Campus, Constellation, and Caste: Dalit-Bahujan Students and the Unending Battle of Belonging

Dalit-Bahujan student suicides are merely the newsroom stories and pieces of sympathetic tokenism for so-called progressive academic intellectuals. The Brahmanical state structure seems to be perfectly fine with such student suicides because, somehow, the burden of social justice on premier institutions of caste discrimination will be reduced. Before Rohith Vemula and post-Rohith Vemula, nothing has changed. Dalit-Bahujan students are still treated as undesirables in higher education spaces. The recent Darshan Solanki and Dr. Dharavath Preethi’s death is an addition to the series of institutional murders of Dalit-Bahujan students on campuses where casteism is not merely killing the aspirations of first-generation Dalit-Bahujan students. Still, it produces ghettoisation on the campuses where traditional caste structure will be reproduced through Brahmanical pedagogy and administering such student communities. This piece aims to explain how ‘othering’ on campus is linked with the everyday experiences of Dalit-Bahujan students and their belongingness.

Caste Constellations and ‘Othering’ on Campus

Campuses are becoming the site of conflict and contestation where upper-caste student groups and lower-caste student groups are paralleled to each other. The first group attempts to make a status quo of privileges, and the second group attempts to challenge those privileges. The privilege allows them to humiliate and discriminate against their lower-caste peers because their privileges are not academic ones but it is a mere gift of being born into the upper-caste family. The construction of academic privileges they have is sociologically a capital for them which is generational and transferable; it gets exchanged through grades and merit by telling surnames in the classrooms with the presence of upper-caste faculties. Similarly, Dalit-Bahujan students have been identified with the very intent of biases, casteism, superiority, and prejudices by their peer groups, faculties, and staff of the campus.  

This identification process leads to producing caste constellations on the campuses where belonging and un-belonging become the subject of your social identity. The constellations convert into many boundaries for Dalit-Bahujan students where points of interpersonal relations are significantly less, and the possibility of isolation is high. In such situations, Dalit-Bahujan students experience a psychological crisis to restore their belonging on campus. In the absence of a just and non-casteist systemic support system on the campuses, Dalit-Bahujan students find no room to share their everyday pain and distress. However, some of them dare to share these issues with Brahmanical and casteist support systems on the campus, and their issues have been narrowed to the reservations system and so-called merit. The inherent nature of ‘othering’ in our actions is so strong that the privileged student-faculty groups never wanted to be associated with unprivileged students. The recent work ‘Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection’ by Narayana Sukumar reveals how upper caste faculty choose students to supervise in MPhil/PhD research by looking at the caste-class background of respective students. 

Where do we belong?

Every suicide of Dalit-Bahujan students on the campus poses several questions like ‘Did they belong to the campus? What was wrong with their belonging? Who decides whether they belong or not?’ Such questions still need to be answered. After a long struggle, affirmative action policies allowed first-generation Dalit-Bahujan students to enter the university campuses and their entries into the campuses have been seen as a threat to the sacredness and sacrosanctity of traditional caste imaginations. The very belongingness of Dalit-Bahujan students becomes a challenge for hegemonic caste groups in higher educational spaces. 

In this context, the larger politics of belonging is to produce a homogenous campus space where privileged groups will have all entitlements and unprivileged groups will be deprived of all possible resources. The empirical unwillingness to accept Dalit-Bahujan students in many premier institutions of India is an evident reality where you will rarely find any Dalit-Bahujan students despite the constitutionally mandated representation of such groups. In such situations, when Dalit-Bahujan students like Darshan Solanki entered the institution, experiences hard to feel they belonged there because, theoretically speaking, there could be multiple modes of belonging, but the common thing about belonging is that it involves emotions. It expresses itself as a sense of attachment or a feeling that one ‘fits in’ and belongs.

The way forward

At this juncture, the pertinent question is how we can build a campus where Dalit-Bahujan students feel belonging. I firmly believe that anti-discrimination laws and caste sensitisation can be effective in this direction. Still, more importantly, we need to come up with a new systemic support system where pedagogical practices and institutional norms must be based on a sense of belongingness. 


Vidyasagar Sharma   is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University, Germany. His research focuses on spatial identity, belonging, higher education, and social justice. He has been associated as an Urban Fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.



Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty