– Deepti Sreeram
An upper-caste Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad once told me that EFLU would have been better off if it was still a private institution.“It wasn’t disruptive and crowded back then. The campus was peaceful,” the Professor told me.
He was referring to the political unrest on campus. Between 2010-12, the campus was in the middle of the Telangana movement. Despite the absence of a fully recognised student union, organisations like the Telangana Students Association (TSA) and the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA) were at the forefront of various student-led agitations in Hyderabad. At one of the student protests at EFLU, the then acting Vice-Chancellor of EFLU had insulted a Dalit student leader for speaking in improper English. The leader graciously dismissed the remark even though there were legitimate grounds for public outcry.
When Rohith Vemula left us with a heart-breaking note, students across campuses protested against the ruling government. Left-wing student organisations included Jai Bhim in their slogans and held Ambedkar study groups. Academics across universities wrote articles, academic papers, think pieces and solidarity statements that critiqued the relationship between caste and academia and called for justice. None of these attempts made any discernible difference. The number of marginalised students forced to take their lives due to institutional apathy has only increased since then.
I recall these seemingly disconnected but pertinent events because of the changes that higher education in India has undergone in recent years. Public universities like UoH, JNU, Jamia Milia, DU and EFLU have experienced unprecedented levels of State-sponsored violence. Student activists who participated in agitations have been suspended or rusticated. Some of them were photographed and barred from taking the PhD entrance exam. Others were charged with the draconian UAPA for their protests against the State. At several public universities, reservation policies were flouted while research scholarships were delayed. This had a significant impact on the lives of marginalised students who attended these institutions. In the meantime, several new private universities flourished.They expanded their academic programmes, collaborated with international universities to create ‘institutions of excellence’ and become the preferred choice for Liberal Arts over public universities.
So what do these changes mean for the marginalised student?
Indian-style Ivy-leagues for the upper-castes
Until 2012, Public universities such as JNU, HCU, EFLU were the best universities offering social sciences and humanities in India, even with the proliferation of several small-scale private universities such as Amity, Christ etc. The progressive atmosphere, faculty, thriving student politics, reservation policy and the subsidised fee made these campuses an ideal space for liberal arts. In addition to this, students at public universities were more often at the helm of political movements. In 2000, when a special committee headed by Mukesh Ambani met the then government to discuss private investment in education, the committee described education as a “profitable market.” They also called for a ban on “any form of political activity on campuses… including student union activities.” Thus, in 2005, the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR) was implemented to ensure that political activities did not “disrupt education.” LCR ensured, among other things, that the university administration reserved the right to dissolve the union if circumstances warranted such a decision. The implementation of LCR and the coming of the new government in 2014 changed public universities for the worse.
The birth of ivy-league-like universities like Jindal, Ashoka and Krea (2012 onwards) during this period is significant. Unlike public institutions with poorly funded facilities, these universities have access to cutting-edge research and a liberal space where students can freely express their love and dissent as long as these ideas do not draw public attention. Students can also access networks of well-known authors, academics, business owners, and entrepreneurs and get mentored by them. Eventually, upon graduation, students get admitted to universities abroad or placed at well-paying companies.
However, securing admission to one of these universities is not an easy task. Unlike small-scale private universities that insist on meeting admission numbers, these universities have a rigorous admission cycle that prioritises “quality over quantity.” Undergraduate students, for example, are required to take an aptitude test similar to the SATs or write the SATs and submit the scores at the time of admission. They should also write application essays that would showcase their reading and writing skills. These admission hurdles are similar to the policies adopted by universities abroad, especially those located in the US and the UK. Because private universities do not have a reservation policy, the founders are keen to provide fee waivers or scholarships under the diversity quota. Under this quota, recruiters select a handful of meritorious students from economically poor backgrounds. The emphasis on merit justifies scholarships/fee waivers provided to some students who would not have been able to afford an education at these universities otherwise. The outcome of these policies is the creation of a homogenous upper-caste student population across institutions. According to this study, at least 84% of the Young India Fellowship cohort from the 2018 Ashoka batch came from a four-wheeler vehicle-owning household. 40% come from families with an annual income of more than 30 lakhs, and an astounding 80% come from upper-caste families.
Who gets to read and write better?
I had to write a 3000-word academic paper at the end of my first semester of post-graduate studies at EFLU. I remember how this had intimidated me so much that I had switched disciplines – Linguistics over Literature- to avoid academic papers. Similarly, some of my Bahujan classmates who struggled with English chose courses from the English Language Education department, which was popularly understood as an easy department. These choices inevitably divided the batch into two groups. Students (predominantly Savarna) who took courses from the Culture Studies/Literature/Film studies department were seen as intellectual students while students who opted for other disciplines particularly English Language Education (ELE), were looked down upon. ELE has generally occupied a similar marginalised position compared to the other disciplines in India. It is often seen as a means to knowing English as opposed to a potential space that could help navigate the systemic differences in the university. University administrations would therefore never consider dedicating resources to having an English Language Teaching (ELT) centre and would rather appoint poorly trained faculty to teach English.
When I joined Ashoka as a writing tutor, I was amazed to see the scale and architecture of the writing pedagogy at the university. The university had an undergraduate writing programme (UWP), a centre dedicated to writing and communication and an English as a Second Language (ESL) programme specifically designed for students who struggle with English. Similar support systems are also available at other ivy league like universities such as Krea, Jindal, SNU and Flame. In contrast, public universities like JNU, EFLU, HCU and colleges under DU saw academic writing as a skill that students learned without training. Though there were a handful of workshops targeting research writing skills, these were hardly a match compared to what was on offer at the ivy-league like universities. This approach to academic writing was similar to what was taken towards ELT. There wasn’t a need to dedicate resources when the savarna student did not require it.
Since the establishment of universities like Ashoka, Jindal, Krea, academic writing has received attention as a discipline in Indian higher education. My colleagues who teach academic writing at these universities have argued that the new writing movement that emerged from these institutions will usher in a meaningful inclusive future in Indian academia. They also argued that a pedagogy of care is essential in the university classroom and how more care would have helped students like Rohith Vemula who experience alienation at the university.
As an Other Eligible Communities (OEC) student, I could pursue my higher education because of the subsidised fee structure and reservation policy at public universities. But these policies did not really make me stay at the university. My struggle with writing made me leave academia for good in 2014 and then it took me nearly six years to summon confidence, save money and apply for a PhD at a private university like Ashoka. This is when I was far more privileged than students like Rohith Vemula and Rajni Krish who had to work menial jobs and secure funds for their university expenses. How can then students like Rohith Vemula access care when it is only available at ivy-league like institutions?
In April, a video showing Seema Singh abusing students from marginalised backgrounds attending a preparatory English course, went viral. The course was primarily designed as a gateway course which would help students from Dalit, OBC and Adivasi backgrounds secure admission at IIT. It is inside this English language classroom that the Professor had unleashed abuses and threatened students. While the incident unleashed outrage from all quarters, excluding statements from alumni, no institution in India came forward with a statement condemning the incident. But consider this. When the BLM movement took off in the US, several writing centres, ELT programmes and universities published statements of solidarity. They professed their commitment to following an anti-race pedagogy and put up statements declaring the same. Though these may be dismissed as tokenistic, the absolute inability in acknowledging caste in our universities suggest that we are far far behind our contemporaries.The critical pedagogy that we promise or espouse is still designed for the cause of the savarna student and this is true for both public and private institutions. Until we overhaul this, there is no pedagogy and certainly no care given to the marginalised university student in India.
Deepti Sreeram is a first year PhD student at Ashoka University.