Emancipation of Dalits is effectively possible only through education. There are numerous schemes and constitutional rights which guarantee the basic education for every subaltern child. Still, Dalits in India face an entirely different issue as the proposed reservation wasn’t achieved, leading to a situation where educational institutions rely on Non-Dalits for most teaching jobs. When these Non-Dalits are caste conscious, Dalit children suffers in a pedagogic setup. These collective struggle which is recorded in Dalit autobiographies, is one of the most important and unique characteristic which models a Dalit child.
Sometimes, it shapes the child to fight the toxic hierarchy, but many times it creates an inferior, insecure self.
The primary reason for the Non-Dalits to ostracize the Dalits is due to a psychological condition called Dalit phobia. Chandra Bhan Prasad in his book Dalit Phobia: Why do they hate us? discusses various phobias all over the world towards a specific population who didn’t conform to the cultural and social framework of the dominant sect of people.
He compares how the British and America are phobic towards the Bolshevik revolution, providing evidences that this psychological condition is contagious across continents.
The Dalit and non-Dalit problem surfaced for the first time in a major wat, something that was echoed when the Black students were introduced in the White American schools in 1954. The untouchable children were not acceptable in schools by Chaturvarna Order. The education department issued a circular in September 1857 directing education officials at all levels that “no child should be denied admission due to his race, caste or religion” (Progress of Education—1839 -1860, Government of India, Calcutta.
) Similar instructions were issued when the British crown took over India. The Vedic mind-set found it difficult as the education system expanded. A distinct pattern followed all over India. Non-Dalits would prevent Dalits from enrolling in schools. Whenever the Government used force to ensure enrolment of Dalit children, non-Dalits boycotted those schools. This was followed by violent assaults on Dalit villages. Ultimately, the British Government decided to open separate schools for Dalits. (Prasad, 2006)
Om Prakash Valmiki in Joothan gives extra care in re-presenting his childhood experience in a caste-ridden government school. A school consists not only of students and teachers, but it has a very strong conformist hierarchy which cannot be questioned. The officials of the schools often are left without a choice when it comes to fighting caste, since many well-wishers or majority of the student populace belongs to a dominant Non-Dalit caste.
Although the doors of government schools had begun to open for untouchables, the mentality of the ordinary people had not changed much. U had to sit away from the others in the class, that too on the floor. The mat ran out before reaching the spot I sat on. Sometimes I would have to sit way behind everybody, right near the door. And the letters on the board from there seemed faded. (Valmiki, 2018)
Here, Valmiki speaks about a normalized history, where Dalit children are forced to sit on floors whilst the upper caste children enjoyed elevated seating. This act of segregation promises purity, preventing pollution by the contact of a Dalit child. They never really had a go-to person in school, leaving them vulnerable and hopeless. The immature child being unable to understand the reason for such double standards, without choice accepts the unfair treatment as its fate. Valmiki records this in his autobiography as:
If I got thirsty in school, then I had to stand near the hand-pump. The boys would beat me in any case, but the teachers also punished me. (Valmiki, 2018, p. 3)
The psychological condition of Dalit Phobia is not colonial phenomenon. Even in conventional religious books, incidents of upper caste order preventing the Dalit children from accessing education can be seen. The entire construct about Guru and complete obedience traces its foundation back to Hindu epics where a Brahmin guru Dronacharya asks for an Adivasi’s thumb as training fee (whom he never taught). This unquestionable authority was given to gurus, who were primarily belonging to upper caste, as they were the only group who had access to religious scriptures and Sanskrit Vedas. This is why Dalit children are often troubled in educational spaces. The upper caste population is threatened by the Dalit children in schools, having gained access to education which will lead to upward mobilization leaving a huge vacuum in the caste ladder with none to oppress. This streak was broken after Lord Macaulay’s introduction of western education which didn’t require Sanskrit to get educated, as vernacular languages were also accepted as mediums of instruction.
Whenever someone starts talking about a great guru, I remember all those teachers who used to swear about mothers and sisters. They used to fondle good-looking boys and invite them to their homes and sexually abuse them. (Valmiki, 2018, p. 4)
Valmiki shares in Joothan how contrasting the mainstream projection of teacher is with the reality he’s presented. He also makes a note of how even well-dressed and ‘clean’ Dalit children are victimized by the upper caste teachers. He comments on their toxic, hate-spewing language in a classroom setup, which shatters the child’s confidence to stay in the classroom.
He goes on to share one of his experience where he was asked to clean the whole premise just because he was a Dalit child. He was called by the headmaster, whom the whole school fears. The third day I went to the class and say down quietly. After a few minutes the Headmaster’s loud thundering was heard: ‘Abey Chuhreke, motherfucker, where are you hiding . . . your mother. . .’ (Valmiki, 2018, p. 4-5)
When the child decides to go to class, he was hunted down by the headmaster and abused before his classmates. He was dragged to the school ground and made to clean again, even after two days of hardship which he wasn’t even responsible for. Not only this tormenting happens, but also other kind of mental attacks are done over Dalit children, which is invisible to identify at ease. Valmiki records another instance where he was not taken into any kinds of extracurricular activities. He describes his interest in plays and how he was kept away from getting a part.
Laxman Gaikwad shares a similar account in his autobiography. He speaks how there is a contrast between himself and other children of upper castes, which is aggravated even more by the teachers. The existing gap between the Dalit children and the upper caste children are not tried to be mended but instead, the shortcomings are used to alienate them against their advantage.
All the children who studied with me in the school were always clean and tidy. I alone used to be dirty and slovenly. The teacher used to say, “Stand up those who have not taken a bath or is not wearing, washed clothes.” I alone used to stand up. The teacher sometimes used to beat me and on some occasions he would make me do sit-ups. (Gaikwad, 2014, p.33)
On the other hand, Dalit children are victimized by their Non-Dalit counterparts. The trait that they obtained by their discriminating parents and the casteist society is put into practice in a space with cultural and socio-political variations – classroom. The boy was assaulted using casteist slurs, which he actually accepts because he thinks the privileged pupils has the right to mock them. All his classmates use the phrase “Laxman eats crab curry” to isolate him for his food habit, leaving a question “how does children know what’s derogatory?” The innocent hearts are corrupted to take over the discriminatory ideas actively in their subconscious.
Laxman’s classmates are given the idea about his caste and their jobs that they could not accept him wearing attractive footwear. They put down his confidence repeatedly, which is recorded throughout his autobiography. He writes about one instance where he begged his brothers to get him a foot-wear. The loot didn’t contain perfect pair of shoes. So, Laxman had to manage with whatever he had. Although a pair of shoes looked nice, they were too tight for his legs.
I never had chappals or shoes for my feet. I roamed around bare-footed. …Having a pair of shoes was an opportunity of a life-time. …I showed the shoes to my friends in the class, “Look, what a lovely pair of shoes! It’s specially bought for me.” Many boys sneered: “How could Lakshya afford such a costly pair of shoes! His brother must have stolen it.” (Gaikwad, 2014, p.68)
The negativity inflicted by the classmates over Laxman not only made him feel inferior about something he actually possessed, but also reminded him of his place. The question wasn’t of shoes being expensive but how a Pathrut could own them. Even if he had bought them, they would have concluded that he stole them. The toxic spewing words of the other children over a Dalit child don’t stop with the individual; they also shame his family, thereby his surroundings and caste.
Bama in the second chapter of Karukku records how children are exploited in an educational space. The inability to tolerate the presence of Dalit children pushed the caste conscious people to break their confidence by labelling them incompatible:
Everyone seemed to think Harijan children were Contemptible. But they didn’t hesitate to use us for cheap labour. So, we carried water to the teacher’s house; we watered the plants. We did all the chores that were needed about the school. (Bama, 2005)
When the children were playing in front of the school, they decided to touch the coconut grown in the tree grown slantwise, making it convenient to run over it. As the child ran and touched the coconut, it dropped down. As children were scared, they scattered leaving the coconut there. In the assembly, the next morning, she was called by the headmaster and insulted in front of everyone for the unintentional doing, because of her caste:
You have shown your true nature as a Paraya… You climbed the coconut tree yesterday after everybody else had gone home, and you stole a coconut. We cannot allow you inside this school. Stand outside. (Bama, 2005)
Since the priest held respectable power, she goes to the priest to explain the actual incident and get a letter to go to school. The priest too accused the child, not because of any similar happenings, but because of her caste:
After all, you are from the Cheri. You might have done it. You must have done it.” (Bama, 2005)
When the child moves to a hostel, she, along with all the other children from the marginalized spaces, faces discrimination from the Warden-sister. Though the Dalit children pay their fees, like everyone else, they face demeaning remarks because of their caste:
“Look at these cheri children! When they stay here, they eat their fill and look as round as potatoes. But look at the state in which they come back from home – just skin and bone!” (Bama, 2005)
Although the Indian constitution promises reservation and other benefits for the reserved candidates, it is always the Dalit children who are treated differently. Bama records this pedagogic failure as how the children are made visible, paving way to further segregation:
All the same, every now and then, our class teacher, or the PT teacher would ask all the Harijan children to stand up, either at the assembly, or during lessons. …We’d stand in front of nearly two thousand children, hanging our heads in shame, as if we had done something wrong. Yes, it was humiliating. (Bama, 2005)
According to UNICEF, Dalit girls have the highest rate of exclusion from school due to social discrimination. 51% Dalit children drop out of elementary school as opposed to 37% children from Non-Dalit and Non-Adivasi communities. The state’s self-congratulatory rhetoric of reducing overall illiteracy and dropout rates hides the murky underbelly of caste discrimination that makes access to education a distant dream for most children from marginalized communities.
Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in Higher Education in India is 23.6. The same figure for Scheduled Castes, it is 18.5. Dalits constitute only 13.4% of the total number of students enrolled in higher education in the country although 22.5% seats are reserved for them. Given the kind of discrimination through the schooling system coupled with crippling social and economic barriers, it’s surprising that even these few make it beyond school. (Video volunteers, 2016)
Due to poverty, many drop out of schools, as UNICEF records claim. Dalit autobiographers have recorded their struggles due to poverty and discrimination which pushes them to start working and earning at a very young age. A child is easy to exploit and due to no law protecting their labour rights and considers child labour as a crime, it is easy to make them work for comparatively a very negligible wage.
As soon as children grew up to be ten or twelve years of age, they’d go and find some way of making money. (Bama, 2005) (Four)
Gaikwad shared a similar account, where the community repeatedly advises the child’s family to push him into thieving. As they are denied work because of their caste, the children are trained from an early stage to follow the thieving work. He speaks how children are specially trained to withstand pain and tortures of the police. He also describes how Bharat blade is an important companion in their thieving missions.
If ever any one of the gang is discovered and caught, he is cruelly beaten up by the mob. As a way out of this, a young boy is taught to cut and pick pockets. If ever he is caught, a couple of persons belonging to the gang, who are close by his side, begin to beat him first. They fist and kick him. The beat him so much that the people around think that they are policemen in plain clothes…Then one of the gang steps forward and says, ‘Leave him saab. He has been beaten quite severely. The child’s young, let him go’. (Gaikwad, 1998. p. 32)
Gaikwad here describes how children are exploited even by their own community, leaving the children choiceless to be imprisoned in the framework of the predetermined caste occupation. He also says how people of his own clan are envious and psychologically distract him from schooling.
Our neighbours, however, were in a way envious of my going to school and nagged my father, ‘Martanda, teach Laxman our thieving skills. What’s the use of schooling for him?’ (Gaikwad, 2014, p. 34)
In three different autobiographies, the discrimination against Dalit children is unsurprisingly common and it works in multiple ways to keep them off the spaces. Although untouchability was declared abolished by the Indian government, it is evident that caste rooted itself into educational spaces leading to systematic exclusion of Dalit students. Since, it works in an institutionalized form, it also evades reformation and never questioned. This commonality is often unspoken about in mainstream discussion. These experiences also re-assert the necessity for reservations for the socially and educationally backward people, as the challenges they face are multidimensional and different than the mainstream children.