By Kumarjeet Ray:
NALSAR University of Law is one of the foremost law schools in our country. Every student who gets into a college like NALSAR feels that their future is secure and that their journey to the secure future would be fulfilling and wholesome. In the first semester, you get a taste of the high-quality education that NALSAR has to offer. An elite law school, which follows the policy of reservation for students from SC/ST background; NALSAR tries to create a space for people from marginalised backgrounds to make it big in the field of law. But is the experience for marginalised students the same as those for people coming from socially and economically well to do backgrounds have?
That is a question that needs to be answered in detail.
The straightforward answer to the question is no. Students coming from backward classes do not have the same experience as the students from privileged classes. The caste divide happens on the very first day when you walk into the college campus for admissions.
The admission process, believe it or not, even in 2018, is based on ranks. The rank you secure in a college that follows the reservation policy is of course based on caste. The people who get into the college through the quota are obviously ranked lower than the students getting in without the quota. On the very first day of the admission process when students need to register and have an interview with the esteemed Vice-Chancellor of the University, this division comes into play.
The general category students with inevitably higher ranks are given morning slots for the registration and the interview while the reserved category students with lower ranks are given the afternoon slot. Students are also divided by what is called a serial number for the admission process which is also based on ranks and is plagued by the same problem. Thus when a peer asks a Dalit student, like the author, as to what serial number he has and he answers the question with a number post 60, the look of inferiority becomes obvious. This practice of discrimination on the very first day is just the beginning of the story in a system plagued by not-so-obvious but everyday practices of discrimination.
The college, a government college, funded by the UGC has an SC/ST Cell. The SC/ST Cell is supposed to help the students of marginalised classes fit in better in the college. But by law, the SC/ST cell should comprise only of members from the SC/ST community. But this cannot happen at NALSAR as there is only one professor coming from the SC/ST community. This is a major violation of the reservation policy that the centre has for teachers. There is a reservation amounting to 15% teachers from the SC background and 7.5% teachers from the ST background.
But in its illustrious 18 years of functioning never has this reservation policy been followed, and this makes both the SC/ST cell and the community weak in college. This happens as students from the SC/ST community don’t have the requisite support from the administration due to the lack of SC/ST members in the teaching and non-teaching staff of the college.
The problem also flows into the curriculum of the college which stems from the lack of teachers coming from marginalised backgrounds. The teachers form the course structure, and thus the course becomes inevitably focussed on high caste and class issues.
In Criminal Law, where in practice, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act forms one of the most important pieces of legislature in India; is completely ignored in the Criminal Law course in college. Courses which are meant to focus on the problems faced by the marginalised groups like ‘Law and Literature’ and ‘Law and Poverty’ are again taught by professors who come from the highest of castes, and thus there is inevitably a defect in the course structure due to the lack of teachers. Participation amongst Savarna students in these courses is also abysmal.
Another huge problem is the lack of a bridge course in English in the first year. There is a presumption that everyone entering college will be able to speak fluent English when in reality, it is not so. Complicated subjects that require a high level of English understanding like Legal Methods, Law and Language, Sociology, Political Science and History are taught in the very first semester without students being offered a chance to hone their skills. This results in a lot of students not doing well and even failing. And for the rectification of the same, they need to pay 3,000 – 5,000 INR to re-sit the exam depending on whether you have failed the course or want to improve your grade.
The caste problem does not end here. If you dig a little deeper into everyday NALSAR life, then you realise caste discrimination is as common as sexism on campus. The boys’ locker room talk in the hostels is almost always accompanied by casual talk about how an SC or an ST is doing so well in college academically. If you do well, you are inevitably met by comments like “how you?” which obviously comes with the tone of “how you and not me?” Casual casteist comments are supposed to be ignored otherwise you are termed uptight. For even the few who try to do well, the odds are stacked against them. In the last one year, amongst the 65 students who got selected into various posts, 3 were from the SC background and 4 from the ST background. This overwhelmingly high percentage of general students getting to posts of power points towards a system stacked heavily against the reserved category students.
The problem flows into the lives of the daily workers in NALSAR as well. All the cleaners and maintenance staff in college come from Scheduled Caste or Tribe backgrounds. They are not allowed to have food in the mess while the teaching and non-teaching staff, the guards and even the mess workers on campus who hail from higher castes are allowed to eat in the mess. Thus, this is not a class problem but a caste problem that is systemic in almost all high caste kitchens and families in South India.
The workers who work on a daily wage basis do not even have the option to buy lunch and eat in the mess. In a conversation with such a lady, the author was informed as to how they not only cannot get food in the mess but are also sometimes met with misbehaviour from the mess employees when they go to fill water from the mess coolers.
So, what is the way out? The discrimination on the first day itself needs to be removed. The current Vice-Chancellor had very empathetically cancelled rank-wise allocation of hostel rooms and randomised it to not allow caste-based discrimination. The same thing can be followed for the admission process as well.
The college after huge pressure from SC/ST students has already released a request for applications for teachers from the SC/ST Background and hopefully if the recruitment happens then the latter problems of a lack of a strong SC/ST Cell can be countered with. Not only that even the course curriculum might also change. But positive steps have to be taken by the Vice Chancellor or people concerned to make sure that important acts like the SC/ST Atrocities Act be introduced into the course curriculum for the newer batches. The mess policy and the policy to hire daily wage workers from marginalised backgrounds for lesser wage should also be done away with. Maybe if these reforms are implemented, then the general student body will become more sensitive to caste issues and reduce the everyday caste discrimination that students practice on each other.
There is a long way to go for the struggle for space in NALSAR, but the winds of change have blown after students started speaking up recently. Maybe the recruitment of SC/ST teachers would be a major step forward. All we can hope is to keep our fingers crossed and see more SC/ST professors on campus come June when the new session begins. And hope for a better and more inclusive NALSAR.