Structural Harassment: The Anxieties of OBC Students at Elite Institutions

The resignation of a young professor from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, citing caste-based discrimination in his department, hit me hard. Incidents like these make students like me – students trying to overcome the traumas and challenges we face at our respective institutions – lose hope.

What does it mean for a minority or a Dalit student, coming from a marginalised background, to study at elite institutions such as the IITs and central universities? As a first-generation educated Muslim woman, it has always been a dream to pursue higher education at a central university. But little did I know that I would have to continue to deal with my identity-based issues, impostor syndrome and anxieties throughout my academic life. Little did I know that this is something that is normalised in the academic world.

I still remember my initial days at one such elite institution – how I’d sit in the class, struggling to understand any of the English terms and concepts that the professors taught. There were several students who hardly knew the language. We would face a lot of difficulties while writing, and would often remain silent in class, unable to participate in discussions that were ironically on issues such as social hierarchies and structures.

For show, the institution had put up a list of professors on the noticeboard who were ready to help and counsel students who might be in need – but those doors never opened. The simple act of knocking on those doors would also require a lot of energy and hours of overthinking which stemmed from how many of us were made to feel guilty and ashamed for not knowing how to cope with basic encounters and interactions in our day-to-day life at the university. So, hardly any of us would actually ask for help.

I saw how some of my classmates would raise questions in class, albeit in a certain tone, accent and style – different from other students. I also came across the ugliest forms of competition unfolding in the name of merit. In such a scenario, everything, from writing a term paper to sending a mail to the professors, felt like a herculean task.

On top of that, the professors would often single out students. One time, a tutor assigned to my group humiliated me by saying, “Is this how you write a term paper? Full of grammatical mistakes and you really haven’t cooked up the ingredients!”

I felt helpless that there was no support for people like me, who hadn’t even heard of a ‘term paper’ before let alone know how to write one. I would constantly feel like dropping out. At one point, I even made a futile attempt to go back home during a s et of crucial semester examinations. Such was the scale of the emotional turmoil.

That was also the time when the hostel list was made up using the category-based ranking, which meant only those who made it to the merit list – which were mostly students from the ‘general’ category – were able to secure hostel rooms. Others had to find their own ways, which was to either stay with seniors they knew (if they had enough connections on campus) or to stay outside (which worked only for those who could afford the rent).

Hence, most of the students from reserved category would hear casteist remarks such as, “Oh, you must be OBC. It will take time for you to get the hostels!”

Also read: School and Caste: Why the IIT Kharagpur Incident Took Me Down Memory Lane

I remember one time a girl shouted at me and asked me to learn the meaning of ‘culture’. She mockingly advised me to get a hold of the Oxford dictionary to understand basic English, while boasting of her St Stephen’s background – all because of a water bottle she had misplaced herself.

I also recall a conversation with an upper-caste student who had come from an elite university in Kolkata. He said, “See, I had many Muslim friends back home and most of them were intelligent.” It took me a while to understand that what I had heard was a form of micro aggression.

And then, there were some circles outside the classrooms where students who would talk about nonsense like dog poop for hours on end – all such talk was completely alien to me. There were times I was asked derogatory questions like, “You Muslims do not touch dogs right?”, “Why do you have to wear a headscarf?”, “Do you speak Urdu?” “Are you religious?”, “You guys get married at an early age right?” and so on.

These questions would make me squirm the same way I do when I watch stereotypical depiction of Muslim characters in Indian movies – with men in skull caps shown either as a butcher or a terrorist and women as people who are perpetually oppressed.

These are only bits and pieces of what I remember from my university life. However, such stories of discrimination and prejudices continue in higher educational institutions, despite the consistent and strong opposition from student communities in such spaces. And one must note that not all kinds of discrimination are explicit and easily identifiable. There also subtle forms, that you have to be really cautious and perceptive to notice.

Many of my seniors and work colleagues, who come from similar backgrounds, had to face such problems in their respective institutions. They tell me how their professors would favour the upper-caste elites – who already had all the privileges and therefore met the so called standard requirements of the merit-based system – and ridicule the students from marginalised sections. They tell me how they found it hard to interact with their supervisors. Many professors, especially in elite institutions, are simply unapproachable and are insensitive to students from marginalised backgrounds. They write woke academic pieces for the sake of it, perhaps to not be ousted in any manner.

Moreover, the social justice committees that are often set up by the universities for ST, SC or OBC students are quite useless with no scope of criticism or intervention, not to mention the lack of equal representation. Over and over again, we have to ask: How egalitarian are our eminent universities? Moreover, these are not just issues that could be covered under a blanket term and can be tackled by setting up some ‘mental health centres or counselling avenues’. Rather, it requires effective, empathetic and sensitive changes in the pedagogical system.

As a sociologist who specialises in education, I would say you would require a critical lens to comprehend the issues and barriers faced by marginal students in higher educational institutions and that these should also take into account intersectional factors such caste, class, gender and religion. Because I have never seen students belonging to upper caste families and studying at elite universities genuinely being concerned about these issues.

Shehana Sajad is currently an MPhil candidate at Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, JNU. Her areas of research include urban sociology, class and religion in education.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty