When Will India's Educational Institutes Have Their 'Dalit Lives Matter' Moment?

Even as students at Princeton force a debate around diversifying faculty and student bodies, elite Indian institutions continue to be in a state of studied denial about Brahmanical supremacy.

Last week, Princeton University announced that it was dropping Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of public and international affairs.

As a “Wilson school” alum, I say “Amen!” It was about time. As late as 2015, when university students had occupied the president’s office demanding that the university drop Wilson’s name, the response had been tepid and predictable – a review committee was constituted, and it concluded that Wilson’s contributions to the university outweighed his racism that was “significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.

The killing of George Floyd, an African American man by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman, constitutes the lived reality of black men in the US. This time, however, Floyd’s murder catalysed a worldwide protest movement that has forced institutions like Princeton to take stock of how they are direct beneficiaries of America’s founding sin. There can be no Princeton or Yale without slavery.

Dropping Wilson’s name from my alma mater at best amounts to nothing more than scratching the surface. Princeton, like every other elite institution in the US, is a palimpsest made up of sedimented histories of empires, conquests, appropriation, dispossession and segregation. We still await a fuller reckoning with a “people’s history” of Princeton and its peer institutions.

Princeton’s decision to finally sever ties with Wilson is perhaps only symbolic. However, the action reminded me of how elite Indian public institutions mirror those in Apartheid South Africa and make Princeton look like a mecca of racial justice.

Even as students at Princeton (and elsewhere) force a debate around diversifying faculty and student bodies, elite Indian institutions continue to be in a state of studied denial. About 90% of faculty members at Indian Institutes of Management, where I work, are drawn from less than 10% of India’s social groups.

Also read: India’s Universities Are Falling Terribly Short on Addressing Caste Discrimination

Brahmanical supremacy is at least as insidious as white supremacy. Any Dalit or Adivasi student will attest to how stifling elite Indian campuses can be. Not only do they not have any role models on the faculty body (my institute has just one Dalit faculty member out of over hundred, and not a single Adivasi or Muslim), the nearly monochromatic faculty composition also helps reinforce the widespread Brahmanical notion of historically marginalised students as undeserving interlopers on campus.

“Upper” caste faculty bodies at elite Indian institutions delude themselves into believing that caste is an archaeological relic at odds with contemporary social organisation.

IIM Bangalore. Photo: iimb.ac.in

In reality, these campuses are sites where the ancien régime institutions of ritual exclusion fuse seamlessly with more secular structures of exclusion. I should know. I have been served a “disciplinary censure” for calling out the annual janeu (“sacred” thread) replacement ceremony for what it is – a casteist and patriarchal performative ritual that is an exhibition of dvija domination.

Beyond the official censure, I have also had to take a “voluntary” sabbatical from what has been the most cherished part of my academic life – working with creative graduate students on their dissertation projects. It would be foolhardy to have my students be potentially ejected from the faculty job market in India that is but a Brahmanical guild network in disguise.

Despite these significant setbacks, I got away relatively unscathed. Caste is ascriptive; intermittent advocacy or activism is not going to tear away my “upper caste” shield. A mutinous Brahmin is still a Brahmin – this is precisely how the apparently meritocratic agency of Brahmanical privilege works (and partly explains how the privileged routinely usurp the vanguard in any advocacy for justice). A Dalit faculty member in my position would likely have lost her job.

Elite Indian institutions urgently need to examine institutions of Brahmanical privilege masquerading as meritocracy. The fount of my own “merit” is the generous diversity and affirmative action program at Princeton. I was able to attend Princeton not only because of my accumulated caste privilege secularised in a Nehruvian public sector industrial township, but also because as a brown-skinned applicant, I helped Princeton tick its diversity box.

At IIM Bangalore, where I teach, several of my (Brahmin or Kayasth) faculty colleagues have advanced degrees from some of the best universities in the West and share my broad trajectory. Diversity quotas for brown-Brahmins at Princeton is just dessert. Reservation quotas in Indian institutions designed to acknowledge, if not substantively address, millennia of continuous marginalisation, subjugation, and dispossession is, however, a frontal assault on academic “merit.”

Also read: When My School Principal Refused to Enroll Me Because of My Caste

The Black Lives Matter movement has (rightly) precipitated calls for race reparations across university campuses in the US including at Princeton.  The “Columbian exchange” and the age of European colonialism with all the associated rapacious and violent institutions including slavery must indeed be central topics for any deliberation on reparations. However, the locus of reparations must be conceived at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

In India, it would be utterly hypocritical to not recognise the need for caste reparations. The unmitigated suffering of the precariat trapped between the city and the country during the pandemic-induced economic lockdown has made visible the hidden structures of dispossession. The overwhelming majority of the desperate migrant workers who have perished on roads, railway tracks, railway platforms, and even inside running trains are drawn from the bottom of India’s hierarchical caste totem.

If the modern US is firmly rooted in the brutalisation and subordination of a minority Black population, “upper” caste groups that are numerically in a woeful minority in India have for centuries expropriated the sweat and toil of the labouring castes. While caste dispossession in India is often compared with racial dispossession in the US, a more appropriate point of comparison is the relationship between minority Whites and majority Blacks in southern Africa.

A distinguishing feature of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is the number of young white men and women who have come out on the streets. India, especially since the rise of the Hindu supremacist forces, has seen a spate of Dalit and Muslim lynching besides continuing police brutality that disproportionately targets the most marginalised.

Demonstrators gather at the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against racial inequality in Washington, US, June 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Independent India has been built on the back of wholesale Adivasi dispossession. Why then has India not seen upper caste groups come out in support of  ‘Dalit Lives Matter,’  ‘Adivasi Lives Matter,’ or ‘Muslim Lives Matter?’ This conundrum is a subject matter for not only the “entire political science,” but also history, sociology, psychology, and much else. Here, I only want to draw attention to the dialectical relationship between Black Lives Matter and “#BlackInTheIvory.”  To understand why India has not seen a “Dalit Lives Matter” outpouring on the streets, it is instructive to look for the missing “DalitsInTheIvory.”

American universities, despite their structural conservatism, have played an important role in laying bare how white supremacy operates. As my teachers at Princeton taught me, empires are most effectively challenged by men and women who have effectively mastered the “metropolitan language.” The history of anti-colonial struggles around the world is testimony to this elementary fact. Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Lohia, Jayprakash Narayan all studied at some of the finest western institutions.

Also read: Ambedkar to Payal Tadvi: Codes of Discrimination Change But Dalits’ Nightmares Continue

While it is not wholly accurate to characterise the caste structure as an “empire,” the self-preservation instincts of entrenched privilege is at the heart of exclusionary structures in contemporary Indian universities. Ambedkar’s clarion call, often interpreted as his life’s message, was to “educate, organize, and agitate.” Any mobilisation around “Dalit Lives Matter” must necessarily forge an organic relationship with “DalitsInTheIvory.”

It is also for this reason that institutions embedded in a (Brahmanical) privilege network will resist all attempts at democratising university spaces. Exclusionary “upper” caste symbols enjoying institutional imprimatur mirrors the faux defence of Confederate monuments in the American South as symbols of a bucolic “southern heritage.” For the overwhelming majority in India, the janeu is as much a symbol of exclusion and subordination as a statue of Robert Lee is for African Americans.

Modern universities as sites of democratic thought are also despised by authoritarian regimes of every stripe. The current ruling dispensation in India is no exception. An authoritarian regime’s task is made easier in India by a middle class that is defined entirely by its station in a consumptive network. However, a project of exclusionary nationalism on behalf of its core upper caste constituency cannot succeed should the underclass actually “educate, organize, and agitate.”

Universities represent some of the most fecund sites available for such a fraternal project. The future of India as a constitutional democratic republic hinges on how liberty, equality, and fraternity are forged on its university campuses. Indian institutions, and especially elite technocratic campuses, must urgently begin a “truth and reconciliation” process that includes a transparent and honest reckoning with how they have wilfully supported structures of exclusion for decades.

However, history also teaches us that universities need prodding and nudging from the outside. An institution like Princeton was until not long ago a hedge fund for the 1% (white) elite that also granted diplomas on the side. What will it take Indian institutions to begin engaging with questions of caste justice like how Princeton has done with race justice? Do we have institutional leaders in India with the moral vision to confront this question that has haunted India through millennia – from Ekalavya through Rohit Vemula?

Deepak Malghan is on the faculty at IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.