Education for the masses in general, and for the children of marginalised sections of society in particular, is something which was not simply provided by some God. Today if we are getting the benefit of education it is only because of the hard fought battle of anti-caste philosophers, starting from Buddha to Savitri Bai, Jotiba Phule, Sahuji Maharaj, Baba Saheb Ambedkar and numerous Dalit, Bahujan people from various states who established free schools, boarding houses and hostels for the students of marginalised sections. When we celebrate some God for this, we not only delegitimize and disrespect the struggle undertaken by these revolutionaries but also become part of the process of invisiblisation of the history of the Dalit, Bahujan.
Starting from the Pre-Vedic and Vedic period when the only texts available were religious texts, and the objective of education was the spread of religion, Dalit, Bahujan were denied education. It was believed that the wrong intonation of mantras will bring disaster to the world and hence except Brahmins no one was allowed to learn Sanskrit. Though Buddha challenged the discrimination in education on the basis of caste and many Buddha Vihars began teaching in vernacular languages, Brahmanism eventually succeeds in perpetuating the discrimination.
After the arrival of the British, anti-caste philosophers got some space for negotiation. Even then they had to struggle for as basic a thing as the entry of Dalit children into schools, establishment of schools in rural areas. Establishment of schools for women and Dalit, Bahujan was fiercely opposed by the so-called nationalist leaders like Tilak. The nationalist leaders demanded separate curriculum for boys and girls according to their assigned gender roles. Even for the children of peasant class and feudal class, there was a demand for separate curriculum. Nationalists argued for vocational education for the children of peasants and liberal education only for the upper caste children. The anti-caste philosophers vigorously fought against such discriminatory policies and succeeded. Today many students from the marginalised sections take this for granted.
These festivals are getting institutionalized and public spaces and funds are being used to perpetuate them, whereas the struggles of Dalit, Bahujan are never remembered or celebrated. For example, the recent circular by Odisha Government on the list of holidays to be followed by schools makes it compulsory to observe certain pujas in the schools. Earlier, only occasions like Republic Day and Independence Day were observed by spending public money and certain pujas were celebrated by collecting fees from students and these were not compulsory to an extent. It becomes more important to challenge the celebration of these festivals in educational institutions as there will be diversion of public money for this in coming years.
Remembering history is not only necessary for the sake of history, but also for the ongoing struggle of students from marginalised sections against the brahmanical government and administration of various educational institutions. Students from these sections are still in a situation where quality education is denied to them because of rapid privatization, increasing fees and low quality of government schools in both rural areas and urban slums. Fellowships meant for the students from marginalised sections are being stopped, seats are being cut, and most of the so called institutions of national importance are not following the reservation policies in admissions and appointments.
Even today organisations like Bhim Army and individuals like Anoop Kumar (Nalanda Academy) are struggling very hard to sustain their autonomous institutions to help the students from marginalised sections. Let’s respect the anti-caste philosophers whose relentless struggle made some dent in the upper caste hegemony in education and give credit where it is due.
* Dalit Initiatives in Education, 1880-1992. Eleanor Zelliot
* Compulsory Education and the Political Leadership in Colonial India, 1840-1947. Parimala V.Rao
Roshan Padhan is from Bargah (Odisha) and is a PhD scholar in the School of Economics, University of Hyderabad, working on Economics of Education.