Universities as Modern Agraharas

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A university is supposed to be a democratic space that moulds students into politically vibrant citizens. But our universities have become sites of social exclusion, where Dalit students are denied a share in the cultural and social capital of society, and are expected to bear this denial silently. Caste determines the field of education in India. Students belonging to the lower rungs experience discrimination based on caste in their everyday academic as well as non-academic life.

These are the indicators of caste in educational institutions: language and vocabulary, accent and expression, communication skills, social skills and mannerisms, names and surnames, locality and residence, dress and looks, body language and so on. Social discrimination or exclusion leads to deprivation, mental block, humiliation, identity crisis, inferiority complex, communication gap, prejudice, escapism, suspicion, isolation and crisis/conflict. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the expression “wasted life” to describe this condition.

Another concept used to describe this condition is “structural inequality”, which arises when certain groups enjoy unequal status in relation to other groups, as a result of unequal relations in their roles, functions, rights and opportunities. At its extreme, structural discrimination can be described as structural violence. This is a concept that — it is argued — makes visible “the social machinery of oppression”.

Thus, even though the marginalised groups can access education as it is constitutionally mandated, exclusion manifests in dubious ways. The principle of merit is largely undefined. However, the social and economic worth of individuals and institutions is valued on the basis of this amorphous principle. Any standard definition of merit will again feed the myth of the “family farm” comprising parental background, alma mater, economic occupations, physicality and geographical location. Needless to say, these privileges are available only to a chosen few who are then considered as “meritorious”, “worthy” and the “best”.

In an ongoing study sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) on ‘Discrimination and Exclusion in Institutions of Higher Learning in India’, SC/ST students of four universities — Delhi, Mumbai, Madras and Hyderabad — were mapped. A total of 72 respondents were interviewed on various parameters. More than 70 percent of them felt stigmatised by their caste identity within the classrooms, peer group and the academic environment. Unsurprisingly, Rohith wrote in his suicide note, “My birth is my fatal accident.”

He was anguished that a man is always “reduced to his immediate identity, to a vote, to a number, to a thing” but “never treated as a mind”. The case of UOH is different from the other universities as the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) here is very strong and vibrant, but despite organisational and ideological support, Rohith felt so alienated by the system that he took his own life. One can only shudder at the fate of Dalit and other marginalised students in institutions that lack a powerful Ambedkarite movement.

The UOH campus has been rendered more toxic by the insidious nature of sub-caste politics. All the five Dalit students who have been rusticated belong to the Mala sub-caste. They are also more in numbers in the ASA. The other subcaste group, the Madigas, have organised themselves as the Dalit Students Union (DSU), which is now politically supporting the ABVP.

The bitter harvest reaped by sectarian identity politics resulted in the usurpation of revolutionary Ambedkarite anti-Brahminical ideology. Ideologically, for more than a decade, there have been systematic endeavours to diminish the influence of Ambedkarite politics in UOH. The rustication of the Dalit students can be understood in that context.

The other entrenched parties on campus are loath to upset the status quo of class and cultural hegemony. In a rational society, agaraharas are an anachronism of the jajmani system and should be dismantled to save young and precious lives. Rohith’s sacrifice should not be in vain but help us strive to create an enabling environment for every student.

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