Published: 18th August 2019
Caste In Stone: Why caste bands in Tamil Nadu schools are just the tip of the discrimination iceberg
Activists say that casteist teachers are primarily to blame for the perpetuation of caste in schools, powerful dominant caste leaders also have a huge stake in the school's affairs
In the last 48-72 hours, the following has happened — the Tamil Nadu School Education Department issued a circular banning school students from wearing caste identifying bands. Then School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan said that the circular was not issued under his supervision and there will be no such ban and added that 'whatever practice exists in Tamil Nadu will continue'. This comment came close on the heels of a tweet by BJP leader H Raja calling the circular anti-Hindu. Today, Sengottaiyan said that 'action will be taken on students who come to school with caste identifiers.'
While the government takes its time to make up its mind on whether or not the bands are discriminatory, we decided to speak to a few activists who have been dealing with the issue for decades now. Some have been petitioning the government about the issue for several years, however, it seems to have caught everyone's attention after IAS trainee officers from the 2018 batch submitted a representation about the issue. After they had seen it with their own eyes.
The kayir is just the beginning
Marimuthu Bharathan, a Dalit Human Rights Defender has worked in the area for a long time, he was even been awarded the 2012 Human Rights Tulip by the Dutch government. Bharathan says that the 'jaati kayir' or caste band is just one of the many caste indicators that students wear. "Sometimes they will wear just one colour thread, sometimes a combination of two. It's not just the bands, they also wear a similar coloured t-shirt or vest inside. They will also insert a picture of their caste leader inside the shirt so you can see through their uniform, some even wear chains to indicate their caste," he explained. Bharathan tell us that same colour is also painted on the lamp posts of the streets that each of the castes live in, "Each street has different coloured posts, posters and they also hoist their caste-flags, so you know what street the caste members stay in and it's easy to recognise the children that way too," he explained.
Even when the children go to the temples, they insist on threads that are their 'caste-colour' and wear only those. Besides this, students also tattoo caste names on their hands, back or chest.
Caste-Away: School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan has now said that he wasn't aware that the caste bands were caste indicators and has vowed strict action
Of clothes and casteist haircuts
Kaani Nilam, is an activist collective that does grassroot work and advocacy in the area of juvenile involvement in caste conflicts. Radhika Ganesh from the organisation says that there has been a spike in the last six years in the number of juveniles involved in caste conflicts. "Some parents even sewed in the colour into the cuff of the colour, sometimes they are caste symbols. The students even cut their hair with the symbol. The (ban) circular also mentioned that students should not be allowed to wear the tilak, the tilak is not a Tamil tradition at all but students began to wear different coloured tilaks to indicate caste," she explained.
When asked how often caste clashes tend to break out, Bharathan said that schools, especially in the Southern districts of Tamil Nadu, are always on the cusp of violence. "It can happen at any given time. In the middle of a class, the playground. Anywhere at all," he adds. FIRs and cases are lodged immediately too but almost no cases are registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Against SC/ST Act, Radhika tells us, "The students, the police, teachers, caste leaders all get involved and Dalit students are the ones to suffer. But the police almost never registers a case under this Act," she tells us.
Hair-Raising: Recently in Gujarat, upper-caste barbers refused to provide hair cuts to Dalits, in TN students are getting haircuts that brand them with their caste names
The teachers are in on it too
The one thing that all the activists we interviewed seemed to agree on was that the people to blame here are mostly the teachers themselves. The activists say that many teachers encourage this casteist behaviour, as they are mostly casteist themselves and discriminate against lower-caste students. "In a school here in Chennai that was headed by an SC Principal, almost the entire student population was also SC. The principal was a very good man and did a lot of good work but the teachers who worked there were all dominant caste teachers. Two teachers also quit. Also, the teachers would not tell their names to the students because they did not want their names to be uttered by them. " Christuraj S, advocate and the state coordinator for Samakalvi Iyyakam, a platform for equity in public education said.
The plus and minus parody
Evidence Kathir, another Dalit human rights activist says that in a case that he dealt with, a Mathematics teacher in a school would refer to the dominant caste children as 'plus' and the Dalit students as 'minus'. "The teachers automatically encourage untouchability this way," he says. He also tells us about a village close to Madurai called Kurayur where no SC, ST student has been admitted to any of the government schools there for the last 48 years, "They say if they admit Dalit students then they will caste clashes on campus and so the parents are forced to send their children to far off schools," Kathir said.
'How can you eat from the same plate'
The issue of students wearing caste bands is just a tip of the iceberg the activists on the ground say. From upper-caste cooks not wanting to cook for Dalit students to Dalit cooks being fired because of casteist parents to Dalit students not being allowed to use newly-built toilets, the list of ways in which the children from lower castes face discrimination on an everyday basis is long and terrifying. "Dominant caste parents now send along a plate with the student, so they don't have to eat from the same plate used by Dalit students," he added.
"In one case, I was dealing with an eve-teasing enquiry which was launched against a couple of Dalit schoolboys, when we conducted our own investigation we came to know that the girls and boys had referred to each other as 'poda-podi', so the girls had lodged an eve-teasing complain. These instances can have a permanent impact on young children," Kathir explained.
Classroom- Reservations: Most oppressed class students automatically make their way to the backbenches because casteist teachers do now allow them to occupy the front seats reserved from dominant caste students
When discrimination runs deep
Christuraj says that according to the research he has done, these are the numbers in government schools currently — 56 percent are SC students, 7-8 percent are ST students, about 36 per cent are MBC, OBC students. He said that almost no school has general category students studying in them as all of them seem to be able to afford private schooling. While cities have a larger presence of MBC, OBC students some of the better government schools are almost filled with OBC, MBC students, the schools in the rural areas have a bigger SC population, Christuraj says. He mentioned that sometimes casteist groups instigate the students but the problems faced by the SC students, as we mentioned earlier are much worse.
"Dalit girl children are physically, verbally and sexually abused by dominant caste teachers just because they are Dalit," Christuraj alleges. According to the activist, students who are unable to perform well because the teachers are bad end up getting branded as students with learning disabilities or slow learners, they almost never stand a chance at doing well in school. "Even when it comes to sports, SC students will not be included on the team. They will be asked to do the sweeping, mopping and asked to clean the toilets. In some schools, you won't believe it, there are newly constructed toilets but Dalit students won't be allowed to use it because it gets 'dirty'," he explained. Dalit students being forced to sit in the back of the class is a story quite well known, "These days the students just automatically know that they have to sit in the back of the class. They don't question it, they just do it like it's completely normal, sometimes, they won't be allowed to sit on the benches and have to sit on the ground as the dominant caste students sit on the furniture and in front of the class," he added.
If a student falls down and injures themselves, the nurse in local primary health centres refuse to touch the children, "They will hand them cotton and Dettol and ask them to do it themselves," he added.
Locked Out: Students who do not perform well mostly because they do not get the attention they deserve are branded as slow-learners and demotivate them enough to contemplate dropping out
Why do they need to study these subjects?
In most of the schools in rural areas, no Mathematics or English teacher is ever appointed on a permanent basis, according to the activist, those two posts are always vacant in these schools. "In 2008, we came across a school in Salem where SC students were never allowed to take up Group One, that's the Science stream. We asked the students what they were studying and all of them kept saying commerce or economics, so I asked why no one was interested in science and then was told that the teachers were never allowed the SC students to take Group 1. We filed a complained and the school made changes," he explained.
How deep is your caste love?
In Tirunelveli, Bharathan said that teachers encourage students to write their caste names on the board, brand the walls, "If the teachers stop encouraging this, the problem will be solved quickly. In some instances, they are also scared to say anything because the caste leaders are powerful but in most instances, they encourage this behaviour," the activist said.
It is a struggle between the powerful and the powerless, "The only capital the Dalit students have is education, if they have to boast about anyone like the others do, they only know Ambedkar. They don't even know enough about him to fight, so they become powerless and eventually the casteist attitudes of the teachers and the society ensures they don't get the education they deserve," Christuraj told us.
Dominance through the PTA ambit
Agreeing with Christuraj, Radhika also says that there is a clear connection between caste clashes and politics too. There is a lot of power involved. The caste leaders despite having no connection to the school are somehow intrinsically connected with it. How? Through the Parent-Teacher Association, and no we don't mean that they are parents either. "The Parent-Teacher Association is an unconstitutional body, according to the RTE, schools should have a school management committee which should include the current parents on a rotation basis. What the PTA is is essentially a caste panchayat," Radhika says. The SMC is mandated to maintain a log on the finances and other activities and the information of the same is made available through the RTI. However, with the PTA, there is no legal way of maintaining any track of their activities.
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The PTA is headed by powerful dominant caste leaders who basically make all the decisions, "Most of them are above the age of 65 so they are not even parents. But if the schools need any money, which they usually struggle to get since they are government schools, the caste leaders step in. Now since they are helping out financially, they are free to do what they want. For Republic Day or Annual Day, they contribute money and then have undue influence and power in the decision making," she explained. So even when it comes to sports or scholarships, the SC students stand no chance. Radhika says that it is only if the headmaster is proactive or powerful, such happenings are prevented.
What do you want with these kids?
Samuelraj K, general secretary Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front says that the caste leaders use the students just to do 'vyabaram' or business. He called it all an attempt to do business in the name of caste but by using children. "It is not the fault of the children, they do what they are told. We have to blame the society they grow up in," the activist adds. "The caste leaders and teachers use the students as a shield and continue to perpetuate their deep-seated casteism," Radhika points out.
As an activist, Christuraj travels from village to village conducting inspections and coming up with solutions to better the lives of the marginalised students. However, in some areas, if they want to shift a school or increase the number of classes, they simply can't find the land to do so, "Since the dominant castes know that the school will be filled with SC children, they refuse to sell us land. We won't even be given space to build toilets, which is why so many girl students drop out when they hit puberty," he added. Christuraj says that if the society there comes to know that the beneficiaries are SC students, they simply refuse to cooperate with them.
In a lot of the government schools, the SC population is higher and yet they can do little to protect their right to an education. In the cities and in our private schools, they are a minority, we can only imagine what they are put through on a daily basis. Unless, we again insist on limiting the extent of casteism to our 'rural areas'.
Sheep-clothing casteism as 'traditional practices' is a crime we have committed for centuries and as response to this statement, Christuraj rightfully asks, "Our we saying discrimination is our tradition?"