Without vidya [knowledge], intellect is lost;
Without intellect, virtue is lost;
Without virtue and morality, dynamism is lost;
Without dynamism, wealth is lost;
Without wealth, Shudras are ruined;
All this misery is caused by lack of knowledge!
My parents would often narrate these verses by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule while asking me to study like him and Babasaheb Ambedkar. They firmly believe that education is an emancipatory force. Mahatma Phule’s words warn us about the miseries caused by lack of knowledge. Therefore, my parents were determined that their daughter should get the best education possible. For a second-generation learner like me, to study in one of the best central universities of India is like a dream. But, after one semester, do I still hold that view? A question I often ask myself and the answer to which I will try to seek here.
I grew up in an Ambedkarite Buddhist milieu of Nagpur. I was aware of my Dalit identity though stories my parents and grandparents narrated. These were of people like Babasaheb, Savitri mai, Shahu Maharaj, Thanthai Periyar. My childhood memories resonate with the songs written by Lokshahir Vamandada Kardak, an eminent Marathi poet, playwright and follower of Babasaheb. My identity was one that always empowered me. Personally, I never experienced the iniquitous side of it until I came out of my ‘security blanket’ and entered into the world of higher education. The higher educational space has reduced me to my immediate and a singular identity and has brought me more closer to the actual realities of it.
“Which category do you belong to?”
Discrimination and exclusion is visible here, yet it is so invisibilised. Earlier this year, a friend of mine, on her very first day at college was asked by the professor in front of the whole class, as to “which category she belonged to”. This is commonplace. Once the identity get revealed he/she frequently encounters taunts of being “freebies”, and having “inadequate knowledge”. Everyday humiliations a student faces in classrooms because of his/her identity can range from the clever use of casteist abuses like “chamar”, “bhangi” or as Thorat Committee points out in things like the Viva Voce. The committee while referring to another institute spoke of how SC/ST students, while taking these tests were made to feel inferior, and asked their caste background by the examiner. These experiences many times force students to take extreme steps like dropout and suicides. The high dropout rates among Bahujan minority students are a manifestation of some of this discrimination, which is never talked about in “progressive” circles.
The elitist mask of progressiveness of Indian academia fascinates us from a distance but when we come closer, we realise how unjust these spaces can be. I make this statement from my own experience. I realise my experiences seem peculiar to students who come from a different caste and class background. This is because exclusion gets ‘normalised’ in very mundane and banal ways. For instance, “What is your admission percentile?” is a very general question with which students start their interactions with each other in the initial days. I used to wonder why do these numbers matter when a student has already entered the institution? It is often a pretty way of knowing to which category a student belongs to — ‘reserved’ or ‘general’. Outside the academia, we ask surnames; inside, we ask admission percentages. Both are an indirect way of figuring out each other’s social identity and then adjusting behaviour, relationship, proximity.
The caste-blindness of feminist spaces
Gender discrimination in academia is a much-debated topic. Many parallel feminist spaces have been created here. But these spaces are established within existing power structures and do not reflect the concerns of women who are at the margins here. The caste-blindness of these spaces makes them futile for Bahujan women who struggle at the intersections of caste-gender. When Savitrimaai and Fatima Sheikh struggle to find a place in the feminist circles of India’s best women colleges, I fear how I will be able to find space as a woman, a Dalit-Ambedkarite woman.
I was told that our history is important for it gives us strength and confidence to face the present world. What I realised here is that my history is completely unknown to this place. My history is not a history but a series of untold stories. And the stories that are regarded as histories here are the ones I can never lay claim to. One thing that I believe is that our histories are deliberately erased to make us feel inferior, and for this very same reason our assertion becomes important. I carry a small badge of Babasaheb’s photo with me and students often end up asking me who the person is. I am unsure how my classmates will understand and accept my Ambedkarite identity when they refuse to even acknowledge Babasaheb, either by design or brutal ignorance.
The prejudices against the reservation policy tends to criminalise our very existence. Our own classmates (I don’t call them friends) make us feel ‘undeserving’. In any ‘academic talk’ on reservations, I have seen students, even professors use the chant of ‘merit’. It takes so much mental labour to deal with taunts of being ‘non-meritorious’ and to convince yourself that you deserve to be here and you have to study hard for those among us who still don’t have the ‘privilege’ to enter these institutes. These experiences are agonising. And how does our university help us cope with this? It gives us “Equal Opportunity Cell” that conducts spoken English classes ‘exclusively’ for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe students.
Higher educational institutes in India are structurally designed to be ghettoised spaces. They marginalise students coming from already marginalised communities. The ‘groups’ that exist here have a homogenous composition that alienates a student who does not fit in the ‘mainstream’ identity or to be specific, the upper caste/class identity. I used to think that because I am introvert and shy, I am unable to be part of these groups. After a point I realised, they were never meant to include us. I frequently look at the long list of students union representatives and find my community’s representation to be miniscule, almost non-existent.
To quote Victor Hugo, “There is in every village a torch — the teacher; and an extinguisher — the priest.” In Indian academia, priests are in disguise of teachers playing a role of torch for some and extinguisher for others. I still remember how hard it was for my mother to let her daughter live alone in this university after the tragic death of Rohith Vemula and J Muthukrishnan.
On the occasion of Independence Day we were made to take a number of oaths in the college for a better India, and to fight against “casteism” (surprisingly!) was one among them. But if I go and point out to them how their own institute functions by caste norms, they will deny the existence of caste in this ‘premium’ institute and tell me that caste is a ‘thing of the past’.
This is certainly not the space I dreamt of. I came here with an aspiration to study like Babasaheb. Universities are considered a second home, a place students cherish but for us these spaces are battlefields where we tirelessly fight a new battle each day –a fight that breaks us and builds us at the same time. But we are determined to win this battle. And in Kanshiram Saheb’s words, “For long we’ve been knocking at the doors of the system, asking for justice & getting nothing, it’s time to break down those doors.”
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