“Overwhelming And Taxing”: Navigating Academia As A Dalit Woman


By Priyanka Bhalshankar 

Jaya (name changed) 24, a Dalit woman from Mumbai, is studying Masters in Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS). She is a first-generation learner in a family with three generations working as safai karamcharis. Jaya has supported her education on her own by doing part-time jobs since the age of 17.

“I decided to study Social work so that I can help my community, contribute to their development and well-being”, she says. In 2018, TISS withdrew the fee waivers for SC/ST students. This, she says, has made completing her education difficult. “My family income is not enough to make ends meet. So I can not ask them to support my education. I wanted to study full time, but with no fee waiver, I have to continue working part-time. It is overwhelming and taxing.”

There are many girls like Jaya from Dalit-Adivasi communities, who are struggling to get a decent education so they can uplift their families and communities. Higher education for them is the only way to achieve any social mobility.

TISS is not the only institution to withdraw fee waivers. Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) also withdrew the waivers but reinstated it when a large number of SC/ST students protested. Recently, the IITs have been asking to be exempted from implementing reservations in faculty recruitment. With demands like this, SC/ST communities may soon have no representation in these so-called ‘Institutes of Eminence’. If these public-funded universities will not support the SC/ST communities, there is no question of the private colleges/universities.

The All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19, provides data on the Gross Enrollment Ratio or GER. It shows that the top universities do not fulfil even the mandated enrollment quota (22.5 % – 15% of SC and 7.5% of ST). The SC students constitute 14.8% of the total enrollment ratio while the ST students are only 5.5%.  There are only 10% of Dalit students enrolled in PhD programs.

The representation of SC/ST communities as faculty members in higher education institutions is also very meagre. 57% of the faculty members belong to the general category. The representation of Dalit and Adivasis is 8.8% and 2.4% respectively.

These numbers paint a gloomy picture of the under-representation of Dalits and Adivasi communities in academia. But they too do not provide a complete picture. Dalit-Adivasis are always considered one big homogenous group, which is far from reality. They constitute numerous castes, tribes, sub-castes, and sub-tribes. There are no studies, surveys, or documentation providing data on the representation of these castes, sub-castes, tribes, and sub-tribes. There is not even enough data on the representation of SC/ST women in academia.

Dalit-Adivasi women end up being pushed to the bottom of the ‘social hierarchy’. They have had to struggle to make space in a so-called upper-caste (UC) and male-dominated world.

The intersectionality of gender and caste makes them doubly vulnerable to exploitation and isolation.

Dr Shailaja Paik, in her book ‘Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination’, explains that throughout the 20th century the Dalit women have had to face the double burden of caste and gender. She writes how they have negotiated upper-caste-dominated education landscapes. She points out the inherent limitations of the feminist movements and the mainstream Dalit-Adivasi movements.

The feminist movement clubs women as a homogenous group with no distinctions. And the Dalit movement puts all Dalit people together, completely disregarding women. “All women are Dalit”, they say but that only reinforces the inability to identify the caste and gender injustices that the Dalit-Adivasi women are subjected to. Could this reluctance of the feminist and Dalit movements to acknowledge and accept the distinct identity of Dalit-Adivasi women, be one of the reasons for their under-representation in academia? Not just academia, but there are very few to no SC/ST women in media, judiciary, bureaucracy, or corporate sectors. What could be the other reasons for this?

The AISHE does a good job in establishing the fact that the Dalit-Adivasi women are grossly under-represented in higher education. But it does not explain any reasons for this under-representation.

Systemic Discrimination As Part Of Education Experience Of Students From Dalit-Bahujan Communities

Dr Paik explores some of the causes in her book. Systemic discrimination plays a big part in marginalizing the Dalit-Adivasi women. Right from schools, they face discrimination. Sit at the back in the classrooms, clean the school toilets, they are even expected to help their parents in practices like manual scavenging around the village. The teachers carry a negative attitude towards SC/ST students. They are at times abused and humiliated by the upper-caste teachers. This wrecks their self-esteem and confidence forcing them to drop out.

Dalit women face challenges inside the educational institutions as well as on their way to them. We have all read news reports of Dalit girls being raped and murdered on their way to school or college. Or about Dr Payal Tadvi who was pushed to take her life because of the discrimination she faced on account of her caste.

In higher education institutions, they fall victim to gaslighting by their UC counterparts or faculty members. In addition, they also have to deal with toxic masculinity and patriarchy from fellow male members of their own community. Dr Paik also points out that Dalit women are denied their agency and their sexuality is frowned upon both outside the house as well as inside.

Dalit-Adivasi women receive little to no encouragement or any kind of support from home. They are time and again subjected to predatory overtures, sexual violence, insults, and humiliations outside their homes. All this makes them the most marginalized even among the marginalized sections.

The state as such also does not come to the rescue of the Dalit-Adivasi women. The withdrawal of fee waivers, the delays in granting scholarships and fellowships, corruption in financial assistance schemes do not help is alleviating their miseries. The state does not venture to find out the causes of the under-representation of SC/ST women in academia and other sectors. Or to even initiate mitigation measures to change the dismal state of affairs.

The committees set up to study the issues of Dalit-Adivasi communities at times have no representation from these communities. The schemes and yojanas that are put in place suffer from implementation inefficiencies.

The goal of inclusion will never be achieved without the emancipation of Dalit-Adivasi women. Their development cannot be measured with the same yardstick as that for other vulnerable sections. Nor can you stand at the top of the social hierarchical pyramid and assure them of their progress. A bottom-up approach needs to be adopted.

We must ensure that reservations are efficiently implemented, scholarships and fellowships granted on time. The SC/ST women must have a voice of their own. They do not need tokenism but empowerment in letter and spirit. And that empowerment will come only with the annihilation of caste. We must abolish the rudimentary, discriminatory, and evil notions of the caste system.

“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”, said Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. And therefore we must ensure that the Dalit-Adivasi women progress in the true sense. It is through their progress that society’s progress must be measured.

Credit: Youthkiawaaz


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