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Why Are Schools Shying Away From Talking About Caste in Classrooms?

If schools cannot afford to have safe spaces for discourses and canvassing against caste consciousness, India will continue to witness an increase in hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis.

Because the curriculum of CISCE, ISC, SSC, or CBSE does not prescribe the learning of caste systems, does not mean the predicament of casteism can be proscribed. Schools, one of the agents of socialisation, after parenting, form an important element in intellectual growth, despite the education system being biased and elitist in its distribution of learning processes. If schools cannot afford to have ‘safe spaces’ for discourses and canvassing against caste consciousness then merely adhering to ‘lesson plans’ and ‘syllabus completion’, hold little scope for deconstructing the intersectional dynamics of caste systems, India will continue to witness an increase in hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis. The National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2019-20 and 2020-21 conclusively confirms that ‘India is unsafe for Dalit and Tribal (girls)’. In 2019-20, crimes against the most marginalized section (Dalits and Tribals) in India increased by 33% compared to the data in 2018. Whereas, in 2020-21, amid the unfortunate times of pandemic, crimes against the Dalit community and Tribals rose by 9.3% compared to the previous year. These numbers are a result of the official reporting of crimes and other relevant aspects, collected on an annual basis, and it denotes how India’s Potemkin democracy continues to stay casteist even today.

Parenting is least likely to deconstruct and help children understand how their family’s “caste capital” benefits them, and how their caste privilege translates into so-called casteless capital. This is observed in the social circles of the oppressor caste, whose understanding of caste is too bounded and immobile. Members of the upper caste often fail to take into account the social benefit they enjoy by virtue of their caste. They commonly mistake caste privilege for merit and further impair social mobility for the marginalised. All accounts of ‘merit’ are inherently baked into the social position held by the upper caste, since members of marginalised castes are regularly exploited and humiliated. Therefore, the onus of ensuring ‘inclusion’ cannot be on the oppressed caste located in the lower strata of this social hierarchy. Since the oppressed castes like the Dalit community and Tribals experience discrimination, casteist slurs and bigotry by all members of society, school system should urgently appear as an antidote to combat this problem. It can be an effective alternative to parenting and a useful tool to smash the social evil of casteism. However it is unfortunate that many schools are not represented by individuals from the Dalit and Tribal communities.

Since the teachers themselves cannot understand or empathise with the plight of the marginalised, they are unable to teach it to their students, thereby replicating the ignorance faced by most parents. Since the upper caste are not affected by it, why would they care about annihilation of caste? Dr Ambedkar, the architect of Indian constitution, ratiocinated that caste should be annihilated, otherwise social osmosis will miss the scope of fraternity, liberty, and empathy. He proposed the idea of exogamy, or inter-caste marriages, to gradually smash the cases of caste-based endogamy but also agreed that alone would not be enough for lasting social change. However, in 2018, a report by Lok Foundation and Oxford University highlighted that only 3% individuals prefer inter-caste marriages, whereas 93% individuals out of surveyed people based in these urban cities prefer the conventional system of marriage that their grandparents believed in: caste-based endogamy. Furthermore, the census report of 2011 stated that inter-caste marriage does not exceed more than 6% amid the population of 130 crore. This data is axiomatically hinting at how ‘casteist’ our emotional and marital choices are.

I am an academic who has converted to a casteless religion called Buddhism since December 2018. After seeing casteist cognition and other discriminatory practices in my former community (Hinduism), I autodidact myself and opted for my own way without considering the cultural consequences of social anxiety or communitarian ostracism. Since Indian families impose religion on their children without their consent, it was through self-discovery that I chose my path. Dr Ambedkar rejuvenated the consciousness of Buddha and many other Bodhisattvas, through social intervention (on 14th October 1956) through the Navayana Buddhism movement that continues to emancipate the oppressed caste from the clutches of Vedas and casteism. According to an India Spend analysis of 2011 Census data, Buddhists have a literacy rate of 81.29%, higher than the national average of 72.98%. The literacy rate among Hindus is 73.27%. Female literacy among Buddhists in India is also considerably higher with 74.04% when compared to the total population average of 64.63%, data shows. This data was concluded by Business Standard newspaper, an English daily, as: “Dalits who converted to Buddhism are better off in literacy and well-being.”

Unlike religion, it is not possible to convert my caste into another caste because ‘jati’ is determined by birth and its intersection with ‘varna’. It is also confirmed by a Hindu saint Shankaracharya of Puri that “varna is decided by birth which is the same as jati'' (Bhagvad Gita 1.42). This establishes that there is nothing one can do about the caste or ‘jati’ that they are born into, and since the opportunity for social mobility is limited, one is forced to endure caste-based humiliation and violence, through no fault of their own. Therefore, this makes a good and coherent argument to unsubscribe from any such religion that inflicts its marginalised members with inequality, control, and bigotry. The caste system is not merely an organised hierarchy that has pauperised the dignity and labour of the oppressed caste, for centuries, instead, it is social belief and a state of mind; a monster that continues to degrade individuality, sexuality, and liberty.

In the US, irrespective of critical judgements, academics dare to teach ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT) to highlight the apartheid and the institutional racism or legal bias against African-Americans. This is significant. CRT is not only a part of the syllabus, but it also manifests an intersectional approach in dismantling bigotry against the coloured minorities as racism exists in meso (i.e cultural, legal, and also institutional spaces) as well as meta forms (i.e. functional, governing, and also economic spaces). On par with this, India is in a dearth of ‘Critical Caste Theory’ (CCT). It can be seen in India’s social sphere how the oppressor caste leniently normalises casteist slurs, a report (2019) by American Civil Society Research noted. 40% of the content on social media is toxic and directed towards the Dalit individuals. The report found that memes, comments mocking reservation system and also doxxing against Dalit individuals were easily available. This hate culture of speech reflects the mindset and racist attributes of the gatekeepers in this social hierarchy (casteism). To add to the woes, even today, caste-based manual scavenging practices continue in India. Uttar Pradesh tops the list with more than 30,000 workers manually cleaning human excreta, in which 80% of the workers are women. An Important question to be asked here is, Will you see a Brahmin or any individual from the OBC community doing such degrading work? Such points or questions may easily condescend the privileged caste as they are not much affected by the systematic dehumanisation that the lower caste undergoes. Their involvement or cry for help is usually in the form of performative activism on social media. Thus, it is important to get these pointers and case-studies introduced in schools (irrespective of the board) so that the future generation does not continue the same pattern of bigotry in any form, in any discipline, and in any household.

Many people I have interacted with have a parochial mindset towards the caste system. Often, these individuals are from oppressor castes and trying to educate them is truly herculean and dawdling. They often argue that it was a practice started by the British while conducting a ‘caste census’ was a practice commenced by them, till today it has not been modified, the current political dispensation hesitates to conduct caste census because they fear the facts it’s likely to reveal about how the socio-economic conditions of the oppressor caste have drastically improved through the maintenance of their caste capital.

Nevertheless, apathetic individuals justify an economy-based reservation system (EWS) without acknowledging the information that it’s only for the upper-caste and it is not caste-based, which verily affects the credibility of affirmative action (social justice) systems. This will cause more inequalities. For example: In a new study published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Ashwini Deshpande and Rajesh Ramachandran discuss how this quota completely overturns the original logic of reservations and highlight how caste continues to be a critical marker of disadvantage, even among the poor. The authors argue that by making economic status the focus of the reservation, the government is disregarding the inequalities rooted in the caste system. Based on the IHDS data, the authors estimate that 98.3% of Brahmins, 97.93% of other upper castes, and 99.75% of SC families report incomes less than the EWS limit of ₹800,000. Therefore, this criterion far from captures the true extent of those who are truly disadvantaged. As upper-caste individuals under this cut-off are already more privileged, the existence of this quota is not likely to benefit the most vulnerable.

Having schools teach CCT is a revolutionary decision, as it will encourage a grassroots and systematic practice towards the annihilation of caste. The system of caste benefits the purveyors of individuals from the upper level, while the individuals from lower strata are exploited.


Title photo: Classroom by Barry Pousman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The author, Mr. Jaimine Anita Vaishnav, is a lecturer based in Mumbai. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in politics, with interests in food, blogging, and meditation. He is a dhamma practitioner and quite vocal against casteism, communalism, hustling work culture, etc. He can be contacted on Twitter @jaiminism for all the right reasons!

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