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India – Schools of Dishonour

  • Living in fear... Photo: M. Balaji
    The Hindu

    Living in fear… Photo: M. Balaji

Dalit children continue to bear the brunt of untouchability.

When Sandeep reached his school in village Bedhua in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2015, the carcass of a dead dog lay rotting on the school grounds. The school cleaner was on leave. His headmistress told Sandeep to carry and dispose of the festering body of the dog outside the school campus. He refused initially, but had to later as his classmates watched. After all, Sandeep was born into a Scheduled Caste Chamaar family. For millennia, Dalit children were almost completely barred from accessing education. In the past two centuries, anti-caste movements for the first time opened the doors of classrooms to Dalit children. For instance, Ayyankali, in early 20th century Kerala, launched movements for entering all those public spaces — marketplaces, temples, schools and colleges — which had been traditionally barred to Dalits. He held the hand of Panchami, an eight-year-old Dalit girl, and led her into a primary school in Orootambalam, Thiruvananthapuram.

Mahatma Phule and Savitri established the first school for girls in Pune in August 1848, weathering fierce and bitter opposition from dominant castes. Education was central to Ambedkar’s anti-caste struggles. For Dalits, education became the site of both political resistance and emancipation.

India’s Constitution abolished untouchability and declared unlawful restrictions on Dalit education. Free and compulsory education was declared a fundamental constitutional right. Enrolment of Dalit children has grown significantly, although not as fast as that of upper-caste children. However, a gathering of Dalit children and parents from 13 States, at a public hearing in Delhi organised by the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion recently, was a harrowing reminder of the humiliating and traumatic experiences of many Dalit children in schools today.

It was a hot afternoon in 2014 in a primary school in a village in Bikaner district of Rajasthan. Two young Dalit boys, barely 10 years old, drank water from an earthen pot for use by their high-caste principal. Dominant-caste Rajput children complained to the principal. The principal was furious, thrashed the children, and made them squat the whole day holding their ears as punishment. The traumatised children complained to their parents, who got other Dalit parents to register their collective protest with the principal. Two days later, when the 11 children came to school, the principal turned them away, handing them their transfer certificates.

A large number of complaints relate to discrimination while serving school meals. Dalit children in the Government Middle School in Nary Chahal village in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh were seated separately for school meals near the toilet, and also given inferior food. After their parents complained, this practice was officially stopped, but dominant caste children still insisted on sitting separately, or refused to eat the school meal. Where the cook was Dalit, again upper-caste children refused to eat the meal.

Some Dalit children are driven to suicide by the humiliation they face. Teachers alleged that 16-year-old Pravin, from a de-notified community called Ramoshi in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, wrote love letters to girls in his class. The principal and teachers abused him, calling him Bhadkhau (one who consumes shit), and also beat him. The same evening, Pravin killed himself by drinking pesticide.

A large number of Dalit children from many States, mostly girls, complained of sexual assault by their teachers. These too have led on occasion to suicide, but more commonly the devastated child quietly drops out of school. It is hard to assess if they were abused because they were defenceless and impoverished children, or because of their disadvantaged caste. Dalit women are more vulnerable to sexual violence than upper-caste women; therefore it is likely that the same sense of upper-caste power and entitlement also spurs upper-caste teachers to treat Dalit children as ready targets for their unwanted sexual incursions.

Many children report that their teachers taunt them routinely with caste stereotypes. The Chharas in Gujarat are a de-notified tribe, regarded by the British as criminal, and still burdened by the same stigma. When Tarun, enrolled in a primary school in Naroda, Ahmedabad, could not keep pace with his classmates, the teacher retorted, “You Chharas should not try to study, you should only sweep the floors. You will not be able to do anything with your life.”

Ashwini, Keyur, Priyanka and Suhani Bajrange were bullied by their dominant caste classmates in a school in Gandhinagar with the taunt, “You Chharas! You cow-dung eaters!” Their teachers did nothing to restrain this bullying, and instead finally asked the Chhara children to withdraw from school to keep the peace.

Jayesh’s parents brew liquor for their survival. The night before police raided Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, where the boy lived with his parents, his mother hid the liquor pouch in his school bag, and forgot to take it out the next morning. When the boy went to school, the pouch leaked and the whole classroom reeked of liquor. Little Jayesh was crushed with shame, his teacher beat him and the principal rusticated him from the school.

Mihir faced the ire of his teachers and high-caste classmates for the opposite reason, that his grades were higher than those of most of his classmates. He too was discharged from the school.

Sadly, for millions of Dalit children, school continues to be an intensely stressful, threatening site — of segregation, humiliation and violence.

We are collectively culpable in the crime of being unable to ensure that the school becomes a welcome place of safety for every child, where one can learn, play, make friends, be valued and nurtured, and dream confidently about building a better future on the strength of the qualities of one’s heart and mind, rather than the caste into which one was born.http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/harsh-mander-on-how-dalit-children-continue-to-bear-the-brunt-of-untouchability/article7923873.ece

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