“I’ve become a victim of institutional exclusion”: KS Madhavan of Calicut University

02 June, 2021

On 21 April, Madhyamam, a Malayalam newspaper published an opinion piece titled “The Anti-Reservation Mafia Flourishing in Universities.” The authors—PK Pokker, a visiting professor at Calicut University, and KS Madhavan, an associate professor in the history department at Calicut University—wrote that the implementation of reservation in Kerala’s universities was dismal. They referred specifically to recruitment for teaching posts. On 29 April, the Calicut University issued a memo to Madhavan demanding a written explanation “on the matter of discrediting the image of the University” and accused the senior academic of violating various sections of the Kerala Government Servants’ Conduct Rules which state that an employee cannot publicly criticise any government policy or make any communication to the press which could result in “embarrassing” the “relation between the Government and the people.”

In the Madhyamam article, Calicut University is mentioned only once to state that the National Scheduled Castes Commission sought a report from the university on “irregularities on the reservation.” According to a report in the New Indian Express, in April, the commission issued a notice to the university to submit details related to the recruitment of assistant professors to the nanoscience and technology, and physics departments. The notice was based on complaint filed by Pramod K, a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and a member of a Scheduled Caste community. He had interviewed for a post at Calicut University and wrote that the selection process was not transparent.

Though the Madhyamam article was co-authored, Calicut University issued the notice only to Madhavan, who believes he is facing administrative action because he is Dalit. In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, the historian reiterated his commitment to speak for inclusive policies in higher education. “There should be academicians, administrators, vice chancellors and other authorities who have a larger vision of inclusive education, who understand the relevance of social justice,” he said. “They should be leading the universities.”

Aathira Konikkara: Your article mentioned Calicut University only in passing, saying that the Scheduled Caste Commission issued a notice to the university.
KS Madhavan: Yes. How does that defame the reputation of the university? Let me give you the larger perspective. I am an institutional academic and public intellectual at the same time. For the last 10–20 years, I have been speaking on the process of social and institutional exclusion. This is my academic concern. Structural hierarchies is my academic specialisation—how social exclusion takes place through systemic institutional structures. My PhD thesis was focused on caste and the social-exclusion process in Kerala from first century AD to the 14th century AD. The modern state should initiate a process to resolve the problem of social exclusion in the higher education system. Within our constitutionally guided state system, we decided our priorities through an inclusive developmental process. State universities, central universities, regional public universities, IITs, IIMs were established to produce knowledge as a part of this development model. This model has to address India’s diversity, its structural hierarchy and gender inequality. If even development has to take place, there has to be a higher education system which addresses these issues. Inclusiveness is the basic pillar of a modern democratic education process. Affirmative policies are introduced worldwide to address this. For example, reservation for women, backward castes, minorities, people from regions like Kashmir and the North East is a route to ensure distributive justice. The aim of the constitutional morality is to resolve the question of structural inequality. This was [one of the contexts] in which Dr Pokker and I wrote this article.

The second [context] was the new [National] Education Policy which caters to a highly centralised authoritarian state and rejects the secular, inclusive education system that India had raised so far. They are slowly removing the supporting mechanisms that backs education inclusiveness. All of this was the context of the article. We are not bothered about the petty politics in the universities here. But we publicly explained the need for the implementation of reservation policy in the case of appointment of teachers in various universities in Kerala. The appointment of Kerala University professors was recently quashed. Why? Because of the improper implementation of reservations. The [Kerala High] Court said that the process of implementation of reservation was faulty. It has to be implemented properly. The roster system should be published. [The roster refers to the list of vacant staff posts in each department, under various categories, including reserved posts.] The UGC mandates that universities should publish the rotation charts for community-wise appointments for transparency.

AK: In the memo issued by the university, it has stated that by writing the article, you violated Kerala Government Servants’ Conduct Rules. Are the service conduct rules are routinely misused by universities to silence academics?
KM: The embarrassing high-handedness on my academic stand point seems to be an act of silencing the production of academic knowledge which is locating the need for  social inclusion of communities [at the] social margin. Any form of intervention, with administrative logic devoid of academic sensibility and institutional ethics is an act of structural institutional violence leading to the social death of an academic.

AK: Did you send a response to the university’s memo?
KM: Yes, I replied to the university stating that I did not discredit the image of the university. In fact, I defended the Constitution by emphasising the need for inclusive education and proper implementation of the reservation policy. This is a collective research being carried out by me and my co-author. As I understand it, social inclusiveness is a global academic issue which is largely endorsed by constitutional morality.

AK: Why do you think only you were served the notice and not Dr Pokker? Why do you think you were singled out?
KM: The structural violence of institutional logic has its selectiveness. [It is] being operationalised with institutional and social prejudices. In my case, a person who called for an inclusive policy has been institutionally excluded. I myself have become a victim of institutional exclusion, it involves a kind of institutional prejudice on my social location. The systemic logic, its practice and disposition keep an inherited social mentality that KS Madhavan is a Dalit, so no one will say anything if we discriminate against him. This is the social mentality and prejudice of the institutional academic system. This is the nature of the structural hierarchy of the system. This memo wouldn’t have been issued if someone from a privileged community was in my place. When we write an article in a popular medium, we can’t publish footnotes. There are many reports which show that central and regional state universities in India lack social inclusiveness and do not implement inclusive policies, including reservation, properly.

AK: Is the notice you were issued being discussed in academic circles?
KM: In a prejudiced society like India, I don’t think it will be judiciously discussed anytime soon in the academic community. But we have to carry on this conversation academically and ethically to have a proper internal mechanism for genuine communication between heads of institutions of higher learning, academics and public intellectuals on matters of social inclusiveness and differing academic standpoints. The academic community is largely supporting me. That is why they have issued a statement in solidarity, including academics like Sukhdeo Thorat [professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi]. Kerala History Congress, an academic body of historians, researchers and teachers endorsed my academic position in the said article. A number of public intellectuals, public and civil society organisations and movements largely endorsed my position. They recognise that social exclusion and inclusive policies in higher education is a global academic question and that a democratic society relies on its resolution. As a public intellectual and academic, I expect respectful engagement and cooperation from the university system to resolve these issues ethically with academic sensibility. However, some vested partisan interest groups with mentalities of malicious privilege practice hostility to my critical and reflexive academic practice on social inclusiveness. It seems to me, there develops a modern form of institutional academic untouchability which is being violently unleashed on me as a reputed academician.

AK: In your article, you wrote that for a long time, there have been certain groups which have resisted the implementation of reservation. What were you referring to?
KM: No, I never mentioned a particular party or a particular group of persons. It is basically a systemic issue. It is an academic position to reveal why the structural hierarchies are operating and what is the process which excluded communities. Dalits, Bahujans, women and Muslims must have the accessibility to enter the higher education system as students, researchers and teachers. These communities should become knowledge producers. Tribal communities entering universities has the larger goal of ensuring their participating in the research into the social, economic, cultural and scientific issues in this country. They should have their due share in knowledge production. The production of knowledge is for the transformation of society, the democratisation of society. As researchers, they will study how the structural system affected them, how they were alienated, how the modern system marginalised them. As victims of this system, they should academically problematise it and develop knowledge.

AK: Let me bring up the recent example of Ranjith R, an economist and member of a Marathi Scheduled Tribe community who was in the news when he was appointed an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ranchi. He had said that he had qualified for a teaching post at Calicut University but did not get it even though there was a vacancy. What is the solution to ensure a transparent procedure?
KM: The university system should ensure that the most competent, highly qualified candidates are selected while complying with the community-based reservation policy. There should be academicians, administrators, vice chancellors and other authorities who have a larger vision of inclusive education, who understand the relevance of social justice. They should be leading the universities. Partisan politics should be done away with to ensure the quality of a public university. In my capacity as a public intellectual, a way to resolve this is to raise awareness among the public. It is our institutional commitment. So I wrote an article with noted public intellectual Dr PK Pokker. We represent the university in a useful and ideal way before Kerala and the rest of India. So should the university retaliate like this?

AK: What are the loopholes in the existing admission procedure? How does caste bias operate here?
KM: At the PG [or post graduate] level and MPhil level, there is a mechanism to ensure the implementation of reservation. It is in research admissions that this is not complied with. There are a large number of complaints that the rules to ensure entry for the reservation community is not followed. A student applying to life sciences filed a complaint before the [National] Scheduled Castes Commission last year. In case of SC, ST students, no one takes charge of them as a guide. If their names appear on the list, there is no rule in place to ensure that they acquire a guide. The students have to run around looking for guides. A Nair student, a fair-skinned student or someone from an upper caste community will get preference. So the process is such that  SC, ST students, even if their names are on the list, get ousted because they could not join with a guide. This is an example of structural exclusion.

AK: Another major issue is the backlog of vacancies in reservation posts which is unattended for years.
KM: Yes, the backlogs need to be cleared. How many posts were notified in each department ever since Calicut University was established, how many have complied with community reservation norms? There are posts lying vacant cumulatively without offering to the reservation community. The university should release a special notification to fill them. The backlogs should be filled before moving on to fresh vacancies. To find the extent of backlogs, the university’s roster system concerning community reservations should be made public. It is not being made public despite filing of RTIs [right-to-information applications]. It is a public document. Reservation is a state policy. How can a document framed on the basis of that policy be a secret document? That is the basic problem here. The roster system should be published to ensure transparency. That is why stakeholders are raising complaints. How can a university then say that it is being defamed?

AK: What are the steps the state government can take to intervene in this matter?
KM: The Kerala state higher-education council is one of the agencies which can monitor and issue directions on how to implement the reservation policy in a transparent way. The higher education council must interfere as it is an important agency of the state government that can coordinate with the university system. Social inclusion in higher education must be a serious point for the higher education council in order to ensure the constitutional principle of affirmative policies.

AK: According to University Grants Commission rules, when SC or ST candidates are being interviewed, the interview board must include one member from the SC or ST community. Is this being complied with?
KM: I don’t know if that is followed. But that person must have a social commitment to the community. My suggestion is that a representative who understands social exclusion and is committed to inclusive policies should be a part of the entire process. This should be mandatory. It should not be just any person for the sake of it. I would say that it should be social scientists with a deep understanding of structural inequalities and inclusive education, committed to constitutional principles, committed to the communities at large, committed to the stakeholders of reservations. Otherwise, there are enough people who will work according to what they [the university administration] say.

This interview has been edited and condensed.