“Inclusive is much more beyond just enrolment. It is changing the attitude of teachers towards student diversity, improving teacher diversity within and changing the instructional approach/quality.” — Project Ekalavya Report (An Initiative by IndusAction)
It is difficult to determine how I got here.
I think the first time I really recognised the potency of communal discrimination in schools was while I was teaching in a private school in Delhi in 2017. A student(upper caste) had come crying to me saying that his best friend(a Muslim) had not only touched his tiffin with his bare hands, but had also finished half of it. This was nothing out of the ordinary; except this was an auspicious day, and according to him, his religion cautioned that eating food contaminated(jhoothan ho jana) by a member of any other caste or community on this day could be sinful for him. This was what his family had told him, and he was mortally terrified of some eternal judgement book where this incident would probably leave an indelible mark. Being new to the school and the profession, I was at a loss for words. At the time I managed to discard the incident as a one-off event, without thinking of it as having any structural or systemic implication. A few months ago, while reading a randomly recommended article called “Ending Curriculum Violence” by Stephanie Jones, I was impelled to remember the incident in a different light for the first time.
It is difficult to determine how I actually got here. Perhaps when I read and listened to other articulations about systemic discrimination and started thinking about this incident again, I got more and more convinced about the need for documentation of similar occurrences. Perhaps the potential of a public open-access archive occurred to me because of all the crowd-sourced archives and databases that made the rounds during the COVID lockdowns, and that I collected very enthusiastically. Or perhaps, there is now a recognition that my lack of self-reflection so far had prevented me from linking the personal stories of hurt, violence and trauma to societal mindsets and institutional problems — hence mapping these scattered dots felt relevant and important.
Coming back to Stephanie Jones and her article on curriculum violence, I thought her categorisation of racial trauma would be a good place to begin thinking about this project. She talks of four modes in which racial trauma enacts itself in the US classroom —
“curriculum violence — classroom activities used to teach about difficult histories;
digital racial trauma — racist images or video captured and shared through social media in school spaces;
physical violence related to racial trauma — acts of violence from student to student or teacher to student; and
verbal intimidation or threats between students or from teacher to student.”
For our context however, one cannot help but notice how these modes not only intersect and overlap, but also reach up and connect to education policies, infrastructural inequalities and exclusionary practices of the broader society. Other aspects of identity like gender, class, sexual orientation, regionalism, physical and mental abilities also get mingled with caste and religion based discrimination.
Speaking of policy discourse and administrative regulations, a whole range of the same was set in motion because of the Sachar Committee report in 2005. Doing an extensive survey of the social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims, the committee reported that in both urban and rural settings, Muslim and Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe literacy rates are the lowest in the country. Further, in disaggregated analyses it could be seen that the mean years of schooling for Muslims was the lowest irrespective of regional variations(about 3 years 4 months). Therefore, not only was the enrollment rate poor, the drop-out numbers were even more shocking[i]. Attendance rates of Muslims, even in states with higher enrollment rates like Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra, were the least.
Other than the numerical data given by the Sachar[ii] Committee, what interests me further is the “busting of the myth” given towards the end of the report on education — that Muslim parents, especially with girl children, are not averse to non-Madrasa education, contrary to popular beliefs. These are beliefs that should not have existed as a homogenising stereotype in the first place. To me it seems that such bias goes a long way to determine the fate and experience of Muslim and lower caste children in schools. Such prejudice is noticed on a systemic level, say, in textbook illustrations and representations; this perlocates into class instruction, types of assessments, teacher-student interaction and peer bullying. Considerable reports have also shown the influence of social discrimination in harassment and bullying of Muslim children. Studies on saffronisation of school curriculum when juxtaposed with personal accounts of subtle to overt violence on account of their religious identity, exposes how deep-rooted and multi-branched the hate is. More societal labels — such as orthodox Muslims vs secular Muslims, or ghetto Muslims vs urban Muslims — and the specificities of local politics, makes this a complex story of systemic denial of social capital to Muslim students.
On the other hand, exclusively discriminatory practices still continue to haunt many schools, where dalit children wear caste bands, or are made to sit separately, or are given specially designated wells to draw water from. At times, caste discrimination is rooted in the language of swearing, at others, it is implicit in staff-student and student-student interactions; and sometimes it is the curriculum [iii]itself that portrays communities and identities through stereotypical lenses.
There has been hardly any thought spent in Independent India’s educational policy discourse[iv] about the selection and representation of the multiple cultures in the national curriculum. Even in the latest Draft NEP 2019, other than some deliberations about non-standardising the language and diversifying the medium of instruction in schools, no more than three lines are employed on the inclusion of “local and tribal knowledge”. Moreover, it makes it clear that such knowledge(the details of which are not explained) will be only included in the curriculum in regions where it’s most relevant to have them. Such a minor and vague mention in a national policy not only further marginalises lower caste and tribal students and their communities within the curriculum but also makes it clear that they are not to be studied in the mainstream, indicating that students from these communities also need to shed their “less-developed” or “irrelevant” cultural identities to be incorporated into the mainstream. Related to this, back in 1983, Krishna Kumar wrote an essay on how the numbers (of enrollment rate, academic performance, drop-out rates, etc) in policy documents and reports are linked to the prescribed curriculum and its treatment within individual classrooms. This in turn informs and is reflected in teacher-student and student-student interactions.
In the essay, he examines the rare instances from literature and social science textbooks where representation of SC and ST communities have taken place, albeit as backward, primitive groups who need to be modernised by dominant caste groups. The essay then describes a particular instance where such representational politics within the curriculum has translated into a teacher’s pedagogic technique of cold-calling a tribal boy to repeat after her, the pre-Aryan origins of an aboriginal practice such as tantricism. At this juncture, as the boy fails to answer, Kumar deduces the implications of the two responses he can give. If he repeats the lesson, he acknowledges his own community as a backward or primitive section of Indian society responsible for the origins of superstition such as tantricism. On the other hand, if he remains silent, he confirms that he indeed is a weak student, a characteristic of his community identity — “In other words, his ‘success’ as a student of a history lesson would drive his backwardness as a member of a group, and his ‘failure’ as a student would testify to his backwardness as a student. As a social institution, the school is helping the boy to acquire responses that match his description in society”.
Unlike Islamophobia though, casteist discrimination has had redressals through affirmative action policies. However, an IDSN report of 2011 carries excerpts of interviews of Dalit students who testify to being made to clean the school grounds and toilets, or are called names, or are forbidden from participating in school events. In urbanised middle and upper middle class locales, including in the school I taught in, all inter-school competitions had participants who were the most fluent, the most confident and the most smartly dressed. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were not even asked to compete. This is on top of the fact that less than 10% schools across the country are found to comply with the Right to Education stipulations of providing quality education to EWS students.[v]
Therefore, although quantitative data is available, an individualistic understanding of a Muslim or Dalit school student’s experience within and without the classroom is scarce to come by. The intersections of pedagogy, curriculum, peer interactions, school infrastructure and teachers’ engagements, and socio-political identity, as it plays out in a child’s interaction with the educational institution, is not discussed locally or nationally. Even though NEP 2019 does recognise the need for a more inclusive education system , it does not present a thorough understanding of the political-social-administrative nexus that threatens the education of minorities in this country. The attempt of this archive will be to take a close look at all these different entangling spaces of school education. Personal narratives of discriminatory treatment will be supplemented by accounts of people working with textbook editing, self reflective writing by school staff and essays by education researchers, which reveal the theoretical loopholes and implementation failures of the education policies.
Ultimately the archive attempts to strike at the vision of Indian school education itself, which can comment on pedagogic practices, and to build accountability for discriminatory events reproducing themselves in schools. For this, a documentation process that can flow seamlessly through the genres of personal accounts, conversations, societal narratives, reading lists, argumentative writing, and alternative syllabi and lesson plan designs, was deemed necessary. My friend and scholar Sritama once said that an archive should be a space of friendship. Carrying forward this thought, we hope that this does not become a search and find database, but a network of friendship which can continue to grow by mapping the personal and structural instances of Casteist and Islamophobic violence in schools.
[i] A recent study has computed these probabilities by SRCs showing very interesting patterns. The first striking feature is that the probability of completing different levels of school education (primary, middle, secondary etc.) has increased for all communities during 1983–2000. The sharpest rise has been in the probability of completing middle school for all communities, including Muslims. But differences still exist and the Muslims and SCs/STs are behind others. On an average based on four years of data, about 62% of the eligible children in the upper caste Hindu and other religious groups (excluding Muslims) are likely to complete primary education followed by Muslims (44 %), SCs (39%) and STs (32%). However, once children complete primary education, the proportion of children completing middle school is the same (65%) for Muslims, STs and SCs but lower than ‘All Others’ (75%). The next transition also shows a similar pattern; about 50% of Muslim and SC/ST children who have completed middle school are likely to complete secondary school as well, which is lower than the ‘All Other’ group (62%). Interestingly, in the transition from secondary to college education, Muslims perform somewhat better than SCs and STs; while only 23% of the SC/ST students who complete secondary education are likely to complete college education, this percentage is 26% for Muslims and 34% for other groups.
[ii] It is important to mention here how the strangest accusations faced by the Sachar committee were on grounds of “appeasement”, “pampered treatment” and as a move to “divide the nation”. These are recurrent rhetorical phrases used in our public media and political language to label any welfare policies and movements pertaining to Muslims in India. See for example, Sinha. Rakesh. Sachar Committee: A Conspiracy to Divide the Nation?
[iii] The archive blog will attempt to evaluate textbooks prescribed by both the central and state boards, along with their madrasa and NIOS counterparts in latter posts.
[iv] A full evaluation of all educational policies and their implications will be done in subsequent posts.
Cover Image Design: Sanna Jain