Ghettoization of Dalit experiences in Indian Academia

In conversation with Prof N. Sukumar, Political Scientist at Delhi University.

Q. Constitutional laws on education, in principle, with regards to affirmative action and reservations attempt to bridge the gap between marginalized groups and those in the general category. Despite being implemented, there is a large gap between the numbers of students in the aforementioned groups. What are the social issues faced, especially by first-generation learners belonging to marginalized communities, in addition to academic issues?

To this day, the reservation policy is yet to be completely implemented. The basic idea of reservation is to ensure accessibility of marginalized communities into academic domains. However, they should be accepted socially, not just academically. The non-reserved communities devalue students from the reserved category, calling them “non-meritorious”, despite them being meritorious. Students from marginalized communities face an immense amount of academic and social issues. The moment they enter the campus, they sense a loss of belonging. The university space is very hierarchical, and there exists an “elite vs non-elite” division, seen through language barriers, hindering access to information. Due to this, such students are deliberately given fewer marks, and struggle to pass. 

Socially, such students face a lot of exclusion and discrimination. Students belonging to the reserved categories stay within their own groups, as there is a level of comfortability, to discuss the issues one faces with friends belonging to the same class or caste, which others may dismiss or laugh off. Such students also face discrimation on their dressing patterns, lack of involvement in cultural and social activities. With university events, there is a division of labour based on the background of students. The academic aspects and social aspects are thus closely linked within, and outside of the classroom.

Q. In your understanding, how did the introduction of reservations cause a shift in the realm of academia? Whilst access to education increased, was there a shift when it came to outcome, did students belonging to marginalised groups benefit greatly? Is such a feat “rolling back” from the last few years?

When it comes to enrolment in higher education of reserved categories, there is a gradual increase in the past decade, and an increase of the women’s enrolment too. There is now a massive demand for higher education, which reflects the aspirational level. My students say that higher education is necessary for them to rationalize and negotiate equality, and express their opinions, later including job employment. However, the outcome in terms of employment in the present is becoming problematic. In the previous decades there was a positive output, a considerable number of students got employment, there were recruitment policies, and many public institutions.Increased privatization is blocking outcome when it comes to employment, Dalit students will remain in public universities or work there since they cannot get into private universities. Reservations also do not have an overall outcome, since there are a significant number of student drop-outs, as their conducive atmosphere was not positive.

There are often certain “Brahminical mindsets” used to “weed out the Dalits” from obtaining certain opportunities, such as obstacles against fellowships, in the form of extra entrance exams and language ability. There is an immense difference between the provisions created on paper, and reality. Students are often not given the grades required to obtain such fellowships, they are not able to get even letters of recommendation! Thus, the outcome is problematic, not only in terms of employment but also in terms of the aforementioned “little” outcomes.

Q. Could you please elaborate on the work efforts undertaken by universities to help students belonging to marginalised groups (especially first-generation learners)? How often do you find such efforts to be implemented, or are they solely present to help with the image of such institutions? Instead, what measures do you personally believe should be implemented to help such students?

There have been a lot of efforts undertaken by the UGC, over a period of time. While reservations allow for these students to get into higher education and universities, there are also fellowships, scholarships, and remedial classes for the reserved-category students. These are very important for students who do not have the required language or academic capabilities. Scholarships ensure that there is no need to monetarily depend on family, which is vital for female students, since some families may not wish to invest in girl-child education. Yet, the NEP seems to be officially facilitating dropping out, with its entrepreneurial education pattern. It has officially created a gateway for marginalized students, who do not want to continue after secondary school to drop out, with a certificate. I call it the “New Exclusion Policy”, not New Education Policy.

I believe that if every university strictly follows the 2011-2012 UGC Guidelines on equity and discrimination. Under this, universities have to submit a report every year, with the complaints, actions and outcomes faced, and have anti-discrimination officers, grievance redressal mechanisms, SC-ST cells, and counselling services. All of these exist on paper, yet they are not functional. An, an anti-discrimination act is needed, which is liable as per the law. Many universities do not even respect the institutional mechanisms that have been set up and devised to address such problems. Instead, committed people should be identified, and the administration should be caste-neutral when addressing issues. 

Q. In your journal “Living a concept: Semiotics of everyday exclusion” you had mentioned about the ‘excluders’ sharing a collective vision whilst the ‘excluded’ experiencing exclusion as an individual failure. To what extent and how does this hamper the participation of certain marginalised groups in occupying social spaces?

The perpetuators of discrimination are very clear and clever; from top to bottom on how to prevent the reserved category students. It is an organised system wherein the judiciary and the parliament also become part of the institutionalised discrimination that is being meted out. This compared to the excluded, who are battling and are often divided on the basis of caste, sub caste, region and language to name a few. Post Rohit Vermula, in many universities, Ambedkar Student Associations and Dalit Students Associations came up. This is important as larger social movements need a sense of guidance and mobilisation. Of course, there are some positive cases also of people who graduate. So, the excluded are divided and the excluders are united. This needs to be seriously understood as a failure of the excluded. This limits the participation level of students. Many a times in fact, those who are subjected to such discrimination tend to slip into depression. Because of the trauma that such students go through throughout their degree programme, a psychological scar becomes indelible. Over a period of time, one slips into depression or in extreme cases suicide. Other offshoots become dropouts, losing confidence which has a major impact in the long run.

Q. How does language act as an effective weapon to restrict the entry of Dalits and Adivasi into academic circles? To what extent does it create a sense of stigma against them?

Yes, language plays a very important role in the classroom. There has been a sense of “English elitism” that one can see. As a Dalit, I am for English medium precisely because if not for an English medium mode of communication, I would not be where I am today, a professor at DU! Despite this, English language as a medium needs to be deconstructed as many come from a Hindi medium background and face major difficulties. Many times, more than bringing together people, language acts as a discriminator; excluding certain backward castes and acting as a bottleneck for the disadvantaged groups in academic institutions. I understand how speaking and interacting in English is a daunting challenge for many of the Dalit students but to conquer the world one must know the language that links everybody. Only through this can ideas be exchanged and critical engagement could occur.

Q.  Gopal Guru in his work “How egalitarian are the social sciences in India?” talks about a sense of theoretical spoon-feeding that is provided to certain groups whilst the Dalit/ Adivasi experiences are relegated to raw empiricism. In your own personal experience, would you agree with this insight? Should Dalit/ Adivasi look at theory as a moral responsibility to act in order to grant respectability to their experience that is otherwise circumcised by condescending theorists belonging to the “Upper Castes”?

Social sciences are not at all egalitarian. Who had access to the knowledge for so many decades? Within the department of sociology in Delhi University, there is a course on caste. Conveniently, they have all scholars who have worked on caste but have left out Dr. Ambedkar. This is a classic example. Sociologists like Andre Beteille, at one point of time, spoke about the idea of reservation diluting the idea of merit which was highly problematic. So, the social sciences are not at all egalitarian precisely because the knowledge that is being produced is highly Brahminical. There are many perspectives; liberal, Marxists, Hindutva and feminists amongst others. What is presently missing is a Dalit-Bahujan perspective in the field of political science and sociology. De-Brahminization of history, knowledge and theory thus is very important. Ultimately, theory comes from experience and the Dalits are the ‘empirical Shudras’ who have rich empirical knowledge. Which is why I feel that a “Empirical Shudra” is no lesser than a ‘theoretical Brahmana’. Need empirical experience for one to theorise; in a way the Shudras are more capable to do this and should be provided with more platforms to do so. Personally, as a social scientist, I don’t place theoretical Brahminical knowledge over raw empirical experiences.

In the context of Corona, everyone has become an “untouchable” and the problem with untouchability is that now the Brahmin will slowly understand the pain of untouchability.

Q. Social science practices are deemed as undemocratic and self-serving to the interest of certain groups; often subscribing to a “Brahmanical pedagogue”. In your own personal curriculum, you had introduced a ‘thinker based approach’. Can you please talk about the idea behind this move, why it is important and how it faced a certain backlash?

I teach Indian Political Thought at the University of Delhi. I did my PhD on Ambedkar. I am also the first Dalit in the Political Science department for the past 70 years serving as a faculty. This hints at the Brahminical dominance as an ideology. When I joined initially, there was this thematic exploration within the syllabus and the problem with this is that you can conveniently exclude the thinkers whom you don’t like and in the process exclude perspectives you are not inclined to. And in the process, Periyar, Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule amongst others are left out. I fought to make my own question paper and slowly, I got involved in the process of making the syllabus. I felt it was important to study the ideas of Ambedkar; not for the sake of Caste but for the sake of equality which every individual needs to be acclimatized to in this hierarchical Indian societal structure. I made his teachings as a compulsory course as part of Delhi University and that was my first pedagogical initiative. My most important intervention was introducing the course “Dalit Bahujan Political Thought” as an optional paper. The idea behind this was to understand, construct and deconstruct all thinkers with reason and rationality. Most of my other colleagues teach Hindu nationalism and culture but the antidote is also very important to understand which is why I fought rigorously to introduce the course as part of the syllabus.

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