The promise and the lie of the university



Shortly before the beginning of the academic session in July 2014 I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary award ceremony. SC students from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh who had passed their Class 10 examinations with an aggregate mark over 90 percent, were being felicitated by the Ambedkar Officers Association. These students would also be given a monthly fellowship of Rs 1,000 for the next two-years from a fund built up through contributions from past and present SC officers and employees.

The event was to have begun at ten, but people were still straggling in at eleven, carrying an assortment of bundles and bags, obviously just off a train or, more probably, a district bus. So I had time to chat with few of them while we waited. Some of them had never travelled as far as Hyderabad before. Glowing with self-confidence, proud of their achievements, they were full of hope about their futures and what they would do to pull their farm-hand families out of poverty and hardship. “I want my mother to stop working,” is a sentence I heard over and over again. Around 11.30 there were about a hundred of these young men and women in the hall. Families had come too — lean fathers and mothers, their rough, gnarled hands and feet oiled and fresh for the occasion; wide-eyed younger siblings enjoying their best clothes even if they were barefooted.

The line-up of speakers could not have been more impressive: a retired Chief Secretary, a Director General of Police, IAS, IFS, IPS and revenue officers; a doctor, two young men who had gone abroad, studied at Harvard and Caltech and were now working in the IT industry. It was a panel of people like these children, people who despite the odds had ‘succeeded’. They were going to share their experiences and give the young people advice and encouragement. I noticed that apart from one journalist from an online journal, the media was absent from this event.

What did the advice consist of? Over the next three hours, I heard speaker after speaker say in different ways: “You have done extremely well. This shows you are intelligent, but also hardworking, and resourceful. In other words you have it in you to succeed. But never, ever imagine you are like everyone else. College life is going to be hard for you. You will have to steel yourself to struggle. You may not be able to find friends; you will feel out of place; teachers may look past you in the class; you will have to work much harder than everyone else to get a grip over your lessons. The key thing is to stay focused. Set yourself
a tight schedule. Six in the morning to 10 at night is good. You need some sleep. Don’t think of enjoyment, don’t get involved in student activities, don’t ever stray into a romance. Above all, develop a thick skin.”

For someone like me who has spent a working life as a university teacher, and who believes that the university is a place in which students break out of the limited world of their homes, acquire new ideas and values, experiment with freedom and actually try out in practice the ideals of universal equality and democracy, what I heard was truly distressing. What these Dalit speakers were saying seemed to contradict everything I believed that university life should actually enable.

There was another reason why these descriptions of what Dalit students should expect to find in the university was especially disturbing. The years 2012-13 were marked out by a spate of student suicides in Hyderabad. Some of these had occurred in the context of the Telangana agitation. Students, most visibly from Osmania University, were key participants in that movement. Students in the State (as against Central/Professional) universities in the Telangana region are largely from small towns or villages, and likely to be from a first generation to access university education. Getting as far as university is a big thing. However — and this is what drove the students’ spectacular participation in the movement for a separate state — given the structure of power and influence in (unified) Andhra Pradesh, whatever the qualification they might acquire, jobs, in the government or private sector, were nowhere in sight.

The suicides that I am referring to were different. They took place in prestigious, centrally-funded universities. And the facts that emerged were disturbing. The young people who had taken their lives were all Dalit, OBC or minority students, with the overwhelming majority being Dalit. Clearly, jobs were not the issue here — they all knew (except perhaps the Muslim students) that they had a good chance of getting jobs if they completed their courses. The problem was that in order to get the jobs, they had first to survive their years in the university and acquire their degrees. In each case the story was one of repeatedly getting bad grades, of being confronted by unmanageable cut-offs and deadlines, impatient and dismissive teachers, supervisors unwilling to take them on, languishing for years without a guide, of scholarships being stopped, PhD vivas being repeatedly postponed, and not least, an administration all too ready to call in the police to deal with the ‘violence’ of such students. But underlying the “reasons” that appeared in the news reports, (failure, depression, disappointment in love) there was another story that was filled out by those left behind. This was a story of being ignored, humiliated, misunderstood and perceived and represented as dull, violent and irrational, patronised, unfairly punished and (given the statistics) even picked out for rustication. It was a story of institutional rules constantly being applied in discriminatory ways; and of mandatory institutional safeguards, created to protect their special interests, being routinely overlooked, or deliberately undercut.

In 2001, the careers of 10 Dalit students from the University of Hyderabad had been cut short when they were suddenly rusticated. As in the case of the suicides, that incident was also widely discussed in the press and among concerned educationalists. Most of those rusticated were research students, six working on experiments that could not have been done outside a well-equipped lab. Over half of them were due to submit their PhD dissertations that year. The reason for the rustication: They had turned ‘violent,’ broken classroom chairs and threatened their hostel warden in an angry altercation.

Setting aside the immediate accusations, we need to ask: What does it mean to cut short the career of students like these, many of them the first person in their village to get this far? What was the “cost” (economic, personal, or psychological) of this rustication or suicide to the family, the village, the community, the university, in fact, the nation as a whole? How could these students, whose often miserably poor parents had staked far more than they could afford on this education, face the trauma of returning to their homes with a future closed off?

Such are the contexts in which some of them chose death instead.

Humbling and instructive revelations emerged in the fact-finding group’s discussions with the rusticated students and those who were protesting the suicides. Caste consciousness and prejudice, they said, actually increased as they “progressed” from local <balwadis> and primary schools to big central universities. While a small number of teachers did provide some patronising care, they were impatient when students found their advice hard-to-follow. Teachers rarely imagined that they had to reach out beyond what they already knew in order to support or help these students. In the hostels too their presence was resented. Other students tried their best not to share rooms. It was not unusual to find that students got worn out, depressed and angry, when battling a hostile and uncaring atmosphere became a daily affair. We catch a sense of what this means in the following statement from the president of the Centre for Dalit Studies, who retorted in response to a proposal that these students required psychological ‘counseling’: “Our boys don’t need counseling. You give them half a chance. That is all they need to manage; they have it in them to survive,”

To really understand this problem we need to turn to the history of our universities which are now just over 150 years old. Until a decade or two ago, rare exceptions apart, only a miniscule elite of the Indian population entered and survived these institutions. In fact, today it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the university as an institution was effectively developed and manned in such a way that it ensured this outcome. In other words, although there was no law to this effect, the universities were reserved for this elite — ‘twice-born’ upper caste, English-educated, mostly wealthy who were depicted as having ‘merit’.

This bias was elaborated, updated and consolidated, indeed institutionalized over decades. It was embedded in curricula, grades, standards, rules, norms, practices, taken-for-granted ideas of merit and value, residential facilities, favoured food cultures and even sports. Even today, the university’s personnel — teachers and administrators, continue largely to represent this elite both physically and ideologically. This is the elite that has official power in its hands, but more importantly, this elite holds the power of judgment, evaluation, sanction, in other words, they have legal as well as cultural jurisdiction over the university. The university operates under their law, it services their interests. And it is to them that higher education continues to remain accountable.

Reservations, as Ambedkar understood them, were an attempt to break into this structure. But the elite quickly devised ways and means to render reservations less effective. When I joined the university as a teacher in the 1970s, although reservations had been in place for two decades, reserved posts were rarely filled. Merit was the catchword and suitably meritorious students and teachers from outside the privileged elite were rarely found. Of course, a very small number did break through. Not surprisingly, they were mostly docile, Gandhian and happy to accept the existing order. In other words, they were SCs who acted as ‘Harijans’ (they were not politically-oriented Dalits). Such a structure saw to it that vacant posts were filled with ‘good’ (meaning upper caste) candidates after a waiting for a short period unsuccessfully to find a Dalit candidate. During that period, readily available ‘open category’ candidates filled the posts on an ad-hoc basis.

In brief, the university’s culture, in the broad sense of the word — its institutions, norms and rules, and above all its teachers and administrators — ensured that it was accountable only to this elite and served its interests. To this cultural ground that operated anonymously, we must add the active prejudice and more often than not, hostility of individuals in power.

Discussions about how exclusion operates are now taking place all over the world. The women’s movement provided analyses of how women were ‘excluded’ in various ways. Today race, caste, sexuality and disability have been added to this list. In an essay called <Vacant Chair>, which deals with censorship as a broad field, French philosopher Jacques Derrida points to the manner in which exclusion operates: “At every moment forces are suppressed, limited, marginalised, made minor according to the most diverse ruses.” He points out there is no field of study, no chair, devoted to this phenomenon that has acquired huge significance in contemporary times.