Cast(e)ing out education

Aditi Dhammachakra

A recent report by Human Rights Watch has brought to light everyday instances of discrimination against Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim children in primary schools. The report reminds us that caste and tribal status is invoked repeatedly in schools and is resulting in a large number of children being stamped with a stigmatized identity and leading to many dropouts. This massive gap between the role that education should play in bringing social transformation and the role that it is currently playing in perpetuating the existing social order is a cause for serious concern. I examine this in my second article in the series on inclusive schools.

It is interesting that the HRW report finds acts of discrimination so commonplace. I call it interesting because I have noticed fairly frequently in my interactions with teachers across the state I work in, that the first time you attempt to bring up the issue of caste-based discrimination, the immediate reaction is one of complete and total denial. “Nahi, yeh hamare yahaan nahi hota hai (No, this doesn’t happen here)” is the most typical response I come across. But children, unlike adults, are a totally different story. Their innocence and honesty are always striking.

Recently, I was chatting with a group of children in class five in a government school and they asked me what caste I belonged to. I told them my last name (from which you can normally gather a person’s caste in India, especially if you belong to the same region which I don’t). Since they couldn’t immediately deduce my caste from my last name, they persisted in asking which caste I belonged to so I asked them, “Why is it important to know someone’s caste?” They said, “Because adults tell us it is important.” I pushed them further and asked, “Why do adults think caste is important?” After some hemming and hawing, one lovely, bright 10 year old girl said, “Because when you grow up and get married you must marry someone within your own caste.” I was taken aback by the certainty with which she had said it but I wasn’t prepared for what was to follow. Wanting to engage them further I asked, “What will happen if you don’t marry someone from the same caste?” Behind me I heard this little, 10 year old boy say, “You will die.” Some of the girls, seeing my surprise at this statement said, “No, you won’t actually die.” “Are you sure?” I asked, “Will you really die?” He said quite matter-of-factly and with a worldliness about him that was unsettling, “Well, you may not die, but people will beat you up.” I said, “What do you really think will happen if two people from different castes got married? Would it affect us in any way? Think about it and tell me tomorrow.” They all promised with their earnest little faces that they would indeed think about it. I wonder if they went home and spoke to their parents about what happened in school that day.


Caste in India, I sometimes think, is like the air we breathe. It is this invisible force that drives us, the essence of our socio-cultural existence. The important difference between the two being that the air we breathe is essential to our existence. But why is caste something that refuses to go out of our minds and lives and, therefore, our schools?

It is one of the first things we relate to. I am surprised by how often it is the first parameter that needs to be established when I enter a school or any other government office. The first thing someone wants to know about me is my caste. Not what I am doing there or what I want to talk about – first they must establish my caste. Even more remarkable was what I witnessed recently when I was visiting a government school along with a student from the local District Institute of Education and Training (DIET). As we walked in, right in front of us was a blackboard displaying the names, educational qualification, and year of joining service of all the teachers of that school. The young student-teacher with me was delighted. “All the teachers in this school are (his caste), just like I am,” he exclaimed. And he repeated this with great enthusiasm and delight every single day for the whole week that we spent in that school. I wished I saw as much enthusiasm in him when he was dealing with the children.

When it comes to the visible manifestations of caste discrimination, from making only dalit/adivasi girls (and sometimes boys) sweep classrooms and clean toilets to making some children sit separately or bring their own utensils to eat the midday meal, the list is long, inhuman, and horrifying. Some even go the extent of having segregated schools. I saw this in a village where a strong so-called upper caste lobby objected to the idea that their children have to study with the so-called lower caste children. They put pressure on the Panchayat and got two schools opened in the village. Encountering such examples makes me wonder which century I am living in.

But perhaps even more harmful than the visible discrimination, which can easily be spotted and hence possibly curtailed, are the more insidious forms of invisible discrimination which we carry in our minds. These are the ones we need to collectively examine.

One such mindset that troubles me immensely is the sort of “blame the victim” mentality that a large section of teachers demonstrate. “Unke yahaan padhne ki sanskriti nahi hai (These children don’t come from a culture of learning)” is a common phrase you will hear. The idea that some children are incapable of being educated is one of the most disconcerting ideas any human being can have, but for teachers to have these beliefs is downright tragic. Tragic because how can they even begin to engage constructively with these children if this is their foundational belief?

the-oppressed-son And what happens when we take a peek into the classroom? In the textbooks, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are routinely termed “backward” without really examining the meaning of the term and the reasons for this “backwardness”. History is taught from the perspective of “great (dwija or so-called upper caste) men” (rarely women!) and it is as if ordinary, working class people (awarna or SC/ST/OBC) did not exist at all back then. Children are not encouraged to see the dignity there is in labor or how much everyone of us depends on the fruits of that labor. (Kancha Illiah’s book, ‘Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land’ is a remarkable resource that can be used constructively in classrooms to correct this. I’m sure there are many others and would be grateful for more suggestions.) In such a situation, will children grow up to be capable of challenging the existing casteist mindset in society? Are children in government schools truly encouraged to engage in critical thinking, especially when it comes to caste? Dr. B R Ambedkar posed a radical challenge to the entire caste system and called for its annihilation. Why then is his classic text, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, not studied by high school children or included in our teacher education courses?

So on the one hand we have a National Curriculum Framework (2005) that talks of one of the primary aims of education being to encourage and develop critical thinking abilities, and on the other we try to suppress critical scrutiny and examination, especially when it comes to caste. I’ll give you an example of how this happens. I was part of a group discussing a training module for Block Education Officers. We were discussing a unit called “Equity and Inclusion” and one of the senior officers in the State Council on Educational Research and Training expressed the view that our training module was too ‘negative’. When we asked why, he said that he felt we should be talking about diversity in our society rather than about discrimination and inequality.

We want to couch the concept of inequality in using terms like “diversity”. I think it’s reductive, if not downright dishonest, to use the terms interchangeably. Diversity simply addresses the fact that there are differences among us. This is true and it is also true that diversity should be respected. However, much more importantly, when these differences are of a structured and hierarchical nature, and the beneficiaries of an unequal system are always the same and so are the victims, then we are talking not of diversity but of inequality. Recognizing that this inequality exists in our society and in our schools is not the same as, for example, acknowledging the wide variety of languages we speak. The impossibility of denying that a vast number of languages is spoken in India is apparent, but the denial of the fact that inequality exists is something we indulge in all the time. It’s not that we’re not aware of this discrimination happening. It’s that we keep silent about it, don’t do anything to counter it and even try to suppress difficult discussions about it.

And it’s not just that we keep silent about it. I realized the depth of the problem we are up against during a training program for school head teachers in one of the districts we work in. During a discussion on constitutional values and the importance of implementing them in practice in schools, one head teacher stood up and said, “I understand the meaning of equity and equality (samata aur samanta) and I promote it in my school.” I was very intrigued so I said, “That’s great. Could you share some practices in your school that illustrate this?” He said, “Hum neechi jaati ke bachon se unchi jaati ke teacher ko mala pehenvate hain. (I get lower caste children to garland the upper caste teachers)”. We were talking about the concept of equity and inclusive practices in schools and this was his understanding of being inclusive? I was deeply distressed but honestly I also got a glimpse into how entrenched caste is and how difficult it will be to change mindsets and practices in our schools.

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to address the issue of being called “divisive” or sometimes even “casteist” just because one brings up the issue of caste. It is election season as I write this and I repeatedly hear this during physical, television and online discussions. “Are we still talking about caste?” seems to be the question that is debated all around. Let’s be very clear, talking about caste and being casteist are two very different things. As educators, we simply can’t afford to “forget” about caste. Only the extremely privileged beneficiaries of the caste system have the luxury of “forgetting” about caste. For millions whose everyday lives are oppressive and a struggle for survival because of the caste system, this luxury of not questioning the caste system and its impact on our society is not available. So, yes, we are still talking about caste and we will have to continue to talk about it until it is removed from our minds, our lives, and our schools.

Some important questions we are left to ponder relate to the role of education in bringing social change. So, given the authority of teachers in relation to both students and the wider community, are they equipped to play the role they are supposed to play in removing caste-based discrimination from our schools and from our society? Is our education really geared towards challenging the status quo, especially with regard to the caste system? Or is it merely reinforcing it further, in new and different forms? Is the mere fact that children from oppressed communities are in school enough? And what can we do to make their experience of school free from oppression and discrimination?

We believe, at least in our Constitution and in our policy documents, that one of the principle aims of education is to encourage social transformation. This can be achieved only when children are not merely encouraged to adjust to society as it is, but are also encouraged to have questioning minds and are able to challenge the status quo. In other words, education is seen as a liberating process through which individuals and society can free itself from exploitation and injustice. I would argue, therefore, that the transformation of teachers and all others in the education system, needs to be central to educational reform, something which needs to begin very urgently in our schools if we are to see education truly fulfilling its promise of being a means of catalyzing social change in our society.

The author has worked with the government education system in India for the last seven years. This has been her second “education” after growing up in a home with two teachers for parents, studying in an alternative school, an Indian liberal arts college and then in the United States. She can be reached at