The caste system has always been ubiquitous. Whether it’s politics, economics, the law, religion, the media, or even education, the seemingly immutable caste system affects all spheres of our society. Schisms along caste lines are ingrained into public discourse and cause discrimination, hatred, and violence. The caste system divided society into the Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and traders), Shudras (artisans, labourers, and servants), and the Untouchables. While untouchability was abolished by the Constitution, it is still prevalent in Modern India. Despite valiant efforts, most notably by B.R Ambedkar, to eradicate the caste system post independence, the over 3000 years old system continues to divide Indian society. As we’ll see, the caste system has significant effects on modern-day education; it is as extensive as it is pernicious, leaving its victims helpless.
The caste system meant that every aspect of one’s life was controlled by “the accident of birth”. Therefore, every caste had specific jobs assigned to them. This meant that children were only taught skills that helped them do jobs that their caste did, even if they could do other work. The strictures of the caste system meant that one is confined to the social status associated with one’s caste. This is discordant with the modern notion that education is the “great equaliser” and it gives everyone and anyone the “ability to rise” because of their hardwork and not their social status and uncontrollable factors such as gender, religion, caste, etc.
While the Right to Education Act guarantees education for students aged 6 to 14, the quality of that education is usually determined by caste. Students that belong to lower castes receive poor quality and inadequate education in schools that lack basic facilities. This makes it difficult for them to cope at higher levels of education. Ostensibly fair systems such as entrance tests don’t take into account existing disparities that prevent poor lower-caste students from attending coaching classes, studying without frequent interruptions, and preparing adequately for these tests.
Students belonging to lower castes, especially Dalits, are often ostracized from the education system as they are deemed to be unworthy of education. Their education is hampered as they are more likely to be forced into child labour than other students. They have lower attendance rates and higher dropout rates too. When in school, they face discrimination, not only from other students but also from teachers. They are forced to sit separately, eat separately, and clean classrooms and toilets. They are physically and verbally abused.
This constant discrimination leads to psychological problems, such as low-self esteem and depression, leading to further exclusion from the education system. This countervails any attempt to make our education system equitable and inclusive. Lower caste families are disproportionately affected by poverty as their members are less likely to get a good job even after receiving an education. This fuels a vicious cycle of poverty and caste-based discrimination.
In an attempt to alleviate caste-based discrimination through affirmative action, the concept of reservation was introduced. A certain number of seats are reserved for the marginalised castes in public education institutes. The Constitution [Article 16(4)], as well as the Constituent Assembly debates, emphasize that reservation was intended to prevent the formation of caste monopolies in the public sector. However, critiques of reservation call it excessively subservient to lower castes. They suggest that once members of a particular caste become affluent, they no longer deserve reservation. They say that students should earn their place in an educational institution based on merit.
This meritocratic approach is unfair and flawed as it does not consider centuries of discrimination and underrepresentation that lower castes have had to suffer through. Inherent in any meritocratic system is the premise that all participants start from the same starting line and play on an even playing field. According to the meritocratic approach, everyone has an equal chance to climb the ladder of success. But it would be foolish if we didn’t ask ourselves the question – is the distance between the rungs of everyone’s ladder the same? As we have seen, caste-based discrimination occludes students of lower castes from competing on an even playing field and the distance between the rungs of their ladders of success is miles longer than those of the other students.
Undoubtedly, the potency of caste-based discrimination has been reduced in urban India. Intermingling between castes, at school, office, public spaces, and even through marriage are common. However, in rural areas and small towns, the caste system’s pervasive nature foments unscrupulous discrimination. The fact that we still have caste-based discrimination, even after it has been outlawed, shows that it is an entrenched and institutional form of discrimination, not an anomaly that can be brushed aside. Along with reservation, we need comprehensive social and economic changes to debilitate this atavistic system.
We have taken a few steps towards a more egalitarian society.
Millions have benefitted from our education system and have ended the cycle of poverty and exclusion. The possibility of India ever having a Dalit Chief Justice and two Dalit Presidents would have been ludicrous pre-Independence. However, it is a far cry to say our country is free from discrimination at all levels. The values that students learn from their education determine the character and behaviour that they espouse in the future. Educational institutions cannot continue to remain passive during incidents of caste-based discrimination, so that we can work towards a more inclusive society.
We must remember that equity is not limited to equality of opportunity. It involves enabling marginalised groups to live in conditions that allow them to access these opportunities. Completely erasing centuries of disadvantage and discrimination, while desirable, may not be possible in the immediate future. But, creating an inclusive education system is something we can start doing right now.