CREST 2018 Introduction
From April to September 2018, the Crest Internship brought undergraduate students from the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Toronto University, Canada to the Centre for Research and Social Transformation (CREST) in Kerala, India. There were two batches of intern teams: from May to late June, Yasmine Hassen and Tamsyn Riddle, and from July to late August, Mayadevi Murthy and Eilish Sibalis. CREST provides skills training for Dalit (former untouchable) and Adivasi (tribal) youth who continue to suffer from stigma and social exclusion, despite a legal regime that endeavours to protect them. The trainees at CREST have graduated from state universities yet face discrimination when they seek jobs in the private sector, especially prestigious jobs in multinationals. The goal of CREST is to enable trainees to compete with job applicants from more privileged backgrounds and overcome the prejudice that still impedes their social mobility and full participation in India’s modern economic sectors.
During their two-month stays, the U of T student-interns assisted CREST staff by helping trainees to improve their conversational English, upgrade academic and computer skills, and overcome cultural barriers to communication. The student-interns mentored CREST trainees individually, and organized leadership activities to trainees develop their confidence in public speaking through the English language. At the same time, student-interns underwent their own experiential learning about social exclusion and mobility in India, through direct discussions with staff and trainees, information interactions, as well as visits to the surrounding areas. Before undertaking their travel, student-interns underwent briefing sessions, providing the practical information and academic background relevant to the project. During their stay at CREST, they immersed themselves in the daily activities of CREST as a way of experientially learning about Kerala social mobilities and its educational system. Each coming from different academic backgrounds, student-interns engaged in continuous reflection and writing during their stay, to help develop ideas for the post-field essay. Under the guidance of the program coordinator, Professor Tania Li, the interns have crafted insightful academic papers that examine expressions of belonging and identity in the globalizing context of Kerala’s changing forms of social mobilities.
Kerala Interns 2018 – Blog Reflections Assignment
A week before I arrived in Kerala, my mother took me to the ashram of a saint, Ramana Maharshi, who once lived in the shadow of the holy hill Arunachalam, believed by many to be a living manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva. In the visitor’s office, she found an acquaintance of a friend. He asked what exactly I was doing in India. I explained that I was helping post graduate students improve their English, as part of a Kerala government initiative meant to uplift those from SC/ST backgrounds who seek an edge in the competitive private job market.
“No no,” he said, “don’t do that. You should have come to me, I would have gotten you a much better job without having to work with those rascal Christians and SC/STs.”
In that moment, I froze, and to be honest in the many times that I have returned to my memory of the conversation, I am never quite sure that I heard the last part correctly. My mind still struggles to register the way in which he spoke of caste so casually, even with people he had just met. I am struck by how easy it was for him to denigrate so many people; an aside as part of a larger conversation with my mother that eventually turned towards the path of salvation.
The nature of caste, especially for those born to ones of privilege, is to exist in isolation from those placed lower in the hierarchy. There is an inherent dichotomy between those considered to be people, and those who are not. Personhood itself is, if not defined, then at least understood on some base level, to be a classification for one’s caste-mates and above. The social division, as Ambedkar said, is not only of labor but of laborers. A maid, to her savarna or “upper” caste, employer is not often a person, because if she was then her meals would not come from the family leftovers, as pigs are fed. She would sit on her employer’s furniture instead of on the floor for fear that her clothes may leave dirt as dogs do. And of course, she would not be casually labeled a “rascal” by a man who has enough personal wealth, property and standing to spend his time at a Visitors Center.
In Kerala, one of the questions that captured me was that of what each of us deserves: as students, as workers, and as individuals. Merit, within Indian discourse, is almost a shorthand for caste: it is merit, savarnas often say, that sets them apart. It is merit, the savarna immigrants I grew up with say, that allowed them into countries whose doors were only open to those with higher degrees. At CREST the subject of caste was very rarely touched upon, it was said to be a relic of the past, or at least only a factor in those “backward” North Indian states: modern, progressive Kerala had evolved past the system. Instead, I spoke with many students about their aspirations. Often, this was centered around future employment: students wanted to make money, students wanted to be respected, but many of them just wanted to be secure. CREST as a program embodies a curious duality, one that can only serve those from oppressed caste and tribal backgrounds but at the same time refuses to acknowledge the social mechanism that creates these categories in the first place. Initially conceived by the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode as a way of increasing SC/ST representation in the private sector, CREST empowers through a neoliberal focus on individual transformation in order to gain employment. Again, there is the question of merit, particularly in the private sphere where India’s famed reservation system is not in effect: who is hired, and based on what qualities? CREST identifies examples of cultural capital, Bourdieu’s assets of cultural authority weaponized by the privileged, that has come to characterize the Indian worker elite: English fluency, Western body language, Western etiquette, confidence with public speaking, and general knowledge about a variety of topics not connected to one’s specialization. Rather than questioning the value of what, at their core, are markers of privilege, CREST’s savarna instructors teach these markers as skills, vital to one’s future success in the modern Indian workforce. In one sense, CREST fulfills its mandate: the students it serves want and need jobs, and despite their questionable nature these are skills required to exist on a practical level within the modern Indian system. But a capitalism that prizes merit, and defines merit through the achievement of privilege, must therefore position a lack of privilege as an inherent lack of merit, and it is here that CREST’s neoliberal framework fails.
Without the accompanying caste framework to contextualize the reason for CREST’s existence, another dichotomy emerges, at least in the minds of the instructors. There are the students at CREST who with “hard work” can be transformed into the images of the modern meritorious Indian worker elite and reap the money, respect, and security found in such a position. And then there are the “other,” people, who logically must comprise the Crestians’ families, their communities, who work every day of their lives as contractors or seamstresses or on the railways and thus through this logic, not deserve the same. More than simply a question of class, the transformation of cultural capital into objective skills and the ‘invisibilization’ of savarna social capital has contributed to the perverse savarna belief in their own inherited merit, a communal ability to work their own mechanisms of success that they then can define and value as “hard work.” Oppressed caste communities are caricatured as dim-witted, lazy, and inherently incapable of success — the few students like those at CREST are, if anything, weaponized in the minds of savarnas as proof that the majority population who lack access to the markers of cultural capital fundamentally lack the ability to work hard, and so deserve their position within the hierarchy. Only some work is considered hard, only some people are considered deserving, only some people are considered people.
Deconstructing the ideal of merit, for me, meant fundamentally recognizing that people are people, full stop. Before spending time at CREST, I knew this to be true, but it was only after my time in Kerala that I understood the way I needed to radically reorganize the value system I was taught. There was no qualification I could pose, especially as a product of my own family’s caste privilege, on whose aspirations I saw as deserving of fulfillment. Who, according to me, had enough merit measured by adherence to a privileged caste and class ideal, to succeed. When I spent time with my new friends, some of the kindest, most generous people I know, I grappled with basic questions. Does an unfamiliarity with Western body language norms make someone a bad person? Of course not. Would better understanding of these norms conversely make them a better person? No.
Every day, CREST taught students skills that I embodied as a natural consequence of my birth to privilege, and I was confronted with the reality of my own unearned “merit.” I could not claim that access to these skills made me any more deserving of the ability to pursue the aspirations I share with the students at CREST: to be emotionally and intellectually satisfied, to live in safety and security. The ideology CREST espouses and the subsequent transformation of its students only underscores the necessity of a caste-conscious framework that begins by establishing the value and humanity of individuals regardless of their birth. Crestians fundamentally do not gain personal merit for having embodied markers of cultural capital: their initial lack of access to employment in fields for which they are qualified is only a symptom of a casted capitalism.
Appadurai speaks of the necessity of a culture that fosters the poor’s capacity to aspire, and this at its core is the promise of programs like CREST: an environment that encourages uninhibited aspiration, because without the framework of caste barriers, what could possibly inhibit students who embody the characteristics of the elite? At the same time, I think often of the type of men like the one I met at Arunachalam, and the situations where my friends, for all their degrees and training and “hard work”, will still find their humanity so casually disregarded. Even when they succeed, they do so within a paradigm that celebrates their success at the cost of their community: Crestians must believe that the people they were before, and all like them, were lesser for lacking privilege.
I spent eight weeks at CREST, and much of it I spent in contemplation of what it is that my friends at CREST and I deserve as people, in relation to the ways in which hierarchies call into question the very nature of personhood, of what can be earned, and what is owed. Caste, viewed from a savarna perspective, is often about a sense of birth based entitlement, and so the idea of deserving is often described within this community in material terms: money, fame, respect. To annihilate caste then, involves not only an eradication of this type of material entitlement, but also a shift in what individuals are owed when they are valued simply for being alive — the intangible qualities of safety, of fulfilment, of the ability to pursue joy independent of social censure or bigotry. In a society where this is found through employment, perhaps each of us is deserving of a good job. Or perhaps, what we are entitled to is the type of society where we can pursue our hopes, and dreams, and joy on our own.
My time at CREST required me to fill several different roles, which each taught me valuable lessons. In this way, the experience in Kerala was multi-dimensional. Though this made it challenging, I believe it was richer and offered a deeper perspective than if I had just one position. The first role I filled was of a researcher, and it was my first time doing research in the field. It was difficult to remember that no matter what other roles I filled, everything had to be filtered through the researcher lens. As time went on this became easier, and I carried my trusty notebook constantly to record observations.
The second role was as faculty member at CREST in terms of facilitating language study – this was tricky to navigate because the third role was as a friend to CREST students. To balance the two roles was sometimes awkward and left me not knowing what to do or how to act. I wasn’t a teacher, and yet I wasn’t a student. I ended up finding a comfortable position between the two. Being a friend came naturally, and so when I had to do a presentation or engage with administrators, I pulled out my faculty member ‘hat’ to help me fulfill those obligations.
The CREST campus was an excellent place for experiential learning. The staff were professional and helped us with logistical issues, checked in about life at the hostel, and provided all-round personal support if we needed it. At the same time, it was a challenging place full of contrast. Not only contrast in the roles I had to play, as described above, but also in its mode of operation. The students were at CREST to learn and practice skills they had not been exposed to in other academic environments, which could help them achieve success and go further towards their dreams than they may have been ready to before. With this mission came great responsibility for the students and high expectations from the staff. The students were expected to improve steadily, complete large amounts of homework, and take initiative to make the most out of the resources CREST offered. This manifested in presentations multiple times a week and even students starting to create their own small businesses.
While this was all serious business, CREST operated as a creative, playful environment and fostered a caring atmosphere for the students. The days would start with team-building activities and games, and end with a free half hour to have debates, talent shows, or other programming for fun. There were frequent smiles and laughter in the air throughout the day, and a joke was never far away. This dichotomy between the gravity of what students were learning and the way they were able to have fun while doing so provided a unique setting for research about social exclusion. There was exclusion, belonging, globalization, and a local focus all happening in the same place at the same time. CREST’s climate offered powerful insight into caste-based social exclusion, while simultaneously offering its students a place to belong.
Through the University of Toronto’s Sociocultural Anthropology Field School and the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST), my role as intern involved researching changing forms social inequality and opportunity. I focused on understanding the institutional barriers that women face, their motivations surrounding education, and how these issues relate to caste politics in India. One of my academic and personal research objectives has been to contribute in efforts to reclaim space in the anthropological field as marginalized people, while also making dedicated efforts to be ethical and equitable when working with interlocutors.
A common issue in the social sciences, especially anthropology, is how to ethically conduct research and ‘decolonize’ the field. Going into this experiential learning trip, my main pre-travel focus was surrounding the question of how one can decolonize a structure that traditionally benefits from the exploitation and commoditization of marginalized and racialized peoples. One significant issue that was historically found in anthropological works is Orientalism. To assume that such structures are no longer practiced or that we as scholars are in a post-colonial time, is to neglect both the continuation of unethical practices in the field and the repercussions and long-lasting social inequalities that colonial structures left behind. While reflecting on this, I came to the awareness that the implicit biases and pre-established convictions one may hold require constant critical self-reflection. This helps to minimize or eliminate a skewed narrative and instead conduct ethical, truthful research.
Throughout my time at CREST, I was able to interact with the students as well as learn not only from their experiences but also find commonalities in our experiences. By living and working with the women at CREST a connection was built; a friendship. This rapport was one that I will continue to value and cherish. By connecting with the students at CREST I was able to naturally be less otherizing. As the weeks went on, I found that implicit biases are ones that must be continually checked by the researchers through the practice of continuous self reflection and is easier to avoid when these emotional connections are built. Through this time at CREST I have been able to work in the realm of academia yet work through an intersectional and decolonial lens.