The 'Continuous' Death Of Merit: Chronicling Caste Today
'The backward classes have come to realize that after all education is the greatest material benefit for which they can fight. We may forgo material benefits, we may forgo material benefits of civilization, but we cannot forgo our right and opportunities to reap the benefit of the highest education to the fullest extent. That is the importance of this question from the point of view of the backward classes who have just realized that without education their existence is not safe.' --B.R. AMBEDKAR
The importance of education was inculcated in us (the writers) from a young age. As children of professor parents, we have grown valuing education. Access to education was never difficult reality because of the location of our birth.
It was during the protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University, that the role of caste playing such a critical role in our experiences of access hit home. We had read about it; we had debated it, but caste as a reality, was all too out there. It made us question, where was caste in our education both pedagogically and socially (i.e. lack of ‘caste diversity’ of our friend circle spaces)?
Rohith’s suicide opened us to a world of denial that we never really understood—denial in accessing education based on caste. Rohith or the recent alleged murder of a Dalit girl, Delta Meghwal (that the mainstream media has not even covered) are just two instances in a long list of deaths that have taken place as a result of exclusionary and discriminatory practices within educational institutions. This begs the question: What justifies the barriers that are constantly put in place, and guarded by the state, to keep some (read majority) out (Dalit-Bahujan Adivasi) community and ensure the control of the privileged (Brahaman-Savran) when it comes to access to education?
Ambedkar On Education
Ambedkar worked his entire life towards annihilation of the caste system. He argued through his work and life the demons that this system is home to. The caste system as argued by him functions through exclusion. The very gradation of people into artificial categories placed the Brahaman as the holder of knowledge at the top and the Dalit outside of the fold of the system relegated to the margins to perform menial- dehumanising tasks.
Education was one such realm of exclusion and a powerful one at that. It ensured the unquestioning perpetuation of the caste system. While spaces of education have historically been denied to the lower-caste communities, there is recognition both by the State and by the dalit-bahujan-adivasi community of it being a crucial determinant of social and economic developments of any person. “[T]he entry of the historically excluded groups into public institutions is a historical rupture. It marks a process of democratization for everyone. Nevertheless, higher education continues to be the monopoly of Brahmins and ‘upper caste’” (Shobhana 2015).
Rupture In History
The access of excluded groups to these spaces mark a very important moment in history of the society— they mark a subversion of spaces by Dalit-Bahujan groups. Leaders of Dalit-Bhaujan movements like Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar insisted on and worked tirelessly towards ensuring access to education be available to members of excluded groups.
Ambedkar argued that higher education was an instrument to seek power and dignity. Further, he emphasised the spaces of higher education are critical in empowering the excluded groups.
Spaces of higher education continue to be dominated— both in terms of curriculum, faculty, and student profile – by upper castes. Expulsion rates are seen to be highest among Dalit students resulting from physical and psychological discrimination they face in the institutional structure. Dalit students often find themselves alienated from rest of the class on the basis of their caste, social status and economic background. In some cases, especially in higher education, their caste identity and gender comes in between getting guidance from their supervisors and professors. These have been reason for suicide and dropping out of many students from higher education. Such vast exclusionary and mechanisms of public humiliation based on caste have hindered Dalits and other excluded communities from attaining better source of living.
The domain of knowledge production has been the essence of maintaining Brahmanic- hegemony in society. A report by the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2014-15 reveals 0.5 out of 10 college teachers in Delhi are Scheduled Caste (SC) men, 0.1 out of 10 Scheduled Tribe (ST) men and 0.4 out of 10 Other Backward Classes (OBC) men. The situation is worse amongst women, where 0.09 out of 10 college teachers in Delhi are ST women, 0.2 out of 10 are OBC women and 0.3 out of 10 SC women.
Contributions of Dalit-Bahujan to knowledge production fall outside of these ‘formal’ institutional spaces. These spaces are within Ambedkarite movement, in the songs, in “small” publication houses that are owned and run by the Dalit-bahujan-adivasi community whose reach is limited when compared with these formal spaces of knowledge production.
Budgetary Allocations For SC/ST Communities
The department of Higher Education under the Ministry of Human Resource Development is required to earmark 25 per cent of their plan outlay for excluded groups based on caste (15 per cent) and tribes (7.5 per cent). An analysis of the Central plan outlay for Higher Education shows that the allocation—though correspond roughly to the earmarked fund percentage— are mostly general. Within each schemes there is no specific component to ensure direct flow of funds to SC/ST for their higher education.
The Union Budget failed to adequately allot under the Schedule Caste Sub Plan and Tribal Sub Plan. According to the guidelines, 16.8 per cent for SC and 8.6 per cent of STs needs to be allocated for their development. The Union Budget 2016 denied a towering Rs 75,764 crore to the community.
Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January 2016 brought to fore the layered violence and discrimination faced by the community. It galvanised a movement across campuses to make educational spaces more democratic and end discrimination. It revived a national conversation on the many unresolved Dalit issues and concerns, access to education being at the heart of it.
The moment also demands a need for all of us to recognise that caste does not exist external to us but is internal to our very being. The absence of caste in our pedagogical experience, worldview and questioning also perpetuates the layered system of caste.
The death of Vemula, and the murder of Meghwal, have once again shown how far the Brahmin-Savarnas can go to ensure that their control remains not only unchallenged, but also unquestioned. This, along with regular attempts to jeopardize the reservation system by arguing in favour of meritocracy and free market capitalism, is only a reaffirmation of the chronic casteism that Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar fought against. On the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar, it is clear that the challneges facing the Dalit Bahujan haven't changed much, but it is also clear that it would be foolish to expect the Brahmin-Savarnas to do much to change the scenario. The means of education for Dalit Bahujan need to controlled by them too, for when has the oppressor taught truth to the oppressed?
NCDHR, Budget Analysis 2016-17.
Shobhana, Nidhin Donald. "'Execellence' through Expulsion : A Case of Arbitrary Merit versus Constitutional Mandate." Fact-Finding, National Dalit Movement for Justice , National Campaign for Dalit Human Right, New Delhi, 2015.
(Girija Shivakumar is a Delhi-based journalist and Dyuti is researcher associated with NCDHR).