In the first trimester of Law School, I was crying on a friend’s shoulder in an autorickshaw, disappointed at my average performance in the university debate rounds. As somebody who believed myself to be a good debater, it was crushing to be shown my place in the university pool. My friend’s reaction though took me of guard. Concerned about me, and wanting to reassure me, he asked me why I kept feeling the need to prove I was good at extra-curricular activities. Was it because I had entered Law School through the SC quota, and I felt the need to prove I was as good as everyone else? He said, “Don’t worry, everyone already thinks you’re one of us. You don’t have to prove anything.” It was meant to restore my confidence. He was trying to be a good friend. It felt like a hard kick in the gut. My AIR had happened to be enough to qualify sans the quota as well. Therefore, I was not an usurper. The implication was that I ‘deserved’ to be at NLS. The implication was that others didn’t by virtue of getting in through the quota. That was my first real encounter with caste at Law School. That if your diction and pop culture qualified, you were one of us. It is one of the sharpest memories of my life. Not just what was said, but what was unsaid, and how it made me feel.
I am extremely aware of the position of privilege I enjoy. I went to an Anglican Christian school for three years which is among the top 5 in the country, was born to two highly educated parents, and have never faced economic hardship in my life. However, I am fully aware that skipping one generation, my ancestors weren’t allowed to sit inside a classroom, their shadows would pollute people if they walked past and that they worked with their hands and animal hide. I am aware that my mother belonging to an upper caste had to face tremendous social sanction and repercussions for marrying outside her caste twenty five years ago, a decision which many people in our generation still don’t have the courage to take. The caste system excluded people from the lower caste from gaining access to Sanskrit, Hindu education at top schools fifty years ago. Christian missionaries willingly took in everyone if you were willing to learn English and say ‘Amen.’ Then, English became the language of the market. My father went to a Christian school. And I benefitted in a twisted way from this discrimination. As somebody who sang in a Christian church choir as a child, I never fully understood how discrimination worked, until my grandmother read Ambedkar to me. And I didn’t appreciate its power till I met people in Law School.
At the outset I want to say that of all the things I am grateful for, having studied at NLS is among the highest. I had the opportunity to study under some amazing professors, develop useful skills, and forge friendships that will last forever. It taught me to question everything and express myself unabashedly. The place will always be a part of who I am which is why I feel that it is important that I am able to critique it with as much honesty as possible. Anything else would do the institute disservice.
As the supposedly top Law School in the country, an institute which has produced some fantastic human rights lawyers, and created an amazing vision to improve the quality of legal representation in India, as a student body at large, we’re a disproportionately apolitical bunch. Yes, the Law and Society Committee and the Legal Services Clinic and now IDIA have always gone out of their way to ensure that questions of inclusion, diversity, religion and politics are brought to the mainstream but there’s always an alternative vibe to it. I was particularly impressed by LawSoc’s activity for incoming freshers about recognising their privilege. We say that NLS allows everyone a space to pursue what they want. Yes, the spaces exist. However which spaces are the most crowded provide an interesting insight into our conscience. We need to stop pretending that people go to Allen and Overy partner talks and a screening of Jai Bhim in similar numbers. We are content to politicise mess coupons, but turn a blind eye to who is picking up our trash.
One of my immediate seniors was unpopular because he would keep discussing questions of caste on 19(1)(A), on ugstudents, and through his committee. I know several people who thought his activism was shrill, and unnecessary because caste was not an issue that affected NLS. Of course, NLS was that temple of education which honours merit over anything else; of students who got in on merit and worked hard to win the moots, debates, scholarships and jobs. So on several occasions, I have witnessed certain classmates emanate a “what else do you expect?” schadenfreude-like attitude when people who got in on the quotas have failed courses, lost years. As if, that is what happens when you don’t deserve to be here. That never happened when somebody who from the general category fell behind or failed courses. A junior, who was unaware of my caste status, once vociferously told me once that the best way to reign in NLS’ falling standards was to abolish the quota system, those people are bringing us down, that’s why our India Today ranking was in jeopardy. Another junior tried to explain to his classmates how we should advocate positive eugenics because let’s face it certain castes were just more intelligent and capable than others. An extremely successful senior told people over the mess table how she would “never date somebody who was an SC.”
To be fair, I haven’t encountered a single instant wherein any member of the faculty or administration has even exerted the tiniest of micro-aggressions towards students belonging to any of the backward classes, and in that, NLS might be a free space. However, as a student body, I don’t think we’re as guiltless as we would like to believe in our Chetta debates on organic change. The first instance when I felt that students were genuinely squirming about their privilege and thinking about caste was during P. Sainath’s single credit course on development, dissent and the media. His classes, I believe, genuinely forced people to think about law and society outside the sanitized and academic distance we are used to. One of the juniors did insist to Mr. Sainath in earnest after class that the caste system was useful as it helped organise society. But, P. Sainath is a celebrated, sophisticated English journalist who is listened to. Would people still have been willing to listen if the same questions had been asked by a Dalit journalist with vernacular experiences? It’s something to think about.
The advocates of meritocracy across the world have a very identical criticism of affirmative action. This is true for many white US students I have spoken to regarding African-American representation at US universities. They will always point out how certain people who have availed of the reservation system are extremely rich, drive around in fancy cars and don’t need the quota at all and that the criterion for affirmative action should be financial alone. We know there’s a very similar attitude at NLS as well. Pointing out individual examples as though caste has ceased to exist and it’s just another scam being pulled by the powerful. I agree that lack of opportunity due to dearth of funds from your primary schooling immediately excludes you from access to higher education and a chance to better your economic prospects. However, reducing it to this discussion assumes that one can buy themselves out of caste. That might be a gift of a capitalist economy which cares about your output and contribution to the economy over your lineage. However, the manner in which caste pervades our personal lives, the people who we make friends with, the people we marry, the people we idolise or give recognition to. Much of our lean-in feminism focusing on climbing the corporate ladder, does so while standing on the shoulders of domestic help from lower castes, perpetuating the same system of oppression with no attempts at reconciling these contradictions.
I am not qualified or intelligent enough to come up with a solution to our dilemma when it comes to representation in higher education. As campuses across the country begin to finally have conversations about caste following the horrific suicide of Rohith Vemula, a tragedy we all must take blame for as a system, it could be a moment for our alma mater to reflect seriously or it could be another missed opportunity like hundreds before it. The point of this piece is to highlight, from my personal observation that caste pervades the NLS student body more than we are willing to admit. First, by our silences and lack of engagement with the issue of caste within NLS and outside it, because this engagement offers no rewards or connections which can be vetted on your master CV. Second, because through our casual comments on meritocracy and hard work, we try to delegitimize and demoralise the presence of a section of the student body which is also legally entitled to the same educational experience as everyone else.