The struggles for becoming an egalitarian society has put Indian Universities, especially Public Universities, at the heart of the social justice debate in the previous decade (2010-2019). Social justice in India has had a long history of struggle for social and educational inclusion by communities and groups marginalized for centuries. These exclusions on the basis of ja̅ti (caste) and gender have been legitimized by the dominant norms of Brahminical patriarchy, that imposes a graded lower status to those who are engaged in manual labour, a status that is acquired by birth. Patriarchy in the Indian context also gets shaped by these norms that do not accord equal respect and dignity to women’s labour and life choices. In this article, I argue that the crisis of Indian Universities right now has a long history of internal and external colonization, and an Ambedkarite-Feminist reimagination is key towards addressing the present crisis.
During British colonization, the excluded groups, primarily women, Shudras and Ati-Shudras (“lower caste” groups), found a new opportunity to claim their right over education, but were highly disappointed by the colonial government’s focus on persisting to educate only the dominant caste groups. Jotiba and Savitribai Phule, foremost educators of the marginalized communities in the 19th century, highlighted this problem with the colonial government in front of the Hunter Commission in 1882. Across different parts of India, marginalized communities through various social movements tried to create pressure on the government to create more opportunities for them to access government education and employment.
However, till 1947 very few individuals from the educationally excluded groups were able to access higher education, most notable exception being Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who transformed himself into one of the biggest social, educational, and religious leaders of the marginalized communities. Coming from an untouchable family, he was subjected to constant exclusions in school, higher education, and even employment. Despite these restrictions, he was able to get double doctorate degrees (from Columbia University and LSE), and he did immense amount of work in the field of education, social inclusion, and the annihilation of the caste and patriarchal system. In his sharp analysis, he identified Brahminism as the fundamental problem for both feminist and anti-caste struggles in India. He conceptualized the problem of “graded inequality” in Brahminism, where a sense of empowerment can come only by dominating someone lower in the hierarchy and not by struggling against the more powerful or the system itself. His slogan of “Educate, Agitate and Organise” became the rallying cry for all socially excluded groups across the country and continues to be most relevant now. As the Chairman of the drafting commission of India’s Constitution and Independent India’s first law minister, he proposed systematic efforts for the social and educational inclusion of all groups, regardless of religion, caste, gender or class, in India’s public institutions.
One important example to note is the first amendment of the Indian Constitution in 1951 concerning Article 15, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. The amendment introduced the idea of “positive discrimination.” It was brought forward by Nehru (first Prime Minister of India) and Ambedkar in response to a Madras High Court judgment against affirmative action, where clause 4 was added to the article that states – “Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribe.” Thus a simplistic idea of equality in the constitution was changed to include the concerns of equity, which implied that positively discriminating marginalized groups for addressing historical injustice is not against equality, but actually to make sure that equality is achieved in substantial sense, and not merely in a formal sense.
Although after independence in 1947, Nehru envisioned a supremely important role of higher education in the development of the country and spent substantial resources to start publicly funded institutions of higher education, the special provisions to positively discriminate marginalized communities came much later. During 1950s, many new institutions, with a special focus on Science and Technology, were established, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Regional Engineering Colleges, etc. but the affirmative action to include the historically excluded groups came only in 1973, that too with a clause that institutes of national importance can articulate their own policies instead of following the government mandated reservation quota. Reservation was a specific strategy of affirmative action designed to include socially and educationally marginalized groups by giving them adequate representation in government education and employment. The quota began with the inclusion of the Scheduled Castes (ex-untouchable/Ati-shudra communities) and Scheduled Tribes (indigenous/Adivasi communities) in 1973 by giving them 15% and 7.5% respectively, but later got expanded to include the Other Backward Class communities (Shudra communities) based on the implementation of Mandal Commission’s suggestions in the 1990s, to give them 27% representation. This led to a huge transformation in the three decades following after (1990-2019), where the demographics of higher education transformed substantially, and the domination of the “upper-caste” groups was decisively challenged within the higher educational sphere, seen as an important marker for social status and economic mobility in a developing country’s context.
New struggles for social justice in Higher Education
With such Constitution-enabled provisions, there was a considerable improvement in the Gross Enrollment Ratio of students from marginalized communities, and the dream of achieving a socially just society looked one step closer. However, this move towards a more just society through provisions of reservation in public Universities began to be undercut by the development of highly toxic and unhabitable campus environments for students from marginalized groups. This was done by creating a rhetoric of merit, where higher-status Indians claimed that students who benefit from reservation did not have the right credentials. This narrative has been so popularized in the higher education spaces that even students from marginalized communities internalize it and question their own capabilities. It has directly led to many of these students committing suicide when they are unable to deal with the constant humiliation that they are subjected to. To counter this narrative, many student associations based on Ambedkar’s ideas were created across the country, and this provided a space in which students from marginalized communities could talk about their experiences of discrimination and find solidarity with others. Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) was the first one to be setup in 1993.
These Ambedkarite groups became the only spaces that provided social, emotional, and intellectual support for students to rightfully claim their space in higher education. This has also led the students to question the curriculum that they are being taught, which either doesn’t engage with their lived experiences or misarticulates and wrongly theorizes it to perpetuate domination. Demands of including thinkers and texts that emerge from women and Dalit lived experience have also been made by these student associations.
Fearing that the moral strength of such a revolution from within the Public University campuses can spread further in society, the Brahminical society has felt a strong threat to their dominant power. In response, they have been systematically using State power to suppress this threat, especially after the election of the right wing Hindutva government in 2014 and then again in 2019. In 2016, this strategy of systematically targeting Ambedkarite students from marginalized communities was brought to light by the unfortunate suicide of Dr Rohith Vemula, a PhD Scholar and ASA activist from HCU. In his extremely poetic and philosophical last letter, he pointed out the extreme dehumanization that Brahminical patriarchy continues to impose on the people from marginalized communities. The new strategy that emerged to systematically target students protesting against such Brahminical domination in the Universities was to label them as anti-nationals. This trick invented by the right-wing government leaders and popularized by their media stooges has led to an extremely toxic environment, both in the campuses and outside, and threaten to overturn the aims of social justice as envisioned in India’s Constitution. However, the students have been fighting such dehumanizing labels tooth and nail in the past 4 years and creating their own narratives using creative slogans, songs, posters, poems, and much more.
(The protests against exclusionary and impractical laws like CAA, NRIC and NPR has been led by students and women across the country with Ambedkar becoming the central symbol for achieving Constitutional goals for the country. Image from shutterstock – https://www.shutterstock.com/search/india+women+protest)
These recent energies have culminated into country-wide protests, led by students and women across the country, against exclusionary laws and policies such as Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register for Indian Citizens (NRIC), and National Population Register (NPR). The writing is on the wall: for India to achieve its Constitutional vision, an Ambedkarite and feminist transformation of Indian society is arguably the only way possible. And the hope lies with the students, who straddle the two spheres of the University and the society, to generate the force for such a socio-cultural transformation. One such attempt has been happening at the Azim Premji University, a non-profit trust run University with a distinct vision for social justice.
An Ambedkarite-Feminist imagination in practice
Four years back when I joined the Azim Premji University, I found a lacuna for a space where the students and staff could have conversations around the intersections of caste, gender, religion, sexuality, and race. I remembered my own experiences of discrimination and exclusion during my studies at one of the premier engineering colleges, IIT Delhi, where I had no space or support to understand and reject the subjugation forced on me. I internalized the dominant narrative that the problem is with my identity and developed a self-hatred towards who I am. Evaluating my status from my name, clothes, the place where I come from, color of my skin and my friends, I was subjected to continued humiliation, and the idea that I don’t belong to an elite institution was forced down my throat. It was much later when I moved into Humanities that I could find words to articulate my experience and reject this dominant narrative. I came to understand that just like patriarchy is shaped by Brahminism in India, religious discrimination (including Islamophobia) too gets shaped by this graded hierarchy and norms of purity-pollution.
This situation had only worsened after the election of the Hindutva government, and I strongly felt the need to co-create a space for dialogue and care. I approached other faculty and students, and we started the Ambedkar Feminism Study and Struggle Alliance. The choice of the name sounded strange, because Ambedkar was as big a critique of caste, as he was of patriarchy, and he identified Brahminism as the root cause for both in India. It felt important to us to highlight the common ground of anti-domination philosophy that is at the heart of both these movements. Also, in the South Asian context, it has been observed that feminist movements have tended to ignore caste as an important intersection while anti-caste movements have tended to ignore gender. Thus, to highlight the intersectionality of caste and gender as the primary axes of social experience in South Asia, it was important to name ourselves as such and to emphasize that both movements work towards humanizing the objectified and dehumanized ‘other’ through everyday struggles.
Although we began just as a reading group, where we read original feminist and Ambedkarite texts, it slowly gathered enough steam for students from marginalized communities to take ownership and speak about their lived experiences of exclusion and humiliation, both in the outside social world but also within a secular liberal University. They highlighted how discrimination in society works in more direct ways using visible caste and gender markers but is hidden in modern institutions where indirect markers are used to perpetuate the same hierarchy. These indirect markers vary from how good one speaks English, the music and films one enjoys, the food and clothing that shows one’s cultural background, the colour of one’s skin, the assessment grades and feedback that students get, the segregation that happens in the name of academic support, the lack of representation of marginalized communities in teaching staff but over-representation in housekeeping staff, lack of space for religious festivals and cultural expressions of marginalized communities, and much more.
Based on these conversations, we soon realized that our efforts can’t be restricted to merely changing the curriculum but have to engage with all dimensions of human experiences inside and outside the classroom, as we are not merely intellectual beings without bodies, emotions, and relationships, which is a phantasm of liberal Universities. Thus, from a reading group we transformed into a forum for intellectual, cultural, and religious expression, and our politics took an aesthetic turn. From only looking at the visible content, we became keen observers of the invisible form in which domination works, and we started challenging domination in both content and form. Specific efforts have been made to add conversations on religious and cultural practices in the curriculum as well as texts and thinkers from marginalized communities, collaborative research papers based on relational feminist frameworks to challenge competitive publishing culture, screening of films by Dalit and women directors, celebration of subaltern festivals and food, poetry reading, one month of Buddhist practices leading to Ambedkar Jayanti, folk music conference and performances highlighting marginalized musical instruments, folk dance and festivities, invited talks by Dalit and women intellectuals, expanding the conception of individualized counselling to community care, re-writing and re-telling epic stories while challenging the implicit casteism and patriarchy in them, and finally embodied workshops to engage with the visceral experience of power and domination with humans and nature.
As the students have become more confident about their cultural identity, and more precise with their intellectual critiques of domination, they have also begun to take this mission outside the University by conducting sessions on Ambedkarite and feminist thoughts in different communities, both elite and marginalized. Their aim to reach out is to politicize the people in anti-domination ideas and practices while challenging their own ideologies of domination, especially of Brahminical patriarchy. Connecting with the nation-wide protests against CAA, NRIC, NPR, and the violence against students, there is a new energy to establish the Ambedkarite-Feminist vision of a socially just society, where voices of marginalized groups take the central place in deciding the future of this country.
(APU students from the Ambedkar-Feminism Study and Struggle Alliance in solidarity with protests in other University campuses and public spaces. Image from https://www.deccanherald.com/city/azim-premji-varsity-students-faculty-join-caa-protest-793030.html)
Asim Siddiqui is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Azim Premji University Bangalore. As a teacher, researcher, and socio-cultural worker, he focuses on cultural and ecological justice by drawing upon philosophical traditions from India and outside. His research and current educational experiments have been in developing an aesthetic-contemplative pedagogy for engaging with contemporary socio-political issues. He also does dramaturgy, consultancy, and experiential education workshops. In his previous avatar, he worked with NGOs and technology start-ups, and got an undergraduate degree from IIT Delhi.