Teaching Like a Savarna
Most Savarna professors consider themselves above casteism — but tacitly exclude Dalit Bahujan students with abstract theory, alien pedagogy, gatekeeping.
Every month, Prof. Ravikant Kisana (aka Buffalo Intellectual) brings you field notes from Savarna culture.
Some years ago, I met a group of college students from a small Ambedkarite group. Almost all of them were first-generation learners from rural backgrounds and had gotten admission through SC reservations. Foolishly thinking they needed “inspiration,” I began my pretentious discourse on “claiming space” within the college and “owning it.” At the end, one boy shyly asked if I would answer his question. To my surprise, it had nothing to do with my talk. It was a purely academic question. Perplexed, I answered it the best I could. He hung onto every word and then momentarily closed his eyes as though calculating something. When he opened his eyes, he explained with a steely expression that that had been a question from their internal assessment in which he scored 8 out of 20. His Savarna classmate, who had given more or less the same answer, got 15. “What you explained is what I wrote also. Now that I have heard it from a professor like you, I am finally certain that my score was not due to my answer.”
He explained that such discrimination had been very common in his rural school and local institutions, but he was genuinely shocked that this also happened in renowned colleges in big cities.
What was happening here is far more fundamental than the “culture wars” one hears about in the context of US college campuses. Something primal, sitting in plain sight but not being a core discussion on academic culture in India. Was there a sociologically discernible pattern in the rituals of knowledge transfer as they play out in higher-education classrooms across the country? Ultimately, caste mediates the basic philosophical and practical components of student-teacher interactions, the processes of learning, and the very institutional “DNA” of the Indian academic system.
One of the core features of Brahminism is its performance of knowledge supremacy. It is historically a myth that Brahmins have been knowledge producers; instead, their main skill has been “performing” knowledge and validating other groups and social actions. This is replicated rather neatly within the premium higher-education classrooms of today.
Most Indian institutions of learning– schools, colleges, universities, and the innumerable coaching centres for entrance exams – proudly declare their adherence to the “guru–shishya parampara,” or the teacher–student tradition. While the same has many interpretations in different philosophical traditions, the one that has come to largely connote student–teacher relations within the postcolonial Savarna Indian paradigm is predominantly a Brahminical simplification. So what exactly is a “guru” within this context, and what kind of “shishya” do they produce?
The most common story of this tradition is that of Dronacharya and Eklavya from the Mahabharat. Dronacharya, a Brahmin teacher is the guru to all the Pandav and Kaurav royal kin. It is not an educational institution open to all; admission is based on caste-birth and on royal recommendation only. However, Eklavya, a forest-dwelling boy of tribal descent is able to self-study his way to outclassing the guru’s star pupils based just on whatever lessons he has overheard. The guru’s response on discovering this is very revealing. In a very familiar climax of this story, the guru asks for dakshina (fees) from Eklavya, and the student promises to oblige. The fees in question is chopping off his right thumb and maiming himself to allow the guru’s favorite student, Arjun, to emerge as the “best” archer. In effect, also allowing the caste hierarchy to remain in place. Thus, talent and merit outside the mandated boundaries of caste privilege are not acceptable in a caste-segregated society and must be “cut down.”
Contemporary Savarna teachers may balk at the accusation, but testimonies from countless SC/ST/OBC students and institutional histories of abuse by generations of complicit Savarna teachers suggests that modern “gurukuls” are not much better. Still, most Savarna academics, especially in elite centres of higher learning, do not consider themselves or their methods as being systemically casteist. In their imaginations, discrimination based on caste prejudice is something only located in the individual actions of certain conservative-minded faculty. Many Savarna academics, especially those educated overseas, consider themselves liberals and above “petty prejudices” such as caste. This is grossly misleading and based on an absolute misunderstanding of how caste operates within academic spaces. The student who was graded differently from his Savarna peer made an accusation that implicates not just the one professor but also the caste-based priors upon which higher education rests: fluency of English, networking skills, confidence, and familiarity with alien teaching methods.
In most cases, Savarna scholars who go abroad for PhDs come from already elite backgrounds, having grown up in big urban centres and studied in premium English-medium schools. This creates a critical disconnect between them and the material realities of the large number of Dalit Bahujan people of India, especially those residing outside rich, urban enclaves. Prof. Dilip Mandal consistently points out that Savarna academics and journalists from such spaces have no grounded understanding of Indian society. The years abroad are spent in social isolation, as the Savarna inability to find community beyond their own circles exacerbates and cements caste-based thinking. Very rarely do such Savarna scholars involve themselves with struggles of working-class groups and immigrants in these societies; instead, they look to build caste-reproducing systems to sustain themselves in academic, cultural, and professional spaces.
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When a lot of these Savarna scholars return to India, they do so with a sense of aloof superiority. Slick with vocabulary from Western discourse, they struggle to fit it within the Indian context. Women in social sciences and humanities, dressed in organic ethnicwear, sporting big bindis and heavy rings, men in the ubiquitous kurta and kolhapuri chappals, law and management faculty crisply dressed in formals, and the eccentric marketing professors who bring a practiced stiff “casualness” to the classroom – all indirectly signal their class–caste cultural polish. In many cases, it feels like these faculty are acting out cinematic cliches of what academia is supposed to look like. The fantasy for most of these elite Savarnas is to teach heavy critical/theoretical and abstract conceptual discourse and to be surrounded by a group of students who are intellectually stimulated and similarly transformed. They employ pedagogy that is “discussion-oriented,” “student-led,” and “seminar-style” – all buzzwords they have picked up from classrooms abroad and present the illusion of intellectual rigor. In India, however, thanks to reservations, in most public institutions at least, a different kind of student awaits them.
A lot of SC/ST/OBC students are first-generation learners from small towns and rural areas and state board education. In these spaces, education standards are amiss and it is routine for students to pass exams through rote learning via guidebooks. There has been very little intervention in terms of critical thinking and application – something that is the staple of even basic primary education in urban elite centres. Thus, when the foreign-educated Savarna faculty walks into the classroom, expecting to find a lively class discussion with students around their favorite sub-fields/theories, they are often met with Dalit Bahujan students who struggle to answer why they even like the subject they are studying. No one has stoked their curiosity in their subjects, made them believe in their intellectual potential, or even feel legitimate as learners.
An answer for what the way forward looks like lies in Dr. Ambedkar’s imagination for what an inclusive university should be like. Asha Singh and Nidhin Donald talk about how he conceptualized the university: for individual teachers, he imagined pedagogies that created greater mingling among classes and would be research-led, combining issues of representation, citizenship, and knowledge production. These ideas are far from academic practices today, where institutions and faculty prioritize exclusivity, research mystification, and teaching styles that actively preclude large sections of marginalized students from any possibility of knowledge creation.
Take, for instance, the nature of the assignments (and hence grades) used by many Savarna faculty – such as book reviews, presentations, response papers, etc. – without considering that students in their class may have never encountered these submission formats. For most Savarna faculty, like their Savarna students, if you do not know “basic” things like this then it could only mean that you are without merit or simply “too far behind” to ever catch up. Many do not consider training the students in these unfamiliar styles or incentivizing cooperation rather than competition for grades with students who understand these formats. This structure does not see Dalit Bahujan students as sufferers of a discriminatory system and hence requiring the most confidence-building and hand holding.
Even when Savarna faculty attempt to build “inclusive pedagogy” and “inspire” confidence in students, their reluctance to climb down from lofty professorial ideals to do basic groundwork like teaching them how to read and decode critical texts, clarify fundamental doubts, and guide them through lab sessions. This stymies the potential of Dalit Bahujan students, many of whom struggle to cope with not just English but its uninterpretable academic usage.
Durga Hole writes about how she was terrified on her first day of college. Despite having studied English since Class 5, all she could understand in her college class was the attendance. During my MBA, renowned Savarna anthropologist Professor Shiv Vishwanathan took a course as a visiting faculty. He spoke in such immensely dense academic language that no one in the class could understand him. This has been a regular feature of many Savarna academics I have encountered, both as a student and now as an academic – yet the verbose rambling and postmodernist yakking somehow lends credibility to their performance as knowledgeable intellectuals. The more obscure a classroom discussion becomes, the more it is perceived as “deep.”
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Enter another core tenet of the guru–shishya parampara: the “guru’s talent” may not be questioned. Their knowledge is supreme, their words paramount, and their methods justified, irrespective of the results.
Savarna students usually adapt to being faced with dense pedagogy by leaning into their public speaking skills, pfaffing their way through, and building a rapport in more personal conversations outside class. The perfect shishya is thus crafted over longer conversations in the faculty’s office or canteen, bonding over book recommendations, shared sitcom humor, and internship/career advice followed by introductions to the right people. Meanwhile, Dalit Bahujan students often get intimidated and othered by such classroom dynamics and frequently cannot muster confidence to approach faculty outside class, having internalized that their lack of English skills is socially embarrassing. A lot of SC/ST/OBC students report that the faculty office is a “scary” space for them and, for many, it is deeply traumatizing. It is a space where away from the classroom’s public decorum, they feel most exposed to the casteist biases and arrogance of their faculty. Different caste locations often result in different academic outcomes, owing to different training.
For instance, even the simple act of raising a hand in class and asking a question in front of everyone – something that is so commonplace in elite Savarna classrooms from school levels that it borders on mundane – is nonetheless something that many SC/ST/OBC students from rural areas have rarely encountered. The teacher in local schools is usually a person to be feared, someone who imposes order through threats and violence. They are not figures that you engage with in class discussions, cross-question, or debate. To suddenly be expected to do that after an entirely opposite academic training is too daunting for these students, and their subsequent reticence is interpreted as timidity and lack of intellectualism by the Savarna teachers. The remedy is always a prescription for “personality development,” “public speaking,” and improving “reading and writing skills”– without ever undertaking the labor of working with such students to achieve this. There is active casteist resentment against students like this, who are seen as having been imposed upon the institution through reservations.
For most elite Savarna teachers, these are lower-order tasks, and they consider such students “not up to the standard” – notwithstanding that the “standard” was never an objective measure of intelligence. This breeds indifference – veering into disdain – against the student who needs the most empathy and compassion. In this peculiar tradition, the “shishya” must be ready for the “guru” and it is not the latter’s job to bring the former up to that level.
Vinod* was a student of Geography at the Savitri Phule Pune University but had previously studied in a non-English medium school all his life. He struggled to cope with the English lectures and when he asked for help, the Savarna professor scolded him. He soon quit the program and joined Urban Company as a plumber because he said it was easier to just go and earn money than get insulted everyday.
The Savarna professor simultaneously becomes the conduit and the gatekeeper to a larger educational job market. In the absence of content as a value differentiator, performance and academic networks become more important than academic context. Especially within the Humanities and Social Sciences, local academic conferences become networking meets where Savarnas rarely “present” their papers, opting instead for PowerPoint presentations that cannot be scrutinized or cited for future research. Instead these spaces become a marker of locating yourself within the academic hierarchy. If you have the correct contacts, you get to know in advance of prestigious conferences, call for papers for reputed journals, grants and post-doctoral fellowships abroad.
Many students intuitively respond to this and latch onto such professors who can secure them internships and other opportunities. However, Dalit Bahujan scholars often get filtered out from such connections. Donna writes about how, often, SC/ST scholars find it very difficult to get a PhD supervisor since many Savarna professors do a “background check” on their caste category and dismiss supervision requests on the flimsiest of grounds, such as not having taken their course. Even if you do manage to get a supervisor, your thesis draft is subject to endless revisions and humiliations that break your academic confidence to the point that countless Dalit Bahujan scholars simply drop out. The knowledge boundaries of caste replicate, academic coteries develop, Savarna scholars prosper under their Savarna supervisors – modern Arjuns of modern Dronacharyas. Academic favoritism becomes no longer a rumor but an empirically provable social reality.
As the neoliberal education economy globalizes and India recently allowed foreign universities to open campuses here, a new generation of gurus are stepping up to take their place within these new gurukuls. Like the gurus of yore, their merit is not peer-reviewed nor subject to any ongoing transparent scrutiny; rather, it is based on caste-birth, intergenerational network access, and associated privileges. The scanty few scholarships that enable SC/ST students to study abroad, such as the NOS, are a bureaucratic nightmare and recently had their qualifying rules changed to filter out critical students. But beyond the obvious barriers of cost, awareness, and access also lurk the unofficial filters of recommendation upon which such admissions hinge.
Abhay*, a first generation learner from a rural SC community, went to his Savarna professor for a letter of recommendation. The professor was shocked to learn that Abhay was planning to apply to the prestigious Yale University for his PhD. He condescendingly advised Abhay to “not dream so big.” He refused Abhay the letter and told him to do his PhD in India somewhere, also suggesting to him that, later in life, “when you have a son, you can educate him and try to send him to Yale.”
Even when Dalit Bahujan scholars do receive recommendations, they can never be sure of what their Savarna professors have said in the letters. Under the guise of being fair and professional, many professors have been known to point out language and communication weakness of the scholars and not their academic journey, resilience, and determination to overcome challenges. The Indian academic setup has always been deeply feudal, where your guide and department matter more than your research, intellect, and acumen. If the former had a negative view about you, you were marked as “difficult to hire” for the rest of your career.
In contrast, elite Savarna students who are given personalized counseling in international curriculum schools, have connections from a vast network of family friends, went to elite institutions that mandate public service, and receive extensive academic writing plus public speaking training in liberal education colleges are almost mass produced for overseas academia.
Within the globalized education economy, most of the current crop of overseas educated Savarnas will verbally denounce the methods of this casteist setup. They consider themselves more liberal, inclusive, adaptable, and non-feudal. But the “shishya” or “good student” they are recreating in the classrooms bears every hallmark of the one from the previous era. It is not surprising then, if one does a close scrutiny of the favorite “shishya”, in many cases they too belong to the same Savarna elite backgrounds as their “gurus’. This is an organic development since the only students that a lot of elite Savarna professors can relate to are from similar backgrounds as themselves, replete with the usual markers of intergenerational cultural privilege.
This is not to make a nativist argument, but instead a sociological query of this pool of foreign-educated faculty who make up the most powerful academic departments in both public and private premier universities today. This cohort is overwhelmingly elite Savarna and is set to preside over the current and coming generation of India’s intellectual talent. This group is by default considered to be the finest talent that is available in the academic market and are sought by higher education institutions of all hues. However, this small pool which is set to have an outsized impact on Indian polity is itself rarely studied as a sociological cohort.
Ashoka University, considered one of the premium private universities in India, hires almost exclusively from within this cohort. A look at the credentials of professors on their website reveals that almost 85% of assistant professors (indicating early-track hires) who work there as full time faculty have degrees from abroad. In social sciences and humanities fields, this percentage is even higher. It is a pattern that is also neatly replicating in elite IITs, IIMs and other premium institutions, virtually closing off the top tier higher education job market for graduates and PhDs from 1000+ Indian universities and institutions of higher learning.
For many Bahujan students the campus is already an unfamiliar and hostile space. The unspoken but very evident hegemony of the “cultural polish” which is an amalgamation of cultural capital and intergenerational wealth and literacy privileges, makes them feel unwanted on campus. Despite spirited opposition by Ambedkarite groups in the heart of these institutions for the last decade and half, it is not uncommon to find Savarna teachers and their “shishyas” be openly hateful towards reservation students. And in cases, where the hate is not open, the internalized Savarna loathing of anyone without the “cultural polish” leads to unequal friendships, and a social life often predicated upon well-meaning condescension and charity-oriented empathy. The Dalit Bahujan student is either an object of hate or an object of pity in the Savarna gaze constituted by the other Savarna students, the Savarna teachers and the Savarna institution at large. Ambedkarite scholar Rahul Sonpimple says that “caste is a Brahmin problem, it is a Bania problem”. The dynamics of this lopsided classroom thus, must be understood as a Savarna issue, not as a problem of Dalit Bahujan students being unable to fit in.
Since the 2006 implementation of OBC reservation in admissions, which ensures that 50% of the class is SC, ST, and OBC, higher education has strongly pivoted towards privatization. The number of private universities have swelled from 19 in 2006 to 290 in 2018, and many more have emerged since then. Among these, apart from a handful of institutions, there is no caste diversity in the admission process. These premium institutes justify this by saying that the examination is open to all, and anyone who can clear it has access to admission. Ambedkarite thinker and activist Anoop Kumar – who has worked extensively on suicides by SC/ST students in elite institutions – talks about the structural hostility of institutions that don’t seem to want these students. About the entrance examinations, he says: “The kinds of questions you ask – about European football in current affairs – none of my students have even heard about that! …What kind of knowledge are you testing? What is your criterion of knowledge? What is your definition of knowledge? The knowledge you are testing has nothing to do with the daily lives of the majority of the students in this country.”
Interestingly, Savarna academics who speak boldly about decolonization, critical theory, standpoints and positionality, are often bizarrely silent as their institutions evade or dilute caste diversity in the admission and hiring processes, and often help cover up any issues thereof. With the hundreds of international curriculum schools and dozens of private universities that have popped up (mysteriously after the implementation of OBC reservations in admission), a veritable pipeline of manufacturing eliteness has been set up. A generation or two ago, Savarna elites would send their children to convent schools in urban centres so they learnt “proper English”; now, the next generation is in the middle of a mass exodus to overseas academic systems. Wherefrom they will return and talk about Paulo Freire and the pedagogy of the oppressed in classrooms with no caste diversity, teach Marx and working class history to children of the peak bourgeoisie, espouse amritkaal economic revolution on B-school campuses where service labor is on contract without basic job security, and discuss big data and AI revolution even as a record number of Indians toil on MGNREGA worksites amidst violent heatwaves.
Of course not every Savarna teacher and institution can be dismissed by such a reductionist lens, but way too many Savarna academics have stood quietly while Dalit Bahujan students have been abused, humiliated, and pushed into depression, self harm, and suicide. Way too many have quietly taken favor and employment from institutions with no diversity in hiring or admissions. Way too many have looked the other way as caste, gender complaints and other irregularities have been swept under the rug and way too many have held their tongue as their institutions have lurched unchecked towards a techno-fascist elitocracy. Their silence and compliance is the most prominent lesson they are teaching their young Savarna students. Their silence and compliance is what often breaks the spirit of their Dalit Bahujan colleagues, scholars and students—who feel alone, lost and adrift in a hostile universe too far from the place they knew as home.
These issues stack up in the fragile minds of many young Dalit Bahujan students and scholars who are already torn between the world where they come from and the worlds they want to reach.
Since 2018, 61 student suicides have been reported in the IITs, IIMs and NITs, which are the most premium institutions in India. This is only the tip of the iceberg since a step like a suicide is the final extreme step. The exact number of students who have developed deep anxiety and other mental health issues, depression, self-harm tendencies in such educational spaces has not been properly documented. We truly do not know how many such students’ academic non-performance is linked to mental health issues and how many students drop out from educational institutions because of the same. The cumulative loss to the national intellectual productivity is similarly incalculable.
And yet, the national Savarna media or Savarna academia has barely had any discourse on what is veritably a crisis in the higher education system.
“What do you do on these campuses that our children just end their lives?” asked Tarikaben Solanki, at the hospital conducting the post-mortem of her son Darshan Solanki. He had jumped from the seventh floor of his hostel at IIT-Bombay.
The subsequent inquiry commission set up suggested that Darshan could not cope with the intensity of IIT’s curriculum. This is the standard conclusion that blames SC/ST/OBC students for not being “meritorious” enough to keep up with the “best.”
At least Dronacharya acknowledged Eklavya’s merit and only asked for his thumb. At least Eklavya survived his “guru” and lived to tell his story. Many are not as lucky today.
Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He tweets/Instagrams as 'Buffalo Intellectual,' focussing on critically scrutinizing Savarna systems of cultural hegemony. His podcast, 'Mind Your Buffalo' is available for streaming on all platforms.