A Dalit, Bahujan, or Adivasi scholar facing institutional caste-based discrimination is not new. Think of Rohith Vemula, Payal Tadvi, Delta Meghwal, or Kripa Shankar, a young Dalit engineering student recently found hanging from a tree in Unnao. The perpetrator in each case was a dominant caste person protected by institutions, police, legal structures, and the bureaucracy that are operated by the same castes. What stands out in this milieu of hopelessness is the curious case of Dalit doctoral research scholar Deepa P. Mohanan of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, who faced caste discrimination and harassment for 10 years by the director of Inter-University Centre for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (IIUCN) Nandakumar Kalarikkal, her supervisor Radhakrishnan EK, and Vice-Chancellor Sabu Thomas. Her hunger strike at the university gates resulted in the removal of Kalarikkal.
Mohanan’s case is peculiar in the light of the resignation of Bahujan academic Vipin V. Veetil in August 2021, whose public letter exposing the casteism of professors from the humanities and social sciences department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, could not move the institution to take any disciplinary action against the casteist faculty.
How MGU obstructed Mohanan’s growth
Mohanan’s research had been significantly hindered because of the Savarna faculty at the MGU that practises passive caste-based discrimination, which is the subtle blocking of opportunities and access to resources for advancement, such as not granting her the funds to do her research, refusing to evaluate and rejecting her MPhil thesis, and denying her access to laboratories. Vice Chancellor Thomas’ recent statement that Mohanan did not submit a six-month research progress report aims to malign her academic integrity and continues the onslaught of passive caste-based discrimination.
Such statements do not reflect the mental trauma and the physical stress that Dalit academics experience because of their caste, thereby making it impossible for them to comply with institutional procedures. Furthermore, the faculty practised caste-based discrimination with impunity, without the fear of repercussions — once, Mohanan was locked in the Physics department and routinely humiliated with casteist remarks like Dalit students ‘hamper the reputation of the institute.’
In 2015, a committee constituted to examine Mohanan’s complaints against Kalarikkal and other faculty found the administration guilty of not providing her with the infrastructure or a safe and secure environment for her research. Kalarikkal was briefly removed from his directorial post but was reinstated despite the allegations of caste discrimination being found to be true.
This reveals that casteism in universities operates through an enmeshed network that protects Savarna faculty. It is impossible to isolate a single perpetrator, for the entire faculty and the administration form an ecosystem that supports caste-based discrimination. Caste forms the stasis of Indian society and academia, which perpetuates despite changing economic structures and political scenarios.
Mohanan refashioned Dalit resistance
By finally getting Karikkal expelled once again, we must think — what made Mohanan achieve what the others before her could not? Her hunger strike, protest, and ten-year-long battle created what Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan call ‘anastasis’ in their book Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (2019). The authors explain that anastasis “requires of us that we do not fall back on the idols of old in our moment’s crisis; a mistake which arises in thinking of anastasis as the reappearance of the same thing.” (page 217).
Mohanan’s appropriation of the hunger strike for Dalits resisting caste-based discrimination and violence created an anastatic moment in the stasis of caste, where she did not just replicate the method of non-violent resistance associated with Gandhi, but also refashioned it because of her Dalit identity.
Mohanan’s protest created new conjunction of forces since it was supported by the Bhim Army, a radical blue-clad Ambedkarite organisation with roots in Uttar Pradesh; international Dalit organisations such as the Equality Labs headed by Thenmozhi Soundararajan; and Bahujan media reportage by the Maktoob Media and the Bahujan Weekly. The Dalit academic can choose two paths—either burn the book of Manu like Ambedkar to symbolically gesture towards the resistance to caste, or appropriate Savarna methods of resistance to speak to a Savarna audience.
Universities need permanent SC, ST, and OBC committees
Dalit academics are forced to be creative in their methods of resistance, for they have to carve a place for themselves in a system that is insistent on annihilating their presence. Instead of celebrating the expulsion of Mohanan’s oppressor, we must ask — why was a casteist professor hired and promoted in the first place? What kind of system allows casteist perpetrators to survive and gain powerful positions in academia?
Indian academia is overwhelmingly casteist because it is overrepresented by dominant castes, who openly practise caste-based discrimination in an environment that has no safeguards for Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) academics. Institutes need to assess attitudes on caste while hiring and promoting academics, which can be achieved through interviews undertaken by permanent Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) committees. If an academic has a history of, or predisposition to, caste-based discrimination, they should be eliminated or agree to attend six-month caste-based counselling and be re-evaluated by the committee before being incorporated.
DBA academics can be protected by DBAs
A petition by the doctoral research scholars of HSS, IIT Delhi moved the Ministry of Education to launch a ‘mission mode’ in September 2021 to fill the vacancies reserved for DBA academics. However, with institutes for higher education now scurrying to hire DBA academics, they run the risk of engineering optics and forgetting about representation. In a panel discussion about casteism in urban spaces organised by the Board of Student Publications, IIT Delhi, Dalit writer and academic Divya Malhari outlined the need for having DBA academics on campus, who alone can understand the myriad ways in which DBA students face caste-based discrimination and can empathise with them.
The Bahujan academic with the alias ‘Buffalo Intellectual’ asks, “Even as Deepa’s victory is celebrated, the unfathomable question everyone will be grappling with is, what happens to her career now? Will she ever get a job?” Hence, institutes need a powerful and protective mechanism operated by the DBA community that can secure the welfare of such academics on campus.
For the dominant castes, the world progresses with each day bringing a new set of possibilities. For the DBA community, each day is a nauseating repetition of the past millennia — the same discrimination, the same atrocities, the same harassment. Deepa Mohanan’s case is curious because it breaks the brackets of time. Now, and in the future, we need wider solidarity that can appreciate the brave visibility of Mohanan and create conditions to make visible many DBA scholars like her, who silently suffer passive and aggressive caste-based discrimination at the hands of Savarna faculty that roam fearlessly in the absence of punitive and reparative structures.