Pranav Jeevan P
Schools are one of the primary places where the functioning of caste is passed on to the next generation. Savarna kids are indoctrinated of their superiority and Bahujan kids are shown their place in the varna system here. The trauma they suffer at a very young age from school they carry all their life. The schools function as ideal places to preserve and replicate caste system, to remind the Bahujans who they are and make them realise that they will never be equal to savarnas. The following is an analysis based on personal stories shared by Bahujans in social media who experienced horrible casteism in schools.
TW: This article contains experiences of casteism and sexism which might be triggering to some readers
One of the primary ways where Brahmanism comes to haunt Bahujans kids in schools is through strict vegetarian fundamentalism. “Non-vegetarian” food and people who consume it, generates disgust among vegetarians in India, that calls for distance, both social and physical, both from non-vegetarian food and people. The idea of purity attached with vegetarian food shows how caste influences food preferences in India. The higher the caste, the greater the possibility of them being pure vegetarians. Even in higher educational institutes, we see non-vegetarian food kept at a healthy distance from vegetarian food. Worse, sitting areas are marked separately too along with separate washing spaces. The morals of Indian vegetarians continue to be based less on compassion for humans and animals, and more driven by ideas of hierarchy and purity where consumers of meat are placed at the lowest rung in social hierarchy. In a country suffering from child malnutrition, giving eggs to school children was blocked by governments due to this vegetarian fundamentalism (Waghmore).
Vegetarianism turns into an effective discriminatory tool, as it helps in identifying one’s caste if an individual’s caste marker such as surname isn’t visible. Savarna teachers openly criticize and degrade non vegetarian food and meat eaters in class. They sometimes monitor the food that Bahujan students bring to see if they are violating the strict veg policy. Children who bring meat/eggs to school are terrorized, tortured and humiliated in front of others by casteist slurs by these teachers. Vegetarian fundamentalism is a primary tool used by savarnas to exclude Bahujans from their spaces. Teachers frequently lecture about the superiority and benefits of vegetarian diet and gaslight Bahujans students by showing violent videos of animal abuse to give up eating meat. They claim that meat eaters are impure and prone to diseases and how vegetarian and sattvic food are scientifically proven to be better. Savarna students also refuse to dine with Bahujan kids due to this sense of purity which is indoctrinated in them. They even refuse to sit with meat eaters even in class. This constant attack on their dietary choices force Bahujan students to hate their identity and food habits. They even give up eating meat in the hope of gaining acceptance and escape the torture they have to endure daily due the food they eat (X, Vegetarian Fundamentalism In Indian Workspaces).
The whole structure of schooling in India is rooted in Brahminism. Schools are mostly started with a prayer which comprise of Brahminical slokas. There is a forced imposition of Sanskrit over regional languages. Bahujans and minority students are forced to attend Bhajans, and Poojas (X, Me Too Dalit). There is a glorification of Brahminical scriptures and caste system in the name of moral or cultural education. Brahminical history and culture are taught as glorious Indian culture while the cultural diversity of Dalit Bahujan Adivasis are completely ignored and not considered part of Indian cultural tradition. They justify the caste system and their divine right to oppress other marginalized communities. Students are sometimes asked to greet teachers in Sanskrit. The whole syllabus being taught erases the anti-caste struggles of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi icons like Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and Ayyankali, and simultaneously glorifies casteist men and institutions like Tilak, Arya Samaj and Brahma Samaj (X, Me Too Dalit). Ambedkar is only mentioned in history texts in one line as the Architect of Indian Constitution. Students are taught to engage in traditional pursuits of “classical” music and dance. Caste is repeatedly naturalized by intertwining savarna “cultural” practices into the pedagogy. Schools are exact remnants of Brahmin Dronacharya who not only denied admission to Bahujan Eklavya, but also demanded his thumb as gurudakshina, so that savarna Arjuna would remain unchallenged. They are also filled with Brahmin Parashurama, who withdraws the benefit of his knowledge to Karna, labeling it as unlawfully obtained when his caste became known, which ultimately leads to his death.
Selective favoritism is shown to savarna students by savarna teachers. They are appointed in leadership positions, are more likely to be chosen to participate in school competitions, events and sport meets. Bahujan students are excluded from extra-curricular activities robbing their opportunities for skill development. Savarna kids are awarded higher marks and questioned liberally compared to Bahujans kids who are punished severity for even small mistakes. They are beaten with sticks, scales and tree branches and given horrible punishments. These instances of Brahminical disciplining are only the tip of the iceberg. Dalit students are consistently scored low so that their scores remain in the expected ‘dalit level’. The teachers use casteist slurs, talk about their family, caste and traditions citing that they can’t be educated. They humiliate Bahujan students in front of others by throwing away their books, tearing their answer sheets, and openly declaring that they don’t have the brains for studying and they should go do their ancestral work without wasting time on books. If a savarna kid fails to answer, it’s just that kid’s fault, but if a Bahujan kid fails to answer, it’shis/her entire caste community’s fault and failure is expected from them since knowledge isn’t meant to be their forte. If a Bahujan student scores higher, they are immediately accused of cheating. They will never be considered or will be stopped from participating in scholarships exams and Olympiads because the teachers feel “they don’t have the skills or brains” to participate. Fair skinned savarna kids are always chosen to deliver speeches, welcome addresses and perform cultural programs (X, Me Too Dalit).
Elite private schools have highly privileged social networks which help the savarna kids create networks that build social and cultural capital. They have access to exclusive clubs, internships, certification courses and events which provide exposure and opportunities for professional growth. These events teach the kids the corporate mannerisms, eloquence and experience which can be capitalized later. The expenditure needed to participate in events, for example, the costly attires, itself creates exclusion to marginalized sections. They create “philanthropic” or “volunteer” activities which are used for building extra-curricular portfolio for application to foreign universities. These activities instill a sense of superiority in these savarna kids and makes them believe that they were born “meritorious”. Bahujan students are always excluded from these activities and network building exercises both directly and indirectly (R).
Every error by a Bahujan student is highlighted as how reservation is killing ‘merit’. They claim that Bahujans don’t deserve the place which is their constitutional right, but they conveniently forget the NRI and Management quotas through which rich savarna kids are admitted. They keep on reiterating how there is no casteism today yet keep on denying access to their spaces by Bahujans. They reiterate the myth of Brahmins being an oppressed minority when they are actually overrepresented in all top-level administrative positions, teaching and faculty positions, bureaucracy, media, business, movies, sports and judiciary. These savarna dominated educational institutions are all about systematic exclusion and selective targeting of anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of Brahminical hierarchy. They hate the very fact that they have to share their exclusive educational spaces with Bahujans (X, Me Too Dalit).
Savarna teachers openly criticize Right to Education and Affirmative Action Policies in classrooms and ridicule Bahujans students for availing these policies. They keep on belittling Bahujan students, calling them undeserving of education and encourage the use of casteist slurs by fellow students. They joke about casteism and sexism on a regular basis normalizing that behaviour to their savarna students. They know that they are immune to consequences because the school management and teachers are dominated by savarnas who will protect their own from any backlash. They work together to break the spirit of Bahujan students on a daily basis. Some schools make dalit students clean classrooms and toilets, and won’t allow to them sit together with savarna kids. Kids as small as 6-7 years are humiliated for their caste (X, Me Too Dalit).
The physical appearance of Bahujans is used to mark and shame their identity and social location. Skin color is used as a marker to identify caste and dark-skinned students are traumatized for life due to the taunts and body-shaming they face every day. If they find a fair DBA kid who doesn’t fit their idea of how a Dalit Bahujan Adivasi should look like, they immediately ask,“But you don’t look like a dalit”. Slut shaming and body shaming of Bahujan girls for their appearance and sexuality occur on a regular basis by teachers and students, especially from fellow savarna female students. Sexual harassment and assault on Bahujan girls are rampant and encouraged by teachers. They had to confront extreme caste violence and bigotry even in the form of rape threats. Anyone who tries to complain will be silenced and the administration will protect the teachers citing “sanathana dharma”, teachers are “god”, and assassinate the character of the victims. Bahujan girls are sometimes shamed and humiliated for requesting a sanitary pad from school nurses and they are asked to pay higher costs than their savarna classmates. Dalit Bahujan students are made to sit outside the class because they appear “dirty”. They are made to feel impure, dirty and made to hate their own bodies. Bahujans students are mocked for their “wrong grammar, bad English, wrong food, wrong clothes”, their whole identity is ridiculed. Social media pages would be made by students to shame Bahujan kids with full knowledge of teachers (X, Me Too Dalit).
Whenever they find a Bahujan kid who doesn’t fit into their stereotypical prejudiced idea of how they should be, they are openly asked “you don’t look like a dalit, you speak too eloquent for a dalit, you don’t dress like a dalit, you are too assertive for a dalit, you are too headstrong for a dalit, you are too outspoken for a dalit, your CGPA is not like a dalit”. These savarnas can’t accept or comprehend the fact that Dalit Bahujan Adivasi kids can be fair, excel in studies, be assertive, be strong and eloquent. They consider any assertion from Bahujan kids as a threat to their Brahminical superiority (X, Me Too Dalit).
Bahujan kids don’t have any institutional support mechanisms to address their grievances regarding the blatant casteism that they are suffering from fellow classmates, teachers and school administration. These consciously deliberate acts of casteism and micro aggressions push Bahujan kids to depression, self-hate, self-doubt which results in complete elimination of their self-esteem leading to trauma and suicides. They end up hating school and studies which severely affects their education and academic performance. That is how these school systematically forces the Bahujan students to underperform and stop them from achieving their true potential. Countless number of Bahujan children are gaslit, manipulated, and groomed to confirm to casteism, and accept brahmin superiority. They are conditioned to believe that being born a Bahujan was a mistake and made to hate their identity. Kids wanting acceptance will become embarrassed of their identity, and will try hard to imitate the savarna culture and dissociate from their Bahujan identity (X, Me Too Dalit).They start dressing, eating and speaking, adhering to the savarna cultural norms through a painful process of cultural adjustment so that they can survive the period of education without being scrutinized and humiliated (Punia).
Savarna kids are taught to identify and befriend only students of the same caste status. They are taught how to identify kids by their caste using caste markers, and if they are confused, they openly ask the fellow kid’s caste before beginning any social interaction. Once they realise that a kid is Bahujan, the kid would be isolated and bullied. They would refuse to sit on the same bench together with Bahujan kids. Some savarna kids reek of savior complex, who talk to Bahujan kids in a seemingly encouraging way, but which is mostly patronizing and condescending, just a spectacle to pat their own backs for even talking to Bahujans. These casteist self-righteous savarna kids take great pride in posing as beacons of extreme generosity for just sitting on the same bench or sharing water with Bahujan kids (X, Me Too Dalit).
These casteist, classist, misogynist, Islamophobic, homophobic views won’t change as long as Savarnas dominate these institutions and control the narratives. Cases of sexual abuse and harassment cannot be analyzed without considering the other hierarchies like caste present in them. Brahminism works by protecting the pedophile savarna teachers by covering it up and not taking any action. They will instead show savarna solidarity and attack Bahujan students. We have seen savarna women attack Bahujan women for calling out misogyny of savarna men and defend them. It was the 14 self-proclaimed savarna feminists who tried to denounce the list that actually kick-started the #MeToo movement in India. In the recent case of sexual harassment in PSBB school, the Brahminical school is trying to protect the pedophile teacher. They tried to change the narrative that everyone holding the school responsible and demanding accountability and action against the teacher is attacking Indian culture and Hinduism. These elite private schools are ‘Brahminical Dens’ which propagate Brahminism and savarna culture (Gurumurthy). Every testimony exposing incidents of casteism and sexism against these schools is defended aggressively by liberal, English-speaking, “casteless” savarnas.
Educate, Agitate, Organize
Savarnas try to stop Bahujan assertion for their dignity and rights by blocking their access to education and skill development, and also by systematically discriminating Bahujan students so that they are forced to drop out. Discrimination by teachers and fellow students is identified as one of the largest causes of Bahujan dropouts in education along with poverty. The consciousness of caste superiority runs deep in savarna faculty and students, who find multiple ways to discriminate against Bahujan students and faculty and continue the heinous practice of untouchability in new forms. Mostly, Dalit Bahujan Adivasi students refrain from reporting caste-based discrimination in schools because reparative and punitive measures are never taken (Punia).
Brahminism assigns the status of god to the teacher and asks people to blindly trust the teacher and never question them. Even if the teacher turns violent, tortures and assaults their students, the teachers’ actions are justified as part of “disciplining” and are provided immunity from consequences. Even parents entrust their kids to teachers and consider teachers’ narratives more believable than the kids. We have to remove the glorification and divinity assigned to the teacher and understand the enormous power a teacher possesses over his/her students. The teacher has the power to threaten and humiliate the kids, cause physical and emotional trauma, harass them and even sexually assault them as they spend most of their time with students without the supervision of another adult. We need to hold the teachers accountable for their actions and question this power differential in classrooms. Teacher bullying also has a contagion effect, indicating to students that the bullying of a particular individual is acceptable and making that individual vulnerable to more abuse by peers. The normalization of using physical and emotional torture as part of “disciplining” the kids has to be eliminated within families. Feedback from kids about the actions of the teachers should be taken at regular intervals and any abuse of power needs to be immediately addressed.
There has been a systematic attack on the public school system by the government to favor the growth of elite private schools which deny access to education for students from marginalized communities. These schools refuse to admit students from marginalized castes and try to create exclusive spaces for savarnas. The teachers in these schools come from dominant castes and there are no reservation norms applicable to increase representation of Bahujan teachers. The public government schools where most of the Bahujan students study are deprived of funding by the state, and lack amenities like labs, libraries and good classrooms. We need to raise our voice against this systematic attack on public schools and demand increased funding and representation of Bahujan teachers in these schools. We need to oppose casteist pro-private school policies like NEP 2020 and demand opening up of more public schools with adequate facilities.
* Gurumurthy, Achintya Anita. What I Learned About Caste While Discussing the PSBB Incident With Family, Friends. 28 May 2021. https://livewire.thewire.in/campus/psbb-incident-casteism-oppression/
* Punia, Aarushi. Casteism in City Colleges and Classrooms. Round Table India, 29 May 2021. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10045:dalit-atrocity-in-ramojipeta-telangana-a-fact-finding-report&catid=122&Itemid=138
* R, Sulochana. “Conversation.” Whatspp, 2021.
* Waghmore, Suryakant. In charts: Vegetarianism in India has more to do with caste hierarchy than love for animals. 6 April 2017.https://scroll.in/article/833178/vegetarianism-in-india-has-more-to-do-with-caste-hierarchy-than-love-for-animals
* X, Arunesh. “Me Too Dalit.” n.d. Instagram.https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17872410935362120/
—. Vegetarian Fundamentalism In Indian Workspaces. 29 January 2021.https://feminisminindia.com/2021/01/29/vegetarian-fundamentalism-in-indian-workspaces/#:~:text=The%20idea%20of%20infrastructural%20discrimination,the%20workspace%20based%20on%20diet
Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.