Higher Education is Still a Bar Too High for Muslims, Dalits

An all-India survey casts the spotlight on a higher education system that uses the ‘graded inequality’ that Ambedkar warned about to keep out marginalised groups – OBCs, Dalits, Muslims and women

St Stephens College, Delhi University. Credit: Mat Booth/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

St Stephens College, Delhi University. Credit: Mat Booth/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In any democratic society, social cleavages created by accidental identities like religion, caste and gender are meant to be dealt with in a responsible way. When a society constantly fails to address inequality and discrimination, in the longer run, it will shake the real foundations of democracy and the social contract which forms the basis of it. The fact is, in spite of constitutional safeguards and positive discrimination (reservation) by the government and its agencies, we are still nowhere near achieving equality in India. This has once again been brought to the fore by the results of the latest All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) – whose provisional report for 2012-13 was released last year – which forces us to wonder about the fate of social justice in a society divided by caste and religion.

The AISHE survey, conducted online by the Department of Higher Education, MHRD, covered 633 universities (public and private), 24,120 colleges and 6,772 standalone institutions. The survey’s finding show that the representation of Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes in higher education teaching jobs is way below the proportion of their population even after 68 years of independence.

According to Census 2011, the SC population is 16.6%, ST is 8.6% while Muslims are 14.2% of the population. We do not have the latest census data for OBCs, but the Mandal Commission had identified the Hindu and Non-Hindu OBC’s to be 52% of population based on 1931 census data, and the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report in 2006 had shown it to be 41% of total population. As can be seen in Table 1, there is considerable variation in the distribution of these communities across states.

As the pie chart below shows, upper-caste Hindus dominate the teaching profession in institutions of higher education at an all-India level


According to the AISHE survey,the distribution of SCs, STs, OBCs, Muslims and woman among the teaching faculty of higher educational institutions is as follows:

When it comes to gender, Kerala is the only state to have overachieved gender parity among higher education teaching faculties, with Tamil Nadu and Punjab coming second. The overall representation of women at the national level is 39% – when it should be over 50% – with SC, ST, OBC and Muslim women being even more underrepresented, demonstrating once again how patriarchal discrimination cuts across caste and religion. Muslim representation is a mere 3.09% – underscoring the findings of the Sachar Committee, which found that only 2.5% of the Indian bureaucracy were Muslims.

Even West Bengal and Kerala, considered to be ruled by ‘progressive’ political forces for years, have not been able to create enough opportunities for SC/STs, OBCs and Muslims in higher education. Gujarat, touted as the development model for India, is a complete failure on this count, with only 1.18% of the state’s teaching positions in higher education filled by Muslims.

The so called ‘Gujarat Model’ seems to reflect the overall systemic discrimination most acutely, where Muslims are marginalised and powerful castes are given backdoor encouragement in their claims for reservation. In states where the OBCs are politically and economically powerful, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, we see SC/STs and Muslims being sidelined.

This reminds one of Dr. B R Ambedkar’s words that graded inequality prevents the rise of general discontent against inequity and will never lead to revolution for social justice.

The discrepancy between the representation of SC/STs, OBCs and Muslims in the national level and individual states is telling. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, a social justice movement for their empowerment has largely benefitted the OBCs, who now occupy 54.47% of higher education teaching positions, though this does not extend to the SC/STs and Muslims.

Even if we take the NSSO (2006) data as the reference point for the OBC population, they are clearly underrepresented in every state except Tamil Nadu.

It is not a coincidence that the same groups are underrepresented among the students in higher education as well, with SC students constituting 12.2%, STs 4.4%, OBCs 30.05% and Muslim students 3.9% of the overall student body. The enrolment of women students has improved, but India still a long way to go for achieving gender parity. The AISHE data shows that Muslims are the most underrepresented at both state and national levels when it comes to student enrolment in higher education.

When anti-reservation groups invoke “merit” and “quality”, they completely ignore the social exclusion of these excluded groups which form the large majority of population. The argument that the “creamy layer” among the OBCs corners all the benefits of reservation also falls through since we are yet to fulfill the legally mandated 27% reservation for them. The AISHE includes private universities and colleges, and while there is no reservation in these institutions, the survey reveals marginalised groups to be truly underrepresented in here too.

The overall pattern revealed by the survey shows that the system is determined to maintain the status quo of a hierarchical Hindu society by excluding and marginalising the lower caste and minorities from the development process. It also seems intent to reinforce caste-based notions glorifying upper caste ability and capability in imparting knowledge for others. In the present times, when the state is slowly withdrawing from its responsibility for providing education and reducing itself to the role of a ‘facilitator’ for private players, achieving social justice seems to be a distant dream.

S.V. Narayanan is an independent researcher based in New Delhi