Marginalised & the Young India Fellowship of Ashoka University

The idea of this sociological article is to understand  the group life and social relations of the Young Indian Fellowship (YIF) Cohort 2016. YIF is a year long Post Graduate Diploma Programme in Liberal Studies at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana. Ashoka University is a private university whose founders include big shot businessmen and industrialists who have easy access to the corridors of power in Delhi. YIF is a flagship programme of the university to attract students for its UG courses in the name of providing Ivy League education in India. The University also has further plans of expanding its courses by introducing Masters as well as PhD programmes in the next few years. The admission for the YIF programme is a skewed application form where you are asked to write your extra and co-curricular pursuits (no one gives a damn that these are functions of social and cultural capital) followed by an interview whose panel has just one member, most of the times.

The article will further explore the group involvement and personalized traits of marginalised and stigmatised identities of caste, class and gender in contrast with their privileged counterparts. The article consists of two components. The first is a data driven survey, responded by 86 students, the results of which will help us understand the caste composition, income levels of the family and the consequent cultural capital accumulated over generations by the privileged strata of the society. In the second part, we try to draw patterns and insights into the data along with the discussions we had with 16 students who have filled the survey, as part of ethnographic research. The humanising narratives provided by these students have helped us qualitatively corroborate the numerical data. As someone said, statistics don’t bleed. Subjective consciousness always exists in dialectic with the objective reality.

Human social behavior is shaped by the social relations in which it occurs. In turn social relations are conditioned by the structures within which they are embedded. These different structures and relations to behavioural patterns are the core of this article. We are looking at the structural constraints involved for a student to take part in group interactions and how they dampen his/her efforts because access to ‘space’ comes with privilege. The number of languages you speak, the nuanced accent you speak and the fluent English you speak defines your choice of whom to spend time with, for which ‘personal choice’ is often used as a prop, overlooking the inherent association with the ‘self’ and the marginalisation of the ‘other’.

What do the numbers tell us?

The mean income of the family of a YIF Cohort 2016 is 18.78 Lakhs. More than a fourth of the cohorts, 48 students fall above the mean while 139 of them below the mean. The median of the income of all the families is 9.57 Lakhs. The data is taken from the administration which asked for the same in our application form. This only means that the YIF Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Studies attracts people from the very privileged and elite sections of the society while the farmers on whose land the University was built are awaiting compensation since 2002 in the world’s largest democracy. The extremely high fee (6.75 lakhs), racing upwards every year (+1 Lakh), keeps this fellowship out of reach for the majority of the toiling masses of the country. Though the administration claims to give scholarships on the basis of need and follow an Ivy League mechanism, the ground story is altogether different. Many of the students, in personal conversations have expressed displeasure at how the huge debts they have taken for admission into YIF is tying their hands and forcing them to work against pursuing dreams of academia. YIF surely seems to imitate what the Ivy League of the US does: burdening the students with huge loans which take away the creativity, imagination and independence of the student.

83.8 % of the respondents spent most of their life in a city or a metropolitan city. Only 2.3% of the respondents are the first in their family to be educated. A little over 60% of the respondents are Upper Caste Hindus while 14% are OBC. The Sikhs, Upper Caste Muslims and Upper Caste Christians make upto 6% of the respondents. The Adivasis, Dalit Muslims, Dalit Christians, Phyisically and Mentally handicapped have no representation while the Dalits constitute a meager 3.5%. Since this is a random sample, the above data also speaks of the skewed caste and religious composition of the YIF Cohort 2016. Diversity, the darling word of administration, hardly exists in reality. The Upper caste Hindus constitute a lion’s share way above their proportion outside and the Dalits, Bahujans, Advasis, Muslims, Minorities, Physically and Mentally Handicapped are condemned to the margins, as they have always been for centuries. Four students said that they are either not aware of their caste or that they are not comfortable with it.  In conversations with these people, we figured out that they are caste blind or caste-insensitive; their privilege often masked when they say they are above caste.yif-1

Of the 29 students who are educated more than 4 generations prior to them, 22 of them are Upper Caste Hindus, 2 of them belong to OBC’s and 2 Upper caste Christians. Another three students refused to share their details and when asked the reasons, informed us about their lack of knowledge of their caste or their being uncomfortable about it. Interestingly, the two people who are first generation educated children belong to the Upper Castes. Out of the 12 OBC’s who filled the survey, 9 of them are second generation educated while all the Dalits are second generation educated people in their lineage.yif-2

Of the 10 students who know 5 or more languages, 7 of them are from the Upper Castes while two of the rest three are Upper Caste Christians while the remaining student is an OBC’s. All the four students who know 6 or more languages are upper caste and have travelled across India as part of their parent’s professional commitments. Interestingly, at least one of the parents of all these four upper caste students works in a PSU. This points to how class mobility helps accumulate social and cultural capital.yif-3

All the five students who have spent most of their life in a village, two of them are Dalits, two of them are OBC’s and the remaining student is an Upper Caste Hindu. All of them are second generation educated children.

What do the numbers not tell us?

We had brief discussions with 16 students based on the responses filled in the survey. They were chosen either because of their stigmatised and marginalised identity or because of its privileged counterpart which is the basis for cultural capital and social capital. This cultural and social capital often gives you access to spaces while the lack of the same can negate access to certain spaces. These identities and the cultural and social capital that accompany them, dictates the dynamics of a group life and also personal interactions and conversations.

The conversations which started out to sociologically explore group interactions and personalized traits of stigmatised and marginalised identities invariably led us into the psychological realm. The material conditions we are embedded in and the structures of power we operate in affect our psychological conditions significantly. In some of the deepest and toughest conversations, the students evidently seemed exhausted while sharing their stories of alienation, discrimination and exclusion operated through ways of cultural imperialism, domination and hegemony. The stories about how mental trauma and depression often followed inferiority complex arising out of stigmatised identity and discrimination are scary. The memories of ‘loneliness’, ‘fear’ and ‘panic’ seem to be afresh as most of them hang on to their toughest memories in the wake of their resistance against Brahminical Hinduism. A lot of people including R9 informed us that they use medication to get over the mental stress and illness caused by all the above factors points to the deteriorating mental condition of the students.

 

Income of the family Gender Where did you spend most of your life time in? Which generation educated child are you? How many languages do you know? Caste/Religion
R1 Female Metropolitan City 6th – 10th 3 Upper Caste Hindu
R2 Female Village 2nd 3 Dalit
R3 Female Village 2nd 3 Dalit
R4 Male Metropolitan City 2nd 4 Dalit
R5 Male City 2nd 3 Buddhist
R6 Female Village 2nd 2 OBC Hindu
R7 Female Village 2nd 3 OBC Hindu
R8 Female Metropolitan City 2nd 4 Upper Caste Muslim
R9 Male City 2nd 2 Upper Caste Muslim
R10 Male City 4th 3 I don’t know my caste.
R11 Male Overseas 3rd 4 Not comfortable
R12 Male Metropolitan City 3rd 6 or more Upper Caste Hindu
R13 Male City 4th 3 Not attested to a caste.
R14 Female Town 3rd 6 or more Upper Caste Hindu
R15 Male Village 3rd 2 Upper Caste Hindu
R16 Male City 2nd 2 OBC Muslim
 

 

All the Dalits and OBC’s we spoke to informed us about how they have felt lonely and vulnerable after being culturally dominated over at one point of time or the other in the fellowship. Though all of them denied explicit and overt forms of caste discrimination, jokes and slurs with casteist overtones and superficial forms of discrimination are sometimes part of the discourse in a cohort which is largely caste insensitive and caste blind and dominated by upper-class upper caste students and their festivals, cultures and traditions. In the course of our conversations, we found that most of these students come from progressive families influenced by the Ambedkarite movement who are conscious of their rights. The conversations also led us to believe that it becomes easy to deal with stigmatisation if you are political. R4 explained how he slowly started feeling comfortable once he started engaging with caste and BR Ambedkar. This is a rough patch in his life which he is still going through. He feels that asserting his identity would be his next logical step.

R5 also shares a similar opinion when he speaks about his own experience, “Asserting my identity made things easy for me.” His parents are still part of the Ambedkarite movement and he owes his political consciousness to that of his family. This helped him come into peace with his identity a little early in his life. All the Dalits said that they are always under pressure to perform and prove to their friends and colleagues that they are worthy of this place and that they are ‘meritorious’ too. This, the students accept, arises from the Brahminical propaganda that reservations destroy merit. R4 and R5, because they claim they are political, because they are urban born and because they graduated from premier institutes, they feel they can better transcend social boundaries. R3, R6 and R7 inform us of the constant struggle that is taking place inside their ‘souls’ when they feel left out. R3 and R6, who are not yet comfortable asserting their identity but have recently made peace with it, recount their traumatic experiences of cultural imperialism where they are sometimes looked down upon or dominated against. They argue that this keeps on repeating because they are small town girls who belong to the lower castes whose English is not impeccable unlike the male Upper Caste Hindu Brahmin who knows multiple languages and is atleast 10th generation educated child in his family.

Having spent most of their schooling in their mother tongue in their respective village, R2, R3, R6 and R15 had a tough time overcoming their language boundaries while transitioning from Mother tongue to English. R6 shares her experience about how she doesn’t watch movies and how she can’t be part of any conversation there or how she feels left out when extravagant parties and events are organised. This led most of them either to close up the ‘Self’ as they felt they are being bullied against a culturally dominant ‘Other’. And everything from inferiority complex to loneliness followed. R2 informs us that she has been to the counselor 14 times in the past few days which points to an increasingly dangerous trend of mental illness and trauma on campus.

R16 talks about his experiences about how his critique of all religions but was not received well by the people present, especially the Dean. R16 believes that this probably is because of his Muslim identity where he is perceived as a Muslim criticizing Hinduism. R7 shares her frustration with the fellowship and says with a dejected look that she wants the fellowship to end. R2 who was once vocal about her Dalit identity, felt vulnerable when suddenly everybody around was talking about caste because she felt that her classmates would personify the idea of Dalit into R2. R6 explains how cultural imperialism by the powers-that-be often takes the prop of ‘civilizing’ or ‘more presentable’ forms while trying to subdue or exclude the stigmatised and marginalised identities which are ‘impure’, ‘dirty’ and ‘unhygienic’.

What do we do from now?

The stress levels of the students from the stigmatised and marginalised communities are unbelievably high. The covert ways of discrimination, implicit and superficial forms of cultural hegemony, social ostracisation and cultural imperialism add up to burden the already stigmatised and marginalised identities based on the social structures like caste, gender and class. From the above data and the narratives, we have seen how language, cultural capital, class and caste interlocked together to generate complex forms of dehumanization. Let us be clear that this space, like any other space, is not neutral. Ashoka University runs on finance capital with Brahminical Hindu rules. The only way out of this drudgery of alienation, exclusion and individualisation by cultural forms of hegemony of caste, class and gender is to create systems and collectives which build on solidarity and association.

A counter hegemonic force of the Dalit Bahujan assertion should challenge the dominant Brahminical Hinduism which will democratize the space. An organized movement should be built up which will be a platform of solidarity, cooperation and association. Solidarity is the best anti-dote to individualisation. The very act of being political and asserting the very presence of Dalit-Bahujan-Muslims in a Brahminical-Bourgeise environment is an act of resistance. This politics of solidarity will build a safety valve for the students of the stigmatised and marginalised communities and identities.

The extremely low representation of these stigmatised and marginalised identities is another reason why students from these communities often find no one who can understand them or no professor who he can vent out his anger. Improving the diversity of the campus by implementing reservations mandated by the 93rd and 94th amendment of 2006 will help us serve the cause of social justice better and will also help us in making our University a more inclusive space. The Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim communities are first ostracized by the caste system and are being ostracized by the market now. An SC/ST Cell which is a UGC requirement should be set up by the administration which can take up issues related to caste based discrimination.

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Rahul Maganti Written by:

Rahul Maganti is a freelance journalist based in Vijayawada. He graduated from Ashoka University in June 2016 with a Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Arts. Prior to this, he did his Bachelors in Metallurgical Enginneering and Materials Science from IIT Bombay.

2 Comments

  1. CHAKSHU CHHABRA
    October 2, 2016
    Reply

    “R2 informs us that she has been to the counselor 14 times in the past few days which points to an increasingly dangerous trend of mental illness and trauma on campus.”. Mr Maganti, how are you supporting your claim that there is a causation between R2’s multiple visits to the counselor and the deteriorating mental health of the students due to issues of caste/class discrimination at Ashoka Univeristy’s campus. There appears to be more of a correlation between the two variables rather than causation.

  2. swapnil gedam
    October 2, 2016
    Reply

    simple, significant and nuanced research. unpack and un-bundle many things which are tacit in numbers and narration.

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