*Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment*
For the glorious baggage of pioneering work in the education sector, India is revered as the land of education, culture, knowledge and intellectual supremacy. Indians around the world are especially celebrated for their cerebral capacity.
As much as we could bask in all the glory of those who have made it, we must address the deep-seated issues of casteism, gender inequality, lack of inclusivity and trustworthy safe spaces in the Indian education system and call for radical reforms collectively.
The problems of casteism are so deeply ingrained in Indian society, yet, a chunk of mass denies its existence. This denial speaks about the lack of voices, their amplification and acute social segregation.
Rural India sees the horrors of casteism every single day. The Bhangi, Harijan and Dalit communities are terrorised, ostracised and heavily isolated systematically. The schools of rural India categorically differentiate between lower-caste students and higher caste students, making the former do chores like cleaning school washrooms, sweeping the floors, even making them sit behind in class.
In certain areas, they are not even allowed to access education, for it is supposedly the duty of Brahmins solely.
However, in urban India, the grandest debate regarding casteism is stipulated to reservations, low cut-offs in educational or official institutions for them. The majority of mass hugely overlook the systematically imposed inaccessibility to resources, making students from backward castes begin the race with great disadvantage.
Many people can be rightfully angry for not being able to enrol in premiere institutes even after being “meritorious”. In a social construct like ours, “merit” becomes a bourgeois concept as well, which is heavily backed by capital and intellectual resources. The right demands would be to increase the number of seats and stop the corrupt distribution of caste certificates that facilitate blockage of seats by the privileged.
Recently, an incident from IIT-Kharagpur triggered a row of protests which made the #End_Casteism_in_IIT trend on Twitter. An associate professor thrashed out on students for not standing up for the national anthem. The class in question was preparatory English classes meant for SC, ST, OBC students and students with disabilities.
Dalit and Adivasi students were mistreated vulgarly for caste by a faculty member Seema Singh of #IITKharagpur in an online class
Immediate action must be taken against her under #POA_Act.
Strongly condemn this type of harrasment exercised by an IIT Prof.#End_Casteism_In_IIT pic.twitter.com/9Rx8GTn19W
— Dr. J Aslam Basha (@JAslamBasha) April 26, 2021
Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a student body of IIT, released an official statement saying, “She knows that the savarna-dominated IIT administration will protect her from any backlash.”
This is why it becomes crucial to promote caste sensitisation in educational institutes to prepare for a better future. If teachers themselves abuse students on the lines of their caste, then the future sure is troubled by more misery. We need more implications of reforms backed by laws that prevent such professors from getting away, laws that promise equality, dignity in every institution.
Additionally, a report released by The Wire in 2018 states that out of the 642 faculty members across 13 IIMs, only four are from the SC group. A solitary faculty member is from the ST group and 17 faculty members belong to the OBC category.
In January 2019, the Union Ministry of HRD said in the Lok Sabha that of the 6,043 faculty members at the 23 IITs, 149 were from the Scheduled Castes and 21 from Scheduled Tribes. This means less than 3% of faculty members belong to the reserved category.
As per the Government of India’s requirement, 27% of the seats are reserved for NC-OBC, 15% for SC, 7.5% for ST candidates, 5% for Persons with Benchmark Disabilities (PwD) and up to 10% for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in IIMs. But there are accounts of how students experienced institutional othering by the savarna majority of the administration and a disparity in their salary during placements were also noticed.
It indeed is a long journey before we can expect an atmosphere where reservations don’t work as mere tokenism but empower communities to come at par with the “apparent” majority and showcase their mettle.
When we talk about casteism in premiere institutes, we look at individuals who have been conditioned over time, their early experiences forming their opinions and perspectives on a certain issue. This conditioning calls for more responsible training in the early years of life when a person is extremely impressionable.
A student spends most of their formative years in the premises of a school, majorly known as their second home. The experiences, incidents and values absorbed in their time in school condition them for their lives. These conditions are formed over a vast period and can take multiple years to undo them.
The Indian schooling system is a reflective mirror of society, a society that is constantly bargaining for “the best spot”, that is busy differentiating between women and men, forget about being inclusive towards the ones who don’t identify as either.
Conversations about one’s sexuality, gender identity and expression are finally surfacing and these conversations need to begin early in children’s lives. Many people bottle up their experiences, get bullied in silence and eventually are scarred for life. The trauma of all these appalling experiences does not leave them. It sometimes stays lifelong and interferes with their health, choices and life at large.
Indian schools, small or big, have to radically begin a dialogue about gender inclusivity and promote a welcoming, forgiving and kind atmosphere. The clear demarcations of boys and girls, the stereotype of uniforms, the separated bathrooms, all reek of regression, of a culture that is unacceptable in the 21st century.
We have heard harrowing accounts of harassment in the name of discipline in schools and it exposes the incorrigible motivation of Indian society to look at things in binary. This binary system of judgment can never empower the student society as it romanticises “the grind”.
The grind to be the best in academics, best in sports, best in music/dance. Children normalise a culture that encourages them to overwork, “beat opponents”, and climb the ladder of success. The truth is there are multiple ladders, many more beyond what the binary lens of the education system can envision.
The usage of binary language in academic curriculum and conversations at large is alarming. They must be encouraged to sound gender-neutral. The arbitrary rule of “he/she” pronouns conditions the students’ studying the same into believing that the world is limited to two constructs.
It, however, sounds foolishly radical to expect such progressive movements holistically when the entire education system reeks of regression concerning the narratives of gender stereotype, syllabus design and assessment structure.
Safety issues have also been a rising concern in schools. The agenda of safety, cultural practices in schools and academic content are intersectional. When a young girl is labelled “asking for it” for her short skirt, a skewed idea of safety is planted into the heads of students, as if it becomes a responsibility for women to “protect” themselves. In contrast, schools should be proactive in teaching the students, the boys better, to stop another “Boys locker Room” incident from happening.
Conversations are always a pragmatic way of addressing an issue. It is the most civilised way of expressing empathy and promising a space that is not judgemental, is accepting and safe. Opening rooms for students to talk to authorities and teachers about their uncomfortable experiences in campuses across issues can help liberate them individually and bring to light the issues bothering students on campus.
Sexual harassment cases in schools are unfortunate and should be called out extensively. The young are extremely vulnerable as they don’t know better and can be potentially subjected to institutional silencing. However, in times of digital learning, harassment from teachers, classmates and authorities is a new terror and demands extensive conversation.
In the recent incident in PSBB School, Chennai, a teacher, Mr Rajagopalan, was accused of harassing students by sexually inappropriate behaviour exposing the perils of digital life. Students took to social media to talk about their accounts of harassment. Alumni and model M Kripali shared them.
It soon took momentum as more and more students opened up about his problematic gestures, messages, even physically uncomfortable accounts experienced previously. The alumni association called for his resignation and he was then arrested, complying with multiple sections.
Ex-teachers and students have collectively mentioned how he was not monitored previously, even if many students have had unfortunate incidents because of him. If schools provided an atmosphere of safety, not just from predators, but are also able to be open to hearing from them and acting upon the complaints proactively, assertively, schools would truly be safe havens for students.
Years after we pass out of our educational institutes, we always reminisce about our times on campus (and now off-campus, too), miss our good old days with our friends, and most of us have a wholesome smile on our faces, thinking about the glorious memories.
The same years that we yearn to get back to are also the years that were horrifying, harrowing, disturbing for some and they still feel crippled by the anxiety from all these years. It is indeed one of the saddest experiences.
We as a community must advocate for spaces that become empowering, help students in their holistic growth, and create healthy, confident and kind individuals ready to take on for the world.