Those difficult conversations – 2

Thejaswi Shivanand and Rohan D’Souza

This is the second and last part of the article on teaching about caste in urban schools.

The course
The Centre for Learning (CFL) curriculum for senior school students (Eleventh and Twelfth standard) has a component called General Studies, which aims to give students exposure to the current social and environmental questions in a more experiential and interrogative manner. We did an introductory course on caste in India, two and a half hours each week for twelve 12 weeks, as part of this component. Discussions around caste are well-suited for this age-group, given the complexity and interconnectedness between caste and various aspects of social life.

We were fairly clear that we would focus on making the course as experiential as possible. This was a challenge given the fact that the children largely came from backgrounds where they hadn’t explicitly experienced and understood caste and caste prejudice. It was clear to us that any attempt that began with a sociological framework of the four-varna system wouldn’t work in this case as the children would feel alienated from such a framework in the absence of experience. The thrust of the course was an attempt to unravel the complexity and pervasiveness of the caste system in daily life in India. We structured the course to begin from where the students stood and through ideas they encountered in the course to finally culminate in comprehensive discussions on the sociological, political, and economic ramifications of caste. We consciously elected to extensively use literature (novel excerpts, short stories, poetry) and film in addition to critiques of caste and other non-fiction (reportage), but limited the use of sociological theory. In the next few paragraphs, we present a brief outline of the course.

How is caste reflected in their (students) own lives?
Here we looked at caste and (a) household practices (b) language and cuisine (c) ritual (d) marriage (e) garbage disposal and sanitary work. We expanded the last point (e) and approached the lives of dalits involved in it using photographs1, documentaries2 and movies3. Each session of documentary, movie, or images was followed by a discussion where ideas or thoughts were shared on the possible social, economic, and psychological experiences of people who were caught in caste dynamics. We followed-up this part of the course with an assignment to look at marriage practices (see box), another assignment was to interview (i) the person who assisted in household help of their views of caste and household practices; (ii) parents or relatives on their views of caste and household practices. These sessions as well as the assignment helped students open up to the reality of caste in their lives, with many of them quite surprised or shocked at their lack of awareness.

defogging-the-caste-system What is the role of caste in popular culture?
Film: The visual medium is powerful in communicating ideas. Over a two-hour session, we showed a curated set of clips, from Hindi and south Indian regional cinema, that showed attitudes and language being directly and subliminally used to propagate caste stereotypes and dominance. This was followed by a discussion and an assignment where we asked them to read a short story4 and choose one event in the story that they think would most powerfully depict the impact of caste on an individual’s life. They had to convert this event into a short cinematic sequence, highlighting the emotions that could be depicted in such a scene. This was an attempt to directly understand the experience of caste discrimination.

Music and Dance: We also explored the role of caste in the domain of dance and music. It included a discussion on the history and current situation of gender exploitation and caste roles involved in temple music and dance (Devadasis and related communities in south India). We also discussed the shifts over time in caste perception, participation and access to performing arts (Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, and hereditary temple musicians) in south India. We finally looked at the emergence of technology and film music and the impact on caste barriers in participation and access to music. For this session, we used excerpts from historical text, photographs, audio clips and short documentaries.

What is the role of caste in Indian politics?
We looked at the role of caste and the reservation system in Indian politics over two sessions. In the first session, we looked at the historical reasons for introducing the reservation system, the evolution of the system through the years, the rise of “votebank” politics, the Mandal commission and the fallout, the emergence of a new caste hierarchy – migration of brahmins from rural south India and the continued oppression of dalits by the new land-owning hierarchy of middle castes that became dominant after land reforms. We explored the links between caste and land ownership with historical and modern perspectives. We also looked at caste violence with historical and modern-day examples including inter-caste marriages, challenges to the economic order, demands of rights like temple entry, reservations and laws outlawing caste-based discrimination. We discussed the emergence of lower caste and dalit-dominated parties and related outfits as a response to caste oppression. The students looked at an assignment examining interviews, statistics, reportage, landmark legal cases, and government documents as sources to understand the points made in the discussion.

In the second session, we looked at the scope and reach of the reservation system in educational opportunities and employment. We introduced the ideas of caste privilege and social capital in upper castes, and relative lack thereof in lower castes. This was particularly important since the idea of meritocracy seemed to be widespread among the students. We discussed the experience of a “reservation candidate” either in educational institutions or government jobs5. We also introduced a timeline including historical reasons for the reservation system to be introduced, the Mandal commission and the interventions of the Supreme Court of India, and the current situation in several states across India.

blacksmith Caste in urban India: housing and employment
We looked at the manifestation of caste in urban India. We discussed ghettoization of castes and communities in urban spaces. We attempted to map dalit keris within urban Bangalore. We looked at the transformation of the villages into current neighbourhoods of purams and nagars that retained pockets of historical village streets in the form of dalit keris, agraharas and muslim neighbourhoods. Similarly, we pointed out the emergence of predominantly brahmin neighbourhoods with conservancy lanes in early 20th century Bangalore. This exercise was very effective in visualizing the contemporary geographical boundaries of caste. We finally discussed the dynamics of caste in renting homes in urban India.6,7

In another session, we looked at the relationship between caste and employment opportunities in urban India. We particularly discussed the relationship of caste with (i) garbage disposal and (ii) IT services industry in Bangalore.8 This easily led to the link between caste and class, with historical (priestly, land-holding, farming, pottery, leatherwork, cleaning night soil and other traditional occupations) and contemporary (government and private sector jobs) economic impacts clearly seen in our discussions. It wasn’t difficult to show the persistence of the old caste order in the new economic order post-liberalization in 1991. It was interesting that right from the beginning of the course, the students could easily understand class differences but it took a few discussions to link caste with class. They could then appreciate the connection between their own caste backgrounds and the economic class to which they belong.

Caste and gender
We discussed the overall socio-economic-political position of women in Indian society with special focus on caste. We used to personal accounts and historical references to discuss the exploitation of lower caste women by upper caste men and the seclusion and burden of upper caste women. We certainly wanted to discuss this in greater detail than allowed by time constraints.

barber Critiques of the caste system
We extensively discussed the structure of the caste system, as it was introduced in bits and pieces, at different points in the course. In these discussions we looked at the relationship of caste and economics, the chatur varna system, the meaning and practice of ritual purity, prescriptions of Hindu texts on maintaining caste order and relationships. We discussed important contemporary critiques of Hindu philosophy around caste.9,10

The monsoon game
In one of the final sessions in our course, we visited Samvada, a Bangalore-based organization that is involved in supporting youth from marginalized communities. Here we interacted with young people, who shared first hand experiences of caste oppression. Then the students participated in the monsoon game,11 where they were randomly assigned roles in a village, and their lives were dictated by a set of rules that they had to rigidly adhere to despite their own misgivings. This brought home the experience of caste in a manner that was not entirely possible in the rest of the course. Our attempt was to begin to empathize with the oppressed and not simply gather information through the course. We can’t be sure to what extent such empathy was kindled, or whether at all it is possible to fully experience the life of the oppressed in such a short span of time, but the emotional upsurges that we noticed in ourselves and the children, gave a glimpse of what might be possible. This led to feelings of hopelessness and despair in many of the students, but this is when we brought back the discussion to what we could do in looking at our own lives for change, in addition to social and political action that is also obviously essential in response to caste oppression.

In this course, it is clear that our attempt is a limited and not comprehensive, introduction to caste. We lay no claim to an original approach, as others may have attempted such a course elsewhere. It is also clear that the participating students were exposed to a culture of dialogue and questioning in the school milieu, a certain understanding of the dignity of labour in regular experience of working in the kitchen, in the vegetable garden, and cleaning toilets, all of which seem equally important in allowing for a more nuanced experience in the course. We also recognize pitfalls in sounding prescriptive, therefore our intention is to only share possibilities.

There should be no reason for caste to be ignored or given shallow treatment in school education in India. In fact for reasons discussed in the introduction and elsewhere, there is an urgent need for a greater role in discussing caste in the classroom today. Our intention in sharing this process was to add to the voices that have been calling for greater visibility to discussing caste in school education.

Activity

Examining matrimonials, invitations, language and cuisines

Matrimonial ads: Reading and interpreting matrimonial columns of newspapers can be a great way to introduce the importance of endogamy in perpetuating caste. A simple activity is to observe patterns in the organization of these ads, the content of a few ads and then discuss the implications in terms of caste-related marriages. If the columns contain references to “caste no bar” or “religion no bar”, then the proportion of such ads to the total number of ads and further implications can be discussed.

Wedding invitations: Wedding invitations from people of different castes can be examined as a supplement to the matrimonial ads exercise. Historical wedding invites can also be examined online for comparison to contemporary ones. Has anything changed?

Language: Differences in language usage is closely indicative of caste. A simple exercise can be to list common words for water, home, food, family relationships, and salutations in the vernacular of various languages and then observe/sort any differences based on caste-specific usage. In the classroom this can be done with students in their respective vernacular mother tongues.

Cuisines: Differences in food practices are also associated with caste. A simple exercise can be to list sample menus of daily, weekend, and festival food in the homes of each students and look at the differences, if any, that reflect caste-specific practices.

References

  1. Olwe, S. (2013) In Search of Dignity and Justice. Retrieved on 26.10.2016 at: http://www.galli.in/2013/10/search-dignity-justice-sudharak-olwe.html.
  2. India Untouched (2007). Documentary by Stanley Kurup Accessed on 15.11.2016 at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgDGmYdhZvU.
  3. Court (2014) Retrieved on 28.10.2016 at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3717068/.
  4. Vinodini, M. M. (2013). “The Parable of the Lost Daughter”. In Sathyanarayana, K. & Tharu, S. (Ed.) The Exercise of Freedom: An Introduction to Dalit Writing. Navayana, New Delhi.
  5. Death of Merit (2011). Accessed on 15.11.2016 at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QA3wEeD4m2g.
  6. Vithayathil, T. & Singh, G. (2012). “Spaces of Discrimination: Residential Segregation in Indian Cities” Econ. Pol. Wkly. 47(37): 60-66.
  7. Sidhwani, P. (2015). “Spatial Inequalities in Big Indian Cities”. Econ. Pol. Wkly. 50(1): 55-62.
  8. Upadhya, C. (2007). “Employment, Exclusion and ‘Merit’ in the Indian IT Industry”. Econ. Pol. Wkly. 42(20): 1863-1868.
  9. Ambedkar, B. R. (2014). Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition. Navayana, New Delhi.
  10. Ilaiah, K. (2005) Why am I not a Hindu. Second Edition. Bhatkal & Sen, Kolkata.
  11. A version of the monsoon game is available online here: https://msu.edu/~eheilman/iss/simluation/monsoon-edit.pdf.

Thejaswi Shivanand is a part of Centre for Learning, an alternative school located near Bangalore. He teaches biology, statistics, and chemistry to senior students and is closely involved in the school’s nature education and library programmes. He can be reached at dumaketu@gmail.com.

Rohan D’Souza is a part of Centre for Learning, an alternative school located near Bangalore. He teaches history, environmental management, social studies, sports, and land work. He can be reached at virtuallyme@gmail.com.