Why Indian Universities Are Places Where Savarnas Get Affection and Dalit-Bahujans Experience Distance

Dalit Bahujan students relentlessly dream and struggle to experience an intellectual ambience in elite institutions sans caste prejudice to recreate their “being” in radically new ways in a society that otherwise seems to be forgetting what resistance with conscience can deliver in reimagining life and politics afresh.

The controversy surrounding the death of the research scholar Muthukrishnan on 13 March 2017 at the hallowed Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy, New Delhi left the progressive and the well-meaning fraternity at JNU and elsewhere pretty speechless. If one were to decontextualise the issue and focus on the immense cultural power that an academic aristocracy displays in the day-to-day life of students coming from marginalised sections, then one should not just limit the discussion to the external conditions (of unacceptable political and economic regime) that powerfully shape the life of elite institutions. One has to turn the gaze within in order to throw some light on these deeply disturbing experiences.

Mandal Commission’s Efforts 

The intrusion of Dalit-Bahujan students into the portals of elite institutions has been made possible not by the magnanimity of the learned savarna elite who have managed these institutions for many decades but by the use of force made possible by a rustic political class in the form of Mandal Commission report. Liberal, upper-caste academics hold the view that it is not in the nature of higher educational institutions to de-elitise itself and that process spells doom for education itself. 

The entry of Dalit Bahujans as students and teachers into higher educational spaces has flagged off the demand for diversity and not a monopoly in the realm of producing and disseminating knowledge. This demand for diversity is suggestive of a certain need for a loosening of elite control over these institutional spaces. Until now, this knowledge bearing aristocracy has exercised an unbridled autonomy in imagining and shaping the socially distanced horizon of these cultural institutions. This socially distanced character of knowledge produced in reputed public universities reeks of a solipsistic brahmanic quest for knowledge. It is possible that an experience of distance and disaffection in elite educational institutions bothered scholars like Rohith Vemula, Muthukrishnan and others. These individuals refused to accept the deeply pathological negation of their identity and embodied presence in university spaces. The critique against the elite institutions is not that they are disembodied and impersonal, but that they display a brahminical form of embodiment tothat disallows other bodies and minds to breathe and experience happiness and pleasure from inhabiting the concrete space of the university. 

Here are some excerpts from Dalit–Bahujan students’ concrete experiences of these elite institutions:

“Once I was presenting a paper on Ambedkar in my Masters’ class as part of internal assessment in Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I used Babasaheb Ambedkar to refer to his works in the paper. After my presentation, my professor told me that I cannot use informal titles such as ‘Babasaheb’ in academic presentations. In the same class, another classmate of mine who is an urban savarna student presented his paper on Nehru. He started by regretfully saying that he had written Pandit Nehru throughout his paper and would correct it. My professor told him that that is not a problem.”

“In my interview for MPhil/Phd admission in CHS, I had submitted a proposal on Music as a form of resistance. I had discussed my proposal with a Dalit professor earlier who told me that it was good and had a lot of scope. I had already scored good marks in the entrance (43/75) and was confident about my proposal. To my surprise, in my interview, they did not even ask me a single question about the proposal. They asked only three questions, all about a low grade in one particular paper. Now, this low grade has a background story. I could not submit one of my assignments on time during my Master’s as I was down with flu. I tried to meet my professor, who is a very accomplished academic in the field of tribal culture. She told me that she could not accommodate my request for extension. When I described her how unwell I was, she gave me her phone number and asked me to call her later. I tried to call her five times. The phone rang, but it was never attended. Finally, she gave me a very low grade in my internals for that paper. She was there in the interview board and the moment she saw me she asked in a surprised tone, ‘Oh, you got through?’ I replied with a smile, ‘Yes.’ I was disappointed after the interview that there was not even a single question to gauge my academic capability. I was awarded very low marks in the viva (3/25). Thus, in spite of my scoring well in entrance, I did not get through for MPhil/PhD in CHS.”

These are some of the instances narrated by a Dalit research scholar from a mofusil town in eastern India during a protest meeting in JNU after Muthukrishnan’s suicide. The student in these narratives seeks to excel in his pursuit of knowledge by redefining the epistemological possibilities of problematising caste in his class presentation and PhD proposal. His attempts show his eagerness to embrace academic culture in the pursuit of life of a mind, which is more than the instrumental purpose of education. But these attempts are constantly marked either as “out of academic framework” or as “non-fit for the system.” These phrases—“lack of academic framework” or “fitness to be in the academic system”—recur in many narratives of Dalit students, especially those who attempt to bring in their sensibilities and aesthetics like Muthukrishnan, Rohith Vemula, the student in the above narrative and many others who wade through the everyday discriminatory “sensorium” of the institution and its people. A Dalit student’s eagerness to envisage a non-alienating relationship with the modern higher educational institution is interrupted by subtle suggestions and informal procedures informed by caste as practised by an institution and its people. 

Affective Economy of Caste

Higher educational institutions are supposedly endowed with the responsibility of producing distinctions in modern society. In recent debates on caste discriminations in elite higher educational institutions, this responsibility of producing distinction is inverted. That is, these spaces produce non-synchronic forms of discrimination which are inherited rather than acquired. In some sense, there is a blurring of differences between forms of recognition based on modern rational universal principles and recognition based on the premodern caste system. There are adequate illustrations which exemplify the reproduction of caste-based forms of recognition instead of a recognition that is solely based on acquired learning as seen in the excerpts mentioned in the beginning. If one were to look at higher educational institutions as spaces that are both embodied and disembodied sites that reproduce caste along with knowledge, then it follows that they produce marked distinctions. 

This production of marked distinctions based on caste is successfully perpetuated through an affective articulation of the body of an institution and its people. Dalit–Bahujans, as relatively new entrants to this body that has been largely composed of savarna aesthetics and taste, are constantly made to feel alienated and discriminated. It is sometimes in the form of informal procedures that delay their scholarships and rights, a lack of recognition of Dalit–Bahujans’ embodied presence in classrooms, other university spaces and so on. Thus, there is a whole affective economy of higher educational institutions that devalues the Dalit–Bahujan “being” by prioritising the already normalised presence of savarna aesthetics and taste. It is in this realm where Dalit–Bahujan embodiment itself is seen as a threat, Dalit students like Rohith and Muthukrishnan seek radical equality, which is beyond the demands for mere presence in modern spaces. They were seeking the life of a mind as well, which is more than the instrumentality of presence. 

Equality may be seen as an effort to recognise the sameness in the other person. Neither the Hindu right-wing nor the left recognise or grant this space for the production and reproduction of this radical equality that Ambedkar aspired to and was aesthetically pictured in the suicide note of Rohith Vemula as the desire to not to be reduced to a mere identity. But in the present context, equality is not to recognise the sameness but the incommensurable otherness of the Dalit–Bahujan person. Yet, thousands of Dalit–Bahujan students relentlessly dream and struggle to experience an intellectual ambience in elite institutions sans caste prejudice to recreate their “being” in radically new ways in a society that otherwise seems to be forgetting what resistance with conscience can deliver in reimagining life and politics afresh.

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