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What Dalit People Taught Us About Education and Why We Must Commit to It

Fashioned out of a need for social action and change, critical Dalit pedagogy is not simply an exercise in training.

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We are living in difficult and unprecedented times that have opened up some important conversations with regards to caste, race, gender and pedagogy both in India, where I have lived and taught, and in the US, where I currently live and teach.

Many in India are concerned immensely about the politicisation of education and, through some legislative campaigns, many in the US have expressed concern about the teaching of race and power in classrooms. Recently, when some institutions in the US included caste as a protected category, some dominant caste Hindu communities came out in opposition of this significant change.

It is in the wake of these debates that I draw upon my first book, Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double discrimination (Routledge, 2014), which focuses on Dalit women’s education in colonial India to examine Dalits’ ground-breaking work on shaping a ‘Critical Dalit Pedagogy’ (CDP). 

CDP emerges from the ideas, actions and experiences of the most underserved and underrepresented Dalit communities and focuses on anti-caste, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist agitation, and indeed, humanises pedagogy. CDP centres the interconnections between caste, class, “public” institutions such as education and “private” realms like the family, gender, desire, marriage, and sexuality from the vantage point of stigmatised Dalit women.

Also read: Insults, Isolation, Broken Friendships: Dalit Students Open Up On Caste Discrimination In US

What did education mean to Dalit people?

Since the 19th century, Dalit educators, activists and leaders have engaged with and provided the most democratic vision of social transformation. They shaped what I call the Critical Dalit Pedagogy. The CDP draws upon non-Brahman and Dalit discourse on knowledge and education and is rooted in the thoughts, actions and experiences of the most oppressed Dalit women.

Dalit women’s ideas, actions and lives illuminate the conundrums and compulsions of our contemporary crisis. Discussing critical Dalit pedagogy requires us to analyse power both inside and outside classrooms. When Dalits started reading and writing, they developed a new critical awareness of their social, economic and cultural context and personhood and used their learning to bring about transformation in society.

As such, Dalits’ critical anti-caste pedagogy of “educate, agitate, organise”, democratisation, humanisation and critical inquiry offer important lessons for our times as we continue to shape our present and build robust futures. 

Fighting caste/fighting gender

On March 1, 1855, 14-year-old radical Muktabai Salve, an ‘Untouchable’ Mang student in the classroom of anti-caste intellectuals and activists Savitribai and Jotirao Phule in Kasba Peth, Pune, exposed caste discrimination, Brahmans’ social privilege and dominance, as well as exclusivity in the realm of learning and knowledge: 

“…gluttonous Brahmans take the Vedas to be their domain and property and exclude us from seeing or hearing them. When any Mang or Mahar [Untouchable] would learn somehow to read and write, and if Bajirao came to know about this, he would say “education of a Mang or Mahar amounts to taking away a Brahman’s job. How dare they get educated? Do these Untouchables expect the Brahmans to hand over their official duties to them and move around with their shaving kits, shaving the heads of widows?”’

Statues of Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule at Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Chowk, Aurangabad. Photo: Sandesh Hivale/ CC BY-SA 4.0.

Education was circumscribed to higher and dominant castes and Dalit peoples’ right to education was intrinsically connected with anti-caste agitation and liberation. Salve was the enunciator of the anti-caste CDP. She ended her powerful essay by underlining education and critical thinking for Untouchables.

Salve analysed the ways in which the caste mechanism subjected Dalit women to various forms of exploitation, prejudice, humiliation and injury. She tied her everyday experiences to systemic phenomena and analysed the anatomy of caste, class and gender hierarchies. She illuminated the ways in which Brahmans enjoyed their power and privilege and exploited Untouchables: “…they treat us worse than cows-buffaloes,” she said.

In the process, Salve contrasted two traditional and distinct dichotomies of the caste mechanism: the always-already human Brahmans and the non-human Dalits. In pointing out the polarity of the two communities, she focused on the abjection of Dalits and Brahmans’ relegation of Dalits to the status of non-humans. 

Coalition building

Critical Dalit Pedagogy also has the potential to connect different communities and build solidarity. For example, comparing the experiences of Untouchable and Brahman women, Muktabai argued, “Our women give birth to babies and they do not even have a roof over their heads. How they suffer rain and cold! Try to think about it from your own experiences.”

In other words, the pioneering feminist Muktabai asked, aren’t Dalit women “women,” who suffered the pains of womanhood? She deployed womanhood and motherhood to create a common cause for women of different castes and talk about the experiences of ‘woman caste’. 

Ambedkar’s Critical Dalit Pedagogy

Revolutionary anti-caste movements questioned upper-caste reformist approaches as well as the colonial state’s cautious measures. In this context, Critical Dalit Pedagogy was infused with a new meaning and a radical social and political purpose.

Continuing Muktabai’s legacy, Dalit women and men activists like Shivram Janba Kamble (1875-1940), Jaibai Chaudhari (1890–1964), Kisan Phaguji Bansode (1879-1946), among others, established schools, libraries and hostels; published books; started newspapers; and worked on expanding the CDP in the early 20th century. In the repertoire of civic rights, education emerged as a significant force in the social revolt movements and political and ideological struggles at the end of the 19th century. 

After the 1920s, Ambedkar humanised and deepened the CDP. The CDP had two distinct goals for the short and long terms. While the short-term goal was aimed at making available basic literacy and citizenship training for Dalits’ participation in a democratic Indian society, the long-term goal was to develop a class of trustworthy leaders who would guide the Dalits to freedom and equality. 

The two aims of the CDP fundamentally coincided with the two phases of Dalits’ struggle for education: first, to make it available, and second, to ensure that it was quality education on par with that of other classes; designed to prepare Dalits for full citizenship.

The CDP also has a transnational connection. It has the potential to engage with a range of theories, political ideologies and practical strategies: indigenous ideals, Western thought, and the language of political liberalism all guided Dalits’ struggle for equality, human rights and justice. The Phules’ and Ambedkar’s agenda closely parallels that of African-American movements in the early 20th century as well as feminist pedagogies.

Also read: Education and Exclusion of Dalits: A History of Hurt and Humiliation

Making modern Dalit citizens 

Education, for Ambedkar, had a social and political function: it was to provide a social continuity to Dalits’ deformed lives and to prepare them for their new role as ‘modern’ citizens in the democratic Indian body politic. In his opinion, ‘citizenship involved individual independence, individual safety, private property, equality, legal status to behave according to one’s intelligence, freedom of language and expression, freedom to congregate, to fetch government jobs’; yet, due to social restrictions, Dalits were excluded from it (Mooknayak, February 28, 1920).

To Ambedkar, Dalits were to become fearless citizens who had independent thoughts and temperaments. Dalits did not fight merely to attend school or to obtain employment; their agenda went beyond that. 

Dignity

The CDP centres around dignity, empowerment, self-help, emancipation and community uplift. Ambedkar declared: “…what the Untouchables want is not education, but the right to be admitted in common schools. They do not want medical aid, but the right to be admitted to the general dispensary on equal terms. What they want is the right to draw water from a common well. They do not want their suffering to be relieved. (Ambedkar 1989, 373) 

Dalits’ distinct educational aspirations and needs grew from daily experience, thus representing their attempts to build a better future from an existing base. Dignity here is the conscious creation of an embodied consciousness in everyday political practices, especially through a commitment to the CDP.

For Ambedkar, the modern Dalit self had to be carved out of an unequal, graded and often violent social structure. He vehemently argued, “…what Untouchables wanted was not bhakar [bread], but dignity. (Ambedkar 1991, 213).

He epitomised the movement’s visionary commitment to emancipatory CDP – to establish Dalit peoples’ rights as ‘human beings and citizens of India’. Dignified humanity and personhood are extremely important for inculcating the CDP in the most stigmatised and subjugated Dalit people, propelling them to reform humanism from their denigrated social location. 

By promulgating the slogan ‘educate, organise, agitate’ in establishing his first organisation, the Bahishkrut Hitkarini Sabha (Society for the Welfare of the Excluded), in July, 1924, Ambedkar, like Salve and the Phules, underscored that education would be a primary factor in achieving Dalit liberation. Yet, he was the only leader to make education a prerequisite for annihilating caste and for political awakening and power. The great leader himself became an ideal – a personification of what could be achieved by educated Dalit people. 

The Phules and Ambedkar democratised education and underscored methods of critical rationality, pragmatism and modern science. They envisioned the CDP as the practice of freedom for Dalits. Moreover, Ambedkar wanted students to be brave and struggle consistently to protect their freedom. 

Ambedkar contended, “…to effectively fight the Brahman Raj, Dalits need to first accumulate saamarthya [power/strength], both material and mental, because many of them seem to have lost their confidence, enthusiasm, dignity and aspirations and have become meek and submissive and lack vigour. Hence, they have to build their strength and competence” (Janata, 20 June 1936).

Vidya (knowledge), pradnya (understanding), karuna (compassion/empathy), sheel (virtues), maitri (friendship) and samata (equality) were the six fundamental elements on which students were to build their character (Janata, 17 December 1955). They underscored Ambedkar’s hopes for a democratic education and the CDP. 

Also read: More Than a Reformer, Phule Was an Architect of Ideas

Self-reliance and self-empowerment

Like his teacher John Dewey, Ambedkar saw formal school as a site for not only training students, but also transmitting good resources, habits and self-discipline. He wanted Dalits to develop active habits that involve thought, invention and initiative in applying capacities to new aims. Further, Ambedkar did not want Dalits to merely seek degrees and attain academic benchmarks, but to also critically develop their mental faculties through a formally disciplined regimen.

Ambedkar argued that Dalit students also needed to develop their self-confidence because there was no daivi shakti (divine energy) in store for them (if they, indeed, thought so). Rather, they were to believe in themselves and build atma vishvas (self-confidence) so that they would not be afraid to defeat others. He advised students not to feel ashamed that they were born to illiterate parents, but to affirm that me je kareen tey hoil (what I will do will happen) and study hard to be the best.

He continued, “You don’t need just a BA. You have to compete with the forward castes and show your brilliance in order to make something of your education. These forward castes are in power, they have oppressed your ancestors and they will oppress you too. Hence, you should not only seek education, but jhatun abhyas karaa [study strenuously]. Continue your education and all our students have to be saras [excellent]. (Janata, September 17, 1938). 

Ambedkar did not want degrees without freedom: “Dalit students must not only work harder, but also to outshine the upper-castes. Only if they exceeded the upper-castes could they be on par with them,” (Janata, September 17, 1938). In this manner, the CDP would provide a strong foundation for building a society and a nation. Along with these internal battles, Dalits also had to fight many external battles to seek education. 

The CDP focused on transgressing double colonialism. These complex and multiple processes, Ambedkar (and the Phules) argued, would bring the modern, material, mental and moral benefits of employment as well as intellectual strength and capability to Dalits. Inculcating habits and discipline would help Dalits change their social environment and work toward a better future, both individually and collectively.

The CDP was rooted in methods of modernity and involved a broader social, psychological, economic and political struggle. As such, it was fundamental to gaining not only economic resources for survival, but also equal rights, human rights, svabhiman (self-respect), vyaktivikas (individuated development or even self-improvement), samarthya (competency), svavalamban (self-reliance), pratishtha (honour), nyaya (justice) and samata (equality) to diligently strive for sudharana (improvement) and seek modern egalitarian citizenship.

As a result, Dalits would deploy internal and external resources to achieve modern human dignity and, finally, political power. 

Women’s education and improvement

Strishikshan (women’s education) was/is at the core of the CDP and Ambedkar stressed the significance of knowledge and understanding for both girls and boys: “…knowledge and learning are not for men alone, they are essential for women too. So, you must remember that if you want sudharana [improvement or progress] for future generations, education of girls is very important. You cannot afford to forget my speech or to fail to put it into practice.”

Ambedkar thus emphasised women’s cultivation of intellect and self-development for their personal freedom. Unlike many upper-caste leaders, to him, Dalit women and men were to enter schools together

Ambedkar, most significantly, wanted Dalit women to provide education and create a sense of self-respect and ambition in children. He emphasised women’s rights to live as human beings, develop dignity and individual conscience, and think critically. These elements of human life were most essential to the degraded Dalit woman. 

Severely critiquing the lack of thinking and double standards of dominant caste men, Dalits argued that laws for compulsory primary education must be implemented. On the third day of the 1920 Akhil Bhartiya Bahiskrut Parishad, the attendees passed 13 resolutions, including one on the immediate implementation of free, compulsory and simultaneous education for girls and boys.

Tulsabai Bandasode affirmed the resolution, saying, “Since our community women are not educated, they keep their children at home. They also do not know how to take good care of their children and hence the latter suffer immensely. Due to all this, we face many difficulties. Upper-caste women push us far far away because we are not educated like them. women’s education is very significant and there should be boarding houses for girls in every district.”

Many women actively engaged and interpreted Dalit radicals’ political discourse to not only explicate their situation, but also construct a concrete method for change. In 1920, one Manoramabai said, “…if every person decides to improve, the progress of the entire caste will be achieved in a timely manner. Women’s education is in fact more important than that of men… Unless the Bahujans are educated on a wider scale, our nation will not change on social, religious or political lines.”

Manoramabai connected the advancement of the masses with the social and political development of the nation. She also attacked the conservatism of extremist nationalists like B. G. Tilak who demanded svarajya (self-rule) from the British but discouraged mass education, and specifically women’s education, thus solidifying Brahman dominance in education.

In the same year, Anusuya Kamble emphasised the importance of education and exhorted Dalit women to use education to inculcate svabhiman (self-respect) and dignity, and work towards individual and community uplift: “…education of girls will light the wick of self-respect. In these times, we should not sit idle, but struggle all the time to execute the pure law of compulsory primary education… to develop self-respect in future generations.”

Kamble underlined that the fundamental agenda of education was to inculcate self-respect, self-confidence and dignity for Dalits. She challenged Brahmans and other ‘upper’ castes who acted selfishly and polluted the pure act of education by limiting it to their own caste and class.

Anusuya Shivtarkar, an activist, reiterated Kamble’s advice in 1934: “…it is not impossible for our educated women to work for the social, religious and educational advancement of our community. We should educate our children, teach them to be clean, and instil in them their role in the uplift of the Dalits. We clearly need education and dignity. Our women should be ready to contribute to the movement along with our brothers. Our future is in our hands.”

Once again, Shivtarkar articulated the fundamental role of the CDP in developing self-respect and self-reliance in Dalit women. 

Also read: Brahmins Claim to Be Victims of Affirmative Action. This ‘Untouchable’ Lawyer Begs to Differ.

Community uplift

The CDP was established within a new paradigm of community uplift. Women used the metaphor of the ‘family’ to cut the cords of caste and sub-caste communities and create the effect of a unified Dalit community. Women used the Marathi collective “aapan” and “aaplya” (“we” and “our”) to signify a closely connected community, produce individual and collective subjectivity and express political commitment to support each other.

Dalits thus went far beyond the upper-caste agenda of educating women, which narrowly confined women to reinforcing the domestic ideology and familial and individual uplift. Like Kamble, Ramabai Gaikwad, daughter of Dadasaheb Gaikwad (Ambedkar’s lieutenant), taught her children while organising women’s association. The strength of this solidarity and collective mentality certainly favoured Dalit militancy and a united struggle for Dalits as a whole. 

The English language

English language instruction is significant to the CDP. To many Dalits, the English language would inculcate self-respect and self-confidence and bestow prestige. As Kamal Jadhav said, “Marathi medium schools practiced caste discrimination. I experienced it but I do not want my children to face that. Hence, I enrolled them in English medium schools, and moreover, in convents, where this does not exist. We also want them to be prepared for a competitive future and English medium is also good for developing a well-rounded personality.

To some women, the Marathi medium itself stigmatised students and such a hierarchised education would not help Dalits’ self-making and futures. English education also granted them upward economic mobility, modern status and access to globality.

The Critical Dalit Pedagogy teaches us to seriously consider the household, familial relationships and their complex entanglement with larger historical, social and political concerns of caste, gender, community and the nation as they affect individuals. As such, it propels the shaping of the most inclusive and productive politics and possibilities for social action and change.

The CDP can construct meaningful strategies for the protection and enhancement of life for everyone. Working with the CDP, Dalits have continued to refashion themselves and their self-determination, resilience and agency suggests important transformations that have revolutionised India. Dalits have been toiling away to no end and have given their blood, sweat and lives to revolutionise education. As humans, it is the responsibility of privileged and dominant communities to kill the monster of caste and commit to the CDP.

Shailaja Paik teaches history at the University of Cincinnati, USA.