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Caste Is NOT A Matter Of Past. Is That Why Indian Schools Won’t Discuss It?

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.

If you ask a high school student in India about their idea of the caste system, you will probably get an answer on the lines of “That is a matter of history, no idea why people keep on talking about it even after so many years.”

Representational image.

For the majority of the students, ‘caste’ and ‘class’ (based on socio-economic ladder) are synonymous. If we search for its root cause, we will find the education system to be having quite an impact. Although the government is trying to uplift students from marginalised communities with the help of reservation and scholarships in colleges/universities and in jobs, students never get to learn about the instances of casteism in present-day. This scenario ultimately leads to ‘resentment’ and prejudice by the ‘educated elite’ upper-caste students.

While schools continue to run the refusal of a sensible discussion about the difference between ‘caste’ and ‘class’, the gap between the ‘privileged’ students and the ‘unprivileged’ ones actually begins to widen. If the students from marginalised castes drop out or are alienated at the school level, it leads to a domino effect that eventually affects their higher education and career. The ‘privileged’ ones may scream against the existence of the reservation system, but have they ever thought about how students from historically marginalised castes are treated, even to this day? Well, I guess ‘NO’ is the answer.

Representational image.

A huge fraction of India’s present-day society remains unaware of the fact that caste has quite an ugly presence in rural areas and metropolitan cities. To begin with, the practise of untouchability continues in India, even though the national constitution ‘legally’ abolished such practice since 1950.

According to the data collected by the India Human Developmental Survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, about 27% of Indian households continue practicing untouchability and 52% of Brahmins (one of the upper castes) continue doing the same.

Besides, at least two Dalits are assaulted every hour and at least two Dalits are murdered and non-Dalits set fire to at least 2 Dalit houses every day. As per the National Crime Bureau’s official statistics for 2012, around 1574 Dalit women were raped and 671 Dalits were murdered in the very year of 2012. The International Dalit Solidarity Network reports that 14 cases of violence in schools have been reported and 12 of them are about sexual abuse of children from marginalized communities. Also, a high number of lower caste students either drop out or die by suicide as a result of bullying in esteemed institutions.

Privileged students tend to run at a loss of information since schools usually restrict the definition of casteism to the constitutional definition which ultimately results to a common question in their minds: “Why does the caste of the victim in such horrific cases matter?”

The schools’ refusal to talk about caste in a sensible manner not only provokes prejudice in students as they grow but students from some of the best schools of India often end up making comments about reservations, such as: “The day reservations are abolished will be a better day”, “I don’t know why people even talk about such concepts even after so many years. The best we can do is forget about that part already and move on. Caste is just such an absurd concept.”

To see instances of casteism overlapping everyday life and education, one may read ‘Baluta’ by Dalit-Maharashtrian writer Daya Pawar, alias Dagdu Maruti Pawar, where he accounts how Dalit students were made to sit separately at school, take water from separate wells and their families forced to live in a ghetto within a village.

Discrimination is still observed at schools when the seating system is based on caste differences. Representational image. Image source: PACS India

In addition to all these, reports of the Devadasi system being practised in areas of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have raised questions and sparked fears among all. NGOs working with the Devadasi community of Karnataka brought out the fact that there has been no survey on the number of Devadasi girls in the last 18 years. The Karnataka State government held the last survey in 2008 according to which there were 40,600 devadasis.

At a media consultation programme on Protecting Children From Sexual Offences, organised by Child Rights Trust, Karnataka Women Journalists Association and Children Empowerment for Getting Out Of Devadasi system (GOOD), several Devadasi children demanded financial aid for their higher education and hostel facilities so that they could escape the horrifying practice of their respective villages.

The Devadasi system witnesses young girls being forced to give up their usual lives at a very young age and become servants of God, since “their surname itself says so?” (Deva– God, dasi– servants). In the name of ‘serving’, they are actually made to end up in life-long prostitution, where any upper-caste man can have intercourse with them whenever he wishes to. So, what about their education? If these horrifying practices aren’t enough to answer the privileged elite’s question – “Why do the reservations exist?”- who can say what will. And, if the question of reservation on economic status comes up, then it should be remembered that reservation based only on caste should exist because-

  •         Lower castes (Dalits, backward castes, etc.) are more likely to be poor than general castes.
Caste groups
Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe Other Backward Classes Forward Caste (Brahmin) Forward Caste (Non- Brahmin)
Annual household income 

(in Rs.)

89,356 75,216 104,099 167,013 164,633
Per capita annual income (in Rs.) 19,032 16,401 21,546 35,303 36,060
Annual consumption of household (in Rs.) 87,985 72,732 108,722 146,037 143,497
Per capita annual consumption (in Rs.) 18,740 15,860 22,503 30,869 31,430
Assets (index) 12.7 10.2 14.7 18.2 17.9

Hence, on an average calculation of the economic outcomes, we can conclude:
ST< SC< OBC< FC (Non-Brahmin)< FC (Brahmin)    

[source: Wealth inequality, class, and caste in India: 1961-2012 ]

  •         Injustice and negligence have been caused toward the backward communities for over a century now.
  •         It is illogical for people of backward sections who have been deprived of education, stable economic status, etc. to suddenly start competing with the ones who had access to those means for all these years.

Additionally, in 2019, NCERT had removed an important section on the protests of the Nadar women of Travancore from Class 9 history textbooks. The Travancore royalty enforced law in the 19th century to bring attention to the ‘low-caste status’ in society, according to which Nadar (earlier called Shanar) women were not allowed to wear an upper cloth to cover their bodies. Following the Channar Revolt from 1813 to 1859, the women were finally allowed to wear it but that would be unlike the ones worn by their “upper-caste” contemporaries.

NCERT textbooks do not only avoid addressing present-day casteism but hardly contain such historical accounts. 

The Indian school education system probably assumes that the discussion of present-day casteism is a sensitive issue, but the real question remains- “Is the real world any less horrifying?”

Renu Thapa, a student at Gargi College, Delhi University, currently majoring in English says, “While I studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya, I never experienced or observed any form of caste-based discrimination in school but I think a sensible discussion and inclusion of such practices will make the students much more conscious in the future days.

An appropriate way to discuss the issues, balancing both its sensitivity and the students’ consciousness, remains to be found.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

This post is part of theJaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writers' Training Program, 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 and apply.

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