Why it is important to teach children about caste in school

Children must be taught to identify and call out markers of caste oppression. They need to be told why it is wrong, how each of them can work towards annihilating it, and why they must, writes Aishwarya Mahesh.
Students and teacher in a classroom
Students and teacher in a classroom
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Back in the late 80s in Madras (it hadn’t become Chennai yet), for parents looking at prospective schools for their children, there were clearly defined institutional clusters to choose from. At first glance, the defining factor appeared to be the curriculum/educational board the institutions subscribed to. For those particular about getting their children convent educated, there was Sacred Heart, Don Bosco, Holy Angels, Rosary, St Michaels and more; these were institutions that largely followed the State Board. When it came to the ICSE Board, it was slim pickings – there was The School run by the Krishnamurti Foundation and Sishya. The third cohort comprised CBSE schools and included the likes of Chettinad Vidyashram, DAV, Bala Vidya Mandir, Asan Memorial and Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, among others.

What else was common to the schools in the last bracket, besides the affiliation to CBSE? If you asked any of their students, the pat answer would come that they were superlative in terms of academic standards, infrastructure, teachers and extracurricular activities. Perhaps no one asked the parents, or they might have said that they preferred these schools, over the others, for their distinctive Brahminical leanings and their not-so-subtle reinforcements of hard-core Hindu upper caste convention.

In the past month, a large number of the very same schools have come into the spotlight, beginning with PSBB, on account of startling revelations (by current students as well as alumni) of instances of sexual harassment.  Reading through these on my Twitter timeline sent me back in time, to the days of morning assemblies replete with Sanskrit slokas and pranayamas. In the 15 years that I spent in PSBB from pre-kg to grade 12, from 1986 to 2001, to the best of my knowledge, there were no instances of sexual harassment. But what I -as an upper caste person myself-grudge the school to this date, is for creating a socio-cultural milieu so steeped in Brahmanism and so utterly devoid of any form of caste recognition/representation, that it produced generation after generation of tone-deaf young adults who are complicit in perpetuating upper caste domination, barring the few exceptions.

Growing up in Madras at a time when the internet was yet to make its entry, meant that your go-to sources for both, acquisition of historical knowledge and discourse on current affairs, were your textbooks plus teachers. But in a school with an overwhelming majority of upper-caste staff and students, one that gave official holidays on occasions such as ‘Nombu’ and ‘Avani Avittam’ (two uniquely Brahmin-specific rituals) but only made a passing mention of Ambedkar and Periyar during history class, it is no surprise that you graduate with a world view that caste fuelled oppression is a thing of the past, and does not exist in the bhajan-singing-yoga-practicing-bharatanatyam-arangetram-conducting contemporary India. It also precludes any scope of the teachers calling out the fact that Brahmins were instrumental in creating and perpetuating the abhorrent Varna system designed to stifle the marginalised sections in the most inhuman ways possible.

I am deeply ashamed to admit that it was not until my mid-twenties, when I moved out of the city, to Bombay for work, did I become aware of how deep-rooted and internalised caste oppression is in this country, and that I have been guilty of partaking in it myself for a major portion of my life. This is not a cop-out, or an attempt to shift the onus of disabusing students of their caste privilege entirely to one’s alma mater. Nor does it absolve one’s parents and family of their responsibility, they still play the primary role in imparting basic human values and morals.  But in your formative years, in an era devoid of Google, Wikipedia and Twitter, if not your teachers, then who does the responsibility fall on to educate?

Recently I heard an NPR podcast on how the caste system had made its way into Silicon Valley and the Brahmins there were using a ‘pat test’ wherein they patted the backs of fellow colleagues to check for the sacred thread (poonal/janeyu), a determinant of if you are a Brahmin or not. If they managed to find out that a person belonged to a lower caste, they ensured that the said person’s career was effectively obliterated by withholding promotions and raises, finishing off with social ostracisation in the workplace. These are the same Brahmins who do ‘sandhyavandanam’ in the Bay area and most likely studied in a PSBB or DAV.

Recently, the abusive tirade of an IIT professor, which was unarguably and blatantly casteist, put a spotlight on an issue that has been endemic to the education system but is seldom spoken about – that of dominant caste educators abusing their power. But is calling out the perpetrators enough? It is time we recognised the absence of proactive education on the provenance and continuing existence of casteism. The chapters on Ambedkar cannot be relegated to just the Constitution section in civics textbooks. Children must be taught to identify and call out markers of caste oppression in everyday interactions. They need to be told why it is wrong and unjust, and how each of them can work towards annihilating it, and why they must. And this has to start at the primary school level.

I am deeply grateful for the excellent education I received in Padma Seshadri, if I am able to articulate my thoughts today in a coherent and cogent manner, the credit is due entirely to my teachers, to the Orient Longman textbooks, to the Somerset Maugham and O Henry stories in the non-detailed books and to the enrichment classes post-school hours. I only wish my education in the concept of social injustice had been just as strong. I believe it's time for schools today to stop living in denial and to truly educate, so that future generations can organise and agitate.

Aishwarya Mahesh is an FMCG/Ecom marketer, Tamil girl living in Mumbai. No sugar in my sambar please.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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