Are you a quota student? Don’t these reservation guys feel ashamed? Why don’t the SC guys study harder?
Being a lower-caste student in a higher-education institution is often a virtual war where questions such these are shrapnel that lodge deep in the psyche and left lasting damage to one’s confidence. The dismal dropout rates – just 11% of Dalit students who enroll in school stay through university, found the NSSO in 2014 – bear out this fact.
A rash of suicides linked to caste in India’s universities over the past few years – including the tragic death of Rohith Vemula at University of Hyderabad – underlined the hostility and indifference Dalit students face in campuses where their mere presence shatters millennia-old taboos of caste.
Now, the Telangana government has a novel solution to the problem: Build India’s first university exclusively for Dalit students – an upgrade on an already thriving set of residential schools and undergraduate institutions meant only for the weaker sections.
This is a great idea.
First, such an institution takes care of the most insidious of all discrimination: Peer group bias. The jabs and bile Dalit students face range from slurs on their looks, complexion to language, diction, clothing and even the kind of food they eat. In canteens, hostel rooms and in the playground, they are humiliated, racialised or made fun of all because they are considered inferior, free-loaders or worse, unworthy of their position in the university. For a Dalit student to fall in love is often a cycle of abuse and ridicule.
The root of much of this hate comes from a feeling of superiority burnished by a smarter grip over English and familiarity in the ways of the city. Historically denied access to such institutions over centuries, Dalit students often struggle to catch up in paraphernalia, if not in core academics. How does one feel confident if one is constantly singled out in class, feels alien from one’s peers and inferior in articulating themselves? Students who come from similar caste backgrounds eliminate this bias.
Second, the presence of a majority of Dalit students will transform the university, both in its institutional structure and practical functioning. Suddenly, stigmatised processes such as remedial classes, teaching in non-English languages or back-up tutoring will not carry the taboo that mostly upper-caste students and teachers associate with it.
In one stroke, Dalit students will no longer be the perennial other, to be discussed in clipped accents and distant objectivity by forward caste scholars resting on centuries of privilege, but in charge of their own histories and testimony. The flawed notion of merit – carefully built on an edifice of lower-caste corpses and a centuries-long headstart by upper-caste communities – will stand demolished. In the face of a strong and confident Dalit student group, professors and directors will no longer feel comfortable articulating casteist notions of progress or failure. For once, the link between academic achievement and caste backgrounds will be clear, not obfuscated by a fog of merit.
Can such a university do better? Only in promoting the recruitment of more SC/ST teachers, whose numbers are just 7% and 2% respectively, while upper-caste teachers form more than two-thirds of the pie, found the last All India Survey on Higher Education three years ago. The presence of more teachers from unprivileged backgrounds would foster greater empathy, innovation in pedagogy and curricula, and most vitally, snap the link between academics and caste pride.
The experience of the historically all-Black universities in the United States has shown that clubbing underprivileged students together doesn’t trigger greater segregation, instead it nurtures talent and confidence in communities that have historically been told they’re unworthy and meritless. This exercise also shouldn’t derail the urgent need for more caste awareness and Dalit empowerment in our universities.
An all-Dalit university will finally show us that the things that are killing our Dalit students in premier universities – loneliness, isolation, depression – are not disjoint individual things but intrinsically linked to how our campuses are built on caste.
To demolish that edifice can only be a good idea.