On Misreading the Dalit Critique of University Spaces

The article revisits Nivedita Menon's article, "From Feminazi to Savarna Rape Apologist in 24 hours" in order to foreground the relevance of caste in the discourse of harassment in academic spaces. It argues that rendering caste irrelevant feeds into everyday casteism that makes the Savarna an anonymous/casteless subject and the Dalit, a bearer of caste.

After the initial condemnation and sharp criticism of the list which named and accused some of the luminaries of South Asian academia, there has been a steady flow of assertive and enthusiastic articles by women students, activists and academicians. Many of them have offered accounts and testimonies of a long condoned and pervasive culture of sexual harassment of female and gender non-conforming students in academic institutions. This is an unprecedented moment of liberation in the lives of many women students, as they are finally able to break the silence around sexism and misogyny, a moment, no doubt made possible by the notorious list. However, a certain strand of the debate, which ironically dominated the debate at the moment of the publication of the list, has now taken a back seat. I am talking about the question of the relevance of caste and its unexamined presence/absence in the discourse of harassment, a question that got misrecognised as a “Dalit versus Savarna feminists” problem. This article traces an instance of this misrecognition in the article, “From Feminazi to Savarna Rape Apologist in 24 hours” (Menon 2017), which displaces and misreads the Dalit critique of the university space.

Consider these two excerpts from Menon’s article: 

(I)t is obvious that academic circles in India are small and of course many of us have worked with, collaborated professionally, are in the same institution as, or are close to some of the men on the List. It was so blindingly obvious and such public knowledge that we did not think some sort of disclosure was necessary [emphasis mine]. Because our effort was not to protect the men, but to protect and strengthen the procedures that will help to bring about justice and change the sexist (casteist/English hegemonic/classist) atmosphere of the academy.

The point is this – how is our caste identity relevant in this instance? [emphasis mine] We have since learnt that the administrator and originator of the List, Raya Sarkar, is Dalit, but we did not know this when we wrote the Statement. Even if we did know, we would not have thought it relevant unless all the complainants in the 81 cases were known to be Dalit Bahujan. (Menon 2017)


I was struck by the contradictions, especially from an academician whose scholarship remains indispensable to any student, myself included, to understand the dynamics of contemporary Indian society and politics. Contemporary scholarship, be it feminism, critical race studies, postcolonial studies or political science have all been enriched by the field of cultural studies, which interrogates everyday culture, that is, it makes the normal and the regular a compulsory starting point of critique. Much of the current South Asian studies, to which Menon has contributed as a feminist political scientist, owes its existence to the study of culture. 

However, much to my dismay, this intellectual commitment to the examination of the culture that is closest to oneself and one’s profession is somehow abandoned in Menon’s response to the list and its supporters. Her article agrees that the academia is sexist, casteist, classist, maintains the hegemony of English and states that they have made an effort to change this. If that is indeed the situation, does it not require the disclosure and the critique of the “smallness” of the space, and the relationships it spawns, even more urgently? Instead, the article asks, how whether the caste identity of the writers of the statement is relevant in this situation. Sadly, it does not wait for an answer and indicts the overwhelming discourse that has allegedly led to the emergence of “Savarna” as an easy term of abuse. It fails to perceive the politics that has appropriated the term savarna, a term that denoted superiority and virtue, and which has converted it into a target of critique and hence a term of abuse. What is worse, it implies that their caste, that is, the caste of the feminists and the men on the list is irrelevant for the discussion of harassment, even if the academic space (to which these authors owe their existence), by their own acknowledgment, is casteist and classist. As a result it avoids asking, “Why is the academic space small? And who gets to inhabit that space?” 

The Invisible Harassment of the Living, Breathing Dalit

I will not answer the question here. I would simply take a moment to recall three names—Chuni Kotal , Rohith Vemula, J Muthukrishnan. The names of these three students, an Adivasi woman student who studied in Vidyasagar University, a Dalit male student from Hyderabad Central University and a Dalit male student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), are etched in public memory because of their suicides. While these short lives and their deaths offer evidence of identity-based violence against minority students by modern institutions, they also reveal the equally violent nature of other institutions of recognition: the media and the academic interpretative communities that cannot accept anything short of death as evidence of castebased violence. 

It is as if their dead bodies, their suicide letters, their parents’ trauma and inconsolable grief, the financial–material breakdown of their households that were dependent on these students’ education, and the insensitive circulation of these images via social media, were needed for the recognition of the inequality of the society we lived in. This recognition was ironically effected by the death of the subject of recognition. Their death was a condition for their lives to be recognised as violated and sufferable. 

Their death was also a moment of liberation, because it enabled many Dalit students to prove that they are being marginalised in spaces that are modern and enlightened. However, the irony of this regime of recognition is being borne by those who face silent and insidious humiliation, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students who are treated as absent, non-existent beings in classrooms, canteens or conference rooms. It is being borne by the reserved category teachers who have to prove their efficiency everyday wherein any (mis)conduct is immediately identified with their status as a “quota” teacher. As a tool of humiliation, harassment is potent because there is no way to prove it, legitimate because Dalit Bahujan Adivasi students are already marked as an illegitimate presence in a casteist culture which is hostile to the reservation system. To be more precise, Dalit Bahujan Adivasi students are marked twice. Once as special bodies that are different from the general castes. Secondly, as illegitimate bodies with “undue privilege.” 

Hostility to reservation system is but a mark of a deep-seated reluctance of the Hindu mind to share a common space with the Avarnas. At once pervasive and normalised, its debilitating effect on the Dalit’s mind only gets talked about in personal conversations, within the Dalit family, for instance, but can never be communicable publicly. These everyday instances of humiliation do not make their way to the public space or public memory. These experiences of humiliation do not necessitate an interrogation of the casteist nature of academic space. Until the Dalit or the Adivasi commits suicide, unless there is a corpse of a Dalit, the caste of the Savarna remains irrelevant and unexamined. One can ask, why should this happen? The answer is not difficult to guess. As long as Dalit students are alive, inhabitants of the same space, their presence is too real, too close to be sealed off from one’s self and objectified in writings and studies. 

Additionally, to acknowledge the relevance of caste when the Dalit is alive is too risky, for this requires giving an account of oneself, examining one’s disposition, the spaces and people that have constituted you, and defined your identity. It can also require the added labour of unlearning certain virtues and giving up certain claims and privileges. For instance, the simplest, everyday practices of communication between the Savarna teachers and the Dalit students in the university space are often characterised with unrecognised power dynamic and prejudice; incidents that cannot be mapped easily. This is not because they are mystical but because their normalised status makes them unquestionable. Pointing out these problems only generates quick dismissal or greater hostility. As these are borne by living, breathing individuals, they cannot be memorialised and estranged from the shared space very easily, as one would do to a person who has committed suicide. It is difficult to write them over, or objectify them in studies and research, as they are a little too intimate, a little too alive. Therefore, a nonchalant silence is the safest response! This contributes to a regime of recognition that makes the death of the Dalit student, a condition for its response. Anything short of death is not considered worthy of critique or attention.

Sexual Harassment and Caste-based Harassment 

It is also important to consider the relationship between sexual harassment and caste–based harassment. What unites them is their effect on the victims, ranging from exclusion, discrimination, to self-blaming. Unlike an act of physical violence, these instances cannot be proved by any means. The effect is psychological and may not find expression in either medical or sociolegal vocabulary, however violent they are. The difference between sexual harassment and caste harassment is also important. 

Homosociability and heteropatriarchal relationships determine the modes of intimacy which are prevalent in the academic space and determine practices of mentorship, intellectual camaraderie and influence. Moreover, the desirability of the body is an important factor in determining inclusions and exclusions. How welcome is a short man, or a woman with dark skin, in these networks? How welcome is an androgynous body in these spaces? What role does endogamy play here, not only in regulating bodies but also in generating values and value systems? Which bodies get marked as abnormal, ugly or monstrous[1] ?  How do we even conceive of embodiment in a space that is criss-crossed by the codes of caste, gender, sexuality and race? 

Certain narratives of Dalit–Bahujan women point at some of the multiple and often conflicting experiences of exclusion, thereby complicating the questions of accountability, responsibility and redress. For instance, with the changing demography of academic spaces, there has been a rise of more visible and assertive OBC and Dalit students. But, even this change has been marked by patriarchal culture, with OBC and Dalit women often bearing the burden of this change. Hostile and punitive nature of Brahminical academia often demands assertive, self-righteous and militant personality from Dalit-Bahujan students. But the same “strong and resistant persona” can be counter–productive and in effect exclusionary when it takes recourse to idioms, dispositions and rules of bonding that are patriarchal and sexist. For instance, the Dalit–Bahujan man can play with the figure of the “angry/militant/revolutionary male” and gain legitimacy and acceptance in a culture that valorises men with “strong personality.” The same can make the Dalit–Bahujan woman a greater outcaste, desexualised and perhaps, a little too queer for these spaces.[2] This, in turn has its resonance in building friendships or feminist solidarities across caste. 

How to Shift Focus from the Marked to the Unmarked Body

To begin with, the situation demands a shift of focus from the marked/named body to the unmarked one. Much has been said about the embodied experience of the Avarnas who bear the brunt of humiliation. What is often forgotten is that humiliation is often an embodied  response[3], involving more than one person and one identity. In a heterogeneous space like the public university, bodies that have so far remained detached, segmented and classified into distinct spaces are forced to sit together, study together and also compete with each other. Such distribution of bodies, voices and thoughts creates a possibility of the breakdown of the order that is maintained in Savarna homes or families. As a result, the savarna body is often too conscious of its neighbour in these instances. It is solely due to this insecurity, which stems from the Savarna students’ inability to identify the borders set by their families, that Dalit–Adivasi students often face comments like, “Oh! You don’t look like one!” 
Moreover, in most institutions general category students and reserved category students have different social groups. Often, Savarna teachers follow this practice unproblematically. For instance, a Botany honors student at The Ballygunge Science College, Kolkata had told me that in the laboratory, the general category students are always allowed to work before the reserved category students. The result is that the latter have to wait till the former group finishes their work. This is similar to racial segregation where Blacks had to make way for white people in every public space in the United States. But here, it is too normal a habit to be paid any attention. Using Menon’s words, this is perhaps too “obvious” a practice to be problematised or even explored! One can argue that Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), being a more progressive space with more visible Dalit–Bahujan students, would not tolerate such habits. However, the logic of this practice, so far as it privileges the “general” students and delegitimises the “reserved” students is not restricted to spaces like Ballygunge College alone.

Violence of Brahminical Aesthetics

 “How is our caste identity relevant in this instance?.” To this question, I would reply: “It is relevant as long as you write from spaces that continue to normalise and misrecognise harassment of students based on their locations.” My concern is not as much about your Savarna location as it is about the possibility of enlarging the frame of recognition that institutions have built and legitimised over the years. Currently, it is too narrow. It demands a lot from Dalits, women, Adivasis and Muslims. It has no room for affirmation of our lives, it constantly demands that our bodies, lives; work and pleasure be mapped, measured and accounted for. To use a jargon, it is trapped in a juridical concept of the subject that constantly demands evidence. It is also trapped in an aesthetics that privileges certain bodies, certain language and certain dispositions. Of course, all of this is not new. Dalit littérateurs have time and again foregrounded the violence of Brahminical aesthetics. Unfortunately, their challenge to Brahminical aesthetics got lost in the hurried appropriation of their works as empirical information for sociological knowledge production. This latter problem has been discussed by Gopal Guru in his article “How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?” (2002) The fact that students can be harassed with impunity needs to be recognised and not dismissed as something that is obvious. Moreover, the “smallness of academic” circles is too circumspect a phrase for denoting a space that often works like a fortress, with a regiment of gatekeepers, personal favourites and sovereigns. One can detect this in the employment of faculties or research assistants, in editorial collectives, in the selection of speakers for panels in conferences, etc.

Incidentally, Menon states that she would have been ready to acknowledge herself as a savarna feminist if the list had spoken about the concerns of DBA women only. Why does she choose to deny it now? Since most of the survivors are not DBA women, caste disappears from the scenario! Now, harassment is only about “male privilege” and “male impunity.” Let’s dramatise the scene for the purpose of understanding. 

(X is sitting in a room.) 
X is caste-less. 
DBA enters. 
X is Savarna now. 
DBA leaves.
X is caste-less, once again. 

(What can be concluded from the logic?)

X is not DBA.
DBA is not X.
DBA is never caste-less.

X may or may not be caste-less, depending on the presence/absence of the DBA person.

This elucidation reveals the implicit logic of the argument in Menon’s article. It treats the Savarna and the DBA as discrete entities and disregards the relationship between the two. It also grants anonymity to the savarna; an anonymity that a DBA person never enjoys. As this logic disregards the asymmetry of this relationship, it fails to question the exclusionary logic of the space. Perhaps, X can claim anonymity/caste-lessness only through an expulsion of the DBA from the common space. To rephrase it, perhaps certain men can claim caste-lessness because the space they occupy is too homogeneous, too exclusionary. Perhaps it is the very exclusion of DBAs that makes the claim of irrelevance of caste on part of the Savarnas possible. 

Making caste irrelevant is doubly injurious in any such discussion of harassment in university spaces. It not only accepts the logic of exclusion but also puts the onus of bearing the caste on the DBA person. One of the major achievements of the list is that it removes this veil and privilege of anonymity that savarna men have enjoyed as public intellectuals, scholars, revolutionaries and critics. The list makes their caste too obvious and their kinship too hard to ignore. Is this why it was so unpalatable, ugly and distasteful? Many activists have argued that the list evades the hard work of building institutions and strengthening due processes. Their question is often summed up with a phrase like, “Now what?” I have no specific answer to questions that seek solutions and results. Perhaps the institutionalised ones need to acknowledge their regimes of exclusion and everyday violence before they make such grandiloquent claims. Maybe the first step towards this can consist of giving up the claim of sublimated, casteless, anonymous identity. This can be an act of solidarity with those who bear the burden of their names and surnames constantly.


This article is a part of the Special Feature Power and Relationships in Academia. To read other articles in this feature, click here.

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