If we had hoped for justice for Rohith Vemula or a mindful recall of his concerns and ideals in the new year, we were clearly mistaken. For one, Hyderabad Central University (HCU) vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile has been awarded the Millennium Plaque of Honour at the recently concluded Indian Science Congress and feted by the prime minister. Never mind that his casteist indifference, cynicism and lack of empathy were on display in and through the sad and tragic sequence of events that culminated in Vemula’s death – Podile has placed himself beyond shame, remorse and even the law. Meanwhile, nine students from Bahujan, Adivasi and Dalit backgrounds studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been suspended for raising questions about protocols and rules relating to the admission to M.Phil and PhD courses, on the ground that they disrupted an academic council meeting. We could not have asked for a more perfect picture of our undemocratic and dishonest public and intellectual life, such as it is.
JNU and its students have been in the news for almost the whole of 2016 and perhaps it is fitting that the year ended with as much authoritarian flourish as it began. Yet there is a difference. This suspension of students does not have to do with the present moment of Hindutva ascendancy alone; to be sure, it assumes a sinister edge in the present, but the issues raised by the suspended students have to do with more substantive and fundamental issues, particularly the inability of higher education to answer creatively and imaginatively to the needs of students from Bahujan and Dalit backgrounds. This is what aligns this most recent instance of administrative high-handedness with what transpired in HCU last year.
Suspended JNU students and their comrades had called attention to chiefly, but not only, the discriminatory nature of the viva voce procedure that is part of the admission process for those wishing to pursue MPhil and PhD programmes at JNU and other central universities. Students who have cleared entrance exams are called in for a viva voce, where they are expected to speak of their proposed research. However the viva does not quite unfold as imagined. Speaking to students, who do not wish to be named, this much could be gathered: sometimes the entire interview lasts for only around five minutes, and apart from being asked where they are from and so on, students are not asked further questions; where the interview lasts longer, say around 10 minutes or so, Bahujan, Adivasi and Dalit students report unease with the mode and tone of questioning, and wonder if their desire to undertake research is at all taken seriously.
Not that this happens in all instances, but it happens often enough and largely to students from Bahujan and dalit communities. A recent survey of the viva voce marks awarded by the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Programme of the School of International Studies at JNU during MPhil admissions for the 2015-16 academic year has this to show: 92 students out of 101 who qualified in the written examination participated in the viva, and of those who did not make it, over 92% belonged to this category. A similar survey conducted four years ago revealed comparable results. Pointing to this survey, the JNU students union (JNUSU) had argued in 2012:
“A careful study of viva marks shows a strange distribution with marks clustered either between 0-5 or in the 25-30 range… Clearly something is very wrong in the way students are being judged in their viva, where they are either “very good” or “very bad”. The obvious explanation is that the interview board is using this bimodal marks distribution to select or reject candidates based on viva-voce alone.”
JNUSU had gone on to note that this resulted in the exclusion of almost all students from deprived backgrounds and declared that it cannot accept the university administration’s disclaimer in this regard, which was, ‘Uniformly Low Viva Marks for Reserved Category Students DOES NOT imply Discrimination’
Currently, students point to the recommendations of the Abdul Nafey Committee set up by the administration to go into the viva voce issue. The committee had noted that it had analysed admission data across JNU’s centres and schools from 2012-2015, and that the data “consistently indicate the pattern of difference in the written and viva voce marks across all social categories which indicates discrimination. It …therefore recommends that the discriminatory pattern would get mitigated if the viva voce marks is reduced from the present 30 to 15 marks”. The reference to all social categories notwithstanding, the fact remains that Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students are more likely to not clear the viva voce.
Some students have called attention to a Supreme Court judgement delivered in 1980 which contained observations to do with the use of the oral interview as a sufficient and necessary basis for granting admission:
“The oral interview test …as presently held should not be relied upon as an exclusive test, but it may be resorted to only as an additional or supplementary test and, moreover, great care must be taken to see that persons who are appointed to conduct the oral interview test are men of high integrity, calibre and qualification.”
Though equivocal in its reasoning, the judgement had at least conceded that an oral interview leaves room for abuse and random judgements.
In all this, the university administration has chosen to adopt a cavalier attitude: it insists that the viva voce will remain a decisive procedure and has noted that reserved category students in any case have their ‘quota’ to fall back on! Such an arrogant response has angered Bahujan, Adivasi and Dalit students: not qualifying via the viva voce, they argue, means that a Bahujan, Adivasi or Dalit student does not make it into the general category; if he or she gets into the latter, the reserved category is rendered less competitive, and more important, the general category is healthily pluralised in ways that are bound to benefit the student population as whole.
The issue at stake is not only about non-discriminatory admission procedures or the vicious gate-keeping that caste Hindu society is capable of, whenever subaltern castes, particularly Dalits assert their right to intellectual resources. It is also about changing the cultures of pedagogy and communication in our institutes of higher education. For we are at a unique historical conjuncture that has brought students from Bahujan, Dalit and Adivasi communities in large numbers to universities. But have we rendered our university spaces apposite to their needs, expectations and educational ideals? We may have reworked syllabi in the humanities and social sciences in some cases, and supported student aspirations individually; and Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan teachers have helped create a new critical context in some disciplines. But clearly we need to do more: rethink the whole question of merit and evaluation, such that abilities and talents that have not been reckoned with until now, but which the new generation of subaltern students might possess in abundance, are identified and valued. We also might want to ask university faculty from the upper and dominant castes to evaluate their own preparedness for teaching in multi-caste classrooms, where social and cultural capital is so unfairly distributed. Teachers thus might need to intuit and re-learn lessons in fellow feeling and social respect and recognition. Being liberal and committed in theory to social justice might be where we start out from, but that sense yet needs to be willed into action, in and through disciplined everyday acts of mindfulness and affection.
V. Geetha is feminist historian, writer and translator. She is editorial director, Tara Books.