Why Caste-Based Wrist Bands in Tamil Nadu’s Schools Must Be Banned

An internationally-renowned scientist reflects on the caste discrimination he faced as a child and how a safe school environment is essential for children to realise their true potential.

Despite Article 14 of the Indian constitution stating that “the state shall not deny any person equality before the law or equal protection of the law within the territory of India”, the education minister of Tamil Nadu sees nothing wrong in schools forcing students to wear caste-coded wrist bands.

Worse, he shot down a circular issued by the directorate of school education which asked officials to “take appropriate steps to identify such schools in their district where such kind of discrimination is practised and to issue suitable instructions to the head masters to prevent the practice immediately, and to also take severe action on persons responsible for the discrimination.”

“The tradition of students wearing coloured-wrist bands will continue. The circular was not brought to my notice and I was not aware of it,” minister K.A. Sengottaiyan said.

It is not okay

Though the minister thinks this “tradition” is fine,  I would like to say it is not okay.

The practice of marking students with wrist bands to identify and alienate them because of their caste is far from okay. It is not okay that students are forced to bring their own plates for midday meals, a meal programme that was instituted to encourage poor children like me to go to school instead of labouring to earn money for food. Nor is it okay to have separate wash basins designated for different castes in such institutions. Such practices can insidiously develop into serious societal conflict.

Also read: Caste-Based Wrist Bands in Tamil Nadu Schools: A Matter of Concern

Your policy of introducing wrist bands is similar to the policies of the Nazi regime of marking fellow human beings who happened to be Jews and homosexuals so that they could always be easily identified and persecuted.

Education is synonymous with progress and not regress. Please rescind these practices and make educational institutes safe for all schoolchildren and teachers. Equality to all in educational institutions is not only a constitutional mandate but is also a moral issue.

A thank you to my teachers

To all my teachers, I would like to say: Thank you. Thank you for everything you taught me and above all, for making me feel valued and most importantly, safe. Thank you for not marking my wrists with a band that could have easily alienated and made me a target for systemic racism and abuse. Thank you for instilling values in me that help me sleep well at night.

Education is synonymous with progress and not regress. Equality to all in educational institutions is not only a constitutional mandate but is also a moral issue.

Thank you for identifying and boldly appreciating my talents – hidden or plain. Thank you for arming me with knowledge and wisdom that enabled me to boldly march into this challenging world and prove to be useful. Thank you for making me think outside the box and not punishing me for being subtly rebellious. Thank you for making me the curiously passionate scientist that I am today.

Thank you for teaching me that all Indians – from Kashmir to Kanyakumari – are my brothers and sisters and that there is no place for hate.

I would also like to acknowledge my mother here, because she is the best teacher and the best mom I know.

A message for students

This is what I would like to tell students who get bullied in classrooms because of who they are. I would like to tell schoolchildren who get harassed because of which caste they belong to, because they have a different pigmentation of the skin than their fellow classmates, I would like to tell them that it is going to be okay  –  yes, it is going to be okay.

You see, I was like you, but some 44 years ago. I was born an ‘untouchable’, a Dalit, an Adidravidan, a Paraiyan, darker skinned than any of my own family members. I was called “Karuppan”, “Kariya” and “blackie dog” by people, both to express their love and to hurl dehumanising insults. I was this kid, objectively not good looking by the standards set at that time – where the TV ad of the beauty product “Fair & Lovely” was a false equivalency to promote the idea that fair is lovely – disguised as a way for dark skinned citizens who felt unlovely, to adapt and comply.

Also read: At Aligarh Muslim University, I Hid My Caste Identity For Five Years

I had to take the train from my one-room house in Ranganathapuram-Kadaperi, an erstwhile slum in Tambaram, to Pallavaram where my school was housed – a mere 20-minute journey that imprinted many long lasting memories in my brain circuitry.   

I have faced discrimination on a daily, if not hourly, basis be it when I had to sit at the famous Indian Railways yellowish wooden seats or travelling with the Pallavan bus where the poor man’s iron thrones left the rust lingering in the memory of my clothes and palms, or at a road side restaurant where I was given plastic plates and tumblers while my upper caste mates got stainless steel plates, because of the ridiculous unscientific belief that my “caste” could be “conducted” by metals such as steel but not by plastic and thus would not be defiled by my touch.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakarborty

At the numerous times that I was treated, literally, as an untouchable, where my accent and dialect were mocked, led me, for a long time, to take on and mimicked the manner of speaking of Brahmins – like a cat trying to command a dark world  because it decided to close its eyes.

Each day, I donned a shirt that used to be white and khaki trousers that stayed faithful to the colour but had their own additional holes – which my mom, a school teacher herself, would stitch up with the cheapest white thread that gave my trousers their own scars.

Also read: ‘I am Tam, But Not Brahm’: My Dalit Experience At BITS, Pilani

But once I walked into the premises of Maraimalai Adigal Government Higher Secondary School, I felt safe. In the confines of an institute that lacked even proper brick walls, I learned that the opportunities through education were limitless, that many leaders and thinkers had humble beginnings and that education was an equaliser.

I made friends some lifelong ones who came from different castes, in different colours and shapes. Some of my best friends belonged to other and ‘upper’ castes. My best friends carried names like Sriram Narayanan and Padhmanabhan Pattabiraman – but shared a similarity in that they are all wonderful human beings who didn’t understand caste and didn’t care to.

My mom’s best friend is a fellow teacher, Rukmini Natarajan, who adhered to her religious customs and traditions but showed unconditional love to our family – and we reciprocated the same– transcending man-made bounds in the name of religion, caste and geo-political divides.

The educational institutes that I attended, from my government board high school to the Hindu-majority Sankara College, made me – a Christian Dalit boy – feel whole and safe. Despite having some bullies in my classroom – who called me by derogatory names because of my melanin content, because of my effeminate nature and because I brought porai (the dried small buns that were usually fed to dogs) as my lunch – I did study well and hard in school because this was the place that provided me with the only means for real freedom from all kinds of societal oppression that have lived for decades after independence from external oppression.

Today, I am a successful, well-known scientist who has discovered many aspects in the field of cellular neuroscience, received many accolades including the 2009 World’s Top 100 scientist award, a professor and the deputy director at a world renowned institution, on the way to, hopefully, solving one of the most complex and difficult diseases called Alzheimer’s disease. 

Also read: ‘He Made Me Hate Myself’: My Story of Being Bullied By a Casteist Teacher

I am also an entrepreneur – I created ScienceMatters, an Instagram page for scientists to openly share their scientific data and Eureka  – a decentralised publishing platform based on the blockchain technology  – both to make sure that scholarly knowledge does not stay behind paywalls and that is available in a free and open access manner. I am also an activist and a founder of an NGO called Raise.Rural, that supports students from rural India to pursue research.

Above all, I am an empathy-driven human being. It is all because of my journey that started with a small step from the perennial puddle in my slum to the government school in Pallavaram.

So my message to young children today is that it is indeed going to be okay – just hang in there. You are much stronger than you look and much braver than you think. You are smarter than the grades that you receive in your exams. You have a future that is far brighter than the current one. You are lovely, regardless of your skin colour and what the TV ads and the package of any beauty product promise.

You are love and you are loved.

In the face of adversity, in the face of discrimination that is often camouflaged in the coat of policies that advocate otherisms, I have learned that awareness helps and that for knowledge to be converted into wisdom, I have to learn well in school. I did and it turned out to be okay. You will also be okay. More than just okay.

Lawrence Rajendran is a professor at King’s College London.