A teacher in charge of a corporation school in north Delhi has been suspended, following the discovery that he had segregated students in different sections according to their religion. The response of the state to this case has been immediate and reassuring, but the matter needs to be probed further to discover the roots of the action. The teacher has claimed that it was a “management decision” in the interest of “peace, discipline and a good learning environment”. However, segregation is precisely that which cannot serve these interests. Children who are future citizens must learn to live peacefully with communities other than their own and obey the laws of a multi-religious and secular country. The very purpose of schooling is to break down walls, and learning how the other half lives is an essential step towards political maturity.
Schools have unfortunately reflected the xenophobias of society. In the now-forgotten but not very remote past, complaints about segregation by caste in schools, especially those with boarding facilities where commensality was seen to be a problem, were not infrequent. Strong legislation enforced against casteist behaviour helped to end that phenomenon. Isolation by linguistic group in schools promoted by regional communities is also history, and only small admission quotas remain. Isolation by gender has unfortunately persisted, on account of societal forces and safety concerns. And so we still have girls and boys growing up with only a rudimentary and mythical knowledge of each other.
Movements for the desegregation of schools have the longest history in the US, starting with a Black agitation in Massachusetts in 1787, and extending into Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s. In India, separation on religious lines is the most dangerous form of segregation, when communities have been artificially polarised according to their perceived social practices and dietary habits. Some isolation is inevitable because of segregation in housing created by public prejudice against minorities. Students typically enrol in a school nearby, in which they are more likely to be exposed to other students of their own demographic than other communities. But segregation within schools is intolerable. Delhi has seen an isolated case, and the authorities have reacted with despatch commensurate with the seriousness of the development. But the crucial question is: What emboldened the teacher in question to take the step? Whether it was social sanction in the neighbourhood, or his own personal conviction, it is important to discover the root of the problem and to address it. Schools reflect the societies they serve, and this one says something ugly about India.