Caste No Bar (Pt. II)
Our article was based on interviews conducted with real people from a variety of backgrounds. We even interviewed Professor Bittu about the many ways casteism manifests at Ashoka. Here is the full transcript of that interview, as well as quotes from the anonymous people we spoke to about their lived experiences.
Interview with Professor Bittu
Tathagat: Would you like to tell us what your caste is? Has it affected the way you have been treated here at Ashoka, be it within your own department or any other sphere?
Prof Bittu: I’m from the caste that really organised and set up the discriminatory framework of caste. Like the vast majority of faculty members in most university spaces, I am Brahmin. And certainly it has influenced my trajectory in that it has conferred privileges and protections — and you know the word privilege doesn’t even begin to capture the thousand ways, invisible to me, in which my daily life has been eased and lubricated. I know that the fact that as a trans person I’m even employed in academia is entirely because of my caste privilege overriding in some sense (my identity as a trans person) or providing protections to me as a trans person which are not afforded to most trans persons who like most persons in the country are not from this minority elite class that has historically grabbed resources and academic spaces for themselves.
T: You mentioned the invisible ways in which caste has eased your day to day life as well as your position in academia. Do you think Ashoka has a problem with respect to how it handles caste? If yes, where do you think it lies? In the student body, faculty, admin, campus staff, admission process? If you think Ashoka does handle caste well, what aspect works well? Additionally, knowing that Ashoka has marketed itself as a university which is “caste blind” with a “caste blind” admission process, how do you think that affects conversations about caste on campus?
Prof Bittu: I think while I have seen several individuals on campus say casteist things or harbour casteist sentiments, Ashoka’s lack of affirmative action around caste in both hiring and admissions effectively results in a Savarna dominated campus at both the faculty and student level. The notion of caste blindness is itself an ableist, casteist notion and I think that given that the default structure of Indian society is built on an ongoing history of extreme exclusion of oppressed castes from all education, doing nothing about it at the university level essentially perpetuates that system. If affirmative action was not needed, our default intake would represent all castes in proportion to their presence in the population — and clearly this is not the case. So our diversity in admission and hiring is where the problem begins, although it does not end there because we also face challenges in creating an inclusive and safe campus around caste for those persons from dalit, adivasi and bahujan backgrounds who are already with us on campus.
T: What possible steps could be taken within departments, for instance, to make Ashoka a safer, more inclusive space for people from Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan backgrounds? Are any steps being taken in your department currently?
Do you think Ashoka should have caste based reservations for undergraduate students and something similar for faculty? What would need to happen in order for reservation to arrive here?
Prof Bittu: Yes, Ashoka should have caste based reservations both in admissions at all levels, and hiring. What would need to happen is, quite simply, for people to unlearn their status quo bias and understand the ongoing injustice of caste based exclusion in educational spaces. It took a history of students protesting to make private universities in the US open up to students of colour and women and even longer for them to acknowledge the need for and implement affirmative action. Educational institutions have historically been in the hands of white men internationally, and while this has been changing over the last fifty years, there is a complete double standard in terms of tolerating caste based bigotry and exclusion in India, simply because there is no international scrutiny over the brahminism in Indian universities. Now Dr Ambedkar ensured reservation in public universities and this right is defended, sometimes to the death, in public universities in India, but private universities remain unmoved. This needs to change.
Anonymous quotes from current and ex-students, faculty and staff
“The primary rationale of reservations is representation as a direct derivative of Equality. It is surprising that despite this argument having been persistent through out the history of late colonial and postcolonial India, Ashoka is still living in the era where reservations is itself a terrain of debate. This especially in a scenario since at least 4 years Ashoka has been tip-toeing around finding ‘some solution’ and has desperately failed. One or two people from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds and giving them full scholarship is very different from ensuring proper representation. The reason for delving into a discussion on reservations and the concomitant representation first is because it has direct consequences for the kind of environment that Ashoka creates.”
“Very frequently I have felt out of place, felt an inability to relate to their cultural references, therefore forcing myself to stay within a smaller group of people who are usually from the same demographics.”
“Ashoka is “blind” to that kind of thing. If you fit in culturally — in the sense you are liberal, feminist, left leaning, can speak English fluently and have a ‘sophisticated’ taste in art and music — nobody questions you. “
“I feel like the reason Ashoka is “blind” to caste is because it is so overwhelmingly UC. The representation of lower caste people is so low that there are hardly any instances of discrimination. It isn’t hard to have no bigotry in a segregated space. I feel like Ashoka is very homogenous.”
“Even when discussions were ‘imposed’ by the one of the extremely few faculty members who do talk about caste in their courses and outside, the general sentiment was of awe — as if one has been completely unaware of something known as caste and then suddenly one sees that it exists.”
“Casteism, patriarchy comes to have a unique class character at Ashoka. In that light, it would require a holistic understanding of the neglect of caste perspective and take multipronged efforts. These include first and foremost a reservation policy for student intake as well as faculty recruitment. Secondly, the curriculum at Ashoka should become reflective of Indian social realities including courses on Dalit and Adivasi literature, social perspectives on caste, historical perspectives on caste and so on. Thirdly, there has to be an equal opportunity cell that not only addresses grievances but also conducts workshops and general interventions to make the campus a better place to address inequalities. Fourthly, democratic space for discussion has to be expanded to include discussions on caste which are not restricted to one-off events or film screenings. Even if these suggestions are taken up by the University, the chances of which are scant, it is difficult to see how the University can affect structural change because that is closely tied with the position of Ashoka University as a private University. Yet, within that limit, there still is a considerable scope to improve the situation.”
“When the university makes an admission offer to a UG candidate with good socio-economic capital, the university helps the student and the student alone. There is nothing wrong with that. But when the university makes an offer to someone who does not have that socio-economic capital, it opens doors for a community who might get such exposure. If Ashoka aims for impact, this is one sure way of impacting many. “