Deferred Question of Educational Justice? Unveiling the Brahminic Insouciance towards Dalits’ Education


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The social worlds of mentor and mentee structure the power via so-called modernized educational institutions. The traditional knowledge system was also based on the power and hierarchy of caste. Though public educational institutions are valorized for its power to overcome caste-based conflict and education (Beteille 2006:174), the contradicting forms of powers related to caste and education function in two ways.

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Questions of mentor and mentee in India cannot be extricated from the political and social developments. In order to understand these debates, the first part of this article explores those vexing dimensions of social and political mobilization that determine the diverse and unequal forms of educational ideologies, structures and practices related to Dalits. The second part investigates the impossibilities and possibilities related to Dalit reading of the quandaries connected to mentor and mentee. Broadly, it examines the social realms of  students and faculty members from Dalit community in the context of the debates on mentoring. This article is based on the experiences of some of the students and teachers from Dalit community.


Dalits and the Caste based worlds of Education

The social worlds of mentor and mentee structure the power via so-called modernized educational institutions. The traditional knowledge system was also based on the power and hierarchy of caste. Though public educational institutions are valorized for its power to overcome caste-based conflict and education (Beteille 2006:174), the contradicting forms of powers related to caste and education function in two ways. Firstly, privileged teachers from upper castes/dominant communities restructure the curriculum and teaching according to the interests of the students from hegemonic castes (Singh 2021). They are aware of the deprived background of the students. It is a conscious attempt that is grounded in caste and power to alienate the students from weaker sections. Problems of Dalits who have entered into the field of post-independent Indian education scenario need to be specified to understand the complex nature of existence and social locations. On the one hand, Dalit teachers are discriminated by the upper- caste-non-dalit students (Ovichegan 2015:79-80). Dalit teachers, for upper caste students and teachers, are those who avail the reservation and therefore lack teaching skills. Dalit teachers too face various forms of psychological harassment. On the other hand, Dalit students have to face similar experiences of caste discrimination related to reservation. However, suicides of Dalit students are challenging the credentials of so-called modern, educational spaces (Senthil Solidarity Committee 2008). Rohit Vemula committed suicide due to the caste bias inherent in the university (Farooq 2016). Payal Tadvi’s suicide demonstrates how caste discrimination still exists in the field of medical education (Shantha 2020). There are exceptional teachers who are sympathetic towards the issues faced by Dalit students and teachers. Nevertheless, the so-called progressive academics are able to perform their act of protest without genuinely questioning the politics of casteism. Dalit-student and teachers’ activism is critical to the various forms of caste bias and discriminations in the universities. The public university is gradually transforming as a democratic space and also as a threat to holders of power (Deshpande 2016). Questions of caste are still not seriously addressed in class-based student and teacher activism, teacher’s organizations etc. (Pathania 2020: 536). Thus, Dalit students and teachers have to face the double discrimination of the public educational institutions. These institutions are undermining the reservation policies of Dalit students through the introduction of controversial reservation for economically weaker sections. Dalit candidates suffer due to the lack of vacancies. They are rejected in the open positions. It is a sort of unwritten law that Dalit students only apply to reserved jobs for scheduled castes. Administrative systems are manipulated by dominant caste employees to not fill reserved quotas (Jogdand, cited in Ovichegan 2015:163).


Dalit students are excluded from teaching positions in the private institutions due to their lack of dominant caste connections. The term ‘(lack of) quality’ is used to justify such casteist exclusion. On the other hand, those elite-education experts who criticize the neoliberal, private education in India also work in private educational institutions. This interesting migration of the progressive academics with their archetypal-class enemies/reactionary academics (or with those rightwing, conservative teachers who justify the privatization of education) towards private educational institutions also shows the bizarre educational-ethical crisis in India. This peculiar exodus is being justified by the elite academicians themselves through their convoluted articulations. Distinctions between the public and private institutions are erased by equating both as zones of critical thought and enquiry (Baviskar 2021).


Therefore, political institutions in the neoliberal era are weakening public institutions and strengthening the vicious circle of private institutions. The nexus between the dominant caste, market and state determines the direction and nature of education. Through establishing the private institutions, these political elites are successful in appeasing the interests of dominant sections-castes and the market. Private universities are projected as liberal dens with elitism and high fee structure (Mishra 2021). These transformations take place in a period in which public institutions are criticized as places of seditious interventions by the orthodox-majoritarian political forces, and dominant right-wing Hindu ideology is being reproduced through private institutions (Gill and Gurparkash 2020) Dalit students and faculty members hardly exist in the anti-dalit/reservation approach based privatized, educational institutions. Generally, there are teachers with upper caste/non-dalit background in public educational institutions who do not want to mentor the dalit students especially at the research levels. Dalit students and teachers who are conscious of their rights are not able to expose such discrimination due to the power of the casteist academicians, administration and related academic and administrative networks. Therefore, these issues are not discussed in the typical, status-quoist research on education. When it comes to caste and gender relations, Dalit girl students have to face casteist, sexist discrimination in the campus from non-Dalit students/teachers. Dalit girls who face sexual discrimination are sidelined in a patriarchal, casteist academic system. Dalit trans students are discriminated in the homophobic and caste-based educational systems (Khokar 2021). Even at the post graduate levels, there are instances of Dalit students being discouraged to do dissertation by the teachers from dominant castes. It seems that they are doing it to discourage Dalit students developing expertise and skills related to research. Often Dalit students complain in their personal conversations with friends that teachers mock them by asking whether they studied at English medium schools or they can speak and write in English, etc. There are also instances of upper caste/elite teachers from the minority communities asking Dalit students similar questions. At the same time, remedial teaching for Dalit students is projected as a means to tackle the educational issues of Dalit students. However, Dalit students are aware that it is just an eye wash to evade their real issues related to education. Dalit students are thus excluded from different research openings/jobs saying that they are not competent enough to indulge in sophisticated educational activities. Dalit activists and students who write on educational issues of Dalit students are usually dismissed as pamphleteering without academic rigor. There are so called sensible academicians who include such kind of writings to diversify their outdated syllabus in order to show that they are conscious of the subordination of Dalit students. At the same time, they often remain insensible to the everyday academic struggles and problems of the Dalit students. As discussed earlier, these issues are hardly noticed by the public. Dalit teachers are forced to take voluntary retirement due to existing horrendous forms of caste discrimination. However, such cases go unnoticed because they are not speaking it out due to the fear that they may lose further opportunities. Life worlds of Dalit academicians and students therefore unveil the impossibilities that challenge simplified construction of the power relations between mentor and mentee in typical, value neutral way. Deliberations on these forms of struggling lives of Dalit academics and students need to be understood differently than that of the typical way of looking the academic world(s) in homogenous fashion. Dalit students and teachers who have to seek legal remedies are also worried about the consequences. They argue that even after seeking legal aid, they have to return to the same, inhuman, hierarchical world of academia. Bureaucratic-academic nexus also knows how to scuttle the political interventions of powerless Dalits. The post-Lyngdoh Committee scenario has suppressed the dissent of the marginalized students who enter lately into academic institutions. The restrictions on the contestable age of the candidates in the student polls imposed by the Committee block the entry of Dalit students into student councils and other decision making bodies, who often enter higher educational institutions late due to their underprivileged background and lack of various capitals. Thus they are sidelined from the spaces of campus politics and democracy. These are some examples of the structural hindrances to Dalits’ education/teaching.


Teachers from higher strata of the casteist society thus approach students with their preconceived notions. A Dalit student, who is from comparative well off background is asked about the details of her/his family. At the same time, this student and the one from the lower-class background are made to remember their Dalit background. Both students are usually criticized as not proficient in academic writing and therefore are excluded from different opportunities related to academics. At the same time, students from privileged caste-class backgrounds are promoted irrespective of their mediocre capabilities. In most of the cases, Dalit students are excluded through giving lesser grades. Faculty members who write on caste-related issues show their indifference by discouraging Dalit students in the case of job applications, recommendation letters, scholarships etc.


Dominant political parties and their teachers and students protect those who do caste discrimination. They suppress the legal interventions of Dalit teachers/students through manipulating administrative-legal institutions. For instance, Dalit student, Deepa P. Mohanan from Kerala, the most literate state in India, had to fight against the vicious-academic and political circles for her rights (Indian Express, 07th November, 2021). Dalit students are preferring legal education irrespective of their discrimination in respective private/public legal institutions. The protective role of law and policy is challenged in the lives of Dalit students and it further hampers their further educational pursuits (Shaikh 2021). They have realized that dominant castes are detrimental to the educational aspirations of their community. This is applicable to the Dalit teachers and students from the developed and underdeveloped states in India. The progressive and reactionary-teacher/student associations are equally wicked in their casteist practices against Dalits in campus. A Dalit student’s protest in Kerala has even culminated in burning his Ph.D. thesis as a revolt against corrupted faculty recruitment (Zulaikha 2021).


Dalit students and faculties across various disciplines are facing different types of isolation. Is it possible to address the question of mentor and mentee in context of the Dalits in Indian higher education? How many Dalit students and Dalit faculty members are able to leave such educational institutions with casteist-psychological aberrations? Do they have any other alternatives? Whether the   so called South Asian academic diasporic community is free from similar biases towards Dalit students? Do Dalits have the capital to start their own educational institutions? Whether post-Independent, Indian higher education thus subverts the Dalit aspirations related to education and democracy or not?


Mentoring in the Age of Brahminic-Neoliberal-Educational Ideologies and Practices?

Mentor-mentee relations become complicated in the era of university during the pandemic. Unequal knowledge power relations in the offline to that of online mode becomes worse for the students who do not have access to internet and related devices. Mentoring for the marginalized students is caught in the aforementioned continuities and discontinuities. Mentors and mentees from the marginalized sections therefore may become cynical to such insensitive educational systems based on dominant caste ideologies and interests. There is a popular understanding that romanticizes the agency of the autodidacts and argues that irrespective of mentoring one can secure educational qualifications, knowledge etc. However, it may be difficult for the oppressed sections to overcome vicious sites of knowledge-power. As a mode to challenge the existing, hegemonic sections’ monopoly over the education systems, mentor and mentees from the suppressed classes-castes have to depart from the existing methodologies and curriculum by developing critiques based on their knowledge and experience. Anti-caste movements across India explored the possibilities to create their own spaces of education. Pedagogies that are rooted in the political and social firmaments of the oppressed of course challenged the dominant approaches to different disciplines. However, the current generation that carries forward that legacy have to strengthen their critique to the privatized and exclusionary end of the public educational approaches. Mentoring therefore has the historical challenge to generate epistemological break-through to subvert the established canons, genres, etc. There are critiques to the nature of discipline itself (Guru 2002). Socially regulated economy privileges skills over knowledge as well. Those communities who are sidelined from the core of knowledge production have to re-read the existing rationale of privileged groups’ homogenous, educational policy regime. Exclusion and inclusion in the Indian higher education persists in caste ridden society (Neelakandan and Smita 2012). Moral education of the oppressed have to shift away from the reductionist-totalitarian-religious cum methodological world of powerful groups to reflect on the futures of inclusive education.



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Dr Sanil M Neelakandan is an independent researcher from New Delhi, India. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”


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