Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Divided by caste

Why would a school want to communicate every day to its students that they belong to different castes?

The huge display was the most prominent thing in the school. It was painted on the wall with a black background and white lettering in Hindi. It had the profile of the school, with the numbers and some details of the students and the teachers. It was a typical government upper-primary school, about 20km from a large town.

The first chart had student numbers in each grade and a breakdown within each grade by gender. The second chart had a breakdown of each grade by caste. There were four caste categories mentioned: Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Castes and normal. The fourth category is not a translation mistake by me, the word used in the chart in Hindi was “samaanya". The word is commonly used in Hindi and its common meaning is “normal". The antonym of the word is “asamaanya", meaning “abnormal". This kind of labelling of the categories suggests that three of the caste categories are abnormal; anyone reading the chart would be left with that sense.

Why would a school want to communicate every day to its students that they belong to different castes, and top it with the cruel (and false) act of reminding many of them that they belonged to abnormal castes? The school has not made the display of its own; the state department of education wants the display in every school, and it has determined the format, including the words.

This matter of normal and abnormal caste was only one of the egregious aspects of the display. Here are some of the others. The teachers’ caste was also written, and with the same kind of descriptors. The standard and not-so-subtle marker of gender discrimination was there, with a column for “husband or father’s name", with no mention of wife or mother.

The teachers were classified as “trained" or “untrained", which refers to whether they have completed a diploma (or bachelor’s) in education or not, and is in no way the same thing as trained and untrained. In any case, why would you want to proclaim to the whole world every day that some specific teachers are untrained, creating another kind of caste hierarchy? If it is such a big and real issue (which it is), do not recruit such teachers, but having recruited, do not belittle them every moment.

There is no doubt that the state departments of education and the school need this kind of data for many reasons, most importantly to help with specific actions for disadvantaged groups. But there is no reason to display the data in these formats and with this language, for all to see all the time. It can also be justifiably argued that this kind of stuff merely reflects the reality outside the school, e.g. of deeply ingrained caste hierarchies, and of gender. But that is no argument for a display of this nature.

The display is a (literally) in-your-face blow against the very aims of education that the school is supposed to serve. Let me quote from the preface of the National Curriculum Framework, 2005: “Seeking guidance from the Constitutional vision of India as a secular, egalitarian and pluralistic society, founded on the values of social justice and equality, certain broad aims of education have been identified in this document. These include independence of thought and action, sensitivity to others’ well-being and feelings, learning to respond to new situations in a flexible and creative manner, predisposition towards participation in democratic processes, and the ability to work towards and contribute to economic processes and social change."

This kind of a display, with minor variations, one can see across schools in many states. And the display is only one kind of an artefact or practice in our schools that works against the very aims of education that we have decided for ourselves. It’s not only classroom pedagogy that makes education happen in schools; the practices and relationships in the school matter as much. This is something I have written about often. The progressive and egalitarian vision of education in our policy documents fail in practice, limited by the prejudices of the administration, local functionaries and the teachers. And this phenomenon is not restricted to government schools

Having said all this, I am hopeful that we will make progress on all these fronts. The reason that I am hopeful is that we have made significant progress in government schools in the past few decades. While we are familiar with the glaring deficiencies of our schooling system, we often miss that we have made more progress in schools on matters of inclusion and justice than any other part of our welfare state system.

If you are in any kind of a socioeconomically disadvantaged group, getting access to anything that the state provides, e.g. healthcare, judicial services, the public distribution system or even basic safety, is a nightmare. However, today no child anywhere in the country, irrespective of caste, gender, religion or economic status is denied access to schools in any way. And that’s progress, in this country of ours.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com.

To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere-

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