Caste and Education: Dearth of Inclusiveness in the Indian Education System

Graphic by Eric Estibeiro

According to Francis Bacon’s Theory of Ideology and Culture, ‘Knowledge is power’, as it had an evolutionary impression in the socio-economic and historical standpoints of humankind. It enabled humans to procure and preserve knowledge, take over the ones deprived of it and to manipulate the social and cultural institutions for personal gains. This analogy can be inferred to the caste discrimination in the field of education which is still prevalent in India.

Caste hegemony in the accessibility of education can be traced back to the Vedic times, where Brahmanical patriarchy exercised its ideological power through discriminatory treatises like Manusmriti. It compartmentalized society into four varnas based on Rig Veda – the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The fifth group was considered so low to be mentioned in the classification, which constituted the Dalits or the untouchables who had suffered inhumanely treatment throughout the ages. Brahmins were considered as the custodians of Vedas, who were mostly priests and scholars and they used this ideological tool to reign over other varnas. The stratified caste-society gave education only to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas following the Gurukula system. As a consequence, the Shudras, Dalits and women were constrained from education and hence a profession of their choice. Some legendary figures from our epics, who lived through the caste discrimination were Shambuka and Eklavya.

 In the 20th Century, the nationalist movement was also allied with the anti-casteist protests against untouchability and lack of representation in the political and educational domains. The efforts of Dr B.R Ambedkar, Jyotibha Phule and other Dalit activists were instrumental in bringing reservation in the educational institutions of India. Ambedkar spearheaded  Dalit activism and he believed that education had the potency for the empowerment of Dalits by further enabling them to political involvement and informed petitioning. Many of  Ambedkar’s followers embraced Buddhism as a form of emancipation from the deep-rooted casteism and injustices propagated by the sacred manuscripts. The advent of Western education by the missionaries also helped in the social upliftment of Dalits, who were denied education by the tyrannical caste system.

   But the question is whether the execution of caste reservation and legislation of constitutional articles were effective enough to curb the caste segregation from the regressive mind-set of Indian society. Unfortunately, the answer is ‘no’, the discrimination only changed its form and is still predominant in many institutions. 

Cases like suicides of Rohit Vemula and Payal Tadvi shed light upon this institutional casteism. The Forum Against Oppression of Women, Forum for Medical Ethics Society, Medico Friend Circle and the Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties, Maharashtra conducted a study entitled, ‘The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism’ which echoed the casteist practices normalised in the higher education scenario of the country. It varied from overt and couched forms of abuse, which included casteist insults and stereotypical biases, physical seclusion practiced within the students and by the faculty members, as well as emotional injury inflicted by undervaluing of their worth. Victims were often treated as outcasts and they felt out of place in the premier  institutions, regardless of their persistent labours to fit in. 

Some students and faculty members from the upper-caste exerted the belief of conventional intellectual superiority by favouritism inside the student circle, and further by demeaning and discrediting the accomplishments of the students from the oppressed class as ‘meritless’. An earlier report prepared by a committee of the Union Government to investigate allegations of harassment of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi found that 85% of Dalit students had faced discriminatory practices against them from internal examiners. The students had to face discrimination right from their admission process, to  social interactions in the hostel and classes, which eventually made its way to professional spheres as well. These discriminatory practices were often veiled under the premise of ‘harmless ragging’ and the victims who shared their traumatic experiences were often branded as unreasonable and ‘ones obsessed with their caste identity’. This trivialisation of casteism and lack of proper implementation of constitutional rights led to double-marginalization, which often resulted in college dropouts and suicides. Students from the weaker sections had already struggled a lot to get admitted to these educational institutions, but the lack of inclusiveness and empathy pushed them to be disillusioned with life. 

“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past” – Excerpt from Rohit Vemula’s suicide note.  Rohit was a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad and was subjected to institutional caste-based discrimination which culminated in his suicide.The ‘fatal accident’ was a reference to his caste identity, which led to a lifetime of disgrace and unequal treatment. His death triggered protests across the nation and he became a symbol of Dalit resistance and hope. His mother Radhika Vemula is continuing his legacy by stiving to eradicate caste discrimination from educational institutions.

One possible solution to this predicament is by providing more representation to the oppressed classes. According to the data by the Ministry of Education in Lok Sabha (2019), only 170 members out of the total 6,043 faculty members from the 23 IITs belonged to the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe community. Their representation was less than 3% of the total faculty members. Vipin Veetil, a former Assistant Professor at IIT Madras had exposed the embedded caste hierarchy and Brahmanical favouritism practiced in the IITs, citing the discrimination he had faced from the senior faculty members. 

The Government must strengthen and expand reservations for the underprivileged community, by forming a Dalit grievance cell in every educational institution and implementing lawful concepts of transformational justice and functional equality. Another solution is by including Dalit studies in the school curriculum which may serve as an antidote to spreading awareness against the inherent caste thoughts. Edification of the parents can also play a pivotal role since children imbibe most of these irrational and segregatory thoughts from their family. Inter-caste and inter-faith marriages must be encouraged and normalised through proper execution, operation and regulation of constitutional rights. 

This article concentrated on the power politics of education and the caste hierarchy, bringing out how it was instrumental in distinguishing the society into ‘the privileged’ and ‘the underprivileged’. The caste discrimination can be traced back to the Vedic age, but the concernment is that it is still practiced and normalised in many educational institutions in India. This social issue needs to be addressed with utmost urgency and appeals for quick actions and proper implementation of Dalit rights

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