Every institution in the country has its casteist undertones to it, and exclusion operates in manifold levels. Often, it is a direct attack, but more often that that, it’s an overt, systematic exclusion of the marginalised sections of the society. Casteism in higher education is a new subject of debate. The very fact that we today can speak of casteism in higher educational institutions, (considering the fact that even primary education was denied for a section of the society in past) shows that we have come a long way. It is not that these educational institutions became casteist now, it has always been so, but now thanks to affirmative action and other constitutional protections, many students from marginalised sections of the society have reached the echelons of higher education and they move out in flying colours. This is what irks the caste consciousness of the higher ends, and the story of exclusion begins. Whether it be fee hike, cancellation of scholarships, denial of remedial classes, it is the students from marginalised sections of the society who are hit the most.
The recent episode of 5 students in EFLU being sentenced for 6 months of imprisonment for alleged defamation of the professor for speaking against the oppression is telling. These students were fighting against the casteist approach of their professor. They had even filed a case under the SC & ST Atrocities Act, and an Internal Committee was also constituted to enquire into the concerns raised b y the students, the results of both of which are pending. One of the students went on to give an interview to Dalit Camera, which was published in Youtube. The professor filed a private complaint against these students, and charges of defamation was levelled against them. The contents of the interview is no different from the contents of the statements they have published before the court in their complaint under SC& ST Atrocities Act. However, the court found the contents of the video as defamatory, and sentenced the students for 6 months of imprisonment.
It’s very difficult to openly talk about caste oppression in campuses, especially when it is meted out by the teachers against the students, particularly so, when the teacher belongs to upper-caste and ‘influential’ background. It is clear that in a university set up like ours, a teacher enjoys a position of power, control and authority. So, if a teacher decides that this student shall not pass, he has all the means at his disposal to execute his whim and students have very little say. This is true with many universities and colleges in India, and given a chance, we would have any number of narratives to substantiate the above statement.The teacher concerned in the impugned case is also known for consistently failing her students, especially the ones belonging to marginalised section of the society. The students allege that they are made to suffer humiliation in front of the whole class, and is constantly asked to go back to their villages. Dropping out of studies and suicide attempts by the Dalit students and other students from marginalised sections of the society are not unheard of in these institutions.
The approach of the judiciary in the impugned case also clearly brings forth in open the casteist and elitist face of Indian judiciary. The judgement says “the complainant belongs to a good family.” (The complainant or the Professor concerned in the instant case is also the daughter of ex-Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh) What is the definition of a ‘good’ family? Is that the yardstick for quantifying the reputation of the individual? And would being from a ‘good’ family make anyone immune from being casteist? The students of EFLU argues: ‘if this be the case, we might have to say that students like us would not have enough fame to be defamed’!
If being vocal about the injustice meted out to a person is defamatory, how would justice ever be served to them? Especially in the context where the students have been persistently raising concerns over the casteist behaviour and actions of the faculty and administration and where a case under SC & ST Atrocities Act is still pending. The Internal Committee constituted to investigate the concerns raised by the students too have not submitted their report so far. While the statements of the students are contested, how can the court issue a sentence without ascertaining the truth of such statements? This is a complex dichotomy: being casteist is perfect, talking about casteism is defamatory!
Even for argument sake, if we are to accept that the statements were indeed defamatory, the way in which the court went on to sentence these students with 6 months of imprisonment raises so many questions. How often does defamatory charges get accepted? How often is an a sentence passed against defamation? How often is it imprisonment? The hurry in which the court passed an order sentencing these students to 6 months of imprisonment, which would have the effect of spoiling their life and career is really disturbing. These students are students admitted to a coveted educational institutions with their own merit, but with at most hardships; many of them are first generation learners, one of them is the first graduate from his own community. What impact would these kinds of decisions have on their lives? The court should have taken these factors into consideration before a sentence was passed against them. These kinds of incidents only strengthen the doubts if an impartial observer that if all instituions, whether it be universities which are centres of learning, or the judiciary which imparts so called ‘justice’, are casteist even today.
The journey ahead is more complex, and so does the responsibility of the youth today. There is no easy way out, than to question, critique and challenge the oppressive institutions in our country at every possible levels. Years back, Marx called for “Workers of the World Unite”, today, we shall call for “Students of the World Unite”. Let’s hold ourselves together through these difficult times till we find the light at the end of the tunnel.