Universities as Modern Agraharas

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Photo: Amarjeet Singh
Photo: Amarjeet Singh

Power cannot be reduced to just the exercise of political authority but is also reflective of social sanctions and sanctities. The manufacturing of knowledge exists within a certain discursive framework, which by its very nature creates an ‘other’. The educational space is not beyond the social and political space. And so our teaching community, too, does not exist in a vacuum.

One needs to only interact with students from SC/ST/OBC communities who are at the receiving end of the injustices meted out by the casteist mindset. The nature of the classroom is exclusive, partisan and humiliating, thereby creating a stigmatising space. No wonder, in many institutions of ‘higher learning’ in India, students are forced to kill themselves, to escape the dishonour that they experience in the classroom.

In order to probe such incidents in universities, the UGC issued a ‘government order’ on 19 July 2011, requesting institutional authorities to be more sensitive to issues of exclusion and discrimination faced by the students. In 2006, the government appointed a committee under the then UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat to investigate similar incidents. The Thorat Committee’s report has been conveniently ignored so far.

In the period 2007-11, around 20 Dalit students committed suicide due to discrimination in premier institutions such as the IITs, AIIMS  IISC and other medical and engineering colleges. In University of Hyderabad (UOH), 11 Dalit students committed suicide in just eight years, with Rohith Vemula being the latest.

On 6 February 2013, student residents of the Bhimrao Ambedkar Welfare Hostel in Patna University experienced the violent fury unleashed by the caste ridden society. Why were the desperate pleas for assistance by Mudassir Kamran, a Kashmiri research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad, deliberately ignored by the university authorities?

N Sukumar | Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi
N Sukumar | Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi

Similarly, in JNU, the technique of viva voce has been used to terrorise students from the SC/ST background who are consistently given low weightage. Such instances have resulted in dropouts, lack of opportunity, unemployment, humiliation and suicide of Dalit students. Though the reservation policy has been a landmark in providing the oppressed groups with accessibility to higher education, caste discrimination and exclusion is widespread both explicitly and implicitly, raising questions on the feasibility and desirability of existing policies in the midst of the prevalent hierarchical structure.

Hence, it is unanticipated that the print and electronic media is devoting space and time to Rohith’s tragic death. Is it because in his suicide note, Rohith is revealed as an intelligent, articulate person with a sense of lyricism in his writing rather than the average toiling Dalit in the field? Where were all the progressive liberal scholars and activists when 10 Dalit students were rusticated from UOH in 2002?

The university had then fought a legal battle to put hurdles in the way of these students’ careers. The chief warden who was instrumental in the 2002 rustication is now the vice-chancellor of UOH, a reward for displaying exemplary administrative efficiency. On the other hand, the students had to battle the denial of financial and emotional support, and to their credit, they completed their studies and are now gainfully employed.

Cut to 2015-16. This time it is the turn of five Dalit students who were rusticated for a scuffle on campus. No longer are the university authorities willing to handhold or mentor students. On any sign of dissidence, they are kicked out without any empathy.