Three days after this newspaper reported that students in a school in Karnataka’s Kolar district refused to eat the midday meal because it was cooked by a Dalit, senior officials have intervened to end the caste discrimination. They have promised follow-up action so that discriminatory practices do not return. The prompt action by Karnataka officials is reassuring. It also reaffirms that the state and its institutions must take the lead in the project to end caste discrimination in public places. Article 15 of the Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of caste and laws are in place to penalise it. If it still persists — and it does — that’s due to the lack of institutional vigilance and intervention.
A series of reports in this newspaper have revealed that caste discrimination is routinised in classrooms across the country and has tacit, and explicit, social sanction. If students are made to wear bands to indicate their caste in a school in southern Tamil Nadu, Dalit girls are not allowed to participate in puja at an Odisha school.
In Rajasthan, Dalit students are threatened with expulsion if they do not clean the school premises. Separate anganwadis are run for Dalit and non-Dalit students in a village in Gujarat. These schools are, unfortunately, not exceptions, but representative of a wider malaise. The rampant segregation and discrimination is not always mutelyaccepted by the Dalits. But the imbalance in power relations, especially as it is manifested in the distribution of material resources like land, often makes it an unequal battle, with the Dalits being threatened with violence, as well as social and economic boycott. The political mobilisations of the backward castes around social justice agendas have, in some parts of India, exacerbated the oppression of Dalits. And, the struggle for political power and economic resources finds reflection in the classroom. Teachers and parents too are complicit in perpetuating the caste order and its accompanying violence in schools. Often, state officials seem to endorse the social hierarchy, rather than enforce a course correction.
The state cannot wait for a change of heart in the people. It must proactively enforce the law in letter and spirit and act to protect the citizen’s fundamental right to equality. This must begin in the school, where children learn their first lessons about society.
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