervasive misogynistic caste cultures and social exclusion. In a deeply stratified Indian society, the spirit of fraternity, sorority, and compassion is structurally and culturally foreclosed, even in institutions of higher education. Inside these hostile and isolating toxic environs, social media and online communities are increasingly becoming a refuge to find solidarity and to open up conversations about pain, lived experience, and oppression.[2]  

Social media platforms are new venues that host a diverse set of social interactions. They contain a spectrum of information ranging from personal and mundane to sharing of political opinions, of professional and personal details, and building communities. 

Inspired by several movements in the US-where survivors spoke out against their harassers using social media platforms[3], a 24-year old law student at UCLA, Raya Sarkar, took after Indian academia. She created a crowd-sourced list “naming” Indian academicians alleged of sexual harassment (henceforth SH).

Unlike in the American context where victims came out in the open in the digital space, the plaintiff accusing academicians here remained anonymous. The reasoning: fear of a backlash, shame associated with sexual abuse itself, and further persecution (witch hunting), jeopardising career opportunities and well-being. 

Many names on the List included “well-known” academicians whose intellectual works advance social justice. Understandably, one may express concerns over credibility, reliability, and safety of such anonymous list-making and its unintended consequences, despite its good intention. Such lists are likely to proliferate in the near future and possibly be used to discredit and disrepute activists, particularly those from subaltern communities. Nonetheless, one cannot undermine the critical significance of such a list (without compromising the natural justice principle) as the emergence of an alternative space, outside the institutional ambit and its interference.[4] 

Indian society is deeply entrenched in caste-misogyny and patriarchal cultures where powerful (mostly Savarna caste-Hindu men) justify sexual violence against women, use the state machineries and intimidation to silence victims, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups. In such a milieu, such digital instruments can work as a “subversive tool” albeit with their inherited limitations and risks. 

These new strategies deployed by young women provocated and conjured feminist responses, filled with angst and dilemmas. The imminent dilemma concerns the classic feminist advisory of trusting the victim of sexual violence instead of questioning them. But, for intersectional feminists, the challenge is, how do we ensure that such tools are not used against men from vulnerable communities? 

In such complex scenarios, what kind of feminist responses would not compromise the trust, safety, and identity of the victims but also ensure that progressive and anti-caste voices do not end up becoming targets, scapegoats, and whipping boys? These dilemmas, of whether to support or disapprove—need deeply reflexive and rooted feminist responses.


Politics of the Statement

Responding to the List, an unexpected rebuttal “statement” from a feminist collective was released online (Kidwai et al 2017). Most of the signatories were those well-known for their scholarship, who have demonstrated serious political engagements with women’s issues and labour questions, issues relating to women and labour and worked with underprivileged communities. Ironically, the statement underlined “genuine complaints” and evoked “principles of natural justice” among several things. 

An interlinked question compels us to consider how would such tools unfold in a complex caste-stratified universe? Who will be rewarded and who will be targeted? How would we judge whether such lists are authentic and serving their purpose? And how would feminists ensure that we do not fail those who have/had experienced SH or abuse at the hands of academicians, but also be cautious not to victimise the innocent? How does one reconcile with the blind prescription of “due processes” even to those women who already reported their experience and de facto remain vulnerable victims? 

Enter the Caste

Undoubtedly, the statement did raise, some legitimate concerns, but one could not miss out on the threatening, condescending and patronising caste undertone. The statement advocated that the “aggrieved” take route of “due process” and reprimanded those behind the list. As a response to the threatening language of the statement, there was flurry of exchange evoking caste identities of the list-maker and those who signed the statement. Very quickly, and as expected, the ‘list–statement’ turned into a caste conversation invoking social location, age, loyalties, digital divides, and even intimacies. Above all, it turned into a distressingly reactionary flood of exchanges between younger generation Ambedkarite activists and upper-caste feminists. The discussions polarised, caste camps were formed and what was significantly lost were the opportunity to re-examine Indian academia in its wholeness—as caste-ridden spaces and killing fields  for Dalit students and as a gendered power pyramid, with a disproportionate size of upper-caste males occupying powerful positions in teaching and administrative roles. 

This deluge of exchange painfully foregrounded the deep fissures in the Indian feminist movement (Guru 1995).  Ironically, the anti-caste Dalit voices focused on the vulnerability of the Dalit male and his likely victimisation over alleged sexual harassments.[5] This indicates how gender gets bracketed out while fighting overlapping struggles against caste, class, and patriarchies. 


Who Adjudicates over Due Process?

To restart conversations across feminist groups, it is essential to firstly concede that cultures of sexual violence are pervasive in academia. Secondly, delayed justice and chronic failure of institutional mechanisms, which continue to disappoint and delude women, also need to be recognised. Conceivably, institutional processes are likely to be stacked against women and the marginalised who routinely face discrimination, sexism, and who are denied equality and dignity in everyday life. Very few universities in India and globally can boast of adopting zero tolerance against sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. 

Besides, while advocating and gesturing towards “due processes,” one also needs to examine who actually delivers and adjudicates over these “due processes?”[6] It is well-known that several committees such as grievance redressals, Scheduled Caste (SC) cells, Scheduled Tribes (ST) cell, Women’s Development Cell etc, perpetually run into the risk of accommodation, cooption, and even intimidation. Often such cells’ function is merely ornamental, and worse, they are disempowered to carry out their statutory functions. 

Additionally, another systemic issue that Dalit women are likely to face is the lack of adequate representation in these “due processes.” In the Indian feminist movement, the understanding that “all women are Dalits” has been common. This has led to “savarnisation of womanhood.” On the other hand, in the anti-caste movement there is rampant masculinisation of the Dalit question (Rege 1998). This conception of Dalit-as-male and women-as-savarnas renders invisibility to Dalit women who occupy the most complex space in the caste hierarchy. 

Consequentially, there is a dearth of women’s representation in SC, ST cells and Standing Committees, and there is a lack of Dalit and tribal women on committees meant to protect women. Unfortunately, most of these cells are considered “ineffectual,” nonetheless, one cannot undermine their existence and role in protecting the vulnerable. Besides, the social composition is a significant aspect contributing to the “ineffectiveness,” of such cells. It may not be entirely futile to raise questions on why such cells are “ineffective bodies” that continue to disappoint women and the marginalised sections. The responsibility of the academic feminists, thus, is not to place blind faith in these cells and in “due processes” but to ensure their effectiveness by maintaining healthy, balanced representations and enabling these cells and committees to function to their full capacity, that is, to work towards prevention, prohibition, and redressal of SH and caste discrimination. 


Faculty Diversity

The integrated feminist model's examination of SH at workplaces considers three parameters: gender identity, supervisory authority, and industry sex composition, as integral components to map the landscape of SH in working spaces (Blackstone et al 2012). Feminist scholarship has also located SH within broader patterns of discrimination, power and privilege, linking harassment to sex-based inequality. If we were to extend this scholarship as a framework to unpack SH in university campuses in India, the “composition question” becomes an immediate feminist concern. Any attempt to examine SH therefore must begin with an important question “can SH on university campuses be discussed without adequate faculty diversity?”

The lack of diversity, particularly of SCs, STs and Other Backward Classes (OBC)[7],  is reflected even in the institutions that are publicly funded. A recent study conducted by Joshi and Malghan (2017) surveyed the social composition of faculty at a premier public institution in India. Out of 512 faculty members, only two were SCs, 13 were OBCs, and there was no one from the STs. Citing the findings of this study, a petition filed by the institution’s alumni network demanded implementation of affirmative action, special drives for recruitment of SC, ST and OBC faculty, and the instituting of SC, ST and OBC cells.[8] 

Under-representation of marginalised groups across publicly funded universities and institutions of higher learning is a systemic issue. In response to the lack of faculty diversity, university administration often cites reasons like not finding suitable candidates, or that institutes of excellence are exempt from affirmative action. This suggestion of “merit-based recruitment” latently functions to advance interests and representation of socially privileged communities. Gaikwad (2008) pointed out that representation of SC and ST lecturers was only 12.8% in central universities, way below the marked 22.5%. This results in the disproportionate size of upper-caste males occupying teaching and administrative positions. Consequently, grievance redressal committees, SC, ST, or even women’s cells are likely to have very low representations of women from marginalised social groups. 

Moreover, often, members in such cells are likely to be close to those in positions of power. Committees initiated to protect women are often represented by upper-caste women who may or may not be sensitive towards women from lower castes. The burden of trust therefore lies on the victim and not on those who are empowered and are adjudicators of justice. This does not necessarily mean that these institutional mechanisms are inherently defunct and incapable to intervene and serve justice. Nonetheless, they do indicate certain level of structural flaws. Before we articulate and announce our full faith in the institutional redressal systems, we must address the question of faculty diversity. For example, how will a Dalit female student have faith and confidence in due processes dominated by upper-caste men/Dalit men and/or upper-caste women? In the absence of autonomy and adequate representation, how does a Dalit female find a “space” to articulate concerns of discrimination and harassment? 

Currently, there are no mechanisms to address such imbalances of representation from the point of view of the gender–caste matrix. These conditions push Dalit women to choose either one of her identities: either of gender or of caste. Often, these debilitating circumstances force her to either seek solidarity in upper-caste feminist collectives where caste identities are either suppressed or treated of lesser significance, or worse, where narratives of Dalit patriarchy are assumed to be the singular truth of Dalit women and their existence. Alternatively, Dalit women are left to choose Dalit male-dominated spaces where the gender question is rendered insignificant and even violently trivialised.[9] This dilemma is quintessentially a unique one—faced by Dalit female in the caste–gender matrix, not only in academia but outside academia as well.[10]   

Also, we ought to recognise that the social–economic composition of the student profile has changed over the last decades, owing to the reservation policy. However, the composition of faculty members is skewed. Thus, young women and SC, ST and OBC students entering universities need more protection. Evidently, they are persistently disappointed by caste prejudices, and generally deprived of mentorship and adequate protection. This pushes them to form alliances and seek solidarities in virtual spaces. This is not to say that there is no support from progressive faculty members. Student unions, welfare and interest groups foster a culture of solidarity and inclusiveness and events such as memorial lectures and commemorations of icons of anti-caste struggles do help in forging solidarities, and giving a sense of collective identity to marginalised students, offering some solace. But these are not enough to tackle the systemic and structural question of institutional discrimination, sexism, and harassment. 

Under such hostile enervating circumstances, students’ responses have taken different turns— from suicides, dropping out, to carving out new spaces and models of alliances and solidarities outside academic environs—in virtual–real spaces. These spaces do not necessarily translate into profound solidarities but they are relatively “safer” in comparison to the toxic and hostile caste environment elsewhere. This is not to suggest that anti-caste spaces are already liberated and free from cultures of sexism, conflicts, patriarchal control and domination. Ironically, sexism and patriarchy are pervasive and follow Dalit women in literary conferences, anti-caste movements and even in virtual spaces (Pawar and Moon 2004; Kurane 2017).[11] Regardless, what is at stake here is to address caste misogyny, SH and layered discriminations at work.

The “list–statement” debate should lead us to redeem academia as an important subversive site that must confront the inherent caste-gender question and not preclude the possibilities of dialogue. The question of faculty diversity should be considered as an integral part of feminist politics. Furthermore, SH cannot be separated from caste misogyny and pervasive discrimination meted against lower castes. Neither is caste annihilation possible without addressing misogyny. 

This article is a part of the Special Feature Power and Relationships in Academia. To read other articles in this feature, click here.

Varsha Ayyar teaches sociology at the Centre for Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
15 December 2017