It is now clear that the University Grants Commission’s new policy for reserving teaching posts is reducing jobs for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. But it threatens to deprive universities of much more.

Since the policy was introduced in March, only 2.5% of the 700 posts advertised by central universities have been for Scheduled Castes and none for Scheduled Tribes, according to a report inThe Indian Express. Indian law requires 15% of positions to be reserved for Scheduled Castes, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes, 27% for the Other Backward Classes.

But scholars warn that more than just jobs are at stake. They note that teachers from marginalised communities greatly enrich university spaces, helping spur new areas of academic inquiry. Several offer courses not taught anywhere else. For instance, YS Alone in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics included a component on caste and aesthetics in his course on Buddhist Visual Culture. Parthasarathi Muthukkaruppan at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, studies caste violence. K Satyanarayana at the same institution designed one of the earliest courses on Dalit studies. Joy Pachuau at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Historical Studies specialises in Catholicism in India and the North East.

“Faculty from reserved categories have introduced their histories into academia,” said Pachuau. “A recently appointed faculty member is teaching a course on North East history. They are from that region and their expertise is in that region. If we do not have faculty, those areas will not be taught at all.”

Colleges and universities calculated the required percentage of reserved posts from the total number of teaching positions across their departments. But the new policy, formulated in response to a 2017 order by the Allahabad High Court, mandates them to reserve positions by department, or subject in the case of colleges. So, whereas the institution as a whole served as the “unit” for calculating reserved posts earlier, now a department or a subject does. Universities earlier used a roster system whereby every fourth teacher appointed would be from the Other Backward Classes, every seventh from Scheduled Castes, every fourteenth from Scheduled Tribes. With the institution as one unit, there would usually be enough posts for this formula to work: if one department couldn’t make a reserved category appointment in a particular round of recruitment, another would. The new policy, however, means that each department must make at least 14 appointments at once to meet the reservation requirements. Any less and the 7.5% Scheduled Tribes quota translates into less than one post.

As a result, the number of reserved positions has declined, drastically in some cases. For example, at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh, opened to expand avenues of higher education for Adivasi youth, there is no place for Adivasi teachers now. “Reserved posts for Scheduled Tribes dropped from 27 to zero after the new roster was applied,” said Nenavath Sreenu, a management studies teacher recruited to a reserved post. He noted that because of the new system, entire departments could run for decades without a single reserved category teacher.

The human resource development ministry has challenged the Allahabad High Court’s order before the Supreme Court and put the implementation of the new recruitment policy on hold.

Reservation in teaching

India first decided to reserve university teaching posts in the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that it was implemented. In fact, Delhi University’s political science department did not have a reserved category teacher till N Sukumar joined in 2001, and he remains the only one. “The first generation, people like Sukhadeo Thorat and Virginius Xaxa, joined without reservation and they started researching and writing persuasively about reservation but universities were resistant to the idea,” Sukumar said, explaining why it took so long for reserved category teachers to be recruited in significant numbers. “By the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were large Dalit movements. The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act came in 1989, giving more voice to these communities. The second reason is that the first generation of students to go to college from these communities became qualified and were ready to teach.”

Appointed in 1997, Pachuau, like Sukumar, was the first from a Scheduled Tribe to join her department and remained the only one till the mid-2000s. She said that the late 1990s saw the recruitment of a significant number of reserved category teachers because new posts were either created in the expanding public higher education or positions became vacant after retirements.

But now “appointments even in general category are few and far between,” she said.

This is why Dalit and Adivasi scholars are particularly concerned. Reservation is easy to implement in admissions because all seats are filled at once. It is more complicated when appointing teachers: since they retire at different times, there are often few posts to fill.

Sreenu pointed out that established universities typically advertise few vacancies while new ones have only six or seven posts per department. College departments may be smaller still. Now with the department or subject as the unit of calculating reserved positions, “it will be impossible for these candidates to get in”, he said.

They will have to wait their turn and that, in academia, can take decades. As such, Scheduled Tribes, which have the smallest share of reserved seats, “will be wiped out”, said Hany Babu of the Delhi University’s English department. “It will be 50-60 years before a Scheduled Tribe appointment is made so they will be wiped out from the universities,” he added.

Perspective of the marginalised

This has grave implications for universities. “The Dalit perspective will be wiped out,” said Muthukkaruppan. “Over the past 15-20 years, there has been this practice of Dalit scholars talking and writing about caste. Dalit studies has emerged as a specific field with scholars from different disciplines – literature, social sciences, arts – developing a perspective on caste. It will be wiped out and Dalit studies will be in serious crisis.”

Others may continue to teach the course but the insider’s perspective will be missing. “There is a lot of debate on this, even at the level of Western scholars writing on India and Indian scholars writing on India,” he said. “But the insider’s perspective creates a framework for a different kind of analysis that is worth considering and is valid.”

Pachuau, who is from Mizoram, writes on the North East. “The more you have teachers from the North East, the more the North East is visible,” she said.

Sukumar similarly made BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste compulsory reading for postgraduate students of political science after he joined the Delhi University. “Before that, it was neither in the readings nor in the curriculum,” he said. “Nor was there scope for introducing students to a broader emancipatory discourse.”

Since 2014, he has also been teaching a paper on “Dalit Bahujan political thought”, starting with Buddha and ending with Kanshi Ram. “It covers Ambedkar, Jyotibha Phule, Tarabai Shinde and, for the first time in Delhi University, Periyar.”

Both Sukumar and Muthukkaruppan noted that academics recruited through the quota system have also promoted study of marginalised communities other than their own, poverty, human rights and labour issues. “These teachers have questioned the hegemony of the knowledge production process as it existed before,” added Alone. “As a result, you have new areas such as discrimination studies.

Alone said he has noticed a change in attitudes over the past two decades “but only in universities such as JNU”.

Hany Babu said without such teachers, “you will have a more homogenous teaching community which is problematic, especially in the humanities and social science”.

‘Students will suffer’

The reduction in reserved posts will also weaken a vital check against discrimination, leaving students and the few remaining teachers even more vulnerable. This could be especially problematic in research programmes. “Most reserved category students come from poor backgrounds,” said Sukumar. “They may need emotional support and find it easier to approach faculty members from backgrounds similar to their own.”

Pachuau, for years one of only two teachers from the North East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said students from the region “felt reassured and encouraged” seeing her about on the campus. “Whether they counter discrimination depends upon the faculty – whether they are interventionist or not,” she said. “But most often, it is about helping others to see the other point of view. During interviews, students may not be able to always express themselves, and the teachers will not understand and dismiss them. If the teacher is from a similar background, it creates a much more conducive environment for articulation.”

Sukumar added: “We generate confidence among students who are less sure of themselves because of where they come from.”

They help in other ways as well. Hany Babu pointed out how until a few years ago, Delhi University’s admission notices for postgraduate programmes would be posted such that only Delhi’s students would likely know about them. “We changed the process, giving students coming from other states time to plan their travel.”

The academics spoke with all agreed that the presence of teachers from marginalised communities has made universities more “liberal and progressive spaces” in general.

The more “interventionist” among them have actively countered what they perceived as discrimination. Sukumar, who has served as an observer during interviews for appointment of teachers, said he would object to interview panels not filling posts saying they could not find suitable candidates. “I have told panels they must fill the posts, that they cannot write ‘not found suitable’,” he said.

It is because of such practices, he added, that the share of teachers from marginalised communities is still less than that mandated by the reservation policy – and this after years of reservation.

According to the All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-’18, only 8.6% teachers in colleges and universities are from Scheduled Castes and 2.3% from Scheduled Tribes.

Often, these teachers also keep track of the facilities available to students. Sreenu mentioned a fund for remedial courses for students from marginalised communities which, he said, had not been utilitised. “We raise questions on these issues,” he said. “That is why the government wants us out.”