Anshuman Mruthunjaya
Apr 21 · 9 min read

What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who cannot afford an education? — Anonymous

What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who is offered education but discriminated against at every hour and minute of the school? — Status in India

Education for All?

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education and it shall be compulsory. It also states that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of human rights and fundamental freedoms which include freedom of thought and expression and freedom of conscience alongside others. The article also notes that education shall promote understanding and tolerance among all nations, religions or racial groups. The above are noble pursuits and nations all across the world have been taking measures in realising the same. Policies in India have been aiming at achieving equity in education. What one has to understand is that equity does not only mean creating equal opportunities, it means creating the enabling conditions in which marginalised children can access the opportunities on an equal footing. It also has to ensure that the school environments create spaces for the inclusion of communities which were historically and unfairly disadvantaged making sure the system caters to the diverse needs of all the children. (Pallikonda M and Judith A, 2017)

The National Policy on Education, 1986 and the Right to Education Act of 2009 aim to ensure equitable educational outcomes and a score of flagship schemes have been introduced towards the same goal. Few of the schemes include Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid Day Meal which emphasizes the elimination of various forms of discrimination. The mid-day meal scheme is in fact applauded as it creates spaces for children from all backgrounds to sit and share food thereby eliminating the invisible human-created barriers. But, education in India sadly is seen just as attending school by most teachers and society. What are the chances of equitable outcomes when subjected to everyday discrimination? An alarming fact is that the teachers and staff who are the primary agents in ensuring the schemes are effective to practise caste based discriminations thereby becoming agents of a bygone Hindu order which violated basic human rights. How free and fair is education if students from marginalised communities are asked to sit separately, eat separately, are made to clean classrooms and toilets, are abused and beaten? This is evident in the literacy rates among the scheduled castes and tribes from the 2011 census. In total, the SC’s are 10 percentage points below the national literacy rate of 74%. SC women are at 48 per cent and ST women at 40 per cent. (Census, 2011) Recorded Dropout rates in schools show higher incidence for SC and ST’s. The numbers are again dismal in higher education where SC’s comprise just 12% and ST’s 4% of the total college-going population. (MHRD, 2012)

Agents of Change?

This section looks at the various discriminatory practices against Scheduled Castes primarily in rural government schools which act as major contributory factors for decreased performance in later stages of life.

Seating Arrangement in Classrooms: The discrimination starts from the moment children step into the classes. Those from the Dalit communities are made to sit in the last benches while those from the upper castes are given first bench seats. According to a study conducted in 2012, only 22% of Dalit students sit in the relatively front rows with 78% of them sitting in the back rows only. The other students often get into fights and beat up the Dalit students if they sit in the front rows. This reminds us of the moving example of Bhim who had to sit on gunny bags in a corner of the classroom, was not allowed to answer questions for fear of polluting the teacher and was prevented from studying Sanskrit as it was considered the key to the Vedas. The same Bhim went onto become the Ambedkar we all know and respect. But the same cannot be said about his classmates who had to sit on the same gunny bags in the corner and for their children who still face the same discrimination despite. (Ramachandran. V, 2013) More than 100 years from Bhim, situations in many schools across rural India still remain the same.

Midday meal scheme: The governmental scheme to start free mid-day meals to improve nutritional standards for all children affects Dalit children in another way where they are stigmatised more by being made to sit separately. Some schools report the usage of different plates for Dalit children and special requests by the upper caste parents to not let them sit together or use the same plates. In a surprise inspection carried out in Rajasthan in areas dominated by SC and ST communities, children from the Valmiki community were asked to sit separately and their plates weren’t washed by the helpers (Pallikonda M and Judith A, 2017). In the same village, children from the same community were not allowed to drink water directly from the pots but had to ask the other community children to pour water for them. In many cases, the cooks are from SC background and caste Hindu children go home to have meals because their meals are prepared by an SC cook. Thus, teachers, staff and caste Hindu parents make sure the caste lines are bare and visible for all children.

Sexual and Mental Abuse: In a report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), there are 14 cases of violence in schools reported and 12 of them are about sexual abuse of children from the marginalised communities. In one case, the principal of a school in Rajasthan beat eleven Dalit children for drinking directly from the common water pot and issued them transfer certificates thereby removing them from the school. All this for touching and defiling the water according to the principal.

It is saddening to note that the cases are presented in the report because they were reported or complaints were filed against the perpetrators. Bullying is another form of harassment which is widespread and underreported. Dalit students are subject to repeated bullying by peers of higher castes. The other numerous instances of corporal punishment, physical and sexual harassment based on identity which happen across the lesser known regions in the country.

Toilet Cleaning: Many studies have highlighted the need for improved infrastructure and sanitation in schools across India. The high dropout rates of girls are reported because of the lack of sanitation and toilet facilities. What is even more disturbing is the fact that in schools where there are toilets present, it is often the students from Dalit and tribal communities who are asked to clean them. There is even more discrimination in the fact that girls from these lower castes are exploited in cleaning the toilets. In most cases, children studying in schools do not even use the toilets, teachers and staff use it. The historical practice of particular communities for cleaning toilets is reinforced in these schools. These instances are high in areas where there is a majority of scheduled caste and scheduled tribes.

Stereotypes and Teacher perceptions: Very often, in studies and interviews teachers report that lower caste children are dull and not intelligent. However, this goes against the reality where most Dalit students are above average. The teachers brush this off as saying they are only a few exceptions.

Over the years, studies speak of Dalit children made to feel unintelligent and inferior by teachers. Instances of them not offered to take up math or science, the anger displayed by caste Hindus when they were studying Sanskrit are well documented. (Radhakrishna and Rajana,1989) While we hope such blatant display of discrimination is not practised today there is unsaid discrimination towards Dalits and the age-old perceptions still play their part. As is often the case in India, last names tend to indicate social backgrounds and there are high chances that teachers do not fairly evaluate when they know the paper belongs to a lower caste, however, systematic research needs to be carried out in this aspect.

Dropout Rates: The effects of the many discriminations while not directly reported can be seen in the dropout rates from schools. The below table shows the dropout rates according to social category. From primary to elementary level, the dropout rates as of 2016–17 for SC and ST are twice that of General category students. The percentage is higher for girls. The reasons for dropouts are many, in case of SC and ST, it is safe to assume the discrimination adds to the already existing woes of children.

The After-Effects

The children in question are not aloof to the happenings around them and they do know the distance practised by those around. Children are aware that only low castes are called for cleaning jobs and they have no choice but to accept the practice of not touching the pump or drinking water pots. They are aware that only a few of them are spoken to derogatory terms. This raises the question — once children realise that they are discriminated against, what happens? Does it affect their performance and if it does, doesn’t it go against the very aim of equitable education? A study by Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey helps us answer the same. The study presents the psychological effects of revealing the social background on student performance. The study shows that when caste is not made salient, there is no caste gap in performance but reveals a significant caste gap when caste is made salient proving that historical and psychological effects of social structures affect children. The study documents a 23 per cent decline in the number of mazes solved as part of the experiment due to the fact that caste was revealed. The low caste children solve lesser mazed on average because they feel the rewards will be unfair when the experimenter is concerned with caste. A lack of trust led to decreased motivation levels; those with the potential to solve more are demotivated because of an inherent feeling of discrimination.

Where does the road end?

In addition to education, children need a lot of support systems while growing up. Schools should be able to provide the environment for young minds to flourish. The role of teachers and peers become very important factors in the psychological development of a person. From ages 10–13, besides the literacy and numerical skills, children also need to build emotional health and resilience like skills which are gained through general exposure and increased self-esteem. Categorised into broad headings children need individual attention and care, role models to look up to, a safe space to grow, a personal network and long term support. (Make A Difference, 2016). A report from 2009 shows that 58% per cent of parents of Dalit children are illiterate. 68% of them are daily wage workers. (Jan Sahas Social, 2009). In this scenario where families cannot always provide the required support, the school and the society will have to step in. One can only wish for when the actual effects of discriminatory practices in schools are studied in detail and research carried out to show the sheer mental abuse the children have to go through so that they can climb the social ladder. There is a clear indication that in spite of the rights guaranteed by the constitution and schools regarded as the road to progress, the discrimination practised there is denying opportunities for a better life to thousands of children. Thousands have benefitted by education and have ended the cycle of poverty and exclusion but it is a far cry to say our country is free from discrimination at all levels. If things have to change at a massive scale, it has to start with schools. While the need for systematic research is great, we can be certain that there are huge costs to the mental development of children from marginalised communities due to the combination of social and school processes.

Works Cited and References

  1. Pallikonda M and Judith A, 2017. “Exclusion in Schools, A Study on Practice of Discrimination and Violence”
  2. Nambissan, G. B. (1996). Equity in education? Schooling of Dalit children in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 1011–1024.
  3. U-DISE Team, 2018. “Flash Statistics 2016–17”.
  4. Exclusion and Inclusion of Dalit Community in Education and Health: A Study, 2009
  5. Ramachandran, V., & Naorem, T. (2013). What it Means to be a Dalit or Tribal Child in our Schools. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(44), 43–52.
  6. Hoff, K., & Pandey, P. (2004). Belief systems and durable inequalities: An experimental investigation of Indian caste. The World Bank.
  7. Make A Difference, 2017, “Annual Report 2016–17”.

Age of Awareness

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Anshuman Mruthunjaya

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Young India Fellow | Hopeful Mechanic | Social Impact | History | Motorcycles

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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