Caste discrimination is a reality in several schools in Tamil Nadu, there have been reports on students being made to wear colour-coded threads on their wrists and tilaks on their foreheads to identify their caste. In an effort to crack the whip on such a caste-based discrimination, a circular was issued by the Tamil Nadu’s School Education Department warning of stringent action against those institutes that continue the discriminatory practice.
But instead of stamping out such caste-based discrimination and issuing a warning, the Tamil Nadu School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan has denied that the practice exists. What’s more, Sengottaiyan chose to blame the media for reporting such caste discrimination. Speaking to reporters in Erode on Friday, the School Education Minister said, “You tell me where they are being worn and bring it to our attention. There is no such discrimination going on. I am telling the TV channels and media that education is going on well in the state. Students have undertaken their journey with harmony. Please cooperate with us, without creating cracks in that harmony.”
Sengottaiyan also reemphasized that schools will function as they did before the circular was issued, a move that will enable such caste-based discrimination to continue. “As far as we are concerned, the activities related to schools will continue as it is now,” he said.
It all began on August 2 when 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. The circular came in response to a representation submitted to the department by a group of officer trainees of the IAS 2018 batch. “These practices, supposedly, are being used for sports team selection, reassembling during class and lunch intervals. Allegedly these practices are enforced by students themselves and supported by influential caste persons teachers,” read the circular.
Threads and tilaks tell tales of caste
Colour-coded threads have been used as caste-markers in Tamil Nadu over the past few years. A 2015-report in Indian Express details the practice from a school in Tirunelveli, a southern district in Tamil Nadu.
Thevars, Nadars, Yadavs are socially dominant communities in south Tamil Nadu. These communities also have considerable political clout in the region. While threads in yellow-red combination are worn by students from the Thevar community, Nadar students wear blue-yellow threads. Yadavs wear saffron-coloured thread. Students from the Dalit communities wear green-red or green-black-white threads on their wrists. This enables students to identify who they can mingle with and who they cannot.
Similarly, the tilaks that students wear on their foreheads are also indicators of caste, says the report. While Thevars and Nadars have their own style of wearing tilaks, Dalits don’t wear them, the report adds.
Though the Tirunelveli district administration had issued directions to the Education Department to take strict action against such practices, it was only an oral direction. The circular issued on August 2 is perhaps one of the first written directions issued in this regard by the government of Tamil Nadu.
The circular was vehemently opposed by BJP National Secretary H Raja, who condemned the circular strongly. Taking to Twitter, he said that tying threads on wrists and wearing tilaks on foreheads are related to Hinduism. “Banning these in schools is a blatant anti-Hindu action. Does the School Education Director have the courage to ban the symbols of other religions? This circular must be withdrawn immediately,” he tweeted.
Following KA Sengottaiyan’s statement that the circular was issued without his knowledge, H Raja also demanded that action be taken against the Director of School Education, who issued the circular.
However, one of BJP’s allies in Tamil Nadu, the Puthiya Thamizhagam, a Dalit party, has come out in support of the directive.
Shyam Krishnasamy, son of Puthiya Thamizhagam’s founder K Krishnasamy, countered H Raja stating that though tying threads and wearing tilaks are markers of caste, the students are not adapting them as religious identities. “...Especially in southern districts, it is seen as caste identities only. It creates caste divide among the students. Tamil Nadu government’s action is acceptable and must be implemented,” he tweeted.
Kathir, a Dalit rights activist, told TNM that threads indicating caste are often a combination of two or more colours. “People from each caste will discuss and adopt one particular combination of colours for them to wear. These are caste identifiers and are done to organize themselves based on caste,” he explained. Clarifying that religious beliefs are different and that a student can wear a cross or a pendant of Lord Muruga, which are not the crux of the circular here, Kathir said, “The colour threads are tied with an intention to organize themselves based on caste. This practice must be abolished.”
Commenting on KA Sengottaiyan’s stance of not being aware of the circular, Kathir said, “By saying status quo will be maintained, I am not sure what he meant. I am not sure if a minister can speak like this.”