CASTE: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM CAST OUT OF SCHOOLS
By: Tithi Neogi* |
“The social relevance of the argumentative tradition would be severely limited if disadvantaged sections were effectively barred from participation.”- Amartya Sen[i]
Professor Sen says this in light of India’s ancient tradition of argumentation and disputation, and the importance it holds in today’s raging issues. His statement becomes more significant when read in the context of the National Education Policy, 2020 (henceforth NEP 2020), which states, “The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light for this Policy.”[ii] However, to uphold this legacy of the ancient Indian argumentative tradition and Indian knowledge and thought, it is necessary to engage participants from all social strata. Ironically, the NEP 2020 seems to go against its vision in its disguised attempt to make education an even more exclusive affair for the upper-castes (Savarna) and practically inaccessible for members of the lower castes (Avarna).
This claim gets stronger simply by looking at the structure of the NEP 2020. A quick word search reveals that in the 66-page document, the word ‘caste’ appears only 6 times- 5 times in 5 different paragraphs, and once in the list of abbreviations. The 5 paragraphs in which the word ‘caste’ does appear, are all contained under Chapter 6: Equitable and Inclusive Education: Learning for All, which consists of 26 paragraphs. This itself goes on to show that Caste, be it a concept or contemporary provision, has not been given enough weightage in a policy that seeks to make education more inclusive. Caste, a dominating factor that disables a chunk of the society from climbing out of the clutches of stigma and penury; which fuels vote bank politics in India; has been brushed conspicuously under the carpet when it came to making education all-inclusive and all-accessible.
What does the NEP 2020 offer?
The NEP 2020 offers some superficial and disconnected reliefs to students under the umbrella term of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs), which consist of different gender identities, socio-cultural identities, geographical identities, disabilities, and people afflicted by poor socio-economic conditions (such as migrant communities).[iii] The Policy seeks to deliver measures which will concertedly target SEDGs. Such measures include targeted scholarships, conditional cash transfers as an incentive for parents to send their children to school, providing bicycles as a means of safe transport.[iv] However, the NEP 2020 does not take into account possible problems associated with such relief measures. Take, for example, the conditional cash transfers that are meant to encourage parents to send their children to school. From the angle of caste, this particular measure seems to be built on the belief that lower-caste parents are not too keen on sending their kids to school, and would rather keep them engaged in other sources of income. The policy fails to consider that despite economic considerations lower caste parents may not send their children to schools simply because they don’t consider such an environment safe or inclusive.
The Policy does not shed much light on the prevailing attitudes among teachers, administration and upper-caste students and their parents towards Dalit students in schools.[v] Secondly, while NEP 2020 insists on providing bicycles to disadvantaged students, their use simply may not be feasible for the target population. Many Dalit families live in rural pockets where bicycles would prove ineffective [vi]; further, there have been various instances of harassment faced by lower caste girls on their way to school.[vii] There also remains the subsequent police apathy to deal with.[viii]
No mention of Reservation
A national policy which aims to make education inclusive would ideally cover a policy measure that covers reservations. While its effectiveness remains a hotly-debated topic, the reservation has been a recurring concept in our national discourse and ensures a leg-up to the Avarnas on the ladder of social mobility. Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, sheds light as to why the effectiveness of reservation, as implemented in India, remains debatable. He mentions the concept of Friendly Fire, which basically means doing more harm while setting out to do something good. In India, there is such a huge gap between the policy-making table and the poor man’s doorstep, that a poverty-ridden Dalit has no resources to even access information regarding governmental schemes providing aid to the likes of him, whereas someone from a backward caste who has already moved a little up the ladder can access and utilise such schemes, thus further benefitting from a policy which he did not particularly need. This widens the gap between the poverty-ridden Dalit and the slightly better-off man from a backward caste, thus pushing the Dalit further away from mainstream society. Thus, it comes as a great surprise that NEP 2020 does not mention the word ‘reservation’ even once. This makes us question the Central government’s intention- is reservation to be phased out, done away with altogether?
NEP 2020 not only fails in acknowledging Dalits, but also skirts past the topic of reservation not just for students, but also for the appointment of Dalit teaching and non-teaching staff.
Vocational training and structural changes
The NEP 2020 aims for a lot of things- multidisciplinary learning, skill-based education, flexibility, no hard distinction in the arts and sciences, as well as vocational training. It aims for all these things either without understanding the ramifications, or as a concerted approach to sideline Dalits from our formal education system. I say this because the NEP 2020 has introduced multiple entry and exit points in the schooling system- by holding major examinations in classes 3, 5 and 8, it enforces a 5+3+3+4 design, substituting the current 10+2 pattern of schooling. Such a pattern would lead to more students from the lower-castes dropping out of school at various stages,[ix] because when major examinations are held, under-performing students are not promoted, and it is likely that a sizeable chunk of this group of students would belong to backward castes, due to lack of amenities and inclusivity. Parents will lack the incentive to enable their children to complete basic schooling. Further, the introduction of vocational training in the secondary stage itself and downsizing of courses will lead to traditional hierarchical ideas of caste-based occupation being reinforced, since kids who are not promoted will have the option to switch to a low-skill vocational course, thus being forever trapped in the working class. Heavy emphasis on vocational skills at a tender age will help churn out a low-quality labour force from lower-caste communities who will be forever tied to their blue-collar jobs.[x] This is proved by a statement from the NEP 2020 document itself: “In particular students would continue to have the option of exiting after Grade 10 and re-entering in the next phase to pursue vocational or any other courses available in Grades 11- 12, including at a more specialized school, if so desired.” Such a policy motive kills the incentive for disadvantaged students to complete their education and relegates them to the position of manual labourers, incapable of individual and analytical thought.
Public-Philanthropic Partnerships: Corporatization and Saffronization
NEP 2020 has envisioned the building of alternate models of schools through partnerships between governmental and non-governmental organizations, for which restrictions will be loosened.[xi] Paragraph 4.32 of the NEP 2020 provides that such public-philanthropic partnerships will also fund the development of additional textbooks, further states will formulate their own curriculums, incorporating the ‘State flavour’, meaning state authorities will be able to infuse the culture that they want to promote in these textbooks. A closer look at such schools operating at the ground level explains why this situation is wrong at several levels. Over the years, RSS has developed 12,363 formal schools, 12,001 single teacher schools, and several sanskar kendras run by Vidya Bharati and other RSS-affiliated institutions. (Figures are approximate)[xii] Further, RSS has had a strong influence on governmental policy, which is evident from the frequency in which ‘preservation of ancient Indian tradition’ comes up in the NEP document, and is proved by the RSS publicly claiming that most of its demands have been included in NEP.[xiii]
Another controversial example of a public-philanthropic partnership in the education system would be Akshaya Patra’s partnership with State governments to provide Mid-day meals for school students. Akshaya Patra is a non-governmental organization run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). In a report on its mid-day meal scheme that was published in The Hindu, it emerged that students in Karnataka had complaints regarding the taste and quality of food being served to them, since Akshaya Patra did not use onion and garlic in the food, despite these ingredients being listed on the state government’s recommended menu.[xiv] This is a clear attempt at Brahmanical whitewashing of Dalit cultural ethos and a disregard for the Avarna palate.[xv] All such attempts stem from the idea of Brahmanical supremacy prevailing since ancient times, and the need for the imposition of Savarna culture on young, impressionable minds, even if it means erasing lower-caste voices from the board.
Tie-ins with NGOs and corporates for education which is supposed to be a part of welfare (keeping in mind the Socialist flavour of our Constitution), will increase the cost of learning and drive lower-caste children further away from social mobility. The entry of private entities in education is also supported by the fact that the NEP 2020 is keen to grant more institutional autonomy, which could mean that educational institutions will be free to charge exorbitant fees and the government will do nothing to put a cap on it. Another worrying aspect is the heightened obsession with digital learning at the cost of equity- the recent case of an LSR student being driven to suicide due to her missing out on classes for her inability to buy a laptop[xvi] speaks volumes about the apathy the system has towards socio-economically backward students.
Thus, dwelling upon the various measures introduced and highlighted in the Policy, it becomes amply clear that caste-based inclusivity is a needle in the haystack. NEP 2020 fails to even acknowledge, let alone solve, the problems faced by lower-caste students in our educational institutions. The Policy reeks of apathy towards the disadvantaged. The socio-culturally backward groups face the double whammy of discrimination and abject penury, and the superficial measures offered to them by NEP 2020 is basically touch-and-go. There is utter disrespect for the culture of the backward castes, the NEP 2020 expects all students to conform to the Savarna way of life, and as usual places lower-caste students at the mercy of crumbs from the rich man’s table. There is absolutely no focus on social mobility for backward castes, and it seems that the Central government is keen on keeping the lower-caste groups fixed to blue-collar jobs, only to be exploited at the time of elections.
* The author is a student at KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
[i] Amartya Sen, The argumentative Indian: writings on Indian history, culture and identity (2012). [ii] Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, National Education Policy 2020, https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_English_0.pdf (last visited Nov 30, 2020). [iii] Paragraph 6.2, National Education Policy 2020, Government of India. [iv] Paragraph 6.4, National Education Policy 2020, Government of India. [v] Maurya, R., 2018. In Their Own Voices: Experiences Of Dalit Students In Higher Education Institutions. [online] Files.eric.ed.gov. Available at: <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1196581.pdf> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [vi] The Wire. 2020. Dalit History Month: Education Is A Distant Dream For Some Children. [online] Available at: <https://thewire.in/caste/dalit-history-month-education-is-a-distant-dream-for-some-children> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [vii] News, C. and News, A., 2020. Dalit Girl Sexually Harassed On Way To School, Accused Fires At Rescuers | Agra News - Times Of India. [online] The Times of India. Available at: <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/agra/dalit-girl-sexually-harassed-on-way-to-school-accused-fires-at-rescuers/articleshow/63249505.cms> [Accessed 24 December 2020]. [viii] Ellis-Petersen, H., 2020. Dalits Bear Brunt Of India's 'Endemic' Sexual Violence Crisis. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/16/dalits-bear-brunt-of-indias-endemic-sexual-violence-crisis> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [ix] Regi, A., 2020. NEP Is Casteist, Self-Defeatist; Centre Should Learn From Tamil Nadu: Dr Ezhilan Naganathan. [online] Caravanmagazine.in. Available at: <https://caravanmagazine.in/news/national-education-policy-casteist-self-defeatist-centre-should-learn-from-tamil-nadu> [Accessed 24 December 2020]. [x] Brunello, G., Rocco, L. The effects of vocational education on adult skills, employment and wages: What can we learn from PIAAC?. SERIEs 8, 315–343 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13209-017-0163-z [xi] Paragraph 3.6, NEP 2020, Government of India. [xii] Bhattacharya, A., 2020. NEP 2020: What Hindutva Domination In Education Will Look Like. [online] Gauri Lankesh News. Available at: <https://gaurilankeshnews.com/nep-2020-what-hindutva-domination-in-education-will-look-like/> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [xiii] Nandy, A., 2020. ‘60-70% Demands Met’: Decoding Hindutva Impact On NEP 2020. [online] TheQuint. Available at: <https://www.thequint.com/news/education/rss-impact-on-new-education-policy-2020-decoding-demands#read-more> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [xiv] Nathan, A., 2019. Why Are Karnataka’S Schoolchildren Unhappy With The Mid-Day Meal?. [online] The Hindu. Available at: <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/why-are-karnatakas-schoolchildren-unhappy-with-the-mid-day-meal/article27378176.ece> [Accessed 30 November 2020]. [xv] Nation, T., 2020. Imposing A Food Culture. [online] Frontline. Available at: <https://frontline.thehindu.com/the-nation/article28064675.ece> [Accessed 24 December 2020]. [xvi] Jha, T., 2020. No Scholarship Money, No Laptop, No Hostel: LSR Student Dies By Suicide. [online] The Wire. Available at: <https://thewire.in/rights/lady-shri-ram-college-student-aishwarya-reddy-suicide-online-classes> [Accessed 30 November 2020].