Physical harm and being humiliated on the basis of caste are equally damaging, says academician Yashpal Jogdand. It is these precarious conditions that Dalit students must endure as make their journey through India’s higher education institutions.

On February 12, a first-year Dalit student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, died by suicide. The 18-year-old student, Darshan Solanki, had faced casteist humiliation, according to his family.

Jogdand, Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, told Scroll in an interview that there are no systemic efforts to address casteism and foster sensitivity among faculty, students and staff at these institutions.

The Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle student collective at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has described the death as an institutional failure. It says that premier institutions lack mechanisms to help students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes deal with harassment and discrimination on campus.

Jogdand’s work focuses on social identity, social psychology of caste, and stigma and wellbeing among marginalised groups. According to him, research suggests that members of the upper castes are generally aware of caste-related injustice and violence, but their response is usually ambivalent because of the sense of disruption to their worldview.

In your academic paper titled “The drowned and the saved: caste and humiliation in the Indian classroom”, you write that the Dalit experience of Indian classrooms is not about flourishing but about survival, you write of the Indian classroom as a site of humiliation. Can you talk about this and in particular how Dalit students are perceived in Indian premier educational institutions and how that translates to caste discrimination in forms that may not be easily recognised or codified.

My answer is rather long-winded – something that I did not have space to write in the article that you mention but forms a subtext to it. Just bear with me a little.

Let’s first try to understand the minimum requirement for a human being to exist and function in an environment. If I ask you to tell me about basic human needs, you would perhaps think of physiological needs such as sleep, hunger, sex, etc. While it is true that we cannot exist and function unless our physiological needs are met, it is also true that we cannot exist without meaning.

We not only have a body but also a mind. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that we have a ‘body-mind’. Therefore, we need to distinguish between mere existence and meaningful existence. We are not satisfied with merely existing but we want our existence to have some meaning, value or purpose. This is why we seek status and compare ourselves to others.

A critical point here is that we depend on others for satisfaction of our need for meaning, value and purpose. It is not enough that we feel something, including ourselves, to have some sort of a value, meaning and purpose but it is equally important that other people around us validate our thinking and recognise the value, meaning and purpose.

So, at the very least, we need two things to exist and function in an environment – meaning and recognition by others. Flourishing of an individual’s capability can happen only when these minimum requirements are met.

Now let’s think of the situation of Dalit students in the Indian higher education establishment from this perspective. What is the meaning, value and purpose that is accessible to Dalit students? The Indian higher education establishment negatively stereotypes Dalit students as intellectually inferior, ‘meritless’.

This stereotype of Dalits being intellectually inferior stems partly from seeing them as beneficiaries of reservation policy and partly from their historical exclusion from the knowledge process in the society. Availing reservations is seen as a deviation from the mainstream. Dalit students are stigmatised for being a beneficiary of reservations. They are expected to justify their presence in places like the IITs.

Earlier, the expression of negative stereotypes about Dalit students was very blatant – maintaining a physical distance in the classroom, using derogatory names and forms of address, exclusion, punishment, bullying etc. The blatant expressions still exist, but it is increasingly getting replaced by subtle expressions of caste stereotypes – you are asked not about your caste but JEE rank [Joint Entrance Examination for admission to technical undergraduate courses] or other such characteristics to infer who you are, others politely avoid you.

When an upper caste student excels in an exam, it is considered normal and attributed to the internal worth [such as intellect] of the student. Whereas, when a Dalit student excels in an exam, it is not considered normal and attributed to the external situation [for example, paper was easy, reserved seats].

In a classroom, a Dalit student either receives no attention or a negative attention by others. No attention usually results from a sense of caste blindness ie deliberate refusal to see relevance of caste to educational and social outcomes. Negative attention results from perceiving Dalit students either as incapable or a nuisance to the learning process.

It is only in the situations when something related to the social group membership of Dalit students is being discussed, the class attention positively turns towards them. However, this class attention instead of recognising the internal worth of Dalit student leads to their mis-recognition due to over-visibility of their stigmatised social identity.

Overall, the Indian higher education establishment, and the classrooms by that token, contain an interactional dynamic that threatens the meaning, value and purpose of Dalit students. The routine experience of losing meaning, value and purpose makes [the] Indian classroom a site of humiliation for Dalit students.

Imagine the psychological consequences of facing a situation when others do not recognise who you are. You may think of yourself as a worthy and capable person but others perceive you only in terms of their stereotype about your group.

Others simply refuse to see you as an equal student inhabiting a common space. How would you feel? Here is what great psychologist/philosopher William James said about [the] consequence [of] such [an] experience:

“If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead’, and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.” 

We generally consider physical pain [for example, damage to joints, muscles, skin, tendons, and bones] as more serious than social/psychological pain [such as exclusion, rejection, isolation, devaluation]. But William James, writing more than 130 years ago, felt that “the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief” compared to experiencing the social/psychological pain of being treated as invisible and unworthy.

The neuroscientific research looking at the brain regions involved in processing of physical and social/psychological pain, such the one led by Naomi Eisenberger, confirms William James’ observations. This research tells us that [the] same neural machinery underlies processing of both physical and social/psychological pain.

What this means is that the experience of physical harm and being humiliated on the basis of caste is equally painful and damaging for the individual. What others think of us matters and can affect one’s well being and performance. Dalit students attempt to survive through and flourish in such a precarious situation.

Student unions protest seeking justice following the death by suicide of Darshan Solanki, outside IIT Bombay on February 20. Credit: PTI.

Anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian in her book The Caste Of Merit that reveals the workings of upper caste privilege within modern institutions, in this case the IITs, challenges a dominant upper caste assertion of being caste-less or of Indian society being post-caste. Is the claim/belief that there is no discrimination and caste exists only because of [the] policy of reservation, in your understanding, still a dominant one among upper-caste faculty, administration and students at elite institutions like the IITs?

The question you ask requires some data to confidently answer whether such a belief is still dominant among upper-caste faculty, administration and students at IITs. I won’t speculate about its prominence but I agree with the general emphasis of the analysis that Professor Ajanta Subramaniam made.

Such a belief does exist and I can perhaps share a few observations addressing the psychological dimension involved in what Professor Ajanta Subramaniam described. I think these observations would be relevant beyond IITs and can also shed light on how caste is generally perceived among the upper castes.

We need to begin with asking two questions: What is the sense of social reality among upper-castes? How do upper castes make sense of caste related injustice, helplessness, violence, and insecurity that they witness around them. The data emerging from the research I am doing with my PhD student Suryodaya Sharma suggests that upper castes are generally aware of such caste related injustice and violence.

However, their response to such events is usually ambivalent. This ambivalence indicates a mentally conflicted state, suggesting that upper castes feel moral pressure of being fair and just but also simultaneously feel the need to maintain their social dominance. The reason for such ambivalence is the sense of the threat upper caste[s] feel due to disruption of their worldview.

What is the dominant worldview among upper castes? Upper castes need to believe that they live in a just world. A world where everyone harvests what they sow. A world which is a safe, positive, predictable and manageable place. Caste disrupts this worldview. Caste reminds them that the world is an unfair and unjust place so their achievements are not simply attributable to their internal worth but also to the social system that privileges them in innumerable ways.

If they accept the unfair and unjust nature of the world created by the caste system, they would feel ashamed of being endowed with unearned structural privilege. So being blind to caste is a strategy that most upper castes adopt to protect their worldview. It is from this position that they perceive reservations and/or wily politicians as the root cause of caste existing today. It then becomes easier for them to either negate the existence of caste discrimination or perceive it as a matter of interpersonal conflict.

A rally demanding justice for Darshan Solanki, in Ahmedabad on February 19. Credit: PTI.

And is this a major reason why none of the measures recommended to deal with caste harassment, discrimination are robustly implemented in IITs?

If one does not acknowledge the gravity of the problem, there would be limited effort to implement the solutions to that problem. However, I would like to believe that a goodwill exists at least among some well-meaning people and some effort is made to implement measures recommended to deal with caste-based harassment and discrimination.

However, despite the goodwill and sincerity of the efforts, there are serious limitations in the implementation due to several factors which are internal to IITs. I would like to highlight at least three.

First, [the] limitation to implementation results from lack of diversity among faculty. As the recent Nature report showed, 98% of the faculty in IITs are from upper castes. We, of course, need diversity in faculty for reasons of fairness and justice but we also need diversity for epistemic reasons.

Diversity of perspectives contributes to effective problem solving. What this means in reality is that the people working on resolving the issue of caste discrimination on campus have no real experience of caste disadvantage.

[The] second limitation results from failure to understand the changing nature of caste-based harassment and discrimination. In the IITs, I think that the upper caste faculty, students and administration are generally averse to caste discrimination but they do not recognise that they are also averse to Dalits.

While there would be agreement over curbing the caste discrimination on the campus, there would be limited attention to the dominance and privilege of upper castes. Although upper caste faculty, admin[stration] and students may genuinely reject caste discrimination, they may still be motivated to maintain their social dominance and have unconscious negative feelings and beliefs about Dalits. These beliefs and negative feelings then get expressed in subtle, indirect, and often rationalisable ways.

[The] third limitation results from what some scholars have called intersectional blindness. Many IITs and other higher education institutions are now aware of the gender discrimination in STEM fields [science, technology, engineering and maths]. Inspired by the UK’s Athena SWAN Charter for gender equality, IITs and other higher education institutions have undertaken institutional reforms to ensure greater gender sensitivity among faculty, staff and students.

However, no such systematic efforts are made to address the issue of caste and foster more caste sensitivity among faculty, staff and students. Caste and gender are intricately related. Focusing only on gender excludes the experiences of people such as Dalit women who find themselves at the intersections of caste-based and gender-based oppression. Overall, there is need for intersectional sensitivity to deal with discrimination, harassment and other such negative behavior on campus.

Recently, the student collective Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle [APPSC] at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in its official complaint on the lack of mental health support for SC/ST students at the institute said, ‘The largest chunk of caste-based harassment students face is due to the anti-reservation sentiment prevalent on the campus. The institute’s student wellness centre is currently functioning as a mental health centre for issues of upper caste students and is ignoring caste-based issues that students from reserved categories are facing’.

The mental health of Dalit students in IITs is a serious issue. Mental health is not simply an outcome of an individual’s makeup, personality or choices but it is very much an outcome of one’s social circumstances and interactions.

As I said earlier, Dalit students face threats to their wellbeing due casteism prevalent on campuses. We lost Rohith Vemula [a PhD scholar who died by suicide at the University of Hyderabad in 2016]. We now lost Darshan Solanki. How many Dalit lives need to be lost before we realise that something is clearly amiss and need sincere intervention?

How long are we going to attribute the reasons for suicides to dispositional weakness of Dalit students and not to the casteism prevalent on campuses and in the society? I came across some government data on suicides of Dalit students including few from OBC [other backward classes] and religious minorities. Between 2014 and 2021, 122 Dalit students were driven to commit suicide in Indian premier education institutions.

Why [are] such suicides are not occurring among upper caste students? All students are vulnerable to academic and non-academic stressors in the IIT ecosystem. However, the difference is who has more resources at their disposal and who has less to deal with the stressors. Who has a safety net and who doesn’t makes a big difference.

Yet, there is hardly any attention to addressing the mental health concerns of Dalit students. We need to recognise that mental health is a taboo topic in Indian society and people stigmatise if you attempt to seek mental health support.

Dalit students are bound to suffer from double stigma resulting from caste and mental health. There needs to be some effort to address the barriers that Dalit students face in mental health support seeking. As APPSC [Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle] highlighted, when a Dalit student seeks mental health support they find that the mental health practitioners [counsellor or psychiatrist] have little grasp of the casteism that Dalit students face.

The mental health practitioners locate the aetiology [medical terminology for cause] of mental distress on individual and interpersonal level whereas the mental distress that Dalit students experience is an outcome of group-based inequality and oppression. This may result from the fact that like many other domains, mental health practitioners also lack diversity.

The counsellors from Dalit background are not available to Dalit students. Under these conditions, Dalit students often have to seek counselling from an upper caste counsellor who may be ill-equipped to form a meaningful therapeutic alliance.

The issue of providing mental health support to Dalit students is complicated also because of the fact that the disciplines of counselling and psychiatry themselves are caste blind. Meena Sawariya, in her paper on Caste and Counselling Psychology in India, shows that caste is omitted from the curriculum and training programmes of counselling degrees.

Meena brings to our attention how the caste blind nature of psychological sciences leads to a sense of disconnect between therapist and client, constrained dialogical spaces, and dehumanised therapeutic processes.