By Karthik Shankar:
I remember being fraught on my first day of school in Chennai. I wasn’t attending one of those cosmopolitan ‘do it yourself’ schools. I was enrolled in arguably Chennai’s most academically gruelling and insular school; almost every kid who roamed the hallways was a Tam-Brahm. Every science student had IIT aspirations. I experienced a culture shock from the moment I joined. On my second day a kid asked me what caste I was. I had no idea there were demarcations even within the Brahmin category. In a state which had successfully pushed forward Dravidian movements, the school was a relic of the past where holidays were given for antiquated Brahmin rituals. Intellectualism was seen as a Brahmin characteristic.
After I graduated, the school suddenly had its hermetically sealed bubble shattered when the RTE Act was introduced. Now the school was forced to admit students who struggled to fit into their founder’s parochial views that they had carried forward for decades. A school that had largely enjoyed homogeneity in its class and caste construct was now flooded with students from very different backgrounds. Students were not welcoming to these new recruits. When asked about the RTE, a student from my former school had this to say “Our school has a certain culture and our parents have sent us here expecting children from similar backgrounds. It is a good thing that we will get exposed to people from different backgrounds, but we might not turn out the way our parents want us to.” For instance, he explains, “We perform Sandhya Vandanam at homes; we don’t bring non vegetarian food to school. Now we will have to face the world right away.” He faced a torrent of criticism online, yet he was only echoing views his parents and the school had foisted on him.
A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch confirms that despite the RTE Act, discrimination of children from disadvantaged backgrounds like Dalits, Muslims and tribals is one of the biggest barriers standing in the way of successful implementation. Some of these stories are distressing. In one district in Uttar Pradesh, 58 Ghasiya children were made to sit away from other students and were all placed in the same class regardless of age. Some Dalit children were forced to clean the toilets in their school. In many of these cases the students stopped attending school.
These are all cases of overt discrimination. What takes place is usually far more insidious like it did in my school. A classroom that excludes different views and opinions and chips away at a student’s self-esteem and sense of identity. When I worked on an RTE project last year, I was shocked at how many of the parents were pre-empting their children’s response to environments that most likely would not be welcoming to them. Children in slum areas were enrolled in schools much further away than the quality institutions nearby because their parents had already decided that they weren’t worthy of attending these ‘premier’ schools.
The very idea of education is to be inclusionary. All these exclusionary practices only dissuade children from taking part in the very education system that is meant to empower them. Till such hindrances are tackled, education will remain only an empty right and not a reality for millions.
Oxfam’s Haq Banta Hai campaign aims to give a clear message to the Union Government and the Education Ministry in particular to take action on RTE and provide millions of children their fundamental right of education.
Your support is vital. You can join us in this campaign and help foster an atmosphere where every child can have his or her ‘Haq’ (right) of education. Do sign the petition here or give a missed call to 09266605000 to share your support.