Caste – A̶ ̶C̶l̶a̶s̶s̶ ̶D̶i̶s̶c̶u̶s̶s̶i̶o̶n̶?̶ A Dreary Reality
This article has been written by A. Jahnavi (Batch of 2024). The illustration is by Akshit Singla (Batch of 2024)
“It is for the majority to realise its duty not to discriminate against minorities. Whether the minorities will continue or vanish must depend upon the habit of majority. The moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist. They will vanish, but that depends entirely upon the attitude of the majority.” – Dr. B.R Ambedkar, Constitutional Assembly Debates, on 24.08.1949, Part I.
When we think of law schools, we imagine these equal spaces, these learning temples of law which will provide each student with equal opportunities and equal treatment; which will teach and uphold the constitutional principles of liberty, thought, free speech and equality – irrespective of caste. But the reality of these imaginations hits hard when one enters these spaces through reservation. The traditional and conservative mentality of considering temples as becoming polluted when a Dalit enters them is still being carried out in a modern form in these learning temples of law. When a student enters these spaces through reservation, they are considered to be invading this sacred space, only meant for the upper castes, on their ‘merit’. My experiences in Law School and throughout my school life have been a constant battle with the self-doubt and insecurities imposed on me via such hostile environments.
During my school days, I was blind to the caste divide and to oppression based on caste lines. Confined to my small friend group, no one knew what caste I belonged to because my caste is not explicit from my name (A. Jahnavi). But this protective bubble of my hidden identity burst the day my teacher, in an open class, asked me about my caste identity to mark it on the register. Until then, for me, caste identity only mattered during conversations around ‘reservations’ because I was only privy to the classic “reservation achi ta seat milijiba bina kasta kariki” discussions. (English translation of Odia: if you have a reservation, you can get a seat without having to work hard.) Hence, that day, scared and ashamed, I reluctantly answered my class teacher and told her that I belonged to the Scheduled Caste category. I saw my “friends” exchange certain looks which made me uncomfortable but I brushed it under the rug because they were my friends – it wouldn’t matter to them, right? Wrong!
The discrimination that followed after my identity was revealed is still imprinted in my mind. In a matter of days, in one of my Political Science classes, a few students opposed reservation for being against ‘merit’. I defended reservation, arguing that, “there is a certain social capital that comes into play and the inequality arising from caste cannot be solved merely by having economic capital.” The teacher dismissed this discussion because she wanted to finish the syllabus ASAP, sigh! Hence, this discussion continued during the lunch break, and my friends blatantly opposed my views. I, even though I was hegemonized, continue to defend myself because they were my friends and I considered that a safe space. To my utter shock, a close friend shut me down by saying “I, a Brahmin won’t hear the opinions of someone like you, how dare you question me?” I was shaken to my core. At that moment, I couldn’t answer her and henceforth, I couldn’t answer anyone. I knew she was wrong, but I just couldn’t defend myself. When I shared my experience with others, they would just ask me to let it go. “It’s not worth it,” they would say.
How can I let it go when something so fundamental about me, my identity, is being attacked and questioned? But I did, not because it didn’t bother me and watered my insecurities, but because I had lost all my confidence.
My parents are Telugu medium students from government schools. My father subsequently got into college and got a job due to sports quota and reservation, of course, which allowed us to have a stable income. So, I was aware that I might be better off than many in terms of having economic capital. However, I was also aware that even with economic capital, my social capital and circumstances did not allow me to grow to my full potential. We still lived in a community where everything was divided based on social identity. Different lanes were allotted along caste lines. This limited one’s interaction to people belonging to the same caste as you. School, a place where one should be allowed to mingle with different people was no longer a safe space for me as I had started to question everything about myself.
Later on, even though I was appearing for CLAT, I was confident that I would not make it to any tier one law school, let alone NLS. But, as the results started coming in, I became more hopeful that maybe NLS was not impossible, and it wasn’t. My mother was elated when we checked my CLAT results. I was too – until the self-doubt kicked in. I thought, “I don’t deserve this.” I couldn’t share this with my mother because I didn’t want her to worry. I didn’t share the news with others because of the fear of being judged for making it into NLS through reservation. Only I knew the amount of hard work I had put in to get into NLS and yet, I just couldn’t be happy.
I had the money to afford coaching. I had the money which provided me with a comfortable environment (home) where I could prepare for my entrance. Did this mean I was not eligible for reservation? Was I scamming the system? Now, after reading Manisha di’s article, I know I deserve to be happy, as happy as any other general category student.
I entered NLS with the insecurity of not deserving to be here. This further deepened on my first day of college.
I remember sitting with some of my batchmates. One of them announced that a new student had come to the hostel, and this was a snippet from the consequent conversation: “Oh that’s great, let’s go meet her, what’s her name? Her name is X.” Then they proceeded to check the list of students and found that she came in through reservation. The excitement vanished and people settled down, not wanting to greet her anymore. (“OMG, I will just go hide in the room. I should have never come here.”) For someone on the outside, this would have been an insignificant or forgettable incident, but for someone like me, this was a defining moment that further pushed me into a corner and aggravated my insecurities and self-doubt. “Of course, I don’t deserve to be here. These are the brightest minds in India, I can never match their level of intelligence and smartness.”
Moreover, the first trimester is never easy (obviously). Battling homesickness, insecurities, self-doubt, academic rigour, and the pressure of mingling and making friends took a toll on me. In this moment of self-doubt, thankfully, I was introduced to SPAC and the Bahujan group which provided me with a lot of solace. I started meeting people who shared similar doubts and insecurities. I felt a sense of belonging and I was finally happy. I remember a senior asking me in my SPAC interview whether SPAC had helped anyone and whether it was worth having such a committee. I was surprised by the question and confidently replied that even if it had helped a single person, it was worth it. I know this because I realise how tremendously helpful it was for me. I was familiar with the torment of feeling alienated but people from the Bahujan community made me feel like I belonged to NLS and for that I am ever so grateful.
When things started to settle down a little, another incident took place that challenged the comfort I had begun to feel in NLS. During class, a discussion on merit began, during which ‘our’ merit was being questioned. When some batchmates (fellow Bahujans) raised their voices and started to engage in a constructive discussion, they were stopped from doing so by the professor due to the paucity of time. Surprisingly, this behaviour of the professor was later commended and appreciated by some of my batchmates who lauded him for not digressing and hijacking the more “important and relevant discussions”. I found this very problematic and I was shaken to the core. I, who had never had the confidence to write a message on the batch group, gathered all my courage and put up a message expressing my pain and hurt due to these comments made by my fellow batchmates, hoping that someone would validate this pain and understand the gravity of such comments.
My opinion was called “rude” and “uncalled for” and my behaviour was considered to be “holier than thou” by certain upper caste students who had social capital and influential personalities. This was subsequently “+1ed” by many other students. I could not hold back my tears. My entire life flashed before me and I started to question everything: my self-worth, friendships, and intelligence. Again. I had faced a similar situation at school which shut me down and here I was, yet again, required to justify my right to be where I was, having to justify my identity, having to justify my merit. Yet again, the people I considered friends were engaging in gaslighting and terming our protests to such blatant casteism as mob lynching.
All this gathered-up self-confidence vanished in such a hostile and casteist environment. I succumbed to my insecurities and self-doubt and apologised. I did not realise then that these types of remarks are a classic example of ‘tone policing’. I wasn’t aware of something called tone policing in the first place until I experienced it myself. How could I be, when the knowledge and education that I was given ensured that minorities do not gain access to the theories which make them aware of their oppression and uplift them?
After this incident, I am always left questioning myself before expressing my opinions in any space. I get filled with anxiety and panic whenever I am asked to express my opinion. Even though only one person came forward and apologised after realising their mistake, the impact and trauma it has left on me cannot be undone.
At each and every point in time when a reserved category student in these spaces is made to feel inferior, is forced to doubt themselves – it leads them to exclude themselves from social circles and class participation which, in turn, creates such a hostile space that the student is silenced into survival. It is because of certain actions and comments that so many of our opinions have gone unheard and so many of our ideas have been killed by self-doubt.
The Savarna community at NLS, even after being aware (but dismissive) of the struggles and experiences that reservation students face in college, time and again creates such an environment which hinders our education, our learning, and our progress. It is time that the student body self-reflects on their words, actions, and oppression which inflict a tremendous amount of mental pressure on some Bahujan students. The focus needs to shift from the Bahujan community trying to empower themselves to the student body creating a safer space to provide an opportunity for the expression of liberal thoughts, speech, and equality – irrespective of caste.
While dealing with and discussing sensitive matters like caste which mark all of us, I request the student body to please keep in mind that their words and actions can have grave consequences on someone’s psyche, especially if they have constantly battled with the reality of living with a historically oppressed identity.