Debate: How Exclusive Are the Faculties of Institutions of Higher Education?

This debate piece has been written in response to Harish S. Wankhede’s article ‘How Meritorious and Inclusive Are Our Institutions of Higher Education?‘, which was published by The Wire on December 19.

Recently, public intellectuals and academicians who subscribe to upper-caste left-liberal ideology criticised the newly submitted report by government officials which recommends that the IITs should be exempt from reservation in faculty appointments. This resistance of theirs towards the anti-social justice policies of the current government is more than enough to establish the idea that they are sole flag bearers of equality and justice in tough times. But their selectivity of silence on discrimination in the admission process at elite institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University brings to light the hypocrisy at play.

There are numerous faces of despair and hopelessness around us, many of them even part of our friend circles. Because of the ongoing and never-ending structural discrimination found in academic spaces, we lost our friends Rohith Vemula, Muthu Krishnan, Payal Tadvi and many more. Their deaths have left behind a looming question – why were they forced to undergo such unimaginable pain, such humiliation? Were they not capable enough to fulfil their dreams? Are those who were running the campuses they were at not responsible for such institutional murder? Nobody seems to be reprimanding the faculties at these campuses for their cruel intended behaviour towards such marginalised students.

The purpose of this piece is to bring to light the duality of liberal voices who resist the state for social justice causes and portray themselves as torchbearers of equality in the public domain, but who have never raised their voices for students from marginalised backgrounds who worked hard to pass the entrance tests for elite institutions only to be sidelined by the faculty judging the viva-voce part of the selection process.

There are too many students who have cleared the entrance examination with good scores only to be awarded a very bad score in the viva-voce. Such intended discrimination has a very simple rationale – that those students did not match the expectations of the faculty members present.

JNU recently declared the final results of entrance examination 2020. There are many students whom I know personally who have shared their experiences of the viva-voce. Their shared experiences and scores reveal the exclusionary practices that have been employed.

Also read: Social Capital’ in University Spaces

The major concern of this piece is to ask as to why those liberal-progressive faculties are silent on this issue. In a paper, DU professor N. Sukumar argues that, “For a Dalit student, the initial step is facilitated through reservations. But the admission is only the beginning of negotiating of unknown spaces.”

This negotiation of claiming and reclaiming academic spaces is not solely carried by the students from marginal backgrounds, this is also the responsibility of faculties from marginal backgrounds and those who are carrying the flag of social justice to ensure that they will ensure justice and fairness in the process of selection. Instead, the marker of caste identity becomes the marker of merit, which is clear from how students from lower castes who were shortlisted for viva-voce only to meet the interview board with the absence of caste capital, jargonised vocabulary and strong networks get passive responses.

The ongoing discrimination is indubitably linked to the structure – historically, most spaces of higher education have been dominated by upper caste men and women. They themselves are divided into many groups – progressive left, radical left, conservative right, progressive right and Ambedkarites. Among such groups, it is the voices of left-liberals that are expected to ring out in the fight against injustices and inequalities in solidarity. Yet the selective prevailing silence with regard to admission procedures only reveals a deep-rooted prejudice for marginal identities, stemming from a sentiment of maintaining the status quo.

In present times, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his thought become all the more important when it comes to political activism. Ambedkarite philosophy has been willingly or unwillingly appropriated by the Left as well as the Right. Still, the element of Brahmanism remains strongly rooted in the politics of both the Left and Right. I bring this up because it is essential that we identify those who are real Ambedkarites and who are hypocritical Ambedkarites, as the latter only create more blocks when it comes to making real change happen.

That there is inadequate representation of marginalised sections in elite institutions is an irrefutable fact. But those who seek to represent such voices at such institutions must break their silence and work towards dismantling structural discrimination. The way our identities our narrowed down to just caste must end, especially by those who elect themselves to speak on our behalf. Until that day, Bahujan students will continue to suffer at the hands of the system even before they can well and truly get through the door – one which they faced innumerable challenges to open.

Vidyasagar is a Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.