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From ‘Othering’, ‘Bullying’ To ‘Exclusion’: Chronicling Caste Through My Childhood

This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Trigger warning: Caste-based discrimination

Caste is a ground for discrimination, disadvantages and distress.

Although I experienced this first-hand as a child, I have only recently started acknowledging the disadvantages and impact that my caste identity has had on my life. Bullying, isolation, violence—experiences that persons from Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities deal with right from childhood—have a profound impact on mental health and well-being.

Girls from these communities, such as myself, face multiple layers of discrimination at each ‘identity intersection’: caste, class and gender.

This article explores how educational settings (among others) become breeding grounds for discrimination — seeding ideas of social privilege, power and position.

Representational image

My Childhood Caste Chronicles

The first vivid memory that I have of ‘caste identity’ was in grade one. An unexpected school holiday was announced, and on enquiry, I was told by my classmates that it was some ‘Jai Bhim waale’ festival.

By age five, my classmates had already learned the art of ‘othering’.

I was duly informed that the festival was something ‘those Ambedkarites’ celebrated. Understanding that I belonged to the group being spoken of so distastefully, left me with my first encounter with caste-based othering and shaming. By grade two, my schoolmates were proficient in othering and bullying.

Caste-based slurs were popular and used for all occasions—to bully others on the playground and to exercise power in the classroom. Students from marginalized caste communities were referred to by the profession of their parents: ‘Safai Karmacharis’ (sanitation workers) or ‘house help’.

‘Othering’ manifested into bullying and further into ‘exclusion’.

In grades five and six, groups/cliques began to mushroom in each class. Group members sat together during breaks, played together on the playground, met after school — and were very exclusive in their membership. I learned this the hard way. Unaware of the dynamics, I sat next to one particular group during our lunch break and offered my tiffin box in a gesture of friendship.

I was promptly told that ‘the group was only for Marathis and non-Marathis were not allowed.’ This was perhaps my most vivid experience of othering and prejudice — one that sends a shudder down my spine as I recall it even today. We were in the same uniform, yet, not ‘uniform’ to speak so.

How Teachers Furthered Discrimination Too

Practices of social exclusion were also practised by our teachers—institutionalizing discrimination and stigma.

A common practice was to bypass rotational seating arrangements and reserve the last benches in a classroom for students from marginalized caste/class backgrounds.

We were both subtly and publicly labelled as ‘good-for-nothing’.

Public shaming was the norm, and our teaches would ask us to announce our parents’ professions, smirking along with the students, when those of us in the back rows would say ‘sanitation worker’.

They would also publicly shame those whose fees hadn’t been paid—again a mechanism to make students in those back rows feel small, worthless and inferior.

Growing up in an environment that constantly negates one’s culture and dialect, invalidates one’s family traditions, shames even the food one eats and the celebrations one enjoys — has a profound impact on how one views/values oneself. The fallout of this is lifelong — trespassing all areas of our lives— shadowing us into adulthood.

How does one make peace with self, when right from childhood, our environment negates and invalidates who we are intrinsically?

It, therefore, is unsurprising that persons from marginalised groups/identities/communities experience greater levels of mental distress than those who hold more advantaged or higher positions. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 2014, people from Scheduled Tribes had the highest suicide rate 1 at 10.4, followed by Dalits at 9.4. In less than a decade, more than 25 Dalit students in India have died by suicide due to caste discrimination and institutional casteism in educational institutions such as the University of Hyderabad, AIIMS, and IIT.

Adding to the hardships and hurdles on the path of education, the governments fail to implement basic policies that safeguard the right to education for the people from marginalized caste backgrounds. Recently, the current NDA government has rolled out a plan to replace the Government Of India Post Matric Scholarship for SC/ST with a single scheme covering other marginalized groups that has a lower budget.

Additionally, the centre has failed to release the funds for PMS in the states like Punjab, Bihar, Haryana, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The NDA government has been cutting down on its share for the scheme over the years from 60% to 10% by 2018 putting the state governments under a shortage of funds to implement the scheme effectively. The scheme is the only scheme by the centre that bridges the socio-economic gap through higher education covering more than 60 lakh students whose family income is below 2.5 lakhs, a majority of which would be first-generation graduates.

With the current uncertainty and a possibility of scrapping out the scholarship scheme, 60 lakh students and 60 lakh future families are on the verge of being pushed out of the education system.

Educational institutions are thus breeding grounds for discrimination and social exclusion. They are our first structured experience of socialization, and spaces where we learn the nuances of social position, power and privilege. They can also become spaces where we unlearn prejudices taught at home, challenge discriminatory social norms and confront social exclusion. I’d like to leave readers with the words of one of my favourite writers, Yogesh Maitreya in his poem ‘The Bridge To Migration’:

“Unlike them

My tongue wasn’t chiselled by school

And trained to speak

In their usual ways.

I learnt the lessons

Written on the famished pages of night

Into my father’s tumultuous eyes

And when found the source

Of my being rejected as a mind…”

Vandana Jogadiya is a student of M.A. Social Work in Mental Health at TISS-BALM, currently interning at Mariwala Health Initiative, a mental health funding organisation. She has an interest in mental health, caste, and writing poetry.

#caste #mentalhealth #thementalispolitical

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