Recently, I was party to a conversation where an intellectual academician claimed, with much concern and trepidation, that caste was becoming increasingly visible in university spaces. In their experience, which spans over a decade, it was only in the last few years that they had started hearing about casteism and exclusion in elite higher educational institutions (HEIs). The concern, though expressed in good faith for marginalised students, was grossly misplaced.
An examination of the politics of caste (in)visibility and representation will furnish ample reasons as to why such misplaced concerns are problematic in themselves.
History of caste in elite HEIs
The evolution of caste in the modern era has been marked by a simultaneous process of increasing visibility for the avarna and invisibility for the savarna. The upper castes, with the privilege of historically accumulated caste capital, social and educational mobility are now seen as “casteless” entities for whom “merit” is the only asset, who can chose to be unconscious of their caste identity. Therefore in closed spaces that savarnas exclusively occupy, the caste identity is an invisible entity, a non-issue. On the other hand, the oppressed castes, all throughout their existence, are conscious of their caste identity, since it has been responsible for their continued oppression. It is only when the oppressed castes enter these savarna spaces with the baggage of their visible identity, that caste starts becoming apparent to the latter.
Cut to educational spaces and it doesn’t take one too much time to understand that the increasing visibility of caste, is in fact a sign of progress in terms of Bahujan representation than an issue of concern. Elite HEIs in India, have over the decades, been hegemonised by upper castes, with shamefully low representation of students and teachers belonging to SC/ST/OBC communities. The culture, dialogues and intellectual discussions of these spaces were all centered on the savarna, so much so, that until the Mandal Commission reservations came about, universities closely resembled exclusive clubs occupied only by the upper caste. While caste wasn’t visible in these spaces, casteist anti-reservation sentiments ran deep, as when upper caste students took to the streets in the 90s to protest against the Mandal commission reservations, in a bid to continue gatekeeping educational institutions.
It is to this environment of savarna invisibility and hostility that an average Bahujan student was welcomed after 2006, the year when the Mandal commission reservations were implemented. This post-Mandal era, which saw the increasing entry of Bahujan students into elite HEIs, inflicted visible changes to the social (savarna) fabric of universities. And unsurprisingly enough, it is this same post-Mandal timeframe that the intellectual I listened to was talking about, when they fretted over the increasing visibility of caste in “recent years”.
Bahujan challenge to the status quo
The process of Bahujan intrusion into academic spaces has however been far from peaceful. Across institutions in the country, the new entrants are made to feel unwelcome and undeserving. From casual conversations to heated classroom debates, anti-reservation sentiments echo everywhere, making Bahujan students and teachers feel unworthy of their place. A majority of students who drop out in the initial months after admission are from marginalised castes. The recent resignation of Professor Vipin P Veetil from IIT Madras shows how pervasive and normalised caste discrimination is, even against Bahujan professors who have acquired the best possible education available from top universities in the world. One can then only imagine the trauma and alienation that the cultural fabric and power structures of these institutions inflict on an average person from a marginalised community.
In the past few years, however, students and teachers from marginalised communities have been increasingly and vehemently resisting such explicit and implicit discrimination in universities, through concerted efforts at community mobilisation. These hitherto unheard voices of Bahujan resistance have caused much discomfort and tension in university spaces, as norms and behaviours were called out and aggressive demands for better representation were raised.
From accusing the marginalised of “polarising” the peaceful environment of HEIs and employing “reverse discrimination”, to holding Bahujans responsible for the worsening mental health of the savarna, the Bahujan response to casteism has been met with savarna counter-response, drastically changing the power balances in universities.
It is this change in power equations, and the new Bahujan challenge to savarna hegemony in HEIs, that most people identify as the problematic “visibility” of caste. This association is flawed and dangerous at many levels. For one, it blatantly ignores the fact that academic spaces over the years have been bastions of upper caste domination and erases the troubled history of these institutions. Secondly, it wrongly associates increasing Bahujan representation in these spaces with casteism, helping contribute to the idea that the Bahujan is the “other” who has brought conflict to the otherwise peaceful environment of an institution.
This misreading of caste visibility needs to undergo radical changes. It’s often not the visibility of caste, rather the invisibility of it that signals skewed caste representation and repression of the marginalised. An important step towards understanding this fact would be to shift the focus of our conversations on caste from the Bahujan to the “casteless” savarna. Instead of centering our academic dialogues and research on Dalits, Adivasis and Bahujans, let’s start focusing instead on savarna communities and their behaviour and understand what changes in them can bring about increased equality.
A radical reimagining of our discourses around how caste or ‘castelessness’ operates in academic spaces and how savarna hegemony has wielded the peculiar nature of institutions is needed, if we are to move in the right direction of correcting historical inequalities and ensuring greater social justice.
Jasmin Naur Hafiz holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and is currently working as a research assistant at Brown University. You can reach her on Instagram @jasmin_naur_hafiz.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty