Jadavpur University: How a Dalit Student is Fighting Against Casteism in Class

More often than not, educational institutions in India claim that they are caste neutral. As a progressive and liberal campus, Jadavpur University (JU) too prides itself in this self-image.

Its campus is one which has organised rallies to protest Dalit student suicides and has an active SC/ST cell for investigation into complaints of caste-based harassment against Dalit and tribal students. In May 2017, we also celebrated Dalit history for the entire month.

However, the wider reality at JU is a bit different.

Many believe that upper caste students are antagonistic towards those who hail from Dalit and tribal communities. But the students told me that they haven’t faced much of this from their fellow peers, but more so from professors.

A certain professor at production engineering and another in the library science department were the two primary names that kept coming up as I spoke to students.

While the former reportedly engages in subtler methods, like mocking students while taking their viva as “quota students” who have limited abilities, the latter, according to students, is known to blatantly discriminate in forms of intimidation, public shaming and marking students poorly based on caste.

Raja Manna, a second-year postgraduate student in library science, shared his account of negligence and harassment at the hands of the professor, his dissertation guide, Professor Udayan Bhattacharya.

Manna believes the various tribulations that he has been subjected to since the beginning of the current semester are solely based on caste bias, and he has filed a complaint against the professor and the university has now set up an inquiry headed by a former judge of the high court to look into the matter.

Bhattacharya had allegedly deprived Manna of his right to select an optional paper of his choice under the choice based credit system (CBCS). According to him, out of the 19 students in class, he was the only one barred from doing so. The CBCS, on the other hand, says, “each student must opt for a minimum of 4 to 8 credits in the entire duration of the program of his choice.”

Manna was left with little hope and no other option but to approach the dean of arts as the alleged perpetrator was the erstwhile head of the department at the time. This year, on February 14, when he wrote to the dean requesting the matter be resolved, he says that in response, the dean did comply and assured him that it shall be looked into.

Following this, he was allowed to choose his desired paper, but his ordeals increased manifold as the professor allegedly started threatening him. Manna said that he was intimidated and threatened that he would be taught a lesson for having complained to the dean and subsequently how his career would be ruined because he would not be marked properly.

“He stuck to his words and tried to make things as difficult as he could,” Manna said. “He would give me a hard time during presentations, causing frequent, unnecessary interruptions and also kept hovering by my side during written exams due to which I would be extremely uncomfortable and not be able to write properly.”

Such incidents became a daily affair after a point. Frustrated, Manna wrote another complaint letter, on May 6, to the vice chancellor (VC), citing two major demands, namely – his dissertation guide be changed and an investigation committee be formed for impartial judgment on the matter.

Alongside, he also reached out to the college’s student union bodies who, he said, extended support.

However, according to Manna, the VC refused to comply with either of his demands, and instead insisted on the exact opposite – that Manna continue working under the accused professor.

He was also repeatedly requested to withdraw his demand for the formation of an investigation committee.

Shraman Guha, an activist with the student body Forum for Arts Students, accompanied Manna to the VC’s office.

“The authorities kept reiterating excuses like “Raja’s future might get hampered” or the “student-teacher relationship should not be antagonistic” in order to justify why they didn’t want the investigation committee to be formed,” Guha said.

Although all the student organisations, Manna says, rallied together for his cause, the Students Federation of India (SFI) refused to intervene. He had voted for the SFI in the last student election and had been an activist with it himself at one point.

But Manna says that the SFI has also asked him to withdraw his demands.

When I reached out to a source within the SFI, he confirmed that the student body had refused to extend support to him. However, he also said that the Jadavpur University’s Teachers Association (JUTA) is the one which is against the investigation.

“I believe an investigation against one teacher would lead to a domino effect within the teachers community … that’s perhaps why they do not want an investigation,” he said.

However, the JUTA has responded saying that the association is “totally opposed to any form of discrimination, bias, or harassment, especially by those in positions of authority, and will never seek to obstruct the course of justice, irrespective of the identity of the individual or individuals concerned.”

JUTA’s statement on Scribd

In another letter addressed to the VC, dated June 7, Manna accused two of the professor’s research scholars of “constantly threatening” and talking to him in a “foul and derogatory manner.”

Despite all the deterrence, he chose to stay firm on taking up the matter.

“The very fact that they want me to withdraw my demand is providing me with the belief that I should go forward with it,” Manna said. “More than myself, I must do it for those peers who faced similar discrimination but never dared to speak up against the professor. They have assured me that they would do so once the investigation committee is formed,” he added.

On the other hand, Manna said that the professor hasn’t missed a chance to ridicule him in class, be it about his hairstyle or academic performance.

“It has been months of extreme mental torture to have been dealing with these things on a regular basis, going back and forth to the VC’s office with no visible results and studying for exams – all at the same time,” he said. “But I know this must be done not just for me, but for the betterment of the plight of minority students as a whole.”

On June 20, Manna decided to take the matter to the high court because he feels that the SC/ST cell will not carry out an impartial probe even if it forms an investigation committee.

This correspondent found that Manna was not the only student with a complaint against Bhattacharya.

Shashanka Goswami, a graduate in library science, laments how he could never speak up against the professor who, he alleged, behaved with him in an uncalled for manner due to caste-based reasons.

One time, the professor in question, according to Goswami, grabbed him by the collar before asking him to leave class, and also marked him poorly in exams, Due to this, he might not be able to pursue a PhD, he fears.

“I felt powerless against him,” he said. “He had the luxury to forget that I am his student, but I could never forget that he was my professor and the repercussions of speaking against him that would follow”.

A lot of other students from lower-caste groups, who have been under his tutelage, spoke of similar experiences.

But they didn’t wish to openly talk about them.

This correspondent reached out to Bhattacharya to get his response to these allegations by students and will update this story as and when he replies.

On another note, both Manna and Goswami, who have come out against the professor, say they feel the university space to be an essentially inclusive one – just that certain individual factors contradict it otherwise.

However, Susil Mandi, a Dalit student from the department of civil engineering says that since the students from lower-caste groups are actually a minority on the campus, and are already coping with a fear of isolation, their peers and professors must provide them with a comfortable ambience.

“The prevalence of caste based discrimination in Indian universities has been an open secret,” Mandi says. “It is extremely necessary to address this blatant form of discrimination in any educational institution – be it through open discussion or sensitisation programs.”

Academic Anup Singh had concluded in his research that “elite professional institutions are the places where caste prejudice is so firmly entrenched that it has become normal, and it is this exclusionary surrounding that forces the Dalit students, who lack the capacity to deal with this psychological pressure of humiliation, to commit suicide.”

Abhinaba Ray of the English department, another Dalit student, agrees. He traces his origin back to the Kochi-Rajbanshi ethnic group, although “Ray” is a common upper caste Brahmin surname in Bengal. Therefore, he has had his fair share of people not believing in his Dalit identity and mistaking him to be joking about the same, which goes on to prove a lot about how students from the Dalit community are viewed as in the society.

“Making people aware of our plight, where we stand within the society, the kind of privileges that some receive and some have been debarred from receiving, the need for representation, the myth of talent or merit with regard to the same, which a particular section of the society think they have a monopoly over are the things that need to be discussed at length, at the grassroots level in order to imbibe it within everyone,” Ray says.

Raja Manna has shown unparalleled courage in this regard and has stuck to his determination to fight back against this prevalence of caste-based discrimination. He is left with uncertainty regarding his future and going through a regular struggle to not succumb to this engulfing pressure. He calls for the support of others who have also faced similar discrimination to break their silence and join him in his fight in this crucial hour of need.

“Only together, can we overcome this. Until then, our development will only remain a mirage that seems near but is always beyond reach,” said Manna.

Srijita Datta is a post-graduate student of English Literature at Jadavpur University. Her work has appeared in The Statesman, Sahapedia and The Quint. She tweets @srijitad_.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty

This story is part of LiveWire’s series – On The Edge – centred around caste-based discrimination on campuses across India. If you wish to share your experience too, write to us at livewire@thewire.in. If you are not comfortable writing, you can also let us know if you’d like to speak to our reporters. 

Note: This copy has been updated to add Jadavpur University Teacher’s Association’s response to allegations made against them by an SFI member.