Why Indian Teachers Must Become Anti-Caste Practitioners First

As Ambedkar said, caste permeates every social sphere in India, the education system in the country too is predominantly rooted in Brahminical patriarchy.

In a recent video that is doing rounds on social media, an associate professor – identified as Dr. Seema Singh – at IIT Kharagpur has allegedly been caught hurling abuses at students belonging to marginalised castes, as well as students with disabilities, during an online class. It has evoked strong sentiments among the anti-caste community, making the hashtag #End_Casteism_In_IIT trend on Twitter.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) has taken a suo moto cognisance of the case and sought a reply from IIT-Kharagpur, the education ministry, and the West Bengal government within 15 days.

Also read: Rethinking Education in India to Merge Reality on the ‘Streets’ with Formal Schooling

Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) – a student collective at IIT Bombay – has demanded that the professor be immediately terminated and booked under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. As one member of APPSC rightly observed, the professor’s anger is “directed towards those students who want to study in an institution dominated by oppressor caste communities”. It is precisely this ‘dominance’ of privileged caste communities in the educational institutions that I would attempt to examine in this essay.

The expectation and realities of the education system

Education, by and large, is seen as a neutral process. It is recognised as an important tool in bettering one’s socio-economic location, as a great “equaliser”. More importantly, it is thought of as devoid of politics. But the truth is, education is never neutral. It’s not necessarily an ‘equaliser’ – it is as much about equality as it is about inequality. And it is almost always political.

Representational image. Photo: PTI

Henry Giroux, one of the pioneers of critical pedagogy, points out that this notion of neutrality invisibilises the mechanism controlling education, allowing the existing power structures to operate. Several scholars have accentuated education as an important social and political force in the process of reproduction of culture and forms of knowledge of dominant strata.

For instance, in her historical-anthropological study of engineering education in India, Professor Ajantha Subramanian (2019) unveils the continued workings of upper-caste privilege inside Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), showcasing that these modern institutions serve the reproduction of social inequalities.

In an earlier article, I had expounded on the repressive pedagogy that students from marginalised sections encounter in the classrooms. While the forms that repressive pedagogy assumes are many, this piece elaborates on ‘hidden curriculum’ as one of the manifestations of repressive pedagogy, and the role that a teacher plays in it.

Formal and hidden curricula 

First of all, there is the formal curriculum, one that is prescribed by the state and implemented in the schools by teachers and educators. A formal curriculum is intentional, aimed at certain learning outcomes. It includes all the activities in the school that are conducted with the aim of achieving particular measurable learning.

Then there is the hidden curriculum, which essentially means “the norms and values that are implicitly, but effectively, taught in schools and that are not usually talked about in teachers’ statements of ends or goals.’

A significant portion of what students learn within the schools is not intended by the school. And yet, students do learn it. More often than not, what gets taught unintentionally depends on the teacher’s personal position.

Consider this: a teacher, while addressing the classroom, uses the phrase ‘boys and girls.’ This heteronormative vocabulary would gradually seep into students’ language. Although the teacher is not deliberately teaching it, students are internalising the gender binary.

Consider another example: a teacher scolds (or doesn’t appreciate) a student who constructively critiques the school rules. In consequence, the students learn to be unquestioning of the authority, law, power.

Caste is so deeply embedded in the fabric of India that the rules governing the social world are dictated by it. Lawyer Disha Wadekar puts it succinctly: “caste IS the law” of this land. It is not surprising, then, that a large section of teachers (unintentionally) reaffirm the caste laws in the classrooms, instead of dismantling them. It is especially true if the teacher belongs to a dominant caste group.

Also read: When Will India’s Educational Institutes Have Their ‘Dalit Lives Matter’ Moment?

In 2014, I was working in the schools in the tribal hinterlands of southern Rajasthan. In one of the schools, I suggested certain pedagogical practices to the principal – an upper-caste man – in order to improve the learning outcomes. The principal, referring to the Adivasi students, told me that “[T]hese people don’t have the ability to learn. What is the use of teaching?” This sentiment is not an exception.

Sarada Balagopalan, a scholar of childhood studies, observes that during one of her fieldworks “the teachers often used expressions like “these children are slow” to describe Dalit and Adivasi students” engagement with learning”. Although these are instances of explicit discrimination, they reveal the personal position of the upper-caste teachers, which, in turn, determines the hidden curriculum.

These expressions are also indicative of another fact: the education system in India is still predominantly rooted in Bhraminism, with little space for Bahujans. More specifically, it is rooted in Bhraminical patriarchy, which is evident from the fact that Teacher’s Day in India is celebrated on September 5, the birth anniversary of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – a Bhramin male accused of plagiarism – and not on January 3, the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule – India’s first female teacher, pioneer of women education and a great social reformer.

In his essay ‘The Forms of Capital’, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to “embodied cultural capital” as those snowballed effects of family and class history that become a fundamental part of the person.

Haritha, a pupil, and her mother look at a map of England in a Chennai classroom, 2009. Credit: dfid/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Haritha, a pupil, and her mother look at a map of England in a Chennai classroom, 2009. Credit: dfid/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In the Indian context, the caste history also contributes to the embodied cultural capital. It is precisely because of the Brahminical underpinning of the Indian education system that schools play a particularly important role in legitimating and reproducing dominant caste capital. They validate certain forms of knowledge, ways of speaking, and ways of relating to the world, and can be referred to as Savarna (upper-caste) in nature.

Savarna mannerisms, customs, values, languages, etc., are treated as the norm, and anything other than that (read: Bahujan mannerisms, customs, values, languages, etc.) is considered as an aberration. Hidden curriculum (in the sense, that this essay has highlighted so far) is undemocratic – enforcing a certain way of being on everyone, dismissing the diversity of the classroom, reinforcing caste-laws in the school.

The educational experience that one gets is a function of one’s milieu, which means that exclusion at the hands of institutional uppercasteness is an everyday reality for the Bahujan students. This system of exclusion induces personal and collective trauma among young Bahujan students.

Bahujan students in a Brahminical set up 

Let me take the issue of meritocracy to elucidate the psychological aftermath of institutional uppercasteness. Students who are beneficiaries of affirmative action are repeatedly humiliated on the basis of a blatant lie – that they are not meritorious enough.

What happens when you’re told every day that you don’t deserve to be at where you are? What happens when your language (and dialect) is constantly delegitimised? What happens when you’re shamed for your own culture and values? What happens when your way of living is looked down upon? What happens when you’re perpetually being disempowered? What happens, furthermore, when all of this happens at a young, critical, vulnerable age?

Professor Subramanian suggests that the psychological effects of such institutional culture cannot be overstated. Repressive pedagogy in the classrooms contributes to a lot of what is known as ‘imposter syndrome’ among Bahujan schoolchildren. For them, rather than being spaces of learning and joy, schools are oppressive, feudal, inimical spaces.

Also read: The Branding of Indian Education

More recently, we have seen the emergence of ‘Bahujan Affirmative’ mental health support groups and professionals. In a similar vein, I’m making a case for ‘Bahujan Affirmative’ schools and teachers. The need for the teacher as an anti-caste practitioner is all the more important considering that a majority of schoolchildren in India are Bahujans, having the highest dropout rates.

The teachers for students with disabilities receive special training, in order to make the classrooms more inclusive. Of late, some schools have also begun training teachers to become gender-sensitive in their practices. However, there is not a single anti-caste teacher training programme in practice (or on paper) in India. The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 fails in taking cognisance of and addressing this lacuna.

Dr. Ambedkar wrote: “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path.” Caste permeates every social sphere in India. Students don’t live their lives outside caste, nor do teachers. Yet, it is considered completely alright for teachers to not develop their caste-consciousness. It is high time that we begin questioning it with a sense of urgency so that the policymakers don’t overlook it any further, that educational institutions abolish their sacred thread, that the teachers actively practice anti-caste pedagogy in classrooms.

Yuvraj Singh is a Delhi-based scholar of sociology of education. His work focuses on the interface between education and power.