Even as caste discrimination continues to plague Indian higher education, debate about the best way to tackle the issue in universities abroad — and even over its very existence — continues to polarise academia.
India’s caste system traditionally grouped people by four major castes based on their ancestry, with the lowest class, Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — traditionally barred from many types of work. In 1947, negative discrimination based on caste became illegal, but decades later, Dalits still struggle to access education and jobs.
At Indian universities, it is not uncommon for them to encounter discrimination. The 2016 suicide of a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad provoked public outcry, casting a spotlight on the issue. Abroad too, there continue to be reports of prejudice targeted at lower caste Indian students. In January, the California State University system, covering 23 public institutions, specifically included caste in its non-discrimination policies.
While caste discrimination is more ubiquitous and explicit in India, it also exists overseas, says Suraj Yengde, a Dalit activist and a research associate in Harvard University’s department of African and African American studies. “People might not call you names, but the things they might do are tantamount to caste discrimination,” he told Times Higher Education. Dr. Yengde recounted his experience of a higher caste Indian colleague who would “casually” make jokes and “infantilise” him, even though he would “pretend it was not intentional”. Still, the colleague would invite him to social events to “show me off as a token to other people,” he recalls.
Saikat Majumdar, professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, says that abroad and at home, institutions must call out and “shame” such behaviour. “It’s bad enough that caste discrimination is practised in poor and remote villages in India, but it is absolutely appalling that wealthier, supposedly more ‘enlightened’ Indians who go abroad for higher studies also possess these prejudices in the UK,” he says, welcoming steps taken by universities abroad to address such discrimination.
“Westerners have no idea of the immense degree to which bastions of knowledge, education, and white-collar labour have been historically monopolised by upper caste Hindus. It is worse than the old boys’ network in academic and professional circles in the UK,” he says.
While several scholars told THE that such discrimination is often subtle when encountered abroad, there is still disagreement over how widespread it is — and whether it is an issue at all. “We don’t see ‘caste-based’ discrimination at UK universities,” says Kishore Dattu, a national committee member of the country’s Indian National Students Association. “Since caste discrimination does not exist in UK universities, introducing caste-based legislation based on misinterpreted and misunderstood caste structures in the West will only inflame ruptures and dampen brotherhood among Indian students,” he warns.