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Smartness, brilliance, humbleness are all caste traits, say top Indian varsity students

Counterview Desk
A research paper by two research scholars with the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA, Gaurav J Pathania and William G Tierney, based on campus interviews with students of a high-profile educational institute, suggests how deep caste prejudices and discrimination are rooted among the educated youth.
The researchers in their paper, titled “An Ethnography of Caste and Class at an Indian University”, choose an Indian university, which “enjoys a high placement in academic rankings”, where upper caste students evoke caste in two different ways -- through criticising the reservation system, and through discussing the ‘hereditary traits’ and ‘behaviour’ of lower caste students.
Refusing to name the university, the paper – which is based on “open-ended recorded interviews” for six months in dorm rooms, in the cafeteria, watching television in the common room, and participating in annual celebrations – interviews 50 male students on a campus spread across 69 acres, full of greenery and magnificent boulders, surrounded by other colleges, and located near an upscale shopping area.

Excerpts from the section “Caste as Ascribed Status”, which provides a peep into what students think:

As I knock on Akhil’s door, I find him studying at his desk. He turns his head and mutters, ‘Yes, please, come in’. Confidently, he introduces himself as ‘Akhil Bhargwa’ (all names are pseudonyms), emphasising his surname which denotes a Brahmin caste. A writing board hanging on the wall has his schedule written on it, as well as a quote stating that ‘Target is just 180 days away from you’, referring to the time left for a competitive examination.
Akhil is surrounded by books and keeps rearranging his notes while he talks. While talking about his hometown and his family, he recalls with pride his grandfather who served as a post-master. His father has a Master’s degree in Law (LLM), and his mother has an MA. Akhil is tall and thin with a deep voice and animated facial expressions. He explains, ‘Some of my friends don’t want to be friends with lower castes as they don’t trust these people’.
Akhil’s closest friend is Rocky, an OBC student completing an MA in History. As I approach Rocky’s door that morning, I find it ajar. I peep inside and find him praying. Like him, many students have a small temple in their rooms. Rocky worships twice a day and goes to temple every Tuesday. He chants the word ‘Om’ while he does Yoga every morning for two hours. His friends jokingly call him Yoga Sultan (King of Yoga).
Rocky is popular. One of his friends, Atul, comments, ‘Rocky is a good guy, though he is OBC. But still we love him, and we made him our hostel representative’. During a later meeting with Rocky’s next door neighbour, Vijay, who is upper caste, we slowly come to discuss how lower castes perform in class.
He says, ‘In my class, none of the SC and ST guys completed their degree without failing once or twice, but none of the upper caste students failed in any exam’. We ask, ‘Why do SC/STs fail even after getting the same education with you?’ He confidently replies, ‘They don’t know how to struggle for their career’.
The majority of upper caste respondents find performance linked to one’s caste, which in turn is ‘genetic’ and can be ‘traced through DNA’ as offered in the opening example. Accordingly, traits such as ‘smartness’, ‘brilliance’ and ‘humbleness’ all are particular caste traits.
The notion of the purity and impurity of blood is a strong one, as Akhil claims: ‘Like values and culture, genes are transferred through family. SC/ST and even OBC people don’t have those values in their family because their hormones are different’.
Such is the belief that ‘hormones’ and ‘genes’ ‘reproduce’ characteristics of a particular caste, and that one’s skin colour is also linked to one’s caste status. Ronny, a short, chubby upper caste student proudly introduces himself as Kshatriya (a warrior caste) in a very convincing way, points to himself, and explains the performance of lower castes:
“See, my colour is a little dark. If I marry a white [fair skinned] lady, there is no guarantee that my offspring will be white, but yes, they will be fairer than me. Then the next generation will be fairer than the previous one. In the same way, we cannot expect Dalit students to think like us. It will take many generations for them to reach to our level.”
Virtually every upper caste student shows a sympathetic attitude towards Dalits, but they are against the reservation system. Vijay, an upper caste Rajput student who studies electronics and recently got a job offer from a multi-national company, shows affection for the lower castes. ‘I like my electronics teacher, though he is Dalit, but he knows his subject’. He further reveals:
“I am from an upper caste, but we are not very well off. I remember in my childhood I have seen my grandparents were not allowing lower castes to enter the house. They used to give them drinking water from a distance. But my parents got an education, and now they let them sit next to them. When it will be my time, I will be teaching my kids to marry inter-caste.”
Vijay sounds progressive, but he never did anything against his family’s will and followed his family’s values of twice-born (upper) castes. He believes that a good student should follow a pure and restrained life.
Higher education is a sophisticated arena where caste and other forms of discrimination are often hidden. A Dalit student, Raghu, finds it more of a systemic problem:“When I go to pay my fee and I run into my friends, I purposely try to avoid that place. If they see me paying half of what they pay, it makes them angry, and sometimes out of frustration, they make some funny comments.”
As a lower caste, Raghu qualifies for a discount in university fees due to the reservation policy, which has become a bone of contention for those who feel students from reserved categories do not deserve a place in the university.
Rajesh, another Dalit student, shares a similar experience: ‘Even after being so long at this campus, I am a little scared to go to receive my scholarship or filling out any form with my friends. I don’t want any person to know about my caste’. He complains how office staff sometimes show little sensitivity about a student’s privacy concerning caste identity: ‘They will shout loudly in front of everyone, asking “Where is your caste certificate?”’
Prem, a Dalit student who is always seen wearing a cap, happily shares that he has ‘1000 friends on Facebook’. He is very active on social media sites and uploads pictures daily:“I used to have a girlfriend, but once she got to know about my caste, her relationship status on Facebook changed to ‘single’. She was hanging out with me but never revealed to her friends that she is hanging out with a Dalit. Later, she found a guy of her own caste and broke up with me immediately.”
Prem laughs, ‘I have around 200 upper caste girls in my friend list, but I am still single. But at least through Facebook I have hopes to get hooked up’. Yet, his WhatsApp status reveals feelings of being an outsider, ‘an alien in the human crowd’.

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