Debate: ‘Across the Road from Ashoka’ – Is There Really No Caste Within the University?

Last week, LiveWire published a short video story, ‘Across the Road from Ashoka’s Liberal Campus, Caste Segregation Still the Norm’. The video included interviews with residents of Asawarpur village and with an Ashoka faculty member, but left us with a number of pressing questions.

First, the title of the video (which was provided by LiveWire, not the authors) pits ‘liberal’ Ashoka against ‘traditional’ Asawarpur, in Sonepat, Haryana, reinforcing an already-skewed power dynamic between the elite private university and the village. It’s naive to assume that a village’s social dynamics can be fully transparent to an urban outsider, like the filmmakers. And then there’s the bigger question which goes unaddressed in the video – Is there really no caste within Ashoka?

In the video, the filmmakers fracture time in a way that the knowledge-producers – privileged Ashoka students – become the ‘modern’ subject enquiring into the ‘ceaselessly stranded in antique past’ villager.

This is a classic problem in colonialist anthropology – where the most well-intentioned observers ended up displacing the ‘other’ they wanted to understand. In this case, caste segregation isn’t treated as a society-wide problem, but more as a project for the civilising university to take on.

Like the first world intellectual asking questions of the third world, the project, from the students’ perspective, is asking the villagers, ‘what can I do for them?’ In doing so, the filmmakers neglect to question their own position and privilege. They don’t ask nor, do they answer, ‘What am I?’

By evading any inquiry into caste segregation within Ashoka University, the filmmakers elevate themselves against the ‘traditional’ villagers who live in the pores of capitalism.

Given the fee structure, Ashoka primarily attracts students from privileged, elite backgrounds. Meanwhile, farmers – whose land the university currently sits on – have, according to some reports, been awaiting compensation since 2002.

To add to that, the university doesn’t have caste-based reservations. The absence of such constitutional mechanisms, laid out under the 93rd and 94th amendments, combined with the absence of any SC/ST cell on campus, suggests Ashoka too is unwilling to confront the problem of caste segregation and integration.

Also Read: Across the Road from Ashoka’s Liberal Campus, Caste Segregation Still the Norm

At one point, the documentary notes that Asawarpur’s residents form a large part of Ashoka’s workforce. However the university’s encouragement of the girl-child’s education is not enough to mask the fact that Ashoka doesn’t have any provision that would enable a child from Asawarpur to be a student at the university.

There’s a parasitic relationship between Ashoka’s privileged students and Asawarpur’s workers – everyone inside the campus is complicit in the social relations produced outside it.

This reality is reflected in the fact that the private university is itself built on a foundation of de facto caste segregation.

Contrasting the university’s campus with the village creates a false binary between the two places, and, as Ashoka professor Rita Kothari says in the documentary, comes from failing to check one’s own caste privilege.

It’s not just the film’s context that raises important questions. The documentary shows four testimonials in total – two from inside the village, two from inside the campus.

The villagers’ testimonies are strictly restricted to their society, and don’t mention the university’s role in their neighbourhood. They don’t discuss Ashoka’s role in their social relations. We assume this is the case because the questioners chose to see the respondents outside that context, isolated from the university.

However, the Ashoka respondents do the opposite – they don’t discuss anything inside the campus and only stick to discussing the university’s influence on Asawarpur. One employee speaks of the ‘trickling down of empowerment’ that’s taking place. And Kothari explains, as if speaking to first world explorers discovering the ‘other’, “when you go to a village, you will have these different quarters…”—as if caste only manifests itself in villages.

We’re not trying to romanticise the village here. We believe that the caste system is a reality, and a really serious one at that. But we want to point out that there’s more value in “learning to learn from below”, as Gayatri Spivak put it. This involves engaging with the other in a way that destablises the self, instead of taking a patronising approach.

Sweta Dash is a freelance writer. Abinash D.C. is a student of English literature, Ramjas College, University of Delhi

Featured image credit: Ashoka University website