A new woke academia & the museumisation of the Dalit experience

Two young scholars make sense of their experiences in a casteist academia that places more importance on political correctness than on actual transformation of material everyday hierarchies.

By Vaishali Khandekar

In conversation with Shalini Mahadev

Back in Hyderabad after seven months, I was to meet Shalini Mahadev, a friend who I met during my masters in sociology from University of Hyderabad. Shalini is still at the university pursuing her PhD in biological sciences. The two of us have talked about caste willingly or unwillingly innumerable times and have always discovered new ways in which it affects us. Recent academic literature and journalism on casteism in higher education has thoroughly investigated the barriers facing students from marginalised sections while entering these spaces or trying to stay in them. The web of identities one constantly travels in also shapes one’s experience of these academic spaces.

We had decided to meet in front of the university and drive through the campus, which we call (and think of) as ours. We thought we could enter from one end and exit through the other end of the campus to avoid a longer route to Shalini’s home. We knew that it would be a little tricky as people are barred from entering the university premises given the ongoing pandemic. But as past and present students at this university who are familiar with the guards, we expected to find a way to convince them. Shalini explained to one of them that she has a permit to enter the premises for her lab work. But the guard did not let us in, and asked for the written permit, which was wrecked in the rain. So there we were, at the gate of a university we both are part of, literally trying to enter the university, charged with ideas to share with each other about gatekeeping in Indian academia, thinking about universities as spaces we manage to infiltrate. It was a funny moment—we were stopped by the security forces, and we did end up taking the longer route. When we were finally at Shalini’s home, we had the following conversation where we attempted to uncover the logic with which caste, gender and other identities produce ‘differences’ among the general community of students and scholars.

PART I – Early education

The boy I was made to sit with was very good at studies and I wasn’t. My teacher made me sit with him so I would learn from him and become better at my studies. I remember him uttering his category with such pride, enunciating the word ‘general’ so clearly. 

Vaishali: We access higher education with an aim to move upwards in life, right? One can say that the decision of stepping into these institutions is aspirational; we want to change our reality. But these institutions have different ways to remind us of our identities.

Shalini: Initially, I felt like an equal in most academic/research spaces, and that is how I want to feel. It is these institutions that keep reminding me of caste and other hierarchies. Felt experiences of inequalities have been perpetually shoved in my face through these institutions.

I remember even in school they had once asked for the students from SC/ST category to be identified. I was the only student to stand in the SC category. I came back and told my parents thinking it was a good thing to be the only student. They burst out laughing!

Vaishali: It is very weird that I also remember a similar moment very vividly. I think I was in class 8 or 9 when they had called out students to know their caste category for board registration, I think. I have a visual memory of that day; I remember where I was sitting that day, how the class was set and even the teacher who asked me. The boy I was made to sit with was very good at studies and I wasn’t. My teacher made me sit with him so I would learn from him and become better at my studies. I remember him uttering his category with such pride, enunciating the word ‘general’ so clearly.

Shalini: I was once in a coaching centre preparing for medical entrance tests because I wanted to be a doctor. It was a challenging and competitive environment where people studied all day and night. We used to get a 15-minute break to eat. I learnt about reservations at that time. They used to directly and unashamedly ask SC students to stand in the class and tell their ranks. They would compare my marks and rank with other upper-caste girls’ and remark that she would not get the same college as I would with the same rank as mine. This is just one of the several instances where I was humiliated in the coaching centre. The atmosphere was extremely competitive.

Travelling to and from this centre was so hectic. I spent so much time hopping from one bus to another that I hardly got any time to read. People would come in their cars with their packed lunches. If I had that kind of time, I remember thinking that I would definitely outsmart them. Commuting to these places at all kinds of odd hours, even early mornings, didn’t feel safe. I have been harassed so many times. I have noticed it is also about us Dalit girls and the way we are seen by men on the streets. Brahmin women carry this “good family-girl” image, which men can see. They laugh differently and they look different. Their skin colour and faces are a certain way, they wear certain types of clothes and their hair is a certain way.

Vaishali: When I entered my college for my undergraduate degree in Delhi University, coming from a really small district and a lower-caste background, it was a very challenging time for me and my mental health. While entering elite universities, the first thing that stares right at you is the alienation. It was a completely alienating atmosphere where you relate to nothing and no one. I could not relate to my peers, didn’t know how to participate in conversations, did not get any jokes, or even the language that they used. The courses would be in a language that is too difficult to understand. I feel that in the social sciences, there is this heavy use of jargon, which is used to make students from reservations feel stupid, inadequate and unfit. Consequently, I had terrible social anxiety and I still do, every time I enter a new institution. Despite reservations, I do not think that universities are equipped to enable SC/ST students to sustain themselves.

Vaishali: It is interesting how upper-caste people think that we don’t study or we are lazy, when we have to do double the work. I went to a popularly progressive college but students wouldn’t shy away from asking if one is a “reservation candidate”. I had a terrible inferiority complex. Though I was very much interested in literature, I would not speak in class. However, I would keep reading and trying to write good assignments, just because I did not want to be called a “reservation candidate”. I felt like I had to read and write so much and so well—anything less than that was just not enough. We put ourselves under such pressure and unreal expectations just to burst these myths about reservations. We internalise so much guilt.

PART II – Language & political correctness

Even though one changes the language, how much does the hierarchy change in the actual sense? Existing hierarchies in the labs, like between interns, JRFs, PhD students, postdocs and the supervisors, are fixed even though we call each other by first names.

Shalini: I was working as a junior research fellow (JRF) in an institute which had liberal workplace ethics. They would ask us to not address the professors as Sir/Ma’am, but insist on first names. It took me so much time to get used to this. Even though one changes the language, how much does the hierarchy change in the actual sense? Existing hierarchies (and the socially contracted power dynamics between them) in the labs, like between interns, JRFs, PhD students, postdocs and the supervisors, are fixed even though we call each other by first names.

Vaishali: I agree. It does not really impact much. Do you think it has to do with this culture of political correctness and insistence on changing the language rather than a bigger and a more difficult transformation of material everyday hierarchies?

Shalini: I think political correctness, mannerisms and language also are so elite and diplomatic. What we have been taught at homes is the language which is “rough” and which gets things done. My language is very Hyderabadi. People say Hyderabadi is abrasive due to colloquial way of speaking/lack of honorifics, and usually, it is also very easily written off as being “impolite” and “uncivilised”. It took me time and effort to even improve my Hindi and English. Even in school, there were kids who used to read novels in 8th or 9th standard. If my parents caught me reading a novel at that age, they would have asked if I have totally given up on studies or what! I will be honest: I could not inculcate the habit of reading. Even in science, there is so much information and data to mug up that there is little scope of creativity. So what if the language I use is simply to communicate my issues and problems plainly. Neither do I understand these language problems, nor do I have the time for it. I have been told that I do not know how to speak. I do not understand what they mean. I know English pretty well, I have no problem in comprehending English; then, what is it that I can’t speak?

Vaishali: Is it that you do not know how to speak? I think, rather, we do not have the language that will validate the elite majority. I think they expect us to talk in a way where we are responsible for maintaining the hierarchy and making them feel better generally. If our sentences do not deal with them and instead focus on us and our problems only, it seems impolite. I have faced similar issues; I always felt separated from my peers as well as my professors. I did not know how to socialise with them. I have felt that in the social sciences, there is so much influence of informal “hanging out” with the professors. It is almost like a diluted form of corruption where one needs to have a certain rapport or networks, which are formed by having similar interests with professors and peers that are outside the domain of the discipline you are studying. I have just never been able to do that. Every time I am in a class or a conference, I can never go and talk, not because I do not know the language but because I do not share the same sensibilities. I do not even share those mannerisms which are produced, consumed and enforced by these elite classes only.

Shalini: Entering university, especially with the recent trend of political correctness, has made language more calculative for me. When you come to campus, you are taught so many things politically (and generally). I have been lucky that my friends took the time to explain many things to me. At least in science, terms are easy to understand. On the other hand in humanities and the social sciences, the terms are, in fact, concepts, which are so difficult to grasp. They have multiple meanings in varied contexts. I have realised that even within this space, academicians  cannot simplify the terms.  Even after learning, there is so much anxiety from conversation to conversation. The more you know, the more anxiety one has to deal with.

Vaishali: Yes, I agree. Even the increasing discussions on caste in university campuses have a dual effect. Caste has recently become a popular topic of discussion, and I cannot help but think whether it has to be a dominant discourse or a trend for people to participate in a serious discussion about caste or Dalit feminism. Even when caste becomes a mainstream topic of discussion, the baton must still remain with Dalits who have been talking about it and living it much before the media considered it as something important. Before a year or two, if I would bring up caste, a majority of times I would be told that I bring caste into discussions where it doesn’t belong or does not simply exist. Now, it is the same people who are posting pictures of Ambedkar on their social media. It is amusing actually how people are directed according to the media discourse. I wonder how long it will last.

PART III – Becoming their subjects

I haven’t really seen it, but I want to see how two Brahmin women in academia will talk about caste, maybe about how being a Brahmin has benefitted them in academic spaces, and how Brahminical patriarchy has affected their growth.

Shalini: I remember you talking about a professor who would immediately pick you when talking about caste. Now, with all these discussions on caste, again it is a burden put on us where we must talk about caste, and caste only.

Vaishali: I remember, yes. It used to be so frustrating! Every time someone would utter the word “caste” or ”Dalit”, he would take my name and ask my opinion. You are reduced to a Dalit student, a Dalit scholar or a Dalit friend. Sometimes, I do not want to engage in these discussions only because I know it simply means more to me than to them, and I know the effect it will have on me. “Woke” or performative culture has provided the progressive upper castes with tokenism which gives easy gratification.

How we suffer from this is evident by being a token, but apart from that, if you have once been given that tag, you cannot rise above it. Although it is true that I study caste and it affects me directly and materially, I also read other things apart from caste and gender that I am equipped to talk about.

I also sometimes feel that a discussion on caste is not just a discussion for us. It takes so much emotional investment sometimes to talk about caste. There are times when I have felt  that the only way to engage in the discussion is to share a personal detail, which is often about a triggering moment where my caste was highlighted. It is like your engagement always comes at a cost of sharing something excruciatingly difficult.

Shalini: It is, because for them, it is just a discussion they are a part of. It takes such a toll on mental health. Many times these discussions have been with me after they have happened. They will forget it the minute it is over just because it is not really a matter of identity or existence for them. For us, it gets in the way of how we function, and we spend two days thinking about what happened and playing it in our head again and again.

Vaishali: It is not them who is being talked about. That’s so true! At my home, nobody sits and talks about being a Dalit. Everyone is familiar with that. They will talk about Brahmins and Savarnas. We will joke about their mannerisms, their habits and their hollow pride. But in academics, we are always the subjects who are being talked about. It is like a museumisation of experience itself.

Shalini: A friend of mine told me once that when we go in their space and give a talk, we become their subjects. They will always look at us in a setting where we are subjects from whom knowledge has to be gathered, but we ourselves do not have much knowledge. We should sit and study them instead! But, who would fund such a study anyway? But coming back, I also know that I do talk about myself. I came to know more things when I was once asked to write an article. But I could not just write about my experiences, I had to constantly justify and give names to refer in order to validate those experiences. I might not want to say all of everything. Basically, they wanted me to write in a certain way. It means even the process of studying me will be in their own way and the way they agree upon. They talk so much about individuality and subjectivity, but I don’t know how that works out.

Vaishali: It is so true. Especially in the social sciences, any study on caste readily translates into incessantly researching Dalits. Even now, it is you and I who are talking about being Dalit and a woman. I haven’t really seen it, but I want to see how two Brahmin women in academia will talk about caste, maybe about how being a Brahmin has benefitted them in academic spaces, and how Brahminical patriarchy has affected their growth. I feel there are so many interesting questions to deal with in the world of upper castes. I have noticed this a lot lately. Even when we read anti-caste literature, Ambedkar and Periyar begin the study of the caste stratified society by examining the  “brahmin-non-brahmin” divide. Phule also conceptualises the caste society in terms of Shetji-Bhatji. Meaning, these theorisations have been written by taking the Upper Castes as the subject of study. However, when academic spaces began and when one studied early as well as contemporary sociological studies about castes in India, we see these studies being done on Dalits by upper castes. So something must have changed during the conception of academics where this focus of becoming subjects shifted and Dalits were made the subjects of the knowledge created instead of being the agencies that created academic and theoretical knowledge which stemmed from the anti-caste politics itself.

Thank you for these conversations with you, Shalini. Now, this is not the first time we have talked about academic spaces in such detail so I also feel like there was so little we could actually record through this article. The issues that one faces are never-ending, hence the things we could cover in this article are limitless. The ways in which universities as spaces and higher education, in general, have compounded the identities like caste and gender is very interesting to observe. We both feel that the nature of these conversations must be dialectic with an aim to form newer and more nuanced discussions around academic spaces.

Author Bio:

Vaishali Khandekar is a PhD scholar in IIT Hyderabad studying the role of castes and masculinities in the marginal political upsurge of North India. Her research interests are caste and social stratification. She is also interested in urban studies, sexuality, migration, health and pedagogy. She also likes reading poetry, painting and taking long walks.

Shalini Mahadev is trying to complete her PhD at Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Hyderabad. She is trying to understand how rice grasshoppers communicate and the possible neurons involved in the same. Besides this, she loves to binge on TV and indulges in other such mundane hobbies.

Note: This reportage is a part of season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com, which is supported by a grant from DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. The cover art is by Ipsa Jain.

By TLoS Team | Published on Nov 12, 2020 in Voices