Spaces of formal education-be they schools, colleges or universities, are never about classroom learning alone. While the political activism of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and University of Hyderabad (to some extent) may have caught the attention of national media over the last few years, it is important to recognise that in different forms, colleges and regional universities across the country, are contested spaces. Some of this contestation can be meaningful, and socially productive, creating new ways of looking at the world.
A section of India’s liberal intelligentsia however has been critical of ‘student politics’, claiming the waste of tax payer’s money on politically astute students (the irony of it being that the waste they perceive is measly stipends of a few thousands, given to PhD scholars in universities, when they do not have UGC or other government fellowships). However, this section- that see the purpose of degrees in terms of ‘human resources’ alone, rather than commitments to creating conscientious citizens, does hold power over dominant discourses of education. Such a view of education does not recognise deep-seated caste, class and gender hierarchies in Indian society, or education. It leads upper caste, privileged individuals to claim that universities or institutions are ‘casteless’, focused only on ‘merit’, even as Dalit and Adivasi students protest the many forms of social discrimination they experience. Such claims are premised on denying caste, or any structural injustice by focusing on the individual. Manu Joseph’s claim that there is no connection between oppression and depression, in the suicides of Dalit research scholars in a university or farmers, is but one instance of such glib thinking. [i]
It is with this context that I examine Karnataka state government’s proposal to create ‘casteless hostels’ in every district. [iii] This proposal was based on the apparent recognition that the current scheme, of having separate hostels for SC, ST OBC and religious minority students, meant the government ‘itself was sowing the seeds of casteism’. While hostels that accommodate students across caste groups may indeed help challenge ‘cultures of social exclusion’ (as sociologist Chandan Gowda, cited in the news report suggests), the proposal needs to be examined from the perspective of students who avail the current scheme, and the workings of caste in contemporary higher education. Based on a series of conversations with women students, and participation in the daily routines of two hostels run by the department of social welfare in Bengaluru and Kalaburgi, respectively, between 2016 and 2017, I attempt to do this. [iv]
Hostels for SC/ST students may have been conceptualised by the State as ‘welfare’. However, in my interactions with students, I found a range of more politicised understandings of these spaces. Chetana (name changed), a first-generation university entrant pursuing a masters in law, and many of her friends spoke of the hostel as a ‘gift from Ambedkar’, and when they demanded better provisioning or support from the department, they would say, ‘we are only asking for rights, not charity’.
An exclusive hostel for SC-ST students I found could be a space of relative comfort, where students discussed the nature of stigma they experience in higher education and find resources to cope with it. Second, these are also important educational sites, helping many cultivate a more politicised understanding of caste.
Early in my field research, a group of students from a ‘classified hostel’ (students pursued courses, such as engineering, nursing, paramedicine, bachelors and master’s degrees in science and commerce in different colleges, but lived in the social welfare hostel) spoke about how they preferred not to let their classmates know where they lived, since they didn’t want to be recognised as ‘scheduled caste’. This was a product of the many different forms of discrimination- subtle and unsubtle- that scheduled caste students experience in higher educational spaces. In official correspondence, such as job applications, they wrote the address as ‘government hostel’, rather than ‘social welfare hostel’, which would make caste identities known.
Discourses around the lack of ‘merit’ of ‘scheduled caste’ students continue to circulate, despite several strands of analysis that show how ‘merit’ is a product of capital that helps access tuitions, superior schooling, and so on. While resentment about the supposed ‘benefits’ available to scheduled caste students marked one end of this stigma, traditional brahmanical notions of purity-impurity based on food and occupation marked the other. Chetana had told me how a friend, unknowing of her ‘SC’ category had remarked of another student, ‘that is how those who eat the cow behave’. Appalled at this blatant display of ‘casteism’, she told him that she too belonged to a scheduled caste. He then claimed a world-view defined by ‘castelessness’, and spoke of how he never brought caste into friendships. Chetana had said, people claim to be ‘casteless’ even as they say the most casteist things.
This incident can be contextualised by recognizing how modern educational spaces claim to ‘erase caste’, sometimes through claims to secularism, even as routine practices and discourses deligitimise the claims of socially marginalised students within higher education.[v] The recent controversy in IIT Maadras, where a mess proposed separate sinks, utensils and entrances, for vegetarians, and non-vegetarians, is just one instance of the entrenched caste-ism, rendered more potent by its absolute denial, within elite higher educational institutions. [vi]
Student politics that seeks to democratise universities has called attention to a variety of ways by which caste is institutionalised in the routine practices, and discourses of universities. The ‘cultural capital’ of upper castes, be it in terms of comfort with language (English), or food preferences (‘pure vegetarian’ or if meat, chicken or fish, acceptable to the vast number of dominant caste Hindus) is often rendered the norm, against which ‘other’ practices are understood. In the social welfare hostels, despite most students consuming a variety of different meat, only chicken is served. In the Kalaburgi hostel, since separate building for the social welfare department was under construction, and part of the physical infrastructure was shared between ‘general’ and ‘SC’ students within an institution, no meat was served. This was justified, as respecting the sentiment of lingayat and brahmin students. One wonders how ‘respect for sentiments’ may play out in ‘casteless’ hostels, and whose sentiments will be prioritised.
However, as was clear at the beginning of this article, students hesitated to reveal where they lived—an exclusive SC-ST hostel could also become stigmatising. To be clear, the proposed move by the government does not say anything about dismantling current hostels, or their infrastructure. Any claim to castelessness, however, requires a recognition of the current workings of caste discrimination in higher education, and a commitment ‘beyond inclusion’[vii], if understood merely as an increase in numbers from socially marginalised caste groups.
[ii] http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9283:the-substance-of-higher-education-in-india&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 (accessed January 25, 2019).
[iii] https://www.deccanherald.com/state/state-plans-casteless-hostels-711308.html (accessed January 24, 2019).
[iv] This engagement was for my doctoral research project in the sociology of education. Methodologically, the first phase of the field research involved interviews, and observations with wardens, students and taluk social welfare officers in both districts. The second phase involved ethnographic engagements in a hostel each, in Urban Bengaluru and Kalaburgi.
[v] Ritty Lukose(2010), in her ethnography of a college in Kerala discusses how a professor threatens to humiliate a student, for violating the ‘secular’ principles of the institution, by making his Scheduled Caste identity publicly known. Ajantha Subramanian(2015) and Srinivasa Rao(2008) have demonstrated the ways in which caste, and caste-based stigma is entrenched within Indian Institutions of Technology.
[vii] Beyond Inclusion is the title of a book, co-edited by Satish Deshpande and Usha Zacharias.
Shetty, R. (1978). Dalit movement in Karnataka. The Christian literature society: Madras
Rao, S. (2008). Equality in Higher Education: The Impact of Affirmative Action Policies in India. In Thorat, S. and Kumar, N. (Eds.) In Search of Inclusive Policy; Addressing Graded Inequality. Jaipur: Rawat Publishers, 286-311
Lukose, R. (2010). Liberalization’s Children; Gender, Youth and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, pp. 184.
Subramanian, A. (2015). An Anatomy of the caste culture at IIT-Madras. http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/voices/an-anatomy-of-the-caste-culture-at-iit-madras (last accessed on 24th November, 2015).
Savitha Suresh Babu,
PhD scholar, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru