Caste on the campus: An interview with filmmaker Somnath Waghmare

The latest example of casteism on campus is the viral videos from IIT Kharagpur.
Somnath Waghmare in a black shirt standing on stairs
Somnath Waghmare in a black shirt standing on stairs
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An educational institution should ideally be a place that nurtures minds, particularly those of the young who spend their formative years on campus. But the way an upper caste person experiences college life is markedly different from how someone from a marginalised group does so. From being taunted for availing constitutionally guaranteed reservations to casteist abuse and other forms of discrimination, like deliberately being marked down, many students from oppressed communities face an uphill battle in educational institutions.

The latest example is the viral videos from IIT Kharagpur, where a Humanities professor, Seema Singh, can be heard hurling abuses at the class that she was teaching — English for students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Calling the students 'bloody b****rds', to claiming that they were powerless to stop her, the professor's casteist abuse has led to outrage on social media. This is certainly not the first such instance.

Filmmaker and PhD scholar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai) Somnath Waghmare, known for his documentary Battle of Bhima Koregaon, speaks to TNM about caste discrimination in educational institutions and what can be done about it.

The IIT Kharagpur incident has led to a lot of anger on social media. From the responses, it is clear that such behaviour is not new. Yet, people often react with disbelief when caste discrimination in premier institutes is highlighted. Why do you think this is?

I have studied in a village, town, then Pune and Mumbai. My observation is that most teachers/professors belong to a dominant caste. These castes cry about reservation, but almost every sector in India is dominated by them. Even in some liberal campuses in India, there is no Dalit or Adivasi faculty. If there was some representation from these groups, Dalit, Adivasi or OBC students may have some support.

I'm not saying that every dominant or savarna caste professor is casteist. There are good people among them too. But they are very few. The majority of professors practise caste in class. Even at the entry level, in admissions, they deliberately give low marks to SC/ST students in interviews and exams if they identify that the person is from such a community. They will give high marks to savarna students. This is happening across the country, whether that's JNU or IIT, and it has been happening for a long time.

You have been tweeting about your own experiences as a student in a hostile environment at Pune University. Do you feel things have changed at all?

Nowadays there is a support system, student organisations and SC/ST teachers' organisations. But speaking of IIT, only IIT Bombay and IIT Madras have active Ambedkarite groups. If there are no anti-caste or at least Left circles, these issues happen all the more on such campuses. I'm not saying that if there's an Ambedkarite circle, such issues don't take place, but most times, if they are present, savarna professors and students have some fear about being casteist.

I feel the student community is speaking up more but I don't see larger changes happening. If there are 10 professors and nine are savarna, one is Dalit or Adivasi, they are the majority. In private universities, there is no reservation, while in government institutes, about half the students are from SC/ST/OBC communities. But the fact is that the majority of the General Category students in government institutes come from Brahmin castes, and among the faculty too, they are in the majority. The SC/ST/OBC students are divided and don't come from a single caste. These students who come from the dominant caste have an English-speaking background, family privilege and caste network. They act like they have now become progressive, but that's not true. Discrimination continues to happen. One student who passed out of TISS — I think she's Thakur or Brahmin — even wrote an article on India Today about 'reverse casteism' on campus. They feel a Dalit or Adivasi student talking about their rights is reverse casteism.

In this case, the students showed the courage to record the class and call out their professor. But that may not always happen. What can be done to ensure support for students from marginalised sections on campus?

My experience of studying in a town and in Pune University was horrible. But TISS is among the few liberal spaces. There is a student group and there's diversity among teachers also. There are Adivasi teachers, Muslim teachers, OBC teachers, feminist at least they support you. There's also an SC/ST cell that any student with a grievance can approach.

When I was in Pune University, there was no such cell and it was possible for a Brahmin professor to openly ask who all came in through reservation. The institute has to take the initiative to set up such a cell. It functions like the Internal Committee (IC) for sexual harassment. We have a student representative for the SC/ST cell and it's not only for discrimination. The cell also offers support for scholarship or any other kind of help. What should an institution's responsibility be when such an incident happens? They should take action. What happens in the majority of cases is that when a committee is formed to investigate a complaint, they put a savarna professor on the committee and s/he will favour the student of their caste. At least they should form a committee where only SC/ST students and professors are there.

Both sensitisation and diversity among the teaching staff are necessary to prevent such incidents.

Like you said, the teaching staff in such institutions tends to be overwhelmingly savarna. How does this lack of inclusion reflect on how they view students?

Back then, I always used to fear — what will he [the savarna professor] do to me? I don't care about it now, but it was always a burden to work with a savarna professor and attend his/her class. This oppression is historical and they are the majority in power. Most Dalit students have internal discussions on savarna professors and whether they can work with them...if they are people who will not discriminate against them. Only then do they go ahead.

This interview was first published in Here's the thing, an exclusive newsletter for TNM Members.

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