It was in 2008 that Bhavani*, then a teacher at a government school in Tiruvannamalai, first noticed the coloured threads on the hands of her students. At first, she did not give much thought to the accessories which were in hues of yellow and blue; but as time went by, she noticed that students who wore threads of one colour formed clusters in class and stuck to the same groups outside it. "After months of observing students, I realised that children wearing yellow belonged to the Vanniyar community and the ones wearing blue were from Dalit communities," she tells TNM.
In the decade since she learned this, Bhavani has transferred three schools and has now become a headmistress at a government school in Vellore. What hasn't changed however is the proliferation of caste markers within schools in the state. "It has become very prevalent now. At least 10% of the students wear these caste markers and the practice has also spread to the girls," she says, "In fact when we got a circular banning these threads denoting caste, I was ready to inform the wards in my school but couldn't do so because there is some confusion right now regarding the instructions.”
The 'confusion' that Bhavani is referring to, is of course the denial of the very practice of using caste markers, and caste discrimination, in schools by the Tamil Nadu School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan. On August 2, the School Education Department issued a circular to all the District Education Officers directing them to take action against schools which permit students to wear caste markers like coloured threads, rings and tilaks on their foreheads. Last week, however, the School Education Minister denied that the practice was in place and warned reporters against 'creating cracks in harmony.’
A colour for every community
Bhavani points out that in her current school in Vellore, Vanniyars and Mudhaliyars are the dominant castes, and there are also Dalit students. She says that black, yellow and red are common colours in the playground.
"And that is not all. These students even write their caste names on the walls of the school. This includes messages like – 'Vanniyar Perumai' (Vanniyar Pride) or 'Parayan da' (I am a Parayan)," she says, "I have noticed girls writing caste slogans in their books. This includes phrases like – 'Sethalum, Vanniyar dhaan gethu' (Even if we die, Vanniyar is best).”
Even after school hours, these students form groups and get into petty fights, say teachers. These tussles are likely to take on caste dimensions and turn ugly as parents also allegedly get involved.
"Now, there are even fights between children from different dominant communities of two different villages. They fight over who is 'better' or 'stronger'," says Bhavani, "And they are no doubt merely replaying the caste sentiment they see in their houses."
The caste markers are also not restricted to villages.
Caste markers in Chennai
"With internet accessibility now coming into the picture, ideas of caste pride have seeped into the classroom early and this is further dividing students. Poisonous thoughts are too easily available and encouraged," syas Uma Maheshwari, a teacher from a government school at Chrompet in Chennai, "Here in the city, since we have students from several castes, you have colours including red, black, yellow and blue in terms of threads and chains. It is very apparent that students from one community are friends and will not mingle with the others."
While teachers say that the practice of wearing caste markers has come into sharp focus only over the last decade, anti-caste activist Kathir from the NGO Evidence says it dates back to half a century ago.
"We can't point out the exact origin of this practice exactly but what we can infer is that it stems from the fact that every caste has its own flag, emblem, and common colour. For example, Vanniyars exceedingly use yellow, and Thevars red. Similarly they have different gods and icons for a caste and create symbols around this god," explains Kathir.
Expanding on this narrative, Bhavani says students visit these temples and return with markers of the particular caste they belong to.
"The practice is rampant irrespective of caste, be it – Thevars, Gounders or Vanniyar. People from Dalit castes too have this practice of wearing threads, but this is in response to other castes assembling against them. Dalits tend to wear blue or red sometimes depending on where they live," says Kathir.
And because these threads are tied at places of worship, teachers and heads of schools fear questioning students.
Challenge in banning threads
"If we ask them, they will say it is related to religious beliefs and then we can't interfere in the matter," says Bhavani, "But this is just the beginning of a lifetime of discrimination on the basis of caste for the children. It starts with these threads but soon they stop socialising with boys wearing threads of different colours. Then they will refuse to visit even a neighbour from a different caste to get school notes. Parents knowingly or unknowingly ingrain the idea of caste into the children and leave indelible reminders of the existing divisions in society," she adds.
In 2015, when these threads were found to be used in Tirunelveli district to identify students belonging to a particular caste and attack them, efforts were made to identify a solution to the issue. However, a similar question of hurting religious sentiments stopped district authorities from placing a ban on the threads.
Teachers however offer different solutions when asked how they will put an end to the caste markers.
"It is only an issue if you explicitly tell these students to stop wearing caste markers," says Uma Maheshwari. "Instead, the government should ban any kind of accessories other than what is part of the uniform. Students should not wear any chains, rings, threads or marks on their forehead. If we had a rational government, this would be the obvious solution," she adds.
Bhavani meanwhile points out that a forcible ban will only lead to more friction and push-back from students.
"Instead we must teach them equality and counter casteist forces," she says. "In my school for instance, we make sure that we mention Ambedkar as often as we bring up Mahatma Gandhi. Similarly, we constantly talk about equality and even show them videos to counter narratives on gender and caste violence. The only way to stop the next generation from believing in caste supremacy is to teach them what is right and wrong at a young age," she adds.
Kathir, too, agrees that schools must talk to students on social equity in order to bring about change in society.
"But instead, the government is in denial because admitting to the practice would mean acknowledging that untouchability still exists in the state. Article 17 of the Constitution clearly states that untouchability is abolished and its practice is forbidden," he says, "And now it would be too embarrassing to admit that the state has not paid heed to the Constitution."
*Name changed to protect identity