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What furore over NCERT’s teacher sensitisation manual reveals

By taking down manual, NCERT stalls assimilation of trans children in schools

Written by Mridul Dudeja , Chayanika Shah , Ketki Ranade |
Updated: November 20, 2021 6:46:20 am
Recently NCERT published on its website a teacher-training manual on school education that is inclusive of trans and other gender-nonconforming people.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, for all its shortcomings, had one thing going for it. It promised us non-discrimination. To quote, Chapter 1, point 2d, “inclusive education means a system of education wherein transgender students learn together with other students without fear of discrimination, neglect, harassment or intimidation and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of such students”. The actions of two national councils, NCERT and NCPCR, earlier this month managed to prove that this was nothing more than lip service. They found a way to go back in time to an era before April 2014, when the Supreme Court of India, for the first time recognised its transgender citizens to be equal citizens of this country.

For context, recently NCERT published on its website a teacher-training manual on school education that is inclusive of trans and other gender-nonconforming people. This was welcomed by trans people, their families, organisations working with them and many educators as well. However, there were a few transphobic voices of dissent. One such individual, on behalf of a group of pro bono lawyers working under the banner of Legal Rights Observatory, made a complaint to the NCPCR stating that this was a “…criminal conspiracy… to psychologically traumatise school students in the name of gender sensitisation.” In an absurd chain of events, NCPCR responded in an equally transphobic manner by complaining to the NCERT. Instead of opening the discussion and defending their own manual, the NCERT not only removed it from their website, but also transferred the people who worked on it.

In its complaint to the NCERT, NCPCR argued this manual would have badly affected schoolchildren. This is a strange thing to say unless the NCPCR thinks its mandate is only to protect the rights of some children (cis-gender children) and not all children. Even in that fallacious belief they are wrong because the manual was not meant for children. It was meant to sensitise teachers on how to create a safe environment for trans and queer children.

We know from experience that whenever we recognise the exclusion of a social group and make efforts at inclusion, for instance, encouraging girl child education, integrated education for children with disabilities, affirmative action in education for tribal, Adivasi and Dalit children, efforts have to be made to ensure that infrastructural and attitudinal barriers to their inclusion are addressed. The teacher is one of the most significant actors in enabling a culture of learning about differences. Sensitising the teacher about lived realities of the excluded group and the historical exclusions and violence faced by them is extremely important not only to create a safe space within the classroom for them, but to also impart education so that the rest of the classroom grows up to become empathetic and respectful adults.

This is essential in the context of a historically oppressed and invisibilised category, like trans and queer persons. A lot of misinformation about and stigma against trans and queer lives is being brought to light due to the intense work of trans individuals, communities and organisations. Research studies in the last decade from a few metro cities in India suggest that trans and gender non-conforming children are regularly subjected to bullying, sexual assault, humiliation by school staff, teachers and classmates. How do we expect teachers to create a safe, inclusive environment for them if they don’t know what dysphoria feels like or the various ways in which trans and gender non-conforming students are bullied? Without providing the necessary tools to teachers to discuss it with their students in age-appropriate ways at their discretion, how are we even hoping to eradicate that stigma or stop the bullying that can lead to trans and queer young people being pushed out of schools?

Some of this is what the NCERT manual, drafted with inputs from trans individuals and experts, tried to do. Its removal attacks this bare minimum effort to assimilate trans and non-conforming students into classrooms. India also has a new National Education Policy that identifies education as an important tenet of a child’s development – one that all children have a right to. It refers to the needs of transgender children specifically. What is the point of these policies if actions towards implementation are thwarted in this manner?

Finally, we are also appalled by the lack of transparency in the process followed by both NCPCR and NCERT after receiving the respective complaints. We are unsure about the claims of trauma for cisgender students, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that these were valid concerns. What did the NCPCR do? Did they call for stakeholder consultations? How did they decide that sensitising teachers about a marginalised and excluded section of children will bring “harm” to all children or that children need “protection” against such sensitisation training? The same goes for the NCERT. They received a word from NCPCR and just decided to drop the entire manual itself, in addition to transferring the people who worked on it? Could they not have held consultations, debated the concerns raised and tried to address them? Isn’t debate, discussion and negotiating multiple points of view essential for education? Why did this policymaking body shy away from this responsibility? Dereliction of constitutional duties by these national agencies is discrimination towards a group of marginalised children. We hope that they are made accountable so that this society makes space for every child — no matter who they are.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2021 under the title ‘Shrinking the classroom’. The writers are queer trans feminists in Mumbai. Dudeja is a technology professional, Shah is a researcher and educator and KP is an academic and researcher working in the area of queer and trans mental health

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