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Caste discrimination: ‘Invisible’ but ‘omnipresent’

Dalit activism made it to Hyderabad campuses starting the ‘70s. Still, students and teachers say, they are ‘marked out’ from the day they enter campus.

Written by Sreenivas Janyala | Hyderabad | Updated: February 1, 2016 2:14 pm
rohith vemula suicide, dalit suicide case, rohith vemula suicide case, rohith vemula, hyderabad dalit suicide, hyderabad news, dalit student suicide, who is rohit vemula, rohit vemula murder “ASA triggered a small revolution at University of Hyderabad,” says Kancha Ilaiah, explaining the importance of the outfit to which Rohith belonged. “It was the rise of Dalit intellect… That the upper castes didn’t like”

Scores of students from Osmania University and English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad have been heading for the University of Hyderabad, on buses, autorickshaws and motorcycles, to join the protests over Rohith Vemula’s suicide.

K Kiran, who is doing PhD in Law at Osmania, asks why anyone is surprised. “We know what Dalit students go through. Why do you think so many students from other universities and colleges are coming to express solidarity with the protesting UoH Dalit students?”

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Like UoH, EFLU and Osmania have a large number of students from Dalit and marginalised communities, as well as those belonging to minority groups. UoH and Osmania have always had poets and writers from Dalit and other backward classes, and Dalit activism first began with students raising their voice over the most visible form of discrimination — denial of guides to PhD students or inordinate delay in appointing guides or supervisors.

Dalit activism in UoH is generally traced back to 1993 when the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) was founded by 10 students in post-Mandal agitation time, in Osmania to the 1970s with the founding of the Progressive Democratic Students Union (PDSU), and at EFLU to 1995-96 when students from North India took on teachers alleging discrimination.

Watch video: Delhi Police’s brutality on protesting students outside RSS head quarters

“The founding of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) triggered a small revolution at UoH,” says Dalit activist Kancha Ilaiah. Rohith was a member of the ASA.

“It was the turning point for Dalits on campus. It was the rise of Dalit intellect. There were Dalits who could match the upper-caste teaching staff and officers. That they did not like. They did not like anyone from among the Dalits matching their so-called intelligence. They got scared and a systematic crackdown started, which gave rise to Dalit activism there,” says Ilaiah.

rohith vemula suicide, dalit suicide case, rohith vemula suicide case, rohith vemula, hyderabad dalit suicide, hyderabad news, dalit student suicide, who is rohit vemula, rohit vemula murder The opposition to beef festival at EFLU and Osmania since 2012 is seen as a glaring example of Dalits being denied their rights.

A PhD student at Osmania’s History Department, a Dalit, traces the emergence of Dalit activism to an incident in 1972. “Have you heard of George Reddy? He was murdered by right-wing activists on April 14, 1972. He was experimenting with Left parties, fighting for equal status for Dalits and marginalised communities… Dalit activism has always been there because we have to fight for everything that upper castes take for granted. We have drawn inspiration from the Soweto student movement (of South Africa), Black Panthers of the US, French students’ revolt etc. All of them got their rights but Dalits have to still fight for them. Every moment, every day,” says the 27-year-old.

A Pradip, who is also doing PhD at Osmania, says almost every Dalit student admitted for doctoral work writes at least one letter in grief because he or she feels ignored or is not given proper guidance. “A faculty member who is your guide says he is running short of time. But he has enough time for others. You don’t read much into it the first time or the tenth, but when it happens all the time, you know what is going on,” Pradip says.

Dr Babu Rao is now Head of Department, Community Medicine, at Osmania, having made it to the post eight years ago. He will never forget how tough the journey has been. “I have had to fight the system throughout my career. In colleges and universities here, the moment you take admission, you are identified on the basis or your caste, whether you came through reservation or not, whatever your rank. On the first day itself, you are marked out. From the admission form, it percolates down to departments and hostels, and to faculty members and co-students. It is so well-oiled that they do not have to segregate you. The hints and indications are enough for you to self-segregate and form a group of your own people and be with them.”

Dr Rao calls what Dalits face now in educational institutions “worse than untouchability”. “Back then at least they told you, look you are a Dalit so stay away. Now, it is white collar discrimination. A majority of Dalit students who do well in written exams get very low marks in viva and practicals where they are easily identified by their upper-caste professors… After fighting through the system, if by some chance you survive and make it to a top post like I did, no one listens to you. It is like who is this low-class, second-rate citizen to tell me what to do. Your subordinates, your juniors do this, and you are forced to request or beg the help of some upper-caste people around you to get things done.”

Watch video: Delhi Police’s brutality on protesting students outside RSS head quarters

Since 2012, Dalit students at EFLU and Osmania have been struggling to hold food festivals in which beef is served — the most glaring instance, the community feels, of having to fight for their basic rights on campuses in Hyderabad.

For Dalit and minority group students, it is one way of establishing their identity and asserting their presence in college. “Beef is part of Dalit diet. It is part of their food since ages. But at Osmania, beef instead of being seen as food is seen as a caste. In this age and in 2012, it should have been easy for us to assert our identity but in fact it has only become difficult for us since then,” says Nadda Krisha, a prominent student leader.

“Most people associate beef with religious feelings but not with some communities’ right to eat it as their staple food. In that way the rights of Dalits have always been infringed upon on the campus of EFLU and Osmania,” he adds.

Prof K Satyanarayana of EFLU feels caste discrimination is “omnipresent”. “Ten-twelve years ago, it was very overt, now it is invisible but omnipresent. For instance at EFLU, Dalit teachers and non-teaching staff face an unwritten threat of being transferred to Shillong campus if they stray out of line. Anyone who questions discrimination or rebels gets boycotted by the teaching staff; the students don’t get proper attention from the guide or supervisor. They sometimes give them low grades too,” the professor says.

Satyanarayana questions the structure of Central universities. “You give them autonomy, they turn into landlords. When the Centre intervenes, like it is doing now, they turn into Hindutva centres, and rights and voices of Dalits, minorities are the first to be suppressed.”

Ilaiah also sees a continuing if slightly altered fight. “The fight for rights and assertion is almost over. Now the fight is for intellectual equality, and that is where everything becomes controversial or problematic for upper castes. All these three universities are in a phase of transition where SCs, STs and backward classes are becoming more and more visible and assertive purely on the basis of intellect. In fact, it is the intellectual power of students from Dalit and other marginalised communities that gives support to SC/ST teaching and non-teaching staff who, due to personal and family reasons, do not protest and continue to suffer at the hands of upper castes,” says Ilaiah.

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  1. A
    Jan 24, 2016 at 7:02 am
    Caste discrimination is clearly visible- caste-based reservations.
    1. R
      Jan 24, 2016 at 7:57 am
      Cast discrimination is not 'invisible'. In childhood when we go to school in the form we fill up there is written general or reserved (SC/ST) category. Same thing is followed in college and university. It does not rest there when we go for government job there is also we have to disclose whether reserved or general category. A child from general category may score same marks but reserved category will get benefit. The other student will not get a seat. But in consution it is written that we are same!!!!!!!!!!! Reason is some four,five,six generation back may be (not confirmed) some of our ancestor have told something or did something that is why a kid today going to first day in school have to bear in mind that he/she will get to compete with only 50% seat available and a reserved category will get 100% seat to compete as they can get both from general and reserved quota. Hence consution has told by giving reservation to stick to cast system. There are great number of poor students from general category who do not have privilege to enter a premium insute by getting just 40% though there shortfall due to poverty. I have seen in colleges and universities the SC/ST student no need to by books as they can take it from library for unending time but for the poor general category scholar, either he had to quit study or beg for alms. Hence consution by birth has told us whether we belong to general or reserved category. THEN HOW COME IT IS INVISIBLE. CAST SYSTEM HAS BEEN ACCEPTED BY CONSUTION ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE BIRTH OF INDIA.
      1. T
        Jan 24, 2016 at 4:36 am
        irst it was started from British by dividing countries and then our rulers in the consution they made it with a positive intention for certain sections of society , but our politicians started using it as vote bank . it was divided it further with different useless idealogies and has sunk into veins of the body first u ask from which state and what is the language you and then comes the city and caste you belong . this has spread to all areas of life whether it is education,art, job and it has gone into point of no return.
        1. A
          Jan 24, 2016 at 7:08 am
          Its ridiculous to blame casteism on the British and the Consution, it is part of the hindu religion, many will vehemently deny it or abuse me in the most foul language and my religion, that's not a problem, the caste division in the hindu society is creating another kind of social problem coupled with religious animosity, RSS and the present government will be fully responsible for playing this dangerous game from which there will be no return.