When we talk about Dalits, they are outside the Hindu social order, which includes Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar also mentioned in his writings that those who come under the Hindu social order are Savarnas, i.e., Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, but Dalits are Avarnas.
Dalits have been marginalized for thousands of years and continue to be discriminated against, humiliated, and killed for petty reasons. They are often lynched for touching water or sitting in front of people from the Savarnas community. Recently, a dominant OBC caste in Tamil Nadu threw human excreta in a tank used by Dalits, and a Dalit woman in Karnataka was beaten brutally for her pet animals going to a field belonging to the Hindu community. According to recent NCRB data, 10 Dalit women are raped daily, and many crimes against Dalits go unrecorded. Even today, Dalits are treated worse than animals, and discrimination and atrocities against them continue.
In higher education, the condition of Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim students is no different from outside the campus world. They are often humiliated and discriminated against, targeted solely for being Dalit, Adivasi, or Muslim. Dalit students are identified if they talk about Baba Saheb Ambedkar and are told that their discourse should not revolve around him only. However, Ambedkar’s expertise in the knowledge of caste worldwide is unparalleled.
Assertive Dalits keep Dr. Ambedkar close to their hearts. While many scholars have written on caste, Dalits cannot relate their experiences to the writings and readings of Savarnas. When Dalits read the writings of M.N Srinivas, G.S Ghurye, Andre Beteille, and other scholars who have written on caste, they cannot correlate with their experiences. They can, however, relate to the experiences expressed by Gopal Guru, Vivek Kumar, Shukhdeo Thorat, and other Dalit scholars.
In Indian universities, Dr. Ambedkar is not taught fully, and even when teaching of his work started in some universities a few years ago, his “Annihilation of Caste” was not taught properly. In academia, Savarnas tell Dalit students that they are not speaking appropriately and should not be aggressive in their speech. For decades, people from the Savarnas community have been in every institution, deciding how marginalized people should speak and what is appropriate. Subaltern discourse is lacking in Indian academia, and Savarnas often use Islamophobic and casteist language against Dalit and Muslim students.
Recently, Savarna students in Jain University used casteist slurs against Baba Saheb Ambedkar and the Dalit community during a program. This behavior is inappropriate, and people should sensitize themselves not to use such slurs and make Islamophobic comments on Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim students.
Recently, a Dalit man named Sagar Yadav was brutally beaten to death for a mere 3,000 rupees in Gurugram, Haryana. Sadly, such humiliation, discrimination, and untouchability are all too familiar for Dalits in India. As Gopal Guru has noted, Dalits face many forms of humiliation, including in universities. For example, when a Dalit poses a question during a public talk, the response may be dismissive or even mocking. Similarly, when Dalits take initiative on a program, they often go unappreciated, while savarna (higher caste) students receive praise. Even sending a message to a WhatsApp group may lead to disparagement of Dalit views. When Dalits assert themselves on matters of caste and untouchability, they are often accused of harping on these issues. However, it is important to address these concerns because the Brahminical system has long oppressed and suppressed Dalits.
During occasions like the birth or death anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dalits take initiative, but savarnas may object, asking why Dalits should speak on his behalf when others can do so as well. The problem is that it can seem disingenuous when savarnas take up the mantle of marginalized causes. While it is certainly possible for savarnas to show solidarity with marginalized groups, they should not hijack their space.
I can see this social and cultural capital by this article. This article I have given to so-called liberal Savarna press, but they didn’t publish it. I gave it to The Print, The Wire, Indian Express, and Outlook. I also told one of my friends, who has a connection in Outlook, to get it published, but no response came from anywhere. At last, Maktoob is the one who is publishing it. Baba Saheb stressed the importance of marginalized groups having their own press and media houses to protect their voices.
For decades, savarnas have enjoyed privilege in academia, from social connections to cultural and social capital. In contrast, Dalits often lack land and have only their education. However, even education has become toxic for Dalits, Adivasi, and Muslim students in Indian universities. This can be seen in the tragic example of Rohith Vemula, a bright Dalit scholar who was driven to suicide due to discrimination and humiliation. Similarly, Fathima Lateef, a talented Muslim scholar, took her own life due to Islamophobic behavior by other students. Najeeb, a student at JNU, was beaten by Islamophobic thugs, and after six years, there is still no news of him. Payal Tadvi, an Adivasi student, was also compelled to take her own life by savarna students. Every year, students from marginalized backgrounds face such overwhelming discrimination and harassment that they feel there is no reason to continue living. This is not suicide; it is institutional murder.
Most recently, a bright Dalit student at Indian Institute of Bombay, Darshan Solanki, took his own life due to the discrimination and humiliation he faced in India’s institutions. Darshan’s father is a plumber with great hopes and dreams for his son. Yet the institutional murder of Darshan has crushed not just his dreams but his family’s as well. When Dalits enter Indian uwhoniversities, they believe they will find a safe space, which is often untrue. Dalits face the same challenges as Rohith Vemula, Fathima Lateef, and Najeeb. Indian universities are not providing safe spaces for Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim students. Where can these students go to find safety and acceptance? Education should be a way for these students to change their own lives and those of their families, but instead, it becomes a source of depression and despair.
Former UGC Chairperson Sukhdeo Thorat initiated many programs to support Dalit and Adivasi students, such as the SC/ST fellowship. However, more needs to be done to protect the lives and dignity of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslim students. Universities must take responsibility for creating safe and inclusive environments where marginalized students can thrive. Indian universities should prioritize organizing seminars and workshops to raise awareness about caste and Islamophobic behavior issues. They must implement the Rohith Act and establish sensitization programs for students and faculty members on these topics. By taking these steps, universities can be crucial in promoting a more inclusive and respectful society.
Akhilesh is a PhD student at Dr. K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.