It’s a myth that discrimination in educational institutions exists only when caste, religion or gender are in the fray. It is a lesser accepted fact that it is widely prevalent in Indian classrooms in many other forms. Think about the early years in school and college and one can recollect a number of such instances that were allowed to slide by purposely unacknowledged. Apathy, favoritism, deliberate unfairness, condescending, snide remarks- it’s not surprising at all. It just gets uglier and grotesque when it is based on caste, is politically abetted and reaches high decibels against the backdrop of a sad end, a suicide and an eloquent last note.
Another probable delusion is that the privately owned ‘elite’ schools and colleges, where lessons of equality and humanity and voluntary social work finds more voice, are immune to such prejudices. But the fact remains that discrimination there ‘exists’ except that it’s more subtle, and hidden in the garb of sophistry. The most hard-hit places, however, are the government-run (also the worst-run) schools, where the majority of the students are from marginalized communities. The result is detrimental serving the opposite of the original purpose of those schools, if any.
While the Indian Government often conveniently resorts to ‘denial’, the Human Rights Watch released a heart-wrenching report on the still prevalent practice of untouchability and caste discrimination with a load of terrifying testimonies of little children from SC, ST and Muslim communities. The report reveals that their classrooms are segregated; the upper castes in the first rows on the mats, the others shoved to the back, the mats never under them; physically abused, victims of catcalls, derogatory insults and, repeated blaming or labeling and social exclusion. Water is too pure for them to touch, so they are denied access to school water supplies, while the upper caste students have their fill. Their mid-day meals are nothing but left-overs from the plates of the others, sometimes plates with meals thrown at them. They are denied toilet facilities, but are forced into manual scavenging, often made to clear the excreta lying in and around schools with bare hands. They cannot touch the upper castes, nor talk to them or answer questions in class. Corporal punishment is the rule for defiers, and many times are deliberately failed in exams. This inhuman treatment is meted out by none other than the teachers themselves which makes it even more worse for parents who make complaints but to no avail. The consequences are adverse- low confidence, low concentration, low performance, and high drop-out rates among Dalits- and ultimately ‘end up pushed into work & early marriage.’
The SC and ST are generally labelled as ‘incompetent’ right from the first day and reminded perhaps ‘n’ number of times that the others are ‘meritorious’ and harbingers of awards and fame and hence, also the only focus of all the love and attention in class.
Untouchability was never a story of the past as our history lessons blithely gab about. According to the UNICEF, schools are located in the higher caste areas so the Dalits have a long commute on foot. They are pressured and hassled all day. After a few weeks they fizzle and add to the drop-out rate. Though the RTI boasts of high literacy rate since independence, the system of education in India still throbs with the same inadequacies year after year, with almost 80 million children dropping out before completing elementary education.
Of those who survive this walk on shards of glass and climb the ladder of education, discrimination doesn’t seem to recede at the lower rungs. Anoop Kumar, while reporting the case of caste discrimination in the IITs, traced the exclusionary and discriminatory practices the SC and ST are subjected to and though said for the IITs it can be applied to perhaps any other institution.
The SC and ST are generally labelled as ‘incompetent’ right from the first day and reminded perhaps ‘n’ number of times that the others are ‘meritorious’ and harbingers of awards and fame and hence, also the only focus of all the love and attention in class. On yielding a poor performance, mainly due to the inability to cope up with a foreign language, derogatory remarks by the faculty are commonplace. A sort of alienation surrounds these marginalized students which grows further with every semester. Because they are apparently with ‘lower intelligence’ and assumed to be ‘lazy’, the faculty often resorts to doing a mediocre job. They make an excuse of ‘It’s difficult. You will not understand’, without even bothering to learn the level of comprehension of the students. The result is a terrible show of dedication, resorting to spoon feeding, and a self-five for having fulfilled a supposedly ‘pristine duty’ of repeated discrimination. Instead of being helped by them, students are stereotyped and often subjected to ‘indifference’, and are provided no space to share their grievances.
Sluggish disbursement of scholarships and fellowships often proves to be nerve-racking as they come from a socio-economically disadvantaged group. There are frequent instances of intimidation from their peers, and are constantly under threat of being detained or expelled for poor performance. The hostel accommodations are usually in a deplorable state with lack of amenities and it always takes a protest to seek the attention of the authorities.
“Students from different class, gender caste and financial background come to the Universities now… For Dalits in particular, it is anti-socialism, discrimination and prejudices because they get reservation. So they are harassed, discriminated and face misbehaviour,” says Sukhadeo Thorat, former chairman of UGC.
Caste cleansing is not just confined to students in educational institutions. Testimonies of Dalits reveal even teachers are discriminated at work, segregated and ill-treated in government-run schools. As far as varsities are concerned, Subash Gatade, a social activist, while documenting the casteist environment in AIIMS and IITs, wrote, “…the authorities or higher-ups, with their varna mindset, also see to it that eligible candidates from socially oppressed sections are not allowed to become teachers.” His study reveals messed up administrative authorities in premier institutions hushing down or even ‘junking’ reports on caste discrimination prepared by National Supreme Court Commission.
The modern casteist environment is a synergistic product of several factors. The two major roadblocks to their absolute eradication, however, are a corrupt bureaucracy and lack of ‘transformative’ education. According to Amnesty international 2014-15, ‘State authorities often failed to prevent and at times committed crimes against Indian citizens, including children, women, Dalits and Adivasi (Indigenous people)’ Many a times the perpetrators are allowed to go scot-free.
“Though protections exist in Indian law, they are seldom enforced as caste hierarchy is mirrored in the bureaucratic, police and court systems.” (Navsarjan, a leading Dalit Organization)
“Too often, implementing authorities at the state or district level deny that any form of segregation or discrimination takes place in schools, instead of properly enforcing the law and holding teachers accountable.” (They say we are dirty, HRW report 2014. p.20)
How can a casteist machinery successfully implement the SC/ST (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act and its accompanying rules? The rhetoric of laws and protection doesn’t seem to match up. It intrigues me how the marginalized continue to remain vulnerable to discriminatory forces while growing up on the wrong side of the definition of justice and equality in places of learning and education. When one of my professors attempted to encourage students for an upcoming competitive exam, she blurted out, ‘The ultimate goal is to get a government job.’
I immediately knew the root of all this hypocrisy. Yes, it’s just that. Sterile education in closed minds, that never open, never flourish. That has everything to offer but life and values.