SocietyCampus My Casteism & Privileges: A Test For Upper Caste People In Academia

My Casteism & Privileges: A Test For Upper Caste People In Academia

Academia, whether in the US or in India, is a deeply exclusive space available to a select few. These few are often picked and pruned on the basis of ‘merit’.

Academia, whether in the US or in India, is a deeply exclusive space available to a select few. These few are often picked and pruned on the basis of ‘merit’ which is a pre-legitimizing step toward any production of knowledge. Often liberal students in particular, perform wokeness in order to legitimize their scholarship or appear subversive on social media platforms. Currently, a PhD student in Iowa, I am guilty of perpetuating this performance by seeking to publicize my attempts to address my casteism and access points within academia and beyond. This piece of writing is an attempt to engage with fellow savarna / upper caste people by redoing the models provided by Devon W. Carbado and Peggy McIntosh. Of course, Hindu upper castes are diverse groups but as historically privileged communities, each one of us benefits by pushing Dalit and Bahujan voices in the margins.

Confession as Performance

In 2019, I asked my Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) course instructors about the relevance of a prescribed essay, written by Shailaja Paik. I insisted that the 2014 article wasn’t making any new feminist methodological claims about commonalities between African American and Dalit testimonies. One of the instructors was annoyed at my flippancy and wondered if I had come across any similar works in the past. She added that Paik was one of the few Dalit researchers in the US academia. At that point in my time, I read the inclusion of the essay as an act of tokenism, particularly when the other instructor mentioned that they need not justify their course material.

Retrospectively, I recognized these attempts as possible reconfiguration of the canons of feminist writing. While I have bitter memories from that classroom, I would strictly use this essay to address my casteism that a fellow research student alluded to, in a recent Facebook comment. It is irrelevant whether I knew about Paik’s caste before the exchange. Nivedita Menon’s patronizing comments about Raya Sarkar have taught me huge lessons. The very fact that I was so dismissive of a researcher, indicates a liberal casteist belief on what good writing should look like and a paradoxical ‘wokish’ propensity to decide the terms on which syllabuses can be de-Brahmanized.

We were also annoyed if OBC, SC, ST students, got admission under UR seats. “Don’t they have reservation? We have to work so hard!” As a colleague later told me in a different context, liberal crowds such as those in Kolkata or Delhi don’t want to see Dalit and tribal students in academia. Their very presence either in reserved or unreserved seats, is seen as a constant threat. Thus, in 2014, when there was an UR vacancy in an M.Phil. (English) course in University of Hyderabad, I took it for granted that as the next UR person, I am entitled to it.

As a Kayastha, this was not the first time that I was being casteist. My English medium school education did not facilitate an understanding of the caste system. I became aware of the institution through constitutional provision of reservation, (which I read as discriminatory toward me) and media reports of caste-based atrocities, (which I interpreted as a disturbing but normal aspect of Indian democracy). As an undergraduate student in University of Calcutta, I contributed vocally to the collective anger, shared by the upper caste students of UR category. We were casteless, until we spoke about reservation! Of course, we didn’t feel irked by the Boses and the Guhas occupying teaching positions. We celebrated this Brahmanical hold on knowledge production.

We were also annoyed if OBC, SC, ST students, got admission under UR seats. “Don’t they have reservation? We have to work so hard!” As a colleague later told me in a different context, liberal crowds such as those in Kolkata or Delhi don’t want to see Dalit and tribal students in academia. Their very presence either in reserved or unreserved seats, is seen as a constant threat. Thus, in 2014, when there was an UR vacancy in an M.Phil. (English) course in University of Hyderabad, I took it for granted that as the next UR person, I am entitled to it.

When the OBC candidate who was ranked above me, was moved to the UR seat, I broke down. My tears were the product of the very casteism that had made me equate UR with upper castes. I also convinced myself, somewhat like SB’s upper caste friend, that economically well-off SC and ST students were being unfair to poor students from all communities. Such an accusation uses shame to silence Dalit voices and simultaneously reinforces the idea of the quintessential poverty-ridden Dalit who should not aspire toward dignified ways of living. In liberal upper caste circles, reservation is always seen as a privilege and not a means toward representation.

When I got admission in JNU, I was convinced that I had sufficiently interrogated my casteism and can call out the practice, without sounding problematic. In wokishly trying to expose kinship in academia (that many critics of Sarkar’s LoSHA were accused of), I ignored the nuances of merit-making. Retrospectively, I think I also ignored the mental health of my teachers and batchmates. However, I don’t think that I should stop asking questions. Rather, I need to be more aware about my intentions for doing so.

Am I performing wokeness or solidarity or behalfism? Each of these has a different goal and may also require calling in, rather than calling out. Though it is important for savarnas to check each others’s casteist practices, we can’t claim to be superior over one another. You see, liberals find a way to camouflage their casteism and repackage it with some other names or use friends from marginalized backgrounds as evidence of their wokeness. Casteism, if subtle, is perhaps worse, since it suggests liberal upbringing and a propensity to pass off as anti-caste. 

Academia, whether in the US or in India, is a deeply exclusive space available to a select few. These few are often picked and pruned on the basis of ‘merit’ which is a pre-legitimizing step toward any production of knowledge. Often liberal students in particular, perform wokeness in order to legitimize their scholarship or appear subversive on social media platforms.

I write today after being reminded once again that the onus to educate upper caste people shouldn’t be on structurally marginalized scholars. I am grateful to Delhi friends, who often called me in and also dismissed me with “fuck-offs.” Perhaps, moving away from familial home, also helped. However, I wonder if such realizations have come at the expense of Dalit and Bahujan lives. After all, upper caste students disproportionately gain from the interaction with marginalized voices and use that knowledge to secure PhD positions or tenure-track jobs in the global North. As artist/rapper Sumeet Samos continues to remind everyone, universities and societal structures cannibalize Dalit and Bahujan students – Rohith, Muthu, Payal, Delta, Anitha and many more.


I have a few questions for Hindu upper caste savarna readers (even if they feel/are oppressed by Brahminism) who don’t recognize caste privilege as part of their everyday living. Often, Indian students in the US claim to be as oppressed as other minorities under the umbrella term, ‘people of color’, thereby erasing the histories and practices that gave us access to academia. You cannot be anti-caste and anti-reservation at the same time. 

1. Do you have had any ancestral landed property (however little)? How did you receive it?

2. Despite being “poor”, do you still have access to Hindu wedding rituals and the food that is served to guests in such events?

3. Do you or your family have any domestic help? Do you serve them in different utensils?

4. Did your family ever tell you that your “help” is unclean? Did you ask yourself how unclean people keep your house clean?

5. Do you clean your own toilet? If not, why?

6. Have you ever been told by parents not to touch manual scavengers? Did you give similar advice to others?

7. Have you ever been stopped from entering a kitchen, not your own? Have you stopped anyone because you felt they were not clean or pure? (Menstrual taboos are Brahmanical)

8. As a teacher, have you judged people if they do badly in certain exams or tests? Do you judge them more if they belong to SC/ST/OBC categories? 

9. As a teacher, do you seek approval from “bright” upper caste students? Most surnames (definitely not all) make caste obvious.

Also read: To The Bhadralok Academia, With Love

10. As a student, are you likely to question the qualifications of a teacher if they speak English with a certain accent or don’t look ‘respectable’ enough?

11. In school or college or workplace, did you ever make any classmate/colleague uncomfortable about their access to reservation? 

12. Have you ever judged a well-off Dalit or a lower caste or tribal student, availing reservation? Why?

13. Do you feel that if someone’s parent(s) had access to reservation, their children should not avail of it? Do you then believe that structural oppression can end in a generation?

14. Have you shamed a Dalit or a Bahujan student for wearing expensive clothes?*

15. Do you recognize your birth and family lineage as privileges?

16. Do you support giving admission or jobs to an upper caste person under reservation, meant for OBC, SC or ST candidates? Have you justified this by emphasizing the lack of “good candidates”? 

17. Do you appreciate diversity and find yourself more willing to talk to students of color in the US, while looking down upon Dalit and Bahujan students back in India?

18. Is your research focused on a marginal community or movement? Even if your research has an impact on the communities and persons with whom you are working, are you willing to reflect if this is disproportionately profiting you?

19. Did you ever feel that you would like to avail reservation too? Does that mean that you support reservation as long as you are able to access it?

20. The central government has now reserved seats on the basis of income level. Does that make you happy? 

21. Have you equated reservation with nepotism? Do you know the history of reservation? Have you heard of the Poona Pact?

22. Do you know how many Dalit persons are employed in senior positions within academia?

23. Do you feel that Dalit persons are well represented in politics? Can you identify any Dalit woman pliticians except Mayawati?

24. Have you ever made fun of Mayawati because of her accent and clothing? Why?

25. Did you notice how most teachers, scientists and bureaucrats have upper caste family names/surnames? Do you notice a recurrence of these surnames in other professions like manual scavenging and cleaning? What you see here? Caste privilege or ‘merit’?

26. When you think of a Dalit person, how likely are you supposed to envision a doctor or a teacher?

27.  Do you see violence against Dalit and other caste minorities as normal? Why?

28. Do you believe in inter-caste marriages? Are there any such marriages in your family?

29. Do you fetishize Dalit and tribal bodies but dream of marital companionship with people from your own caste? (This is meant for queer people too)

30. Do you feel more angry/sympathetic when the victim/survivor of a sexual assault looks fair or “beautiful”?

31. Ever since India has been grappling with the corona virus, have you blamed any lower caste, Dalit or tribal person (particularly those from the “Northeast”) for it?

32.  Are you making similar claims about Muslims? (Caste endogamy and Islamophobia are related)

33. Do you have Dalit or Bahujan friends? Have you ever referred to them to deny your casteism?

34.  Are you currently supporting Black Lives Matter but not anti-caste protests in India? Why?

Also read: Can Academia Be A Site Of Activism?

I am not in a position to face caste-based discrimination and these questions may seem too stereotypical. This test can be modified to suit specific regions across India or the diasporas. It is never too late to apologize and be a non-intrusive ally. However, “we” should not expect apologies to be an end in itself. I am not making a case for performative allyship. This test is not meant to make you feel good by acknowledging your privileges. You can’t wake up one day, feeling casteless! I repeat, unlearning casteism is a lifelong process. There cannot be any closure.

*Suggested by SB.

Rajorshi Das is a non-binary poet and researcher who is currently pursuing PhD in University of Iowa, with a focus on queer desires. They strongly believe that recognizing caste privileges is a lifelong process and performative allyship needs to be checked. This test, if taken by people, should not be seen as an one-time woke exercise. Savarnas aren’t doing any favors to anyone by “unlearning.” You can find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured Image Source: Outlook India


  1. Karthik VB says:

    An article that uses all the usual tropes as well as some new deftly identified ones. The author tries to paint the character of the entire country and ALL of its citizens through those tropes. We are a country and culture that possess the most fortified thought process.
    A line in this article states ‘you cannot be anti reservation and anti casteist’ simultaneously. Just think about that normally. Then subvert it and think about the implications. Some of it is very divisive, manipulative and frightening.
    Only two kinds of people talk about Casteism; ones who are really affected by it and others who really reap benefits out of it.

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      “Only” two kinds? What are the other types? Ones who are so cool and liberal that they can claim to be casteless?

  2. UTKARSH KUMAR says:

    1: SC ST peoples are using higher caste titles and feeling proud on it,,,, now who is promoting casteism???

    2: you people who opposes caste system yourself makes your caste certificate who is responsible now???

    3: you can see no discrimination in caste at various places like in cities but you will see discrimination in reservation and constitution everywhere in India????

    4: I support #alllivesmatter why Kashmiri pandits life not matter and general person lives not matter????

    5: I have peoples and friends in my society of dalit caste ,,,, and the you use to abuse higher caste people because you are promoting noncence and manipulating people….

    I have been a victim of abused by the dalits to upper caste… And I cannot do anything against them because of SC ST act….

    6: you are working for upliftment of only one commity not of poor people it is very shameful….

    7: I have the right to follow my religion but the temples are destroyed by this dalit people who is responsible???

    8: uses of my generation did not made any discrimination but they have been discriminated by the constitution who is responsible???

    9: everyday general caste people were killed by the the lips in the society who is responsible and even constitution is also not helping us….

    10: reservation is only for the dalit not for the poor people ,,,but the poverty in the society does not comes on the basis of caste….

    11: even when girls and LGBT community requires the reservation but then also these were not given to them and only given to a group of committee who is responsible????

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      Aap to Manu ka avatar woh. You make us proud.

    • dr maturi srinivas says:

      all the 11 questions you posed are valid and interesting at the same time they show little bit of your immature(don’t mind). my only suggestion is .. please find answers for all the questions you raised with open mind and i promise…. the moment you find the right answers .. you will be wonderful human being.

  3. 7day says:

    playing victim card but will not stand for those poor from all caste .reservation was meant for very poor people.

  4. Kashif says:

    Reservation is not a poverty alevation scheme. It’s the birth right of bahujans. Didn’t you even get that ? Did you even read the questions properly and asked yourself about the answers?

  5. Praveen PC says:

    Good article at the same time confusing. Let me express my thoughts. Indic religions or culture is divided into 4+2 groups. The first 3 groups are the upper castes and last 3 groups are lower castes and outcasts. The use of the term caste is misleading as the correct term may be varna as in chaturvarna, as India has more than 3000 castes. The last 3 groups constitute 2/3 of Indian population. The present PM and President are from these groups. The present ruling party setup is supposed to be pro Hindu and hence expected to be dominated by the upper 3 groups. The opposition parties are supposed to be liberal and secular and expected to be supported by the lower 3 groups. However opposite is true as the Hindutva group is dominated by lower 3 groups and the secular group is dominated by upper 3 groups. This is probably due to the fact that the secular group is socialist in nature which is based on privileges and entitlements and the Hindutva group is more capitalist in nature which is based on merits and efforts. Hence you see a curious case in which the Hindu party is led by a BC man and the secular and populist party is led by a Brahmin.The lower groups are going to be more dominant in future as a result of economic improvement due to rapid development taking place in India. The upper groups are obviously unhappy, but the lower groups will assert more forcefully in future due to their numerical superiority and improved economic status. Majority of the politicians are from the lower groups and they will ensure their group’s interest. Hence it is concluded that your concern for the lower groups is laudable, however they will take care of themselves. Infact the lower groups are going to dictate the overall socioeconomic development scenario in the country. Jai Hind.

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      On the contrary, BJP is largely constituted by upper castes and catered to that vote bank in the Hindi belt, during the last LS election. Check the CSDS report. Regarding the assertion of lower castes and Dalits in electoral politics, it is surprising that you should see it as something new and link it with the rise of Hindu right-wing. Look at late Karunanidhi-led DMK, Lalu P Yadav-led RJD or Mayawati-led BSP. There is a reason why Yadav is one of the rare politicians, rotting in jail even as many corrupt ministers are handling relief funds now. Also, you cannot club “lower castes” and Dalits under one category. There are also power imbalances within. I don’t want to go into the debates around PM’s caste since this piece isn’t about that. However, the binary that you are positing is somewhat baffling. While both national parties have committed atrocities against the marginalized communities, the recent lynchings around beef, institutional murder of Rohith, Una uprising, Bhima Koregaon violence have exposed a kind of caste politics that the ruling party is invested in.

      • bhaskar rai says:

        your knowledge is very weak about caste and party. all British time Princes join Congress after independence . even today you can find many name who are at top post in party.

        i will suggest you not to write anything on such serious topic.

      • Praveen PC says:

        The three leaders you mentioned are considered corrupt and were sentenced or are having cases against them. Corrupt practices may help to gain temporary benefits in politics, but in long run it will not help. BJP got about 40 percent votes last time, but upper castes constitute only about 15 percent of the population. The rest 25 percent has to come from BC, SC and ST as it is clear that BJP will get zero support from minorities i.e. muslims and christians. BJP has won maximum number of reserved seats in the last election. As you said all parties tried to empower the 3 lower castes groups before BJP, but succeed only partially. The reason may be that, the other parties never tried to question the caste divisions and RSS is the only political group trying to unify the Hindu society. Now the lower 3 groups are enjoying the fruits of power, I only wish that there is no backlash on the 3 upper groups. Jai Hind.

  6. Nina Celada Bharti says:

    Indeed. A long way to go as people and as a civil society. Thank you for trying. All the best Rajorshi Das.

  7. bhaskar rai says:

    no caste is inferior in this Game. everyone know how SC/ST act is misused by its beneficiary. and how people claim reservation as Birth Right and Permanent(as Fundamental Right). some enlightened people compare reservation with Poona Pact, but constitution is not result of any pact. in my family/relatives/friends, no one know or read Manusmriti, but some Scholar always invoke this book to prove themselves right.

    question for you

    1. do you think reservation and hard SC/ST act can force other community to unite electorally and create more division in society.

    2. why we do not have nationally recognized and well accepted leader from SC? does it means they(SC) are not ready to mix with other community?

    3. initially they fought for Temple entry and now destroying it and becoming Budhhist. why this drama?

    4. why give credit to Ambedkar and Phule only for your upliftment ? do you think there is not even a single social reformer or well wisher outside your community?

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      1. Unclear
      2. Use Google
      3. You mean “Hindu temple.” Destroying it? I think you are alluding to Babri Masjid demolition. Please don’t shame the ruling party. Not the right platform. Let’s discuss Lalu Prasad Yadav’s corruption. He shouldn’t have stopped Advani in 1992.
      4. Huh? Weren’t you just looking for “their” leaders?

      • bhaskar rai says:

        1. why unclear? “Other” means other than SC/ST. in fact you are unclear about yourself. you are discussing untouchability on a platform created for Feminism.

        2. Google is there for everything, including untouchability and SC/ST. then why you are spreading half baked knowledge here. we can easily learn untouchability and its consequence.

        3. Temple means Hindu Temple generally. other religion have different name for their place of worship. we can not defend any politician, but Lalu is really corrupt. see how a prosperous state Bihar become most backward in his 15 year rule. you can check government data like NSSO, India Year book etc.

        4. leaders are important. they used their “Leader” to demonize “Us”. and try to prove that only caste fellow can work for a person(Dr Ambedkar said one time).

        As per my experience and Mahatma Gandhi( Bipan Chandra, India struggle for independence), “untouchability” generally dont want to mix with other.

        writing useless article will not end untouchability. we need to forget past experiences and look forward and behave like nothing happened in past. then only next generation will prospers.

  8. Varun Dake says:

    I read your article. And it is nice. But it seems you understand casteism and reservation but you have not experienced it totally. Or maybe you have minimum experience.
    Are you aware that there are almost no dermatology seats available for open candidates?
    I have experienced it. I am experiencing it. I know the effect it puts on my brain when i am preparing for medical pg exam.
    Also, one suggestion, please use simpler English so your articulation is more clear.
    No negative feelings.

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      I will certainly use simpler language. Thanks for that suggestion. I don’t know much about dermatology seats but last time I checked, the junior doctors who forced Payal Tadvi to commit suicide got their licenses restored. I guess you are upper caste and hence, you are finding it difficult to justify that extra effort. However, I know people who cannot even access school education without being humiliated. Perhaps, their mental trauma is also intergenerational. Thus, while you may feel frustrated (and I am not belittling that) people like Payal are constantly tortured for daring to dream and claim places, enjoyed traditionally by upper caste citizens.

  9. Deep Bhatnagar says:

    May i ask what are your sources {books or academic papers} about Caste system & what is your conception about it in ancient India ?

    I am asking for the above info. to start a honest conversation about Caste history & one can only solve the problem by identifying certain objectives as solutions.

    • Rajorshi Das says:

      This article isn’t about ancient India. But you can read Ambedkar, Periyar or Phule. Most books are available online. The highly casteist and sexist Manusmriti is also good source of misogyny in ancient India.

  10. Aniket says:

    This is the main thing of dalits mentality. They are living in 2000 BC.
    They have no Sense of what is going on in 21st century ad.
    It’s the century of globalization. Here nobody cares if you are brahmin or dalit. 4000 years ago there was no democracy,no constitution, no voting rights… nothing like today.
    It’s true that in ancient era dalits were denied opportunity of learning.
    But is that relevant today? In ancient times Gaytri mantra could only be uttered by brahmins and see now every random person has Gaytri mantra as mobile ringtone or doorbell caller tune. If today a dalit becomes president of India, nobody gives a damn, nobody marches to put molten lead in anyone’s ear.
    And nobody can insult you without your consent. If somebody calls anyone chamar ,why should he get triggered? Why should his ego be so fragile?
    Is Donald Trump responsible and answerable for Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosion?
    Is Boris Johnson responsible for Jaliyanwalabag massacre and atrocities on Indian by British ?
    Can today’s Muslims be held response for middle age Muslim invasion of India and all the atrocities on native Indians and forced conversion, jijiya tax etc?
    Answer of all above questions is no

  11. Sreyasi says:

    All the burnt savarnas in the comments are the proof of inadequate social science education in Indian schools and institutions.

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