“Look at this Thadiyan (fat boy). How can he sit in class with the other kids and teachers?”
These words weren’t spoken by a comedian in what passes for funny in several Indian films.
No, these were the words of a school headmaster in Kerala, who was flustered by a government order to admit nine tribal children in his school; he was so reluctant to taken in the children that he tried everything in his power to avoid it, including insulting the minors to their face.
On Tuesday, two social workers from Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society (KMSS) visited the MPM Higher Secondary School Chungathara in Nilambur of Malappuram district. Aysha and Raseela were taking nine children from the Nilambur tribal colonies to meet the headmaster of the school, Wilson Daniel.
The visit was part of an ambitious government programme to bring dropouts from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities back to school. KMSS, in association with the SC/ST department of Kerala, has been conducting camps across the state to identify school dropouts, and also those children who have never had access to formal education.
The programme was put in place to battle the discrimination that tribal and Dalit children face in society; the attitude of the headmaster just went on show how deep rooted such discrimination is.
When the headmaster slammed a child for being slow
Wilson Daniel starts off by claiming he was genuinely concerned about whether the children would fit into the school, and whether they would be able to cope with the syllabus.
In an audio clip released by Aysha and Raseela, the headmaster begins by asking one of the children, who is supposed to be enrolled in Class 9, to write his name.
When the child was a little slow in doing so, Wilson Daniel started berating him.
“He can’t write his name. How can he learn what kids in ninth standard are dealing with in their syllabus?” Wilson can be heard asking.
While that could still pass for ‘genuine concern’ (with a stretch of imagination), Wilson Daniel then goes on to make his intentions clearer. He claims it would be ‘unwise’ to induct the kids with the ‘normal students’.
He then continues to mock the children, and repeatedly says that he was bothered about the ‘welfare’ of the students in his school.
When the headmaster fat shamed a minor boy for no reason
Wilson Daniel humiliates the children so much that some of them walk out in protest.
“The children felt insulted and two of them left the room in protest. This agitated him further,” Aysha tells TNM.
And in this agitated state, the headmaster then targeted another child.
Pointing to the boy, Wilson Daniel said that since he was obese, it would affect ‘other students and teachers.’
As if the absurdity of that statement wasn’t enough, the headmaster then repeatedly refers to the child as ‘Thadiyan’ - a derogatory term for a fat boy.
“What will parents say? They will ask me how their small kids can sit in the same class as the fat boy,” Wilson Daniel claims, without a hint of awareness about how much he was affecting the confidence of the child by body shaming him.
When the headmaster insulted the tribal students’ intelligence
While Aysha and Raseela objected to Wilson Daniel’s language, the headmaster flip-flopped between one bizarre excuse and another to not admit the children in his school.
“From the very beginning, this person was not interested in admitting the students into his school. But since we had a government order, there wasn’t much he could do,” Aysha tells TNM.
“He tried to resist though,” she adds.
When Aysha asked the headmaster whether education is denied for all obese and overweight students, Wilson Daniel changes tack to say, “They can’t even write properly, then how can they sit with others?”
“They need separate classes, they need counseling. How can they understand Chemistry, Maths or Physics?” he went on to ask.
In fact, he repeatedly told the students that they should get counselling.
When the social workers tried to convince him that the kids were from tribal colonies and deprived of a formal education; they told him it was imperative to give them an opportunity.
“We can never comprehend their situation and this is unfair,” Aysha can be heard saying.
When Wilson Daniel implied that the tribal children were contagious
But the headmaster would have none of it, and got even more abusive.
“Ask them to take bath, brush their teeth and cut their hair. What if other students in class get diseases from them?” the headmaster had the gall to say.
“This boy said he has some disease. What if he is using something?” Wilson Daniel can be heard saying.
The agitated social workers objected strongly to his disparaging comments. “It is painful to hear these things about them. Which children don’t get diseases? If someone in your family falls sick, will you throw them out?” the women can he heard asking.
“We have stayed with their families; we have not got any diseases. They are just like our own children, there is no difference. How will these children ever get an education if people like you talk like this?” they ask Wilson Daniel.
But instead of hanging his head in shame, the headmaster asked whether they had any clothes other than the black ones they were wearing.
They’re in, but will they stay in?
If he could have his way, the headmaster would have refused to take the children in. But forced to comply with the government order, Wilson Daniel reluctantly admitted four students in Class 9. The children started school on Wednesday.
But how long they will be able to survive with such a caustic man as their headmaster is anyone’s guess.
“These children are from an extremely poor background. They dropped out of school as the environment was not favourable for them. They have now joined a regular school, but you heard the headmaster’s mentality towards them. We don’t know how they will survive,” Ayesha says.
High dropout rates among tribal children
Aysha points out that most of the time, these students drop out of school due to humiliation from teachers.
According to data provided by the central government on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on March 20 this year, the school dropout rates of SC and ST students is very high across the country. For tribal students especially, the numbers are alarming.
In 2013-14, according to this data, 31.3% of tribal students dropped out before they finish Class 5, 48.2% dropped out before graduating Class 8, and by Class 10, 62.4% tribal children were out of school.