Casteism in Indian academia

This paper by Renny Thomas, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science in 2020, is for those who do not believe that Indian academia is steeped in the caste hierarchy. Here I am going to summarise the key take-aways.

Privileged caste academicians repeatedly interpret the progress made by modern science in the light of Vedic scriptures that have, according to them, long documented the same principles and findings.

They propagate casteist behaviour in virtue of them adopting a vegetarian lifestyle because, according to them, that is more “scientific”.

They practice classical forms of music and culture that have traditionally excluded members of other castes and communities. These spaces are gate-kept in subtle ways that continue the traditional forms of exclusion, and current-age practitioners see no fault in that.

They take pride in the fact that they are less interested in commercial ventures that members of other castes take part in, thus portraying a correlation between castes and academia. They repeatedly highlight the poor economic conditions in which members of their castes have grown up.

They take pride in role models belonging to their caste. These role models cement their bias and simultaneously egg them on to be in academia. People of other castes do not have such role models precisely because they are primarily first-generation learners due to historical exclusion.

Biographies and autobiographies of the role models either explicitly claim caste supremacy or completely deny the caste privilege that they have enjoyed, ignoring, for example, untouchability practises they have themselves participated in.

After enjoying the inherent social capitals of networks, access to education, role models, they now actively deny the caste hierarchy existing in academia, even when official data released by themselves lay such caste hierarchies bare.

Instead, they proudly proclaim “passion” and “sacrificial mentality” as essential to their success. Denial of their privileges is the method scientists of privileged castes adopt to gate-keep their privileges.

When it comes to affirmative action, either they fiercely oppose it, or they think it has done more harm than good, or they believe it should be limited, or that is all “identity politics” played by others, in their words, “the common man”.

In summary:

The culture of the Brahmins continues to be the culture of elite Indian Institutions such as IISc and IITs.

So what can be done? As the author writes,

The public should be informed regularly regarding the number of Dalit, Tribal and the OBC scientists that they appoint, and various strategies that they employ to make the scientific and technical education more inclusive.

He adds:

If this debate around the underrepresentation of scientists does not happen, the elite institutes such as IISc and IITs will remain ivory towers and will not be accountable to the public.

I must end this post with an admission:

I have myself believed the caste-less nature of academia when I was an academician, and participated in majoritarian cultural spaces, aka বাঙালি (bāŋāli) rituals, without realising the majoritarian-ness of these claims and spaces.

I am sorry.

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