The fight against everyday casteism in university spaces has resulted in the university becoming a closed social system that produces or reinforces injustice. PhD scholar Deepa P. Mohanan’s recent battle against the deep-rooted Brahmanical structure of higher educational institutions is more than enough proof that India’s Manuwadi varna structure is still in place in the 21st century.
Despite Mohanan’s victory, we must question why a Dalit student still needs to put his or her life in jeopardy to obtain justice. Why is it that for a marginalised student, justice is so restrictive and painful? Why have Dalit-Bahujan students’ merits been diminished only because of their identity? Why is higher education still inaccessible to marginalised people? The most pressing question is why Mohanan and Rohit Vemula are the only ones fighting against caste discrimination?
The history of struggle against casteism proves that the solidarity of others is very selective and biased. In the case of Mohanan, not a single organisation from the so-called Left-leaning progressive and gender justice forums came forward to show their solidarity. This missing solidarity proves the hypocrisy of progressive voices of our time. At this juncture, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s anthem “educate, organise and agitate” must be in our serious consideration because the solidarity will always be horizontal in the varna system.
Though it is a long-running war against the idea of the institutionalised caste system, Mohanan’s battle against everyday institutional casteism is more than just a fight for reclaiming university space. Because the built structure of caste is still so tight that there is little room for individual mobility. The present system permits marginalised students to gain access to some extent, but it always considers them as ‘others.’ Othering is a painful and humiliating experience. Mohanan’s struggle against caste prejudice must be viewed in the context of a greater sense of solidarity. Everyday discrimination of marginalised students in university spaces is not limited to the classroom; it also includes other forms of discrimination, such as peer-group humiliation, geographical exclusion, and cultural inferiority impositions.
Over the last five years, university spaces have been the most vulnerable site for marginalised students. In such situations, unity and organised solidarity among Dalit-Bahujan students is the only way to fight against caste discrimination. The solidarity among Dalit-Bahujan students should also expand to the teaching and non-teaching staff of the university spaces. In most cases, university administration acts like a casteist institution by stopping the fellowship of researchers, creating hurdles for marginal students, and so on.
The major problem of the absence of such solidarity is less representation of Dalit-Bahujan faculties and staff in the institutions of higher education. According to data by the education ministry, presented in 2019 in the parliament, out of 6,043 faculty members at the 23 IITs, only 149 were SCs and 21 were STs – accounting for less than 3% of the total faculty members. Such a disproportionate number reveals the harsh reality that how caste identity is still a determining factor of merits in the institutions of higher education.
The persistent caste discrimination in higher education needs strong solidarity at both institutional and political levels. Mohanan’s fight against caste discrimination in university space indicates how institutions are still exclusive. The solidarity among Dalit-Bahujan students is the only reliable mechanism to fight against institutional caste discrimination. Organisations like Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) and Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) need to expand their activism to other state and regional university spaces as well.
Vidyasagar Sharma is a PhD Scholar at the University of Delhi and currently an Urban Fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty