By Tulika Bathija
“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
From a University Scholar to a School Teacher
A public funded university in India is a diverse, vibrant and a politically active space. It is within this space that we engage in dialogue and discussion, and question the status quo through critical reflection and reasoning. Often these discussions take place in open campus spaces — under the tree, at midnight while sipping tea and having bread omlette or Maggi noodles, or while taking a stroll under the dim lights.
When all is quiet and still, the walls of these campuses speak. The painted graffiti speaks of caste oppression, injustice, violence against oppressed groups — women, minorities, Dalits, Kashmiris. These walls speak for those who are silenced. They often echo the aspirations of first generation learners and students who have crossed many hurdles in their lives to access their basic right to education.
These walls also spoke to me but I did not listen intently then. I was lost in the white noise of my privilege. The angry slogans on the walls made sense much later in life when I took on the role of a teacher in a private, elite school in Mumbai. While travelling to work everyday, I saw my city through a fresh pair of eyes. I could see that, both geographically and demographically, the city was segregated into two parts — the oppressors and the oppressed.
The most oppressed communities in India, in today’s times, are the Dalits. The word ‘Dalit’ itself means oppressed or outcastes. Historically, the dalit community has been forced into manual scavenging and other occupational bondages that systematically exclude them from asserting their sense of human worth and dignity or claim equal citizenship. In the year 2006, Dr. Manmohan Singh became the first Indian Prime Minister to recognise the atrocities committed against the Dalit community as a form of apartheid. Even though untouchability has been legally abolished and many institutional reforms have taken place since independence, this hidden apartheid has taken roots into the very hearts and minds of the Indian subconscious resulting in crimes, honour killing, land grab and social exclusions at various levels.
In the recent years, a crime that shook the entire nation was the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student from the University of Hyderabad and member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. Rohith was one of the five Dalit students who was expelled from the university’s hostel facilities after he and his friends were accused of attacking a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party). Protests broke out across central universities in India to demand justice for Rohith. In his suicide note, Rohith lamented that he was “reduced to his immediate identity.” Until this date, Rohith’s mother Radhika Vemula awaits justice.
What drove this bright, young and inspiring student to take his own life? The expulsion from university — a space that Rohith claimed to escape his preordained destiny also betrayed him. What happened to Rohith is not an isolated incident. It was the last straw. Rohith’s story is a chilling reminder of the cascading effect of caste based violence in expanding circles of public spaces that Dalit children claim from childhood to adulthood. Even today, educational institutions — mainly schools are breeding grounds for caste violence.
There are records of horrifying incidents of caste based discrimination committed by fellow students and teachers against Dalit children to reduce them to their immediate identity, to permanently position them as outcastes who dare to defy the social order. Given that this apartheid unfolds everyday in our homes and our everyday conversations, in play areas, in schools and neighbourhoods, why not expand the study of history and literature in classrooms to confront this evil? Therefore, when I started teaching, I realised that the study of history and literature cannot end with the glorification of the freedom movement in our classrooms. One cannot engage with the past by separating it from the present issues of social justice.
I wanted my students to have the same exposure that I had much later in life. My wish was to gently poke their subconscious caste entitlement masquerading as ‘merit’ earned through independent efforts. I wanted them to realise that their position at this school or in society was not earned on the basis of merit but saddled on the back of Hindu upper caste hegemony.
If they cannot erase caste violence, the least they can do is become aware of their own caste privilege. I did not want them to be those entitled adults who share vile messages against affirmative action and reservation policies in India from a space of Brahminical superiority, much like the colonial or white superiority. I believe these smaller acts of revolution have the potential to annihilate caste.
Some might say that I brought politics into the classroom or polluted the minds of young people but, to me, this process is a murky, soul-churning experience. Hopefully, it will create one less member in family Whatsapp groups making vile casteist remarks or sharing anti-reservation memes. One of the fundamental purpose of education is to experience a sense of discomfort that disturbs your own position in a calm power structure. Teachers should not be scared to cause such positive discomfort. I shed this fear when I first taught my students about the evils of casteism in many forums — the classroom, our school literature festival, and finally celebration of important events on the calendar.
Caste in the Curriculum
I invoked Dr. Ambedkar to start a discussion on caste through my curriculum. As a teacher of English Language and Literature who taught the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, I enjoyed tremendous flexibility in selection of texts and thematic content in designing the unit. In my last year, I introduced the graphic novel Bhimayana written by S. Anand and Srividya Natarajan, and illustrated by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam to students of grade 6.
Hailed as one of the most important political comic books, Bhimayana — a graphic novel based on the life of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar — lays bare the evils of a caste-ridden society. Not only does it trace the struggles and many hurdles in the life of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar but also intersperses present caste atrocities that unfold in cities and rural areas in India through images of newspaper clippings, which helps the readers understand that caste did not die with the birth of new India and progressive constitutional reforms spearheaded by Ambedkar. Assessments, activities, field visits and games were planned built around this text to help students gain a deeper insight into caste based discrimination in India through tools of experiential learning.
Lesson Plans — Inquiry to Assessment
- First provocation — ‘The Unequal Opportunity Race’ by Erica Pinto
This short film created for the African American policy forum highlights the need for affirmative action to bridge racial inequalities in the United States through use of metaphors. The film shows white people competing against African American people in an unequal race. The white people’s path is free of obstacles. The black people not only start late but also encounter many challenges along the way. These physical barriers are symbolic of systemic challenges and racial prejudice that plague the American society.
Through this video, students were able to draw parallels between the struggles of Dalit and African American communities. They realised that, even now, the white male that won the race was celebrated as a winner. He fought an unequal battle which only favoured him every way. Students questioned the false construct of merit and realised that, when individuals or dominant groups acquire power and wealth, they ignore the social context that accords them the privileges to make their road to success convenient. In order to have a level playing field, there are gaps that need to be filled for everyone to have the opportunity to succeed.
- Reading of Bhimayana
As we were reading Bhimayana, students praised Dr. Ambedkar for succeeding in life despite all odds, and felt deeply aggrieved by the rampant discrimination that he faced all his life on account of his caste identity. Many of them had never even heard of him, and those who had only knew him as the chief architect of the Indian constitution. Bhimayana revealed his life, the plight of the Mahar community and the caste atrocities in present India that were unheard of. It challenged their preconceived notion that the problem of caste exists only in rural settings. We also learnt that Ambedkar’s call to educate, agitate and organise heralded a new awakening in the Dalit community who persisted in their fight to claim their rights over public space — temples, wells, schools and other institutions. I asked my students to then look around, and find out how many of them sitting in their classrooms belonged to the Dalit community. The hard realisation sunk in. It is not a matter of coincidence that all students and most teachers at my school are upper caste Hindu citizens enjoying the privileges of an early start in life. While we all face problems in our life, they are not riddled with caste prejudice.
- Debatable Question: Should we still have reservations for people in the SC/ST and OBC category?
Despite having read the text and participated in a lesson on privilege, some students did not see reservation as a viable solution to bridge the divide created by upper caste dominion. They were unable to suggest alternative measures. Some also reflected that, by denying the need for reservation, they are saying that education is a privilege that must be accorded only to upper castes. This shift in thinking is not easy; it creates a sense of discomfort. When you engage in debate of this nature that does not evoke a response that you expect, however, politically inappropriate, do not judge your students.
Let them reflect on their sense of entitlement and privilege. Shaming them into admitting that reservations need to continue will not allow the discussion space to be free of fear and self consciousness. Allow space for free thinking and debate. It was very difficult for me to not judge but, as a teacher-facilitator, I have learnt that I need not be the gatekeeper of knowledge and learning. I can only watch them reflect and point them in a particular direction. Students need to arrive at their own conclusions. In the process they will be confused, even desperate for help. If the latter happens, ask a question, without rushing to give a response.
- Understanding Privilege
Another YouTube video titled, ‘A powerful lesson about privilege’ offers a hands-on activity on privilege for students to participate in. Students seated at the back are asked to step into the shoes of people from disadvantaged communities, and asked to aim their paper balls at the dustbin placed right in front of a group of people enjoying a better vantage point and aim to make their target. Those at the back lose are unable to aim, while a few in front are easily able to drop their paper balls in the bin. We reflected on the fairness of this game, and the group that had a better opportunity.
It was revealed that none of the students sitting in the front complained, except one student who seemed unsettled with the idea of receiving more advantages over the others. The student asked, “Why am I seated in front?” I asked my students to keep this question in mind for future, and always ask, “Why is it easy for me to get admission in any college?” “How am I able to access high quality medical facilities? Students at the back were all upset for not making the aim. They empathised with the Dalit community, and said they now realise how they feel.
- Rewriting the laws
While we were reading Bhimayana in class, we came across five highly oppressive and repressive laws of Manu from the Manusmriti — the scripture that was set ablaze by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Students were asked to overturn the law and formulate new, progressive laws to help them understand why Babasaheb was against this so called religious scripture that provided religious validation to oppression. New laws created by students also made use of the words ‘higher caste’ and ‘lower caste’. One very insightful student pointed out, “If we use the word ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the laws that we create, then how different are they really?” This activity was suggested by my colleague and dear friend Radha Trivady who was teaching a unit on the Varna system to students of grade 7 as part of their History curriculum.
- Field Trip to the Deonar Dumping Ground
When you teach children about caste discrimination, it is important to combine the theoretical knowledge gained through literary texts with experiential learning. The proximity of the experiences of social injustice and discrimination, when studied in conjunction with its theory, may have a deeper impact on the students, Therefore, my colleague in the History department and I planned a trip to the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai.The field trip was planned as part of an interdisciplinary teaching unit on ‘Urban Settlements’ in Humanities and ‘Discrimination’ in English. Through this intersectional unit on settlements, students investigated the planning of Deonar slums and its impact on large majority of Dalit, Muslims and the Dalit Muslim community (Dalits who converted to Islam) residing in the area.
Since the students had studied the graphic novel, Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, this visit helped them contextualise the experiences of the marginalised communities and make deeper textual connections. Volunteers at Apnalaya, situated in Shivaji Nagar, had arranged a visit of the demolition area, slum structures and the dumping ground in the vicinity. During our visit, we interviewed Ruksana (name changed), a Dalit Muslim waste picker employed on contract basis to segregate garbage. Ruksana, mother of three children, now a grandmother has been a waste picker since the age of 15. Soon after her father died, she dropped out of school and assumed the mantle as the oldest child in her family. Ruksana spent her teenage and entire adult life, segregating sharp metallic objects, bio-medical waste, bloody, tattered sanitary napkins and soiled diapers. When she could no longer make ends meet, she worked part-time at night as a caretaker, nursing old, bed-ridden people.
People like Ruksana have led a life of slavery. Her story resonated with many students. After listening to Ruksana and the plight of manual scavengers who segregate garbage with their bare hands, I myself decided to make a small change in my daily life style. I shifted to cloth pads, and discontinued the use of disposable sanitary napkins. Perhaps it does not change anything for people like Ruksana but it allows you to be a role model for your students. Students need to be able to see the importance of education in their everyday lives.
- School literature festival
At the end of the school year, we also invited one of the authors of Bhimayana, S.Anand, and the prolific Gond artists — Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. S. Anand spoke about the caste atrocities committed against the Dalits, and shared his desire of telling Ambedkar’s story through a graphic novel. After the talk, students had the opportunity to participate in an art workshop facilitated by the Gond artists who taught students to draw motifs and public spaces that were deemed inaccessible to the Dalit community. This activity promoted a deeper sense of understanding of the form of graphic novels, and the interrelationship between words and images to create a complex interpretation of the visual form of storytelling. If there is an opportunity for you to invite the authors and artists, especially those who write important revolutionary books, get your students to interact with them. These interactions make the experience of reading a novel on the theme of social justice far more relevant and relatable.
- Ambedkar Jayanti and Women’s Day
In most Indian schools, Ambedkar Jayanti is observed as a public holiday. However, the day holds immense significance for the oppressed classes who on this day hold dances, lectures, street performances and organise seminars and rallies to commemorate their hero. You can take students to visit these vibrant sights. At school, one can have a discussion on recent incidents of caste violence, and further expand the knowledge gained about his life through a historical perspective. On Women’s Day, teachers can assign research projects to students to learn and present about women leaders from the Dalit community who fought for equal rights and education for women, such as Savitribai Phule. These festivals which have transformed into commercialised events to generate more corporate loot can become subversive spaces to remember the lost heroes and sheroes of Dalit history. Since these festivals are followed on an annual basis, it is an opportunity for teachers to keep the question of caste alive after the end of the unit.
- Essay on Annihilation of Caste
As an English teacher, you can teach students persuasive writing techniques, and set a writing assignment on the topic of annihilation of caste. This kind of a writing task can mark the culmination of the unit on caste based discrimination. In this essay, students can demonstrate their knowledge about caste privilege derived through personal research, investigation and textual connections. This is also an opportunity for them to reflect on shift in ideas and perspectives from the beginning of the unit. If students question, debate, think and critically to respond to this task, it means that you have trained your students to register their dissent and exercise their responsibilities as citizens of this country.
Education is politics. In a world where your students are constantly exposed to venom-spouting lapdog media and biased versions of current events, it is better that they receive accurate and well informed ideas built on values of justice and equality from people they respect immensely — their teachers. We are in a responsible position.We must utilise this position to address important issues of social justice through a well defined curriculum framework. Be a classroom revolutionary so that we can save the life of another Rohith. We can contain bullying, harassment and violence of children on the basis of their caste identity. Every action will count to subvert the oppressive norms of our society.
(Tulika Bathija is an educator who works at the intersection of peacebuilding, social justice, and gender. She currently teaches English Language Acquisition at Nagoya International School in Japan.)