Higher education in India is designed in a manner that exacerbates tensions of class and caste

Protest in Guwahati

Excerpts from the paper “An ethnography of caste and class at an Indian university: creating capital”, by Gaurav J Pathania and William G Tierney, research scholars with the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA:

Despite having outlawed the caste system and the concept of untouchability in 1947, caste identity remains a cornerstone of social, political and economic life in India. Like other social institutions, educational institutions are the reflection of caste prejudices and discrimination. The recent inclusion of lower castes through the reservation system (affirmative action) has changed the nature of higher education.

An ethnographic account of a university campus and students’ perceptions about caste issues suggest that the structure of higher education in India is designed in a manner that exacerbates, instead of ameliorates, tensions of class and caste.

We chose an Indian university which enjoys a high placement in academic rankings. Spread across 69 acres, the campus is full of greenery and magnificent boulders, surrounded by other colleges, and located near an upscale shopping area. The university provides dormitories for 300 of the 500 students, as well as residential quarters for faculty members and non-teaching staff. The campus consists of a range of faculties from the social sciences to natural sciences, and also offers masters and doctoral programmes. Students have shown very little interest in political and/or union elections, and the institution, as a whole, is politically inactive.

In-depth, open-ended recorded interviews, three times a week between the period of December 2015–May 2016, by spending approximately 20 h a week on campus, in dorm rooms, in the cafeteria, watching television in the common room, and participating in annual celebrations, were conducted both in English and Hindi. Apart from 50 students, 3 hostel wardens, 2 resident tutors and 5 professors were also interviewed to understand the campus culture. Male researchers in India have a difficult, if not impossible, time interviewing young women in their dorm rooms or even on campus. The result is that this is an all-male sample.

Caste as ascribed status

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.”

We also find that 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’.

Coming from a casteless, tribal society in Northeast India, Sibo – a short, athletic student – tried to understand ‘mainland’ India’s caste system when he came to Delhi. ‘Actually, I have no idea about how to explain caste’. He compares it with slavery, ‘which was traditionally practiced in their tribe in earlier times that created a hierarchy among tribal societies’. Sibo shares his encounter with caste in the hostel:

“Once I asked one of my hostel mates who is a Brahmin and wears a ‘sacred’ thread around his body. I asked, ‘What is sacred about it?’ And he gave me a whole lecture on Hinduism, but I could not understand how human beings in Hindu society are treated as Untouchables and polluted, but a thread and animals are pure and sacred.”

Sibo thinks that ‘mainland India is still stuck in the past’ and is ‘shocked to hear sometimes that draconian practices such as honour killings and caste atrocities are still rampant in Indian society’.

The interrelationship of caste and class

Caste and class become complex categories when they intersect. How do we understand these as cultural capital generating categories in our everyday life? On campus, everyday life is all about spending time with friends. Class is generally analysed in terms of material things.

The very first impression about someone’s class is informed by his or her clothing, and the way he speaks English or Hindi. Niraj, a Dalit, believes that ‘class is more important than caste, because if you have money, then you can do anything’. However, Niraj’s experience indicates that there is an intangible element of class which acts as a glass boundary or ceiling. He explains further:

“To have a girlfriend, one has to have a [motor] bike, phone, laptop. After having these three things, my life has changed drastically. Girls started coming to me, and I got a chance to talk to them. I used to drive them on my bike. But they maintained a distance from me because I am not from their class.”

Niraj’s father was a peon (a low-ranking worker) in a government school and passed away when Niraj was in college. The family suffered economically after his father’s death. Out of fifteen Dalit students we interviewed, three have economically-weak backgrounds whose father had ‘fourth class’ jobs, such as peon, guard and attendant. The other 12 appear to have equal economic status as their upper caste peers. Out of 10 ST students, nine belong to the middle class, while the other student is from a wealthy family, as his father was a senior bureaucrat.

The policy of reservation has created a ‘class’ within castes. All student respondents (100%), whether they were from upper castes or SC/ST/OBC, expressed the opinion that the reservation system should be based on an economic basis. Raj, an upper caste student, articulates the following:

“It makes me angry to see rich SC/ST people getting the benefit of reservation. Tell me if they were capable of being meritorious, then in the past 69 years, did they top any exam? Show me any SC/ST who could become CEO or any company or scientist in any government organisation. It is the reservation system which is pushing our country backward.”

Raj believes that the ‘reservation is a mentality that limits your ability and struggle just to get the minimum, not the maximum’. Deepak, a Rajput (Kshatriya) student from Bihar who was recently offered a job in a large company, believes that the ‘reservation is producing corrupt and incapable people in our society. I have created a Facebook page for an anti-reservation group. My future plan is to fight against reservation and make people aware about this disease’.

Like Raj, all upper caste respondents feel that the reservation should be on an economic basis and should not be given to wealthy lower castes. Abhishek, a tall, thin student from a Brahmin middle class family, expresses his opinion on SC/ST reservation, stating,

“My mother used to tell us that this is a wheel-of-time. We had ruled and discriminated lower castes for a very long time; now it is their turn and we have to suffer. But the wheel-of-time shall move in our favour soon.”

Abhishek, like others, also shows a sympathetic attitude towards lower caste students. He thinks that only ‘well-off and greedy’ lower castes are benefitting from reservation. Shiva, a mathematics student, makes the point that ‘rural India and urban India are two different worlds. When we talk about caste, we generally come and take a particular stand but we ignore rural India in this process. Our perspective is built on urban based realities’. Shiva’s observation is based on his diverse rural experience. He comments that ‘the situation of my village’s Dalits will never change as the benefits of reservation will never reach them’. According to him, the reservation system is strengthening an already-established class.


Upper caste students evoke caste in two different ways: (1) through criticising the reservation system, and (2) through discussing the ‘hereditary traits’ and ‘behaviour’ of lower caste students. Recall how Abhishek and Raj related the nation’s backwardness to the reservation system, insofar as they believe that ‘reservation is a mindset’. Their argument favours the notion of capability and efficiency, which is generally used to counter reservations for lower castes. Students develop pro or anti-reservation sentiments through their experiences with their friends and peer groups. For those who are anti-reservation, everyday language is part of a broader outlook which opposes the reservation system but not the caste system.

Friendship on campus occurs within the structure of caste. The following quotes made by upper caste respondents explain their friendship with lower castes: ‘it is OK to have friendship with them’; ‘although he is OBC, we made him our representative’; and ‘they show their true colours in the end’. Habitus in the form of campus life has the possibility to transform thinking, yet the data suggests that any act of friendship by an upper caste student to a lower caste student is seen as an ‘act of charity’ or ‘sympathy’, rather than pure friendship. Therefore, changes in mindsets may be interpreted as social change, yet bringing about ‘structural change’ is far more elusive.

Recall Niraj, whose father was a peon in the education department. He did not receive guidance in pursuing an education, and had to rely on others for advice and direction. Consider Pawan, who is a Brahmin and third generation learner, and who boldly justifies the caste system. Pawan has caste capital, accumulated through three generations, whereas first generation learners struggle to accumulate cultural capital through education. What is special about this capital accumulation is that it varies according to caste. When upper caste students join such elite institutions of higher education, they find it easy to assimilate because they have the cultural capital that the institution seeks and rewards; in effect, they are in symmetry with one another. The cultural capital from lower castes, however, does not offer enough tools for individuals to understand or navigate the culture of an elite institution. This issue lengthens their assimilation period and negatively impacts their chances at personal and academic success.

The idea of ‘purity’ as the cornerstone of the caste system is expressed in terms of genetics and the consumption of particular foods. North-East Indian students (with the exception of the state of Assam) are culturally non-vegetarian. It is not easy for students from this region to adapt to a North Indian vegetarian diet. On campus, the majority of the upper caste students have never tried non-vegetarian food in their lives, due to their strict vegetarian family culture. These students also do not smoke or drink alcohol. The resulting assumption is that culture inhibits, rather than promotes, change. However, this is less an account of social change than of the continuity of historical hegemonic and traditional privileges which is part of caste (not class) culture.

During our campus observations, whenever respondents talked about reserved categories, the argument was generally centred on the idea of merit. As a result, the Dalit student often develops an inferiority complex and becomes an introvert. Thus, in the arena of higher education, reservation and caste are so entangled that it is not easy to see them as separate entities. Most of the respondents think only about reservation and its consequences and tend to ignore caste realities. In conversation, they often did not mention caste categories by name. Instead of saying ‘SC’, ‘ST’ or ‘OBC’ they would refer to them ‘reservation wale’ or ‘quota wale’ (those who benefit from reservations or quotas).

*Read full paper HERE 

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