Last month, a 12-year-old Dalit boy in Jodhpur was beaten up by his teacher for allegedly taking a plate from a stack meant for upper castes as per a report.
In the schools of Tirunelveli, about 650 km south of Chennai, caste has many colours. It’s what students wear on their wrists, foreheads, and necks, in shades of red, yellow and blue. In southern Tamil Nadu known for violent caste conflicts between OBCs and Dalits, these wristbands are markers that tell children who is a friend, and who isn’t.
Though there are no written rules, students usually know their ‘colours’ by the time they reach high school and lessons in caste-identification start very early in life. Does this not send chills down your spine?
Schools and colleges are supposed to be safe places where students, the one place where a synthesis of mind and development of character are a priority over whatever their illusionary social standings might be. A place where children learn their foremost lessons in friendship, peace and working towards building an egalitarian society. What then could the consequences be of embedding thoughts based on caste bias in the minds of children, at such a tender age?
A few days ago, as per a report in the Huffington Post a government college Rajiv Gandhi Government PG College in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh distributed bags containing pens, notebooks and a calculator to 250 students out of the 600 undergraduate and postgraduate students that read “SC/ST Scheme” so that students were easily identifiable.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the principal of the college, B.R. Nalvaya fails to see the error in his actions, his casual comment reflecting just how insidious the system still remains even 70 years after independence, wherein a man of higher education could actually cite logistical efficiency so casually. He callously said, “What’s wrong if it is spelled out clearly, because the bags were distributed under a welfare scheme… If some people don’t like it, I will get the words erased... In any case, it was the supplier who wrote it on the bags.”
This statement reveals the depravity of the situation in the country, where discussions about caste are muffled conversations and discussing it out in the open is taboo, however discrimination and hypocrisy persists even (and perhaps most openly) at an institutional. A system where top positions are typically occupied by only high caste individuals, who have nothing but sheer apathy for students from the lower caste for whom opportunities are few and far between.
It’s become increasingly clear over the past year that this issue has moved beyond insenitivity and discrimination to potentially dangerous for the psyche and physical well-being of people from lower castes. Whether it’s Rohith Vemula’s suicide, or the brutalisation of a young dalit girl in Kerala, this country is not a safe space for Dalits and marking them out like cattle for the slaughter is clearly the worst move any educational institute could make. It makes it impossible for minority students to feel safe.
There has been a lot of outrage in response to this move among students and activists, “Openly handing out labelled bags that profile students under the pretext of a welfare scheme is not only unnecessary segregation but also insensitive towards the safety of students by exposing their identity this way. Extremists or fanatic purists that believe their higher caste status puts the others beneath them, can pose to be a threat to the students belonging to the SC/ST bracket,” Aishwarya Meshram, a disgruntled student belonging to a minority caste shared.
“An apathetic move like this has exposed 250 students out in the open to discrimination and serves as a threat to potential violence that can be inflicted on them. They (Principal and Supplier of bags) have failed to see through the consequences of a move like this, it sets back a decade’s worth work in the advancement of minority groups in MP, the struggle is hard as it is to move towards equal access to good education for all,” added Karan Tripathi, a Dalit rights activist and Lawyer.
This incident is just one among the many. From open lynching and flogging of individuals for personal food choices, discrimination against the backward class students in schools to untouchability clauses aimed directly towards Dalits in offices, the plight of the Dalits is shameful. Even in Kerala, Dalits find it impossible to rent homes and women are often portrayed as prostitutes. Even the mainstream media in the south often overlooks Dalit stories as they are funded by ruling parties that are occupied by Politicians from Higher castes. The living condition of the lower caste is unfathomable, with little to no representation in media and advocacy.
The solutions perhaps lies in the inclusion of lower caste individuals at higher positions in schools and colleges to nip the problem in the bud. Perhaps even more unfiltered conversations out in the open across all sections of the society to build more dialogue between all castes and classes. Often the woes of the lower castes are dismissed as petty by people from the general category, the reservation system in the country has sparked a lot of debate, which in soothe aims for more equal opportunities but is looked at with disdain by the general category. This is maybe because of the communication divide that they fail to see how hard it is for the lower castes to climb up the rungs, especially when their voices are mostly silenced.
But no longer. The mass protests in Una, Gujarat are an indication of what is to come when Dalits truly mobilise in their fight against oppression. What started as a single terrible incident where a Dalit family was publicly beaten with iron rods on the suspicion of cow slaughter catalysed something far bigger than the state could control and they continue to see protests from the Dalit community and face the consequences of. As a part of the protests against the Una incident, thousands of Dalits gathered in Ahmedabad on Sunday for the Million Dalits March or Dalit Mahasammelan. The protesters have planned a ten-day march, headed to reach Una on Independence Day. According to reports, more than 12,000 Dalits attended the rally in Ahmedabad.
We all live in a perceived equal society, but the reality is far from it. Discrimination, killings, rape of Dalit women and untouchability are still very much pressing issues in the Indian society. These minority communities need more of a voice and what we witnessed in Gujarat was unprecedented. Perhaps a mass mobilisation, where the Dalit community comes together as one, to peacefully claim what is theirs is what could be the stepping stone to resolving the very complex caste issue in the country.
For further reading we recommend this report that portrays the severity of affairs related to caste based atrocities across corridors in India.
Feature Image Courtesy Arun Yadav/ TwitterWords: Rashmeet Taluja