On College & Prejudice

Alina Gufran
11 min readJun 15, 2020

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So, the pandemic is on and for people who’ve managed to stay abreast with the fact that India’s been on literal fire since last year sometime would be aware of the spate of hate crimes, increased violence, lynching and a general disregard for anybody that doesn’t have the last surname as yours. It’s impossible to talk of discrimination in India without fixating on the intersection of caste, religion and gender. Ideally, I should’ve been taught this in college but I wasn’t. I did my under-grad at Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication and for most people I personally know and am still friends with from that time would corroborate the ridiculousness with which the college was run.

This really started when a batch group was formed a few days ago for the purpose of reconnecting, networking, etc. In the three years we were there, due to the intensely competitive system (internships were handed out according to your percentage and intra-college magazines were run with the zeal and hatred of global conflicts), there’d been an atmosphere of suspicion and passive-aggressiveness that was carefully cultivated and supported by the administration. A Communications professor, also M.S. Gowalkar’s niece, would single the Muslim kids out in class to wish them “Eid Mubarak” separately. The same professor who failed me in my Communication dissertation four times with no actual direction of where I was going wrong or any clear intent to help me pass. The college examination system was wrapped up in murky bureaucracy — from providing unclear details for exams and purposely obfuscating important information to favour some students and to work against the rest; favouritism was a cornerstone of life at Symbiosis. If you could put your head down, nod along to the teachers, have opinions that corresponded with the popular, mainstream opinion or what the college administration deemed acceptable — you were good. No late terms for you, nice internships, maybe a fat package during placement time — Symbiosis was adept at selling a late-capitalist dream that most kids lapped up.

We had a term where the entire history of literature was crammed into six months of classes, subjects that didn’t correspond to the major we chose forced down our throats and a detention system secret services would be proud of. In the first week of college, for reasons I can’t recall, we were made to run up and down the six flights of stairs while the Dean took the lift and declared that the last person to reach the landing after he did would be expelled. He would keep doing so until the whole batch would be expelled, he said with a smug smile. Of course, nobody was actually expelled but the terror we experienced at the thought of it was very real, very visceral. Exactly what the Dean wanted to drive home. I remember instances where our shoes, that had been hastily stacked inside racks outside classrooms lest we were late for class because being even a minute late meant you were barred from attending the class which in turn, meant low attendance, which in turn meant you weren’t allowed to sit for exams, mysteriously disappeared. We searched the campus and finally found them dumped on the football field. Later, we were informed the administration had done so in order to teach us a lesson about not stacking our shoes right. Naturally, we missed our next lesson. The focus was more on disciplinarian action for what the authorities arbitrarily deemed as a rule and less on actual education. There was default assumption among the batch and the staff that all the students were from similar well-off economic backgrounds. Not enough was done in the way of providing concessions to those who didn’t have the equipment or tech required to complete assignments etc. The assumption was that you had a laptop and a DSLR at your disposal all day every day so even if you were in classes 8 hours a day, 6 days a week; you should be able to complete all assignments handed to you over said week with no late submissions.

Even as I recollect these incidents, I think of the news report I read of the family in South Delhi that abandoned their domestic help and left her out on the street when she was suspected of having Covid.

Every Monday, we were required to wear a uniform. The men were meant to shave, the women had to wear ironed clothes with close-toed black pumps. If any of us strayed from that even in the slightest, we were immediately consigned to detention which consisted of sitting in a library, without internet access unless you spoke Marathi and could figure a deal out with the library assistant, combing through the sparsest collection of books I’ve seen in my life. A collection of books that propagated only the dialogues happening on-campus, the discussions the system deemed okay — not much room for counter-thought, like a tangible echo chamber. You can’t actually use that time to do anything constructive or learn — presumably what you’re paying the University to do. I remember the time a guy from my batch (Class of 2013) was stripped down to his boxers for the crime of wearing low-slung jeans, captured in a picture and circulated in all the classes to “teach us a lesson.” In my second week in college, a batch mate called me “an NRI bastard who should go back to where I came from” because I directed a question at him in class of a former SIMC teacher with direct RSS affiliations (you know, RSS, the organisation unofficially declared as a terrorist outfit). She promptly handed me a one-week detention, my offence presumably being questioning a batch mate.

A Journalism professor playing porn in class by mistake slides along smoothly and isn’t spoken of again but detentions are handed out by the dozen for trying to have an on-topic healthy debate. Come 2020, the same professor retweets the video widely circulated during the Delhi Pogrom 2020 where four young Muslim men are beaten by the police and forced to chant “Jai Sri Ram” as they beg for their life. Students are pulled out of exams because they didn’t shave on a Monday and re-sit the exam. Footnote: re-attempts have to be paid separately for. A friend jokingly refers to it as extortion and I’m compelled to think of the PMCares fund. RTIs seeking to investigate the public funds by crores declined by the Government by declaring it a non-public asset. Another student I know whose batch mate was “caught” doodling on her back was called a “whore,” “a prostitute” and eventually, dropped out. The guy who did the doodling dropped out too. They both lost a few years before they finally, managed to graduate from other colleges. I think of women beaten up in bars in Bangalore, at JNU and Jamia, at Srishti and Gargi college last year by self-appointed citizen vigilantes — namely, cis upper caste Hindu men. I think of police mitron, of the RSS sevaks, of the idea of the greater good for all decided by a collective few.

The Dean’s attitude towards students bordered on mental harassment and post the #metoo allegations, he was accused of dismissing sexual allegation cases on campus. Disciplinarian overreach was his ammunition meted in the form of detentions, the minimum time being 30 hours, in order to vent or if he was in “a bad mood.” The detention couldn’t be done in one go so say, if a student has no classes on a day, they can’t sit for more than two hours in a go leading to eventually missing more classes, resulting in not being able to sit for exams and then paying to sit for those very exams. From commenting on student’s appearances to admonishing students for mingling too much in college corridors (moral policing), a culture of sexual harassment, slut-shaming and bullying was normalised.

The same guy who was stripped down to his underwear and I truly do feel sorry for him, struggled with substance problems all through college, lost track of his classes and barely managed to graduate. On the whole, students were terrified of taking up complaints with the Dean since his power was considered unquestionable. Even after a petition, pulling him up for the toxic culture he carefully cultivated and encouraged, was floated, the authorities transfer him to the administration department and no real punitive action is taken against him. The matter is investigated internally and put to rest.

Unchecked hegemonic power, a lack of accountability on top, a leader whose actions are not up for debate, a merit system based on rewarding sycophancy thus, quelling any healthy debates, harsh punishments meted out arbitrarily to instil a sense of fear, an expectation of complete obedience bordering on devotion accordingly rewarded with monetary opportunities and social security and acceptance, a lack of transparency about administrative systems were commonplace tenets of life at Symbiosis. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So, remember the guy stripped down to his boxers for the crime of wearing low-slung trousers? Yeah, so the same guy DMs me today on Instagram: You’re a girly mozzie bastard aren’t ya? You piece of shit.

Apart from the almost poetic slur, it caught me off-guard since I’ve been lucky enough to be in social and professional circles where my ostensible “Mozzieness” hasn’t really been a topic of discussion. Not in front of me, at the very least. I’ve never actually been called a literal slur related to my religion my entire life. I know, comes as a surprise to me too. Although, systemic prejudice, oppression and injustice plays out in far more insidious ways when you belong to the purported “educated left liberal class.” Far more insidious and therefore, far harder to call out and reckon with — both outside and within ourselves. Even as I write this and think about posting it online, I’m already entertaining the idea of being boycotted, being trolled online, losing out on work opportunities, if I need to temper my opinions or shrug it off — it’s not a hate crime, nobody’s at my door trying to set my house on fire, just a harmless DM. Shake it off and move on. Or as a friend puts it, “I definitely think these things make you better, not traumatize you.” “Don’t take it personally.” “It’s been seven years, we’re past it.” And I know he means well when he says that. I know he’s got his heart in the right place and is looking out for me. I think of how “goli maaron saalon ko” isn’t defined as hate speech by the police, and effectively, the Government and yet, somehow led to people killed, property destroyed and houses burnt.

I understand how some might think I’m conflating two different things. If I was a bit younger, a bit stupider, I’d have gone along with it. Had a glass of wine or smoked a joint and watched some Netflix instead but now, I’m nearing 30 and I tend to think of the kind of world I’d want to bring a child into. I think of my child attending JNU or Jamia and I think of how students and activists like Umar Khalid, Safoora Zafar, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal are behind bars under the UAPA sedition charges in the middle of a pandemic for questioning the Government through the form of peaceful protests, unable to be released on bail. If my kid was on the receiving end of anything discriminatory — even just a DM — I’d be livid. I’d teach the child to question, agitate, not be afraid of pissing people in power off, not being afraid to voice an opinion but to remember to have the humility to stand corrected, to not take shit lying down — for themselves or for others. Maybe it has a lot to do with growing up as a girl and watching patriarchy play out in both quiet and loud ways. Smile in your photos, don’t talk back to your father, settle and be happy for what’s offered to you and yet people are never pleased. Everyone chisels away at you, bit by bit. Too thin, too fat, too much make up, not enough make up, too loud, too quiet so maybe, one day, you decide you’ve had enough. Maybe showing up in anger, showing up in protest begins to come easy.

I feel like a record stuck on loop, repeating myself about the state of affairs in the country, about the protests, about CAA-NRC, about the Delhi Pogrom 2020 and even as I try and rationalize these feelings — a vague sense of dread, a low lying anxiety reverberates through my body. I think of micro-aggressions and smaller acts of discrimination — not getting a house in a certain locality on account of my last name, somebody breaking up with me on account of my loud opinions, especially about my religion, witnessing some horrible videos of violence, listening to first-person accounts of what went down in Delhi in February but it’s alright. It didn’t happen to me; it didn’t happen to anybody I know personally. Talking to another Indian Muslim friend and words fall short, we just subscribe to obscure, satirical memes now as our city burns behind us. A religious slur in my DMs and it’s no biggie: my father has our property papers ready; he’s got permanent residence elsewhere — we’ll be fine. So, why should we care at all? I think of all the victims of the Pogrom, the students behind bars and consider myself lucky. Say my ‘namasteys,’ win my brownie points.

I made a lot of enemies in college, I usually make a fair number of enemies wherever I go on account of my need to question the status quo, but I also amass endlessly loyal people who get it, who are on their own journeys of understanding and checking their own privileges, questioning structures around them as our given structures effectively collapse around us, the messiness of moving away from wokeness and actually taking the trouble of educating themselves, every day feels like a new discovery, kind of like Alice In Wonderland, really. Except, each new discovery is just another structure meant to manipulate and undermine individual agency.

A merit system of obedience, an echo-chamber of thoughts, like-mindedness systemically rewarded, diverse thought discouraged, funny looks on the street for somebody who looks different than you, history revised and rewritten in school textbooks, citizens asked to prove their citizenship to the person who they elected, religious slurs in DMs, lynchings on the suspicion of consuming beef, pogroms 20 kilometres away from the PMO’s residence. The worst part is I know the guy who sent me this has had something against me since college, a personal vendetta of sorts for reasons unknown, and decided to weaponize a larger rhetoric to rattle me.

Sometimes, if I allow myself to reckon with the larger repercussions of privilege exercised in such a grim way, it makes my blood run cold.

I remember thinking that when the riots broke out that it’s finally happened. No, that’s misleading. It’s been happening. It’s been slowly and steadily building up and then it happens with a resounding force and it shakes the constructs of what I, as a privileged, upper class Indian know to be safe, familiar and real. If nothing else, it goes to throw in my face the absolute truth which is that my understanding of the Indian socio-political fabric is the furthest thing removed from reality. I, despite my education and my access and my NRI privileges, even my half-Hindu lineage, have been reduced to what my last name denotes. And, times like these, when an unprovoked religious slur makes its way into my inbox from a guy, I spent three years attending classes with, I feel nothing but sadness. I think of the time the Dean subjected him to disproportionate humiliation, I think of how these systems of discrimination are entrenched in educational institutions, in offices, in our own homes. I think of my dad’s Muslim heritage and my mother’s Hindu heritage and I can’t help but automatically think of ‘love jihad.’ The idea of something as universal and all-encompassing like love, when applied to a Muslim, somehow immediately questioned and then consequently, besmirched. I think of all the times I’ve decided to not speak out. I think of whether I would stay silent if my child was on the receiving end of it. But hey, it’s just a religious slur in my DM, not hate speech, not an actual hate crime so no biggie.

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