“Dalit Student Hit With Metal Rod For Touching Teacher’s Bike In UP: Police” (Press Trust of India, 2022)
These aren’t headlines from the 1900s but from very recent times. Caste atrocities aren’t new to our ears, and it has more significant impacts than we think. The increasing gap between the intent and our action becomes visible when we try to interrogate the intersection of these bigoted acts and what policies exist to protect people from the ‘lower’ castes. Our preamble proudly states, “Equality of status and opportunity,” but does this change the constant reinforcement of Brahmanical ideology?
There is a vast literature on caste discrimination, which projects toward the unequal nature of caste issues even in ‘modern’ times. Not only do we see caste as a fundamental identity under question in sociological work, but there is also a question as to where to locate the issue of caste under the reinforced facade by the right wing of a Hindu nation with a ‘Muslim’ other. As Natrajan (2022) calls the ‘ethnicization’ of Dalits (the internal other), there is a constant effort to minimize the differences amongst the Hindus for the sake of the Hindu Rashtra, but that is not the case. To understand why that isn’t happening, again, we come back to the gap between the drafted, equitable public policies and their partial and unequal implementation by authorities.
The way caste embodies individuals in India’s narrative goes further than just prejudice. Despite instated laws like Article 17, which abolish untouchability, it does little to protect them. The elite constantly holds power to legitimize the Brahmanical view of caste oppression. Dalits, or rather individuals of the lower classes at large, are synonymous with dirt and impurity in Indian society; they are treated with inhumanity and are made stuck in the cycle of oppression by limiting their social mobility. Ambedkar revolutionized the rampant discrimination and violence by at least safeguarding the SC/STs and OBCs in the eyes of the law and reasonable policies of reservation for more opportunities not just in the education system but also in the political sphere under the Poona pact. It is necessary for the ‘mother of democracy,’ which practices representative democracy, to allow people from all communities to take up spaces that give them political power. Interestingly enough, these special provisions for the well-being of our Dalit members have become topics for classroom debates.
In addition, it is imperative to realize that being a ‘Dalit’ affects every space one takes or aspires to take in India, be it education, work, society, etc. This differential treatment in itself is a violation of Article 15, which protects anyone from discrimination. There are various policies in place that try to curtail the historical oppression of Dalits in most of the spaces mentioned above, but their effectiveness needs more rigorous research.
In the educational sphere, under Article 21(A), there is an explicit mention of the Right to Education (free and compulsory) for every child between the ages of six and fourteen and also the recently rolled out National Education Policy (2020) outlines how education systems need to proceed ahead with their curriculum and structure. While talking about its principles, the NEP clearly states that “it aims at producing engaged, productive, and contributing citizens for building an equitable, inclusive, and plural society as envisaged by our Constitution” (Govt of India, 2020). It also notes and considers that there is a significant gap between elite students and from socially disadvantaged communities. To address the said issue, NEP annotates that “special attention” needs to be given to students from the SC/STs and OBCs with more facilities of fee waivers, scholarships, separate hostels, bridge courses, etc. It is good to see that there is recognition of the wide gap in the education system, and there is a written provision to reduce it rather than presenting a casteless view of Indian society. However, as Nambissan noted back in 1996, the primary reason for Dalit dropout and lack of will to pursue education is due to the “apathetic treatment” by the teachers and institutions towards Dalit students. Going back to the headline at the beginning of this article, not a lot has changed. Furthermore, caste-based behavior is also evident between peers in their regular interactions, and there is always an undertone of power differences between students (Narwana & Gill, 2020). These are crucial factors that affect the attitudes of Dalits towards education in general and play a role in their dropout and limited social mobility.
Article 15(4) states that the reservation policy in educational institutions enables a more significant representation of Dalit students. It allows them to pursue the same level and quality of education as any student of the dominant caste. This is highly beneficial as students from the oppressed castes lack severe cultural, social, and economic capital, leading to difficulties in the academic grind. However, it is increasingly visible that many schools use reservations as a topic for debates in schools to promote a facade of meritocracy. Students are not well equipped to understand the severity of caste issues. They are made to feel that students from the oppressed castes take up their ‘deserving’ seats in colleges which instigates the ‘Otherness’ towards the lower castes. This clearly illustrates how equitable and affirmative policies are reinforced to be viewed as biased and unfair toward the elites.
Focusing on the work segment, despite legal protections against discrimination and affirmative action of reserving jobs for people from the oppressed castes but Despande and Newman (2007) have highlighted that white-collar job recruitments are much more blurry than fair. Even if they succeed in entering the workplace, extensive research has shown that there is evident practice of bullying and harassment concerning caste identity and a power tussle (Noronha, 2021). If we limit the scope of discussion about caste and work to their rights in white-collar jobs, we miss out on a massive chunk of Dalit workers. Many Dalits are casual-wage earners involved in washing, sweeping, clearing dead animals, cleaning washrooms, and in the most dangerous setting of sewage and manual scavengers. Manual scavenging severely affects the health of individuals who regularly dive into sewage and clean it, and they are more prone to infections and increased mortality. There have been various protection laws and policies against this harmful practice, but manual scavenging is still a practice that Dalits indulge in. When the state confidently claims that there aren’t any manual scavengers in India anymore (Murali, 2021), the National Human Rights Commission illustrates that this claim is simply untrue (Mala et al., 2022). These inaccuracies divert major caste issues and thus will affect future policies that the state plans to enforce with no representation of Dalit individuals.
To conclude, this article sheds light on the education and workspace factors of Dalit life, but such loopholes are visible in their treatment at healthcare systems, family levels, etc. Many more pieces of research continue to showcase the significant gap between what any law or policy aims at doing, that is – making India a safe space for people of all communities in every aspect of life. However, their implementation needs to be better. The intention needs to be prioritized, and a wiser strategy must be adopted to implement these policies. Sensitization programs are a must not only for teachers and bosses but also students and colleagues, which helps them contribute to a safer environment. The first step will be to realize that they aren’t just historically oppressed but are oppressed and disadvantaged in our alleged modern times.
Deshpande, A., & Newman, K. (2007). Where the path leads: The role of caste in post-university employment expectations. Economic and Political Weekly, 4133-4140.
Deshpande, S. (2006). Exclusive inequalities: Merit, caste and discrimination in Indian higher education today. Economic and Political Weekly, 2438-2444.
Govt. of India (2020). National Education Policy 2020. https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/ upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_Engli sh_0.pdf
Mala, J., Byard, R. W., & Kaur, N. (2022). Manual scavenging and the right to health in India – social and medicolegal perspectives. Medicine, Science and the Law, 002580242211260. https://doi.org/10.1177/00258024221126098
Mayell, H. (2021, May 4). India’s “Untouchables” Face Violence, Discrimination. Pages. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/pages/article/indias-untouchables-face-violence-discrimination
Murali, M. (2021, August 12). No manual scavengers in country anymore, Govt tells Parliament. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/no-manual-scavengers-in-india-anymore-govt-101628662829042.html
Namala, A. (2009). Lessons learned from policies to address caste based exclusion in India. New Delhi: Centre for Social Equity & Inclusion.
Nambissan, G. B. (1996). Equity in education? Schooling of Dalit children in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 1011-1024.
Narwana, K., & Gill, A. S. (2020). Beyond Access and Inclusion: Dalit Experiences of Participation in Higher Education in Rural Punjab. Contemporary Voice of Dalit, 12(2), 234–248. https://doi.org/10.1177/2455328×20925592
Natrajan, B. (2021). Racialization and ethnicization: Hindutva hegemony and caste. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(2), 298–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2021.1951318
Noronha, E. (2021). Caste and workplace bullying: A persistent and pervasive phenomenon. Dignity and Inclusion at Work, 489-512.
Press Trust of India. (2022, September 3). Dalit Student Hit With Metal Rod For Touching Teacher’s Bike In UP: Police. NDTV.com. https://www.ndtv.com/cities/ballia-up-dalit-student-hit-with-metal-rod-for-touching-teachers-bike-say-police-3312540
Rathod, B. (2021). Dalit Academic Experiences: Stigma, Social Reproduction and Systemic Exclusion in Indian Higher Education
Thorat, S. (2018, September 7). Scheduled Castes among worst sufferers of India’s job problem. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/scheduled-castes-among-worst-sufferers-of-india-s-job-problem/story-Qh0hyHy9UUTg1cIOpi5l2K.html
Om Parekh alias Ray (they/them), is a second-year Social and Political Science student at Ahmedabad University. They have been involved in curating content, written and verbal, for over a year now. They are passionate about social issues and recognise the need to know one's privilege and use it for the betterment of society.