On July 31 this year, a circular from the Director of School Education sent to senior educational officers across the State stated that in some schools students were made to wear colour-coded wrist bands and also sport forehead tilaks as “caste markers” and further instructed officials to stop such practices immediately.
A day after it was published in the media last week, School Education Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan told the media that he was not aware of any such circular. Claiming that it had been issued without his knowledge, the Minister said it had originally come from the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department and that he had instructed officials in his Department “not to implement” it.
But, ambiguity remains over the circular. While a senior official in the School Education Department said on Friday evening that the Minister had been misquoted and that the circular still held good, the Minister had a different stand.
“Whatever existed before the circular will continue,” said Mr. Sengottaiyan. However, he maintained that the AIADMK government would take action if there were complaints about such discriminatory practices. “There is no such practice in 99% of the schools, but there may be a few incidents, which we will look into.”
The entire episode unfolded after IAS trainees at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, following media reports, debated the topic and eventually handed over a representation to the government.
But, what has caught everyone’s attention is the Minister’s oral order not to implement the circular.
“Everyone welcomed the circular. Why should the Minister order not to implement it,” asks Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi General Secretary D. Ravikumar. He goes on to claim that it was probably a tweet from BJP leader H. Raja against the circular that prompted the Minister to say so. In his tweet, Mr. Raja posted a clip in which he is seen saying that wearing bands and sporting forehead tilaks are part of Hindu culture, and urging that the circular be withdrawn.
Mr. Raja could not be reached for a comment.
The practice of students wearing caste bands has been noticed over the past few years in the State, contends Mr. Ravikumar. He claims that some caste outfits are misguiding students with this practice and it will eventually lead to caste violence in school campuses.
Mr. Ravikumar also points out incidents where students from oppressed castes are forced to clean toilets in schools by teachers and headmasters in various places in Tamil Nadu and insists that the circular be implemented at once.
A report on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’s functioning in the State a few years ago confirmed discriminatory practices in schools and a report by the National Advisory Council in 2009 highlighted some illegal practices in schools.
Dimensions of discrimination
Discrimination commences right from anganwadis. “Anganwadis are places where one can see how students are being discriminated against. Caste Hindu students bring their vessels so they do not consume food, even by mistake, from the plates that Dalit students use. And there are several incidents of parents opposing a Dalit cook in anganwadis,” points out Madurai-based social activist ‘Evidence’ Kathir.
Discrimination is affecting the enrolment of Dalit students in various places, he says and points to an RTI reply that shows a Panchayat Union Middle School at Kurayur near Kalligudi in Madurai district admitting only 21 Dalits students between 1964 and 1970. “Since 1970, there has not been a single Dalit student in this school until today. What does this tell us,” asks Mr. Kathir, who has been working for the empowerment of Dalits in the southern districts.
The wearing of caste bands on the wrist is, unfortunately, just only of many forms of discrimination, contends Mr. Ravikumar. “These are the reasons for students growing up aware of caste discrimination. Some of them go on to be involved in caste-related murders later. This practice vitiates the entire educational atmosphere in our schools,” he argues.
Bands with purpose
In one school near Pollachi in Coimbatore district, Dalits students are referred to as minuses and non-Dalits as pluses by a maths teacher, who reportedly says minuses have to depend on pluses, and not the other way around. During an enquiry, the teacher sought to downplay this by saying he was only trying to teach maths in an easy way.
There have been instances of Dalit students being made to sit on the back benches; barred from wearing footwear in schools; even prevented from using common toilets. In some cases, even Dalit teachers have been harassed into not taking classes on B.R. Ambedkar, and when they defied such instructions, they have been attacked, point out activists.
A teacher from a government school in Dindigul district says the government acknowledges that the practice of students wearing caste bands exists in some schools.
“Teachers have a major role in abolishing this practice. They must be constantly vigilant to identify when students wear these markers,” he says.
The State government has taken various steps to wipe out caste discrimination in the past, he points out, adding, “The names of transport corporations as well as names of districts named after iconic caste leaders were changed. So, the government should not back out now.”
“While religious identifications such as wearing of holy ash [thiruneeru, kunkumam] on the forehead is not discouraged, the practice of identifying a student’s caste has to be nipped in the bud. As for opposition to the circular, there is a clear attempt to divert this issue from the caste angle to the religious angle,” he says.
A guest faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, says making children wear caste-marking wrist bands “is clearly reminiscent of the law introduced in 1941 Nazi Germany, whereby all Jews over the age of six in Germany and presumably in all Nazi-occupied countries were forced to wear yellow armbands carrying the word ‘Jew’.”
What’s in a name?
Though the circular states that the bands are seen during sports selection, assemblies, and during lunch breaks, Mr. Sivaramakrishnan says: “That shows a clear and material difference between these markers and other very common markers such as tilaks, which as far as I know figure far less in selection for school activities and procedures, or indeed in a lot of the rest of everyday life in today’s India.”
Dravidar Kazhagam propaganda secretary A. Arulmozhi says students are made to feel proud of their caste and hence they willingly wearing these caste bands. “While our Constitution advocates a scientific temper among citizens, these practices will only pull society backwards,” she adds.
Unless there is political will, such practices cannot be crushed, contends the IAS officer. There is a need to organise more group activities involving all students.
“Being a frontrunner in caste annihilation in the country, Tamil Nadu can certainly do this if there is political will,” the officer adds.
Installation of CCTV cameras on school premises and following a ‘house uniform’ concept as in some private schools can help fight discrimination on campus.
Classes on historical backwardness and the concept of reservation and social dialogue among students will certainly give them an opportunity to understand social dimensions of society and help bring about a change, says Mr. Kathir.
“More than anything, there is a need to make students feel ashamed to observe caste discrimination. We need counsellors in schools. Presently, there are clear attempts by some groups to make students feel proud of their caste. That should go,” says Mr. Kathir.
While Article 14 of the Constitution provides for equality of all people before the law, Clause (c) of Sections 8 9 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, cast a duty on the State government and local authorities to ensure that children belonging to weaker sections and the those “belonging to a disadvantaged group are not discriminated against,” says Mr. Ravikumar.