Following the death of Rohith Vemula in the Hyderabad University campus, Dalit student suicides have garnered much required international attention. International scholars visiting India are protesting in their capacities, some by refraining from joining academic activities on university campuses and some by actively participating in student protests. Echoes of revolution are in the air - but it's a revolution that has to be handled with care.
In the purview of suppression and dominance, the idea of external power holding dominion over 'caste-ed' subjects has to be theorized. Native vocabularies that translate subjection and vilified humiliation as caste experience need to be understood in a nuanced way. The infrastructure of caste leverages a certain force not only in the realm of the material but in the spiritual jurisdiction of society too.
Photo credit: South Asia institute, Harvard
Brahmin and Savarna academics continue to live in the bubble of a broader leftist position - which is at times a confused one. Even the issue of caste is researched using a traditional Marxist historical and anthropological lens. The same hypocritical 'Marxist' anthropologists or social historians work in a subaltern community and produce works to get tenure tracks, heavy grants, contracts from reputed publications. However, they do not really want to engage (or want to do so at only a very perfunctory level) with local students who aspire to study irrespective of the indomitable challenges they face. These academics do not want to invest in the 'native' students, preferring to engage with those who have Oxbridge and Ivy league grades or 'pedigree'. The reproduction of the elite remains core to this ideology.
Photo credit: South Asia institute, Harvard
The misrepresentation and the logic of scholarly work by Brahmin academics have parallels with the 19th-century European academic cultural tourists in the African tribes. Brahmin scholarship continues to undermine the logic of self-privilege, instead promoting the notion of subaltern subjects - the suffering of Dalits and tribals is never questioned in the legitimacy of their own agency. Similar to Whiteness as a property, caste, specifically the Brahmin-Savarnas, as an unpaid taxed property has to be contextualized.
What can be done?
The life of a casteist, similar to that of a racist or sexist, should be made miserable -- so much so that if they are unwilling to bow, then as African philosopher Achille Mbembe says, they "should pack and leave." Mbembe furthermore suggests that an environment needs to be created in which being discriminatory means to put "at risk one's fortune, one's reputation, one's professional standing and friendships and one's international connections." All forms of discrimination in India erupt from the Brahminical diaries.
One thing overseas-based institutes interested and invested in India could do is to organize scholarship and fellowship programmes exclusively targeting underrepresented Dalit and tribal groups. Similar efforts were made in the past by educational institutes during colonial times, with them offering training and research programs for oppressed communities in the colonised world. MIT, University of Sussex, University of Michigan, Patrice Lumumba University in Russia (now known as Peoples' Friendship University of Russia) are a few examples that trained African leaders and students during the colonial era. They are still in evidence in the resumes of many African leaders.
Whenever international collaborations or partnerships are made with Indian universities, the checklist must include the condition/inclusion of Dalit and tribal students and faculty.
Whenever international collaborations or partnerships are made with Indian universities, the checklist must include the condition/inclusion of Dalit and tribal students and faculty. Parameters to be checked could include implementation of affirmative action policies, equal representation of SC/ST students and faculty, their performance (including attendance, demotions and dropout rates), their publication record, their attendance at international conferences. An endorsement from local Dalit and tribal student and faculty associations should be marked in the policy documents.
Home institutes that do not correspond to the above checklist should be deprived of international partnerships and thus be made to experience a slide down the ladder of academic positioning. If this is not, old equations, traditional hierarchies, will continue to be perpetuated.
Similar to what the American Anthropological Association did with the Palestinian issue, overseas academic institutions should release statements condemning the institutionalised murders of Dalit students. Academics belonging to various academic associations should actively undertake the tasks of preserving social solidarity and offering desired support to oppressed communities condemning Brahminical fringe elements.
Privileged caste academics in overseas-based educational spaces need to be questioned for their willful ignorance of the issues of caste. They should be put on trial for overlooking heinous caste brutalities when teaching and researching on Indian society. Unless Brahmin-Savarna academics acknowledge their own caste privilege, no dedicated progress can be envisaged. As Ambedkar reminds us in his preface to Who were the Shudras? of the Brahmin scholar who is...
"careful not to do anything which would undermine its [Brahmin's] authority. The necessity of upholding the system by which he knows he stands to profit, as well as of upholding the prestige of his forefathers as the founders of the system acts as a silent immaculate premise which is ever present in the mind of the Brahmin scholar and prevents him from reaching or preaching the truth."
[T]he violence against SC/STs since the rise of the contemporary government needs to be discussed and questioned.
An academic discourse has to be established and the violence against SC/STs since the rise of the contemporary government needs to be discussed and questioned.
Thematically studying the experience of Dalit students is not different to that of African American and other marginalised student groups across elite knowledge spaces. That is why a joint global struggle is an ideal direction to go in.
Finally, a census describing demographic segmentation and appropriate representation of caste in Indian society (in the government, bureaucracy, justice, media, education, capital holding and civil society) needs to be brought to the fore. So that the inverted philosophy of privilege will be theorized by the subordinate subalterns who bear the wholesome burden of caste, rather than the privileged nourishing off the brutal past.
Excerpts from the panel discussion talk on 'Rohith Vemula, Death of a Dalit Scholar in Hyderabad' (presented at South Asia Institute, Harvard University). For more info and pictures, visit http://southasiainstitute.harvard.edu/2016/02/its-time-to-raise-our-voices/