A few weeks ago, Shelja Sen, writer and co-founder of Children First, wrote an excellent article on bringing social justice to schools and how “the transformative power of teachers” could magically change children’s lives. It prompted me to reflect on how colleges in Mumbai deal with concerns regarding social justice; what values do they impart to their students in this regard? After all, college education plays an important part in shaping values among students because they are at the threshold of adulthood. Even as students bring in their own values to the classroom that they have learnt in their families, schools, neighbourhoods and so on, in my experience, they are also adult enough to be sensitive to and respond to different opinions and perceptions on social issues.
Let us look at how colleges respond to two major, deep-rooted and persistent sources of inequality in Indian society: the social inequality built into the Hindu society through the caste system (In theory, other religions like Islam, Christianity and Sikhism profess social equality; however, in practice, in India, caste inequality remains a fact of life across different faiths) and the patriarchal foundation of an Indian family.
Let me illustrate. A large number of colleges in Mumbai are “minority” colleges. These colleges are run by private charitable trusts — many of them are financially aided by the state Government — and 50% seats in admission are reserved for students from the designated minority; in the remaining half, many other quotas are applied. As a result, the so-called open category seats are a fraction of total seats. However, the key feature of these minority-run colleges is a near absence of reservation for SC/ST students. Similarly, these colleges are largely exempt from reservation for SC/ST communities in their faculty.
Further, there are no systematic attempts, either at college level or by the university, to sensitise students and teachers towards the dilemmas and complexity of caste discrimination and caste privilege. As a result, 75 years after Independence, Dr B R Ambedkar remains primarily a Dalit leader. Ambedkar Jayanti, on Dec 6, largely remains an event of Dalits, by Dalits, for Dalits. In fact, often, a deep resentment surfaces every year among many upper caste teachers during this time about how so many Dalits from faraway places come to “our” Mumbai and make it messy/dirty/whatever. Even in non-minority colleges which implement the reservation policy, a very large number of teachers and students (from upper castes) have a distinct, “natural” bias against Dalits and almost always talk about them as somehow “intruding into our academic spaces” and, of course, how they take seats away from “meritorious” (upper caste) students. Staff rooms too are often sharply divided between “reserved category” teachers and others, on the same grounds.
It is not that colleges are against reservations in principle. In minority colleges, 50% seats are reserved for students from the minority community leading to (in some colleges) a wide disparity between minority and non-minority students. The hostility towards the recently introduced additional 10% EWS reservation has been distinctly muted. On the contrary, many have hailed it as the “future way to go forward” in place of caste-based reservations. It makes one realise that in reality, the daily, routine, social inter-mixing of students from different castes is seen as the core disturbing issue because it might threaten the entrenched caste hierarchy and caste inequality.
Then, there is the issue of discrimination against women. Gender disparity at all levels has been a very visible issue in the recent decades on account of strong and vocal national and international feminist movements. While in Mumbai, most colleges already have a large number of girl students and women teachers, in other places, in recent years, institutional attempts are being made to increase the representation of girls and women among students and the faculty in higher educational institutions. In any case, colleges and other institutions are relatively less hostile to reservations for women to promote gender parity.
Further, to sensitise students and faculty towards the larger, entrenched discrimination against women and specifically to deal with the rising cases of sexual harassment of (young) girls in colleges and universities, mandated by the UGC and the University of Mumbai, a women’s development cell has been set up in most colleges in the last few years. And yet, these cells have not been very successful in effectively addressing these issues affecting (young) women in colleges. The problem is that even as colleges hold seminars and workshops to encourage women’s empowerment, they hesitate to question the structures and practices which continue to privilege male entitlement. They rarely question as to why work in the family and childcare continue to be the prime (if not sole) responsibility of women. Similarly, when they talk to young girls about sexual harassment, the focus often is on how the girls themselves are (and should be) responsible for their own safety! How the girls should behave and dress “properly”. And often, teachers suggest that students should not get involved in sexual relationships in the first place! “Boys will be boys” continues to dominate the sexual dynamics and perceptions.
Beyond the gender binary, when it comes to trans students and/or students with gender fluidity, most college teachers do not even have the basic clarity about such students, their rights and dignity. In such a scenario, bringing social justice to colleges remains a difficult, largely, unfulfilled task.
Vrijendra taught in a Mumbai college for more than 30 years, and has been associated with democratic rights groups in the city