The Spirit of Merit: Caste in JNU Interviews

Merit has once again become the talking point with a number of PhD candidates from marginally groups being given abysmally low marks in the viva voce or oral examinations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. It almost seems as though the contesting spirits of Mandal agitation 1990 and 2006 keep hovering around university campuses till today. Both within popular as well as in academic spaces, the notion of merit has been debated widely and exhausted repeatedly with similar kinds of rhetoric. However, rather than defining what merit is, it would be useful for us to look at how different socio-economic groups have understood and negotiated with the concept of merit within their respective contexts, both as everyday practices as well as in terms of political expressions.

Before getting into the recent JNU controversy, I would like to point out how merit is constructed and associated with a few social groups through quotidian idioms in this country. These quotidian idioms are reproduced to shape discourses and consciousness around merit thus reinforcing the existing social hierarchy. ‘Sharma ji ka beta’ as a standard to be achieved during board exams, ‘brain drain of IITians to foreign countries due to reservation in India’ and the countless quota jokes on social media are just a few of the references regarding the public expression of merit. In all of this, it is usually caste that becomes the reference point with upper castes embodying merit as legitimate competence while lower castes, Dalits and Adivasis as undeserving, innately intellectual inferiors.

In a casteist society, this is normal, and the marginalised groups tend to look at education as an emancipatory tool, given the trajectory of various social movements that have been undertaken by figures such as the Phules in the 19th century to Ambedkar in the 20th century. Thus, attaining higher education is not just a function of upward economic mobility, but also a tool to counter or escape caste. Within the ambit of a nation-state and job market, the mass formal education system is what contains the aspirations of marginalised groups and more so the public-funded educational institutions which can be afforded.

It is here one needs to inquire whether renowned educational institutions such as JNU enable the aspirations of students from marginalised groups or perpetuate the notion of merit that is prevalent in the society outside. In 2016, during the long hullabaloo after February incident, a committee under the chairperson of Professor Abdul Nafey from School of International studies submitted a report on December 23, 2016, stating the following:

‘The finding of the present committee is that the data consistently indicate the pattern of difference in the written and the viva voce marks across all categories which indicates discrimination’.

Further, it also recommended that the viva voce marks be reduced to 15 marks from the then 30 marks to mitigate the discriminatory pattern. The Nafey committee report came to such conclusions after having deliberated upon data from 2012 to 2015 and also two other prior reports namely Rajiv Bhatt report and Sukhdeo Thorat report which had done a data analysis from 2007-2011 and 2013 respectively. Thorat committee in particular stressed upon dividing the viva-voce marks into three components namely research proposal, domain knowledge and analytical understanding. However, none of the recommendations are implemented till today.

Following this, there were huge protests for three months starting from the end of December and blockade of the administration block for a few weeks in February. The series of events that ensued were led by student groups such as BAPSA, OBC Forum, DSU and SIO and supported by many individuals under the banner of ‘Committee of suspended students for social justice’. 11 students were suspended by the JNU Administration for initiating the protests in the month of December 2016, and all of them came from SC, ST, OBC and minority backgrounds. This suspension was further accompanied by inquiries upon many individual students whose degrees were withheld for months with fines imposed.

This however went largely unnoticed.

During February 2016, more than 500 renowned professors across the globe had sent solidarity letters to JNU, but they chose to remain silent this time when students from marginalised social groups were protesting against their discrimination and exclusion in a campus which is hailed for its progressive politics and left-liberal orientation in the academic world.

Given there was no mechanism in place to mitigate the problem, it has come to the forefront again, and this time through dozens of testimonies and screenshots on social media mainly shared by students coming from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds after the JNU PhD entrance exams were declared. Despite scoring well in the written exam, many have received marks between one to three thus not being able to qualify for the seat. This, however, is not a new discovery, for years there has been allegations of discrimination based on rural background and fluency in a certain kind of academic English. There are inside stories doing rounds about reserved category students being termed as ‘zero walas’ in whispers among faculty members of higher castes sitting in the panel and accordingly they mark the students appearing for the interviews. At times when caste background isn’t obvious with caste-neutral surnames such as Singh or Kumar, they ascertain the caste of the interviewee through other questions. If one were to go by the Thorat committee report, marks such as one or two would be impractical.

There can be two inferences made out of this, either the students become meritless by the time they reach the interview stage to not be able to speak about their research proposal to get such low marks, or else the professors who interview are discriminatory. One needs to ask the question what constitutes the merit of the elite higher caste students coming from institutions such as St Stephens, LSR, Presidency who get into these courses which students coming from vernacular, rural, and socially marginalised caste backgrounds do not possess despite scoring well in written exams. If the latter is excluded on the basis of merit, then can institutions such as JNU claim to be emancipatory ?

The criminal silence of ‘alternative media’ and civil society particularly in New Delhi is deafening around this issue. The academic global network, which teaches Bourdieu, capitals, decolonisation and subalternity in classrooms seems to not engage with such a crucial question at this juncture. As students mainly from SC, ST and OBC backgrounds raise this debate regarding the notion of merit and higher education, it is left to be seen whether this brings about some changes in mechanisms or would the spirit of merit continue to haunt higher education.

Sumit Samos is an Msc student at Modern South Asian Studies, University of Oxford.