Caste and education: “My birth is a fatal accident,” wrote Rohit Vermula in his suicide note. He was a Dalit PhD student who died by suicide because of the caste discrimination he faced at the hands of the University.
His death is a reminder of the caste-based discrimination in the Indian education system prevalent even today. Just recently, history repeated itself, when a video of IIT Kharagpur went viral in which a teacher, Seema Singh, could be seen verbally abusing and shaming students who belonged to SC, ST and OBC sections. She called one of the students “Bloody Bastard” for not standing up during National Anthem, admitted to doing so.
It is 2021, why even today students from the marginalised section are discriminated against by teachers and the entire education system?
Wasn’t education supposed to incorporate critical thinking, equality and revolutionary thoughts and actions in students? Then, why does casteism seep into books and classes?
Caste and Education: How casteist education system affects students
“Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world,” these words by Nelson Mandela resonate with us even today. The edifice of the transformative education system is supported by teachers who carry the responsibility of inculcating revolutionary ideas in the minds of the students who would be the change-makers of the future. But, none of this will make any sense if the education system, including teachers and curriculum, are biased- gendered, casteist and racist.
If lower-caste students are forced to realise their lower status in the social hierarchy, will they ever be able to look beyond caste identity?
Will an upper caste student learn to unlearn caste-based discrimination? How long are we going to lose students to social exclusion just because they belong to a lower rung of the hierarchy? Who is responsible for the biased curriculum and teachers in educational institutions, reputed or otherwise? How can we ensure that the coming generation will be wary of caste-based discrimination?
Just reservation is not enough
Some might argue that the education system has been cognisant of caste and class difference, proof of which is the reservation system. But, how can the reservation system alone ensure that students from the marginalised class will be treated equally?
If teachers, administration and curriculum of education are casteist, will students from marginalised section ever be accepted wholeheartedly? Will such an education system raise people who believe in equality and justice?
An example of this is Bama’s autobiography Karukku in which Bama, a Dalit woman writer, writes that even though she got a seat in school, her caste identity preceded her merit. Teachers and administration mocked her as a mere beneficiary of the reservation system to grab a seat which she never deserved. A glance of the lopsided education system of India is visible in Rani Mukerjee starer Hichki also in which underprivileged students are shamed and isolated because of their “unruly” behaviour and roots. The school administration did not consider them anything more than a beneficiary of certain policies.
It is important to note here that in India, as per Oxfam, the dropout rates of students belonging to SC, ST and OBC community is higher than other categories. 75 per cent of more than six million students who dropped out of school are either Dalits, Muslims or Adivasis. Moreover, four out of five female teachers and one out of four male teachers belong to upper-class sections.
This proves that even though lower-caste students get a seat in schools and colleges, the casteist environment makes it difficult for them to survive. Along with reservation, there is a need to make the institutions anti-caste by building an education system that is based on equality and revolution.
Need to abolish caste discrimination in society and education
Lets us now address the elephant in the room- the caste system which is deeply entrenched in our society. The caste system and evident practices of untouchability remind us that society functions on a hierarchy that seeps into our culture, education and daily life. Because there is a presence of caste discrimination in society, the education system moulds itself accordingly too. Ideologies about caste discrimination are internalised to an extent that they become the norm.
Teachers tend to scan lower-caste students under the stereotypes like “slow at learning”, “do not belong to school”, “brute” and whatnot because they have grown up with these stereotypes.
It is high time now that society becomes caste-conscious. And for that, it is important to unlearn casteism and incorporate ideologies of equality on both the individual and community level. Anti-caste should be a mandatory category tick mark before finalising the teacher and the curriculum. We need to understand that caste doesn’t determine the amount of education, respect and equality that a person deserves. Students today, irrespective of class, caste and gender, should internalise this voice against caste discrimination so that the next generation can promise an egalitarian society. Education needs to be revolutionary and the revolution starts when we unlearn our own biases.
Views expressed are the author’s own.