How petty politics and casteism are jeopardising schooling in TN villages

Cases of casteism in the schools had driven Salem Collector Rohini Bhajibakhare to write a letter to teachers and parents to lead by example.
How petty politics and casteism are jeopardising schooling in TN villages
How petty politics and casteism are jeopardising schooling in TN villages
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In October 2018, police cases were slapped on and departmental action taken against several teachers and their dominant-caste supporters for allegedly blatant caste-bias in their schools in Salem district. But, for the young Collector of the district Rohini R Bhajibhakare, that did not seem enough of a deterrent to reverse the deep caste fault lines apparent in educational institutions. In what was seen as a rare action by a Collector, she issued a release asking the headmasters, teachers and other staffers of educational institutions to lead students by example when it came to practising the values of equality and unity-in-diversity as enshrined in the Constitution.

Her statement, which was an appeal to teachers for a change in attitude rather than evoking fear of law, comes in the backdrop of several recent incidents of caste discrimination in schools by headmasters and teachers belonging to dominant castes. These incidents, apparently fuelled by politicians and local leaders with political ambitions in mind, are now jeopardising the education of young children studying in these schools.

On October 14, S Jothi (47), a Dalit woman who was posted as a cook in the Panchayat Primary School in Kuppankottai hamlet of K Morur Panchayat faced opposition from Vanniyar parents of the children in the school. Protesting against her appointment, they demanded that she be transferred out. In a letter to the school headmaster, the parents warned that they would pull their children out of the school if the Dalit woman continued as a cook. Although the cook’s own husband, Sivaraj, is an AIADMK party man and a former Panchayat Union councillor, it was the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), known to be the voice of a section of Dalits in the state, which took up the issue.

Dalit cook S. Jothi who faced opposition by the upper caste parents

The incident had a striking similarity with what Dalit woman P Paappal faced when she was posted as a noon-meal cook in the Government High Secondary School at Thirumalaigoundenpalayam in Tirupur in July 2018. Buckling under pressure from dominant-caste parents to shift her, the Block Development Officer had then cancelled her deputation. But following raging protests and intervention by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, the order was reversed and she was reinstated.

In Jothi’s case, however, the headmaster Sekar himself allegedly instigated the parents to protest against her transfer to his school. The issue blew up with VCK party men resorting to a road blockage on the streets. As P Paappal did, Jothi also preferred a complaint (as advised by the police) and filed one with the Thevattipatti police. The police booked cases against five persons under IPC sections 147 (rioting), 294 (b) (uttering obscene words in public place), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), and 506 (i) (criminal intimidation), along with the SC and ST (prevention of atrocities) Act. They were remanded to judicial custody.

The police are on the lookout for three more persons, including the headmaster. A case under IPC Section 109 (abetment) was registered against the headmaster. The headmaster is yet to surface and is absconding. Though the Collector had directed the Chief Education Officer to initiate departmental action, no action has been taken until the time of writing this copy. The Chief Educational Officer, T Ganesamoorthy, said that action is pending as Sekar is officially absconding.

Heady mix of caste and local politics

As the caste fault lines deepened between Dalits and Vanniyars, feeding political parties with a potential local issue ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha Election, yet another incident in the same area fanned the flames.

On October 27, a social science teacher name Govindaraj of the Government Higher Secondary School in K Morur was transferred by the Education Department for his alleged proximity to the former headmaster A Sangamitirai. The headmaster was transferred out a month earlier, based on a complaint by the Village Administrative Officer. The complaint stated that the headmaster permitted cutting of well-grown trees to clear up the land for an upcoming building in the school campus, which was to be built with the MLA fund. Since Govindaraj was a local man, his transfer drew sympathy from students and their parents. Students launched a protest in front of the school against the transfer, and as police swooped down into the village, parents gathered near the school’s gate, anxious about their children’s well-being.

The police engaged the students in talks, but they were in no mood to be pacified and wanted nothing but a reversal of the transfer of teacher Govindaraj. The police finally prevailed upon the students to withdraw their protest and let them go without any legal action. However, they did not spare the elders and booked cases against five persons including Suresh Babu, assistant headmaster of the school, and teacher Govindaraj, charging them with instigating the students to stage an agitation. Cases under Sections 7 (1) (a) Criminal Law Amendment Act (with intent to cause any person to abstain from doing an act), read with IPC sections 504 (provoking breach of peace) and 109 (abetment) were registered against them.

The police also arrested locals Sinnasamy, Kumarasamy and Maadhu, and they were remanded in judicial custody. The police are still on the lookout for Suresh Babu, the assistant headmaster, and teacher Govindaraj.

The net result of the two incidents is that the two schools are functioning without headmasters.

After a controversial transfer, the head master's seat in the Government Higher Secondary School remains vacant

At the centre of the controversy is an AIADMK man, Jayakumar, whose wife is a teacher in the same school. Jayakumar, who was a former Parent Teacher Association President, was removed from the post a couple of years back following an argument with a teacher. The post is still vacant and Jayakumar’s alleged attempt to push the candidature of his supporter in the position fell through. This allegedly made Jayakumar nurse a grouse against headmaster Sangamitirai, suspecting her to have influenced the decision of not appointing his man. Residents, however, opposed Jayakumar’s appointee because he is not a parent in the first place. For Jayakumar, a chance to ‘hit back’ allegedly came handy when the trees were felled in the school. His supporters promptly lodged a complaint with the VAO seeking action for axing them without due permit, his opponents allege.

As Sangamitirai, Govindaraj and Suresh Babu are Vanniyars, a caste angle to the incident was attributed by alleging that they instigated the residents, parents and students, to revolt against their transfers. But the police and Education Department do not see it from the caste prism.

Pacifying politics

The PMK, which has a strong presence in the Vanniyar belt, has distanced itself from the two incidents. “These are mere examples of ruling party men’s assertion of their local dominance and the officials’ approach of appeasing them,” says a local PMK leader requesting anonymity.

The Collector, Rohini R Bhajibhakare, constituted an official committee to monitor caste and communal bias in schools following the noon-meal cook issue. She has also instructed the Education Department to take action against teachers or other staff who are found guilty of exercising caste or communal bias.

Realising it was not enough, the Collector shot off a long release, appealing to headmasters, teachers and other staffers in education institutions to shun the caste and communal mindedness. She started off the missive, “It is the essential duty of the Education Department to ensure that the community of students and parents realise the importance of religious and caste harmony. Do a bit better to inculcate values of social harmony among students.”

She went on to say that India is an ancient country and home to people of diverse ethnic and religious groups. “The fabric of the tricolour flag is weaved with diverse colour threads to reflect this unity in diversity which is also the core value of the Constitution. Incidents of disharmony among members of the society in any given place will give room to think whether the teachers have done their duty of inculcating these higher values among the students adequately,” stated Rohini.

Stressing upon the need to uphold the value of dignity-for-all, especially the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Collector’s communication also included a veiled threat that those who indulge in blatant acts of causing disharmony will be dealt with sternly according to the appropriate laws.

“I was moved to write this because I felt deeply within that it was matter of attitudes. If a headmaster himself can be accused of caste bigotry, then the matter had to be approached beyond official and legal means. Invoking the fear of the law alone is not enough and one has to aim for behavioural change. Teachers must be motivated to lead by example and students must see them as living epitomes of values,” she said in the letter. 

Despite departmental action and police cases against teachers, the Collector’s missive to the Education Department staff has been welcomed by the Tamil Nadu Headmasters Association and the Tamil Nadu Teachers Mandram. The State President of the Headmasters Association, S Madhavan said that it was a positive step, while K Thyagarajan of the Teachers Mandram asked, “Where else can children start to imbibe values of social harmony other than in the school?”

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