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Teaching the untouchables

For centuries, India's rigidly stratified society has oppressed those unfortunate enough to be born lower down the caste system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classroom, as Adi Bloom finds out

For centuries, India's rigidly stratified society has oppressed those unfortunate enough to be born lower down the caste system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classroom, as Adi Bloom finds out

The neat green lawns and tile-and-glass buildings of Delhi's All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) are an unlikely place for a 2,000-year-old curse to take effect.

But when medical student Anil Meena hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his small dormitory room at AIIMS, his actions were guided by a first-century Hindu text, which had damned Meena and others like him as "the worst of all men".

Meena was an "untouchable", an "outcaste" (a person without a caste). His educational experiences - from primary school through to their abrupt end - were entirely dictated by this position. Indeed, more than 60 years after the Indian constitution formally outlawed untouchability, most untouchable children's educational opportunities are still determined by their place in the caste system.

"You know what my life has been like, because I am Dalit?" asks Sushil Balmiki, an educated Delhiite whose surname betrays his family's street-sweeper origins. "Dalit", meaning "oppressed", is the term most untouchables have chosen to use for themselves since the first half of the last century.

"When I am going to school, the teacher is saying, you, Balmiki, sit at the back," he says. "I am not allowed to sit at the front of the class with the other pupils. She never chooses me to answer questions. Just because I am Dalit, she is giving me bad marks in school."

The caste system was first outlined in the Rig Veda, one of Hinduism's sacred texts. The text describes the way that the gods created the world by dismembering a cosmic giant, Purusa. Purusa's mouth became the Brahmin, or priestly caste. From his arms sprang the Kshatriya, the warrior or ruling caste. From his thighs came the Vaishya, the merchants and traders. And from his feet were born the Sudra, or peasant classes.

The untouchables do not feature anywhere in this story. Technically, they are outcastes: they do not belong to any of the four castes into which Hindus are traditionally divided. In fact, the concept of untouchability was not introduced until almost 1,000 years after the Rig Veda was written. The Law Code of Manu, written between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, offers a detailed outline of the rules by which right-thinking Hindu society should live. It is this code that introduces the idea of the lower castes defiling those from higher castes.

While higher caste men might choose to marry low-caste women, conversely, Sudra men are punished for procreating with Brahmin women. Manu repeatedly refers to the half-caste offspring of such unions as "Candala, the worst of all men".

The Candala were the original untouchables. Their touch was defiling, as was their contact with any food.

Ultimately, though, untouchability stems from the allocation of unpleasant jobs to those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Some subcastes, for example, must serve as village executioners. Others work with leather - deemed particularly defiling to the vegetarian high castes - or with dirt and faeces.

This version of Hindu society is still all too present in India today. Untouchables sweep India's streets, mend its shoes and cremate its dead bodies. And caste is not class: an untouchable can be upwardly mobile economically, but will never be able to shake off the stain of untouchability. According to Hindu orthodoxy, being born untouchable is karmic retribution for the sins of a past life. The only way to ensure that you are born into a higher caste next time round is to devote this life to the job assigned to you by fate and the caste structure.

Meena, therefore, grew up with access to only basic government education: he and his family lived in a mud hut in rural Rajasthan. Such areas are regularly targeted by government and civil educational programmes, says Jayshree Mangubhai, of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI). However, there is a tendency to assume that simply introducing universal primary schooling will solve all India's educational problems. In fact, 93 per cent of India's primary-aged children are enrolled in school.

"It's very difficult to take the statistical information that's generated at face value," Mangubhai says. "Yes, children may have been enrolled in school at the beginning of the year. But maybe they don't go after that. Or they go to a school where their name is ticked off on the roll every day, but they don't learn. All the emphasis is on whether the children are going to school, not are they learning anything at school - are they being taught?"

Mangubhai, along with her CSEI colleague Annie Namala, are sipping sweet Indian tea in their office in southern Delhi. They are surrounded by files and folders, each marked with the name of an Indian region or a government act. In the street outside, an auto-rickshaw honks its horn.

The Indian government has said that all children should live within 1km of a primary school. But this ignores the subtle, historic prejudices of the caste system. "It has ghettoised schools," Namala says. "The dominant-caste children don't come into the area of Dalit children. And teachers who don't want to teach somehow get themselves enlisted into schools in Dalit areas."

Absentee teachers

In the past, Namala says, teachers were reluctant to take jobs in Dalit communities: they recoiled from the dirt, the illiteracy, the poverty. Now, however, this has changed. "Teachers want to go to Dalit areas, because no one puts pressure on them there," Namala says. "No one insists that they come on time or that they work hard, which they do in dominant areas. Parents in dominant areas put lots of pressure on you."

Teachers in a government primary school earn a decent salary: most take home between 24,000 and 40,000 rupees (about #163;240-400) a year. Many in Dalit schools continue to draw this salary but simply sit in the classroom and send text messages all day, or spend lesson time chatting to other teachers.

"Some come in, write something on the board, and that's it," Mangubhai says. "Or they get one of the children to read to the others. Or they humiliate children so they won't ask questions. You're not ultimately teaching children. You're just turning up and doing a task."

Other teachers do not even do that much: they simply show up once a month, sign the teachers' register and then pay a teenager a couple of thousand rupees to sit in their place for the rest of the year.

By the end of primary school, 30 per cent of Dalit children have dropped out of education. By the age of 16, that figure has risen to 70 per cent. In some areas of the country - such as the notoriously impoverished Bihar - the secondary dropout rate is as high as 90 per cent.

These were the odds that Meena faced in his government school in Rajasthan. But he focused intently on his studies, working his way through primary school, while many of his peers dropped out to help their parents in the fields or by bringing home a day-labourer's wage. And then he moved on to secondary school.

Unlike primaries, secondaries do not need to be located 1km from students' homes. "Schools are situated in higher-caste areas of the city," Namala says. "And Dalits don't enter into higher-caste communities unless they're called there for work.

"It's not a common-access area for them. So, when a service is located there, it doesn't provide them easy access to that service."

The higher-caste communities, meanwhile, see Dalits as servants and labourers: the people who work for them. They are not - must not be - their children's peers. And so there have been incidents where higher-caste teachers have refused to allow Dalit students through the school gates. Dalit girls, riding the bicycles that the government has given them to ensure that they are able to travel safely to school, are told that they are not allowed to cycle through the village where that school is located.

Whereas his more advantaged peers went to English-medium schools, therefore, Meena's secondary education was at an under-resourced Hindi-medium school. There was no reason for outcaste children to learn fluent English: language skills are of little use to a day labourer.

Even for those Dalit children who make it safely to school, secondary education is not without the kinds of obstacles experienced by Balmiki, the Delhiite from the street-sweeper family. "So much of routine caste practice is reflected in the classroom," Namala says. "Higher-caste children think: you don't sit with so-and-so, you don't become friends with so-and-so, you want to humiliate so-and-so. You expect this task to be done by so-and-so.

"So Dalit children sit on their own. They may not be allowed to serve others food, or they may be the last to be served their meals. They may have to eat separately. They may be expected to do certain tasks. They're expected to be agricultural or casual labourers, not to be doing academic studies. These are all the beliefs and values that teachers have, that teacher training hasn't confronted."

And, Mangubhai says, teachers are often happy to overlook caste-related problems. "Often, teachers deal with caste issues by saying it isn't a big issue," she says. "If a child beats up another child, it's not a big issue. If a child discriminates against another child, calls them names, it's not a big issue. The teacher just tells them to be quiet and not to make a fuss. Or beats them both up, as a solution."

Disadvantage and discrimination

Lessons, too, resonate less for Dalit children than for their higher-caste classmates. "The textbooks are not something that a first-generation learner can go through without a very rigorous teaching process," Namala says. "Even poor families are giving tuition to their children. Children are not learning anything at school.

"And if you look at the textbooks, they're full of images of middle-class children. They're more oriented to children whose parents are educated. The culture and knowledge of Dalit children is not brought into the textbooks. Their heroes aren't mentioned in the books. No one's looked at how to bring them into the system."

Several streets from the CSEI headquarters, down a complex tangle of dusty alleyways, Abhay Flavian Xaxa sits over more sweet, milky tea. These are the offices of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a Dalit-focused non-governmental organisation. A peon (clerk) appears with a bag of take-out samosas, and various staff members pause for a mid-afternoon snack.

Discrimination against Dalit secondary students is complex, Xaxa says, between bites of samosa. Theoretically, the government has introduced economic measures to improve the situation for schoolchildren such as Meena. Sixteen per cent of the government's annual budget is reserved specifically for development programmes aimed at the 16 per cent of the population comprised of Dalits and other disadvantaged groups.

The education department is the biggest single recipient of this Dalit development budget. The aim is that the money will be spent on scholarships, on books and uniforms for those who cannot afford to buy their own, and on hostels for students who need to travel long distances in order to attend secondary school.

"What happens is that the money rarely reaches the students," Xaxa says. "It's put into regional types of programmes, instead." For example, the money might be used to fund a new classroom or a new school boundary wall. "People assume that 16 per cent of pupils will be Dalits, so the benefits will reach them. What you're seeing is major diversions of budgets. Schemes meant to benefit Dalit students remain defunct. You find that hardly any schemes are beneficial for them. There's a big gap between what the government is planning and what they are given."

Despite this, some exceptional Dalit children occasionally make it through the system. Meena devoted himself monomaniacally to his studies. His reward was his position as a "topper" - at the top of his class - and a place studying medicine at AIIMS.

For most Dalit children, however, willpower alone is not enough. "Twice I applied to work for the government civil service," Balmiki says. "Twice I passed all the examinations. And you know what they said to me in the interview? They said, 'What does your father do?' And I said, 'He is a peon in Delhi.'

"So they are saying, 'Do you think, with your background, you can cope with a job in the civil service?' You know what that means, 'with your background'? It means: you are Dalit. You are nobody. You are nothing. We do not want you."

Nowhere to turn

Back at the CSEI offices, Mangubhai acknowledges that many of the obvious protest routes lead only to dead ends. "Schools look down on Dalit parents," Mangubhai says. "Caste is in their clothes, their deportment. So they won't go into schools to complain. Teachers know this, and so their children are beaten more often. If there's a fight, their child will be singled out for punishment.

"The parents don't have the contacts, they don't know the headteacher. They don't have a sense of entitlement. And transferring school is a very, very complicated process."

Government quota systems, meanwhile - including a proposal that all private schools allocate a quarter of their places to children from disadvantaged groups - are likewise flawed. Often, the very schemes intended to promote equality in fact provide a new means of discrimination. "Ultimately, you create a divide between 'normal children' and 'quota children'," Namala says. "There's a strong discourse of merit versus affirmative action. But unless you equalise the resource base of people, you can never equalise merit versus quota children."

One solution, she suggests, is to give Dalit children the vocabulary to address such issues themselves. In the impoverished eastern Indian state of Bihar, CSEI has piloted educational resources that introduce Dalit children to the concepts of human rights and children's rights. Teenagers meet in a regular students' forum, to discuss their rights and the ways in which those rights have been violated by individuals and by the system.

"It makes these children agents of their own communities," Namala says. "If you want to beat the system, you need to build the confidence of children in ways that are feasible for them. It gives them the confidence to feel dignified, to feel listened to. They know things that others don't, and can present it to the larger school: these are the things that matter."

Such schemes, however, came too late for Meena. Stymied by the exclusively English-language lectures at AIIMS, he carried a dictionary with him everywhere. He spent hours poring over it, attempting to decipher the information that his tutors were giving him. A change in university rules, however, unfairly penalised students who did not have a background in English-language education. As a result, Meena failed a vital exam.

For a week after the results were announced, he tried again and again to meet his course director. Exhibiting the tenaciousness that had taken him so far, he spent hours sitting in the corridor outside the tutor's office, desperately - and, ultimately, fruitlessly - campaigning for a meeting. After days of being ignored and humiliated, Meena finally gave up. He was found hanging from the fan of his dormitory room on 3 March last year.

"If we remain uneducated, then of course there will be issues of discrimination," Xaxa says. "Where Dalits are educated, they are more aware of their rights. Education is the tool by which we can break the shackles of caste."

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