Overcoming Caste
For Those Working to Build an Integrated India, 'Hope Starts and Ends With the Schools'

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 20, 2008


Not so long ago, in the back of a tin-roofed restaurant, Ramu, a teenage dishwasher, spent his nights chained to a radiator. That's how his employer kept him from running away.

Ramu wanted to flee because his boss, who was from a higher, more privileged caste, constantly berated him for showing an interest in learning to read. The boss believed Ramu had to get used to a life of cleaning up after other people because as a Dalit, a member of India's lowest and most shunned caste, he could never amount to anything.

Then a foreigner who ran a private school and home for Dalit children noticed Ramu. He enrolled him in classes. Ramu is now a star pupil with a voracious and ever-changing appetite for activities including yoga, photography and film directing.

"In my childhood, I was so desperate for learning," said Ramu, a gregarious 19-year-old with thick brown hair. "There are so many jobs other than dishwashing that I hoped to experience."

His school, Ramana's Garden, is just one of many progressive, mostly private institutions that have begun trying to dismantle the barriers of India's caste system, a centuries-old pecking order under which higher castes have access to quality schools and jobs and lower castes remain largely poor and illiterate.

Some of the schools are opening their doors to Dalits and members of other so-called backward castes previously denied enrollment. Others are offering such students courses typically available only to upper castes and teaching them that their fates should no longer be determined by culture or tradition.

For the vast majority of the members of India's lower castes, however, the pace of change has been slow and the successes limited. Yet the cause has never been more urgent.

Across this country, home to one of the world's largest student populations, a dual education system has emerged. India's economic boom has fueled the rise of elite private schools for the children of high castes, while the public school system has become a dismal refuge for the children of the lower and middle castes.

Lower-caste students face daily abuse by teachers, who ignore them in class, and by higher-caste students, who refuse to speak or even make physical contact with them, according to a recent independent, government-funded study. They drop out at rates as high as anywhere in the world, the study found.

Activists fear that failure to close the education gap could not only cause further social unrest but also hold back national development. Backward castes, along with Muslims and other tribal groups, make up nearly 70 percent of India's 1.1 billion people.

"In India, it's not separate and unequal. It's cruel and unequal, and it's getting more pronounced. India is only shining for a tiny minority. For most people, India is getting darker," said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who runs Social Jurist, a watchdog group that litigates education cases on behalf of marginalized sectors of society. "Hope starts and ends with the schools. Fix the schools, and society will begin to be fixed. And that means overcoming caste in the classroom."

Persistent Prejudice

In more than half the classrooms across India, Dalit children are often forced to sit in the back and to eat separately, according to a 2006 study by the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

They are bullied, assaulted and humiliated. About 73 percent of Dalit students drop out in secondary school, according to a government report.

Upper-caste teachers, who send their own children to private schools, are often accused of discriminating against lower-caste students by refusing to pick them for leadership roles and using them for menial chores, including sweeping and cleaning latrines -- the kinds of occupations that are traditionally the only ones available to the students' parents.

In an example of how caste discrimination can shatter a student's ambitions, Bahadur, 15, dropped out after his teacher constantly teased him in front of other students, who later beat him.

"He would say: 'Dalit, come here. Dalit, clean this,' " Bahadur said, sitting listlessly on a rock one afternoon in his home outside New Delhi. "The other students noticed. They forced me to spit-shine their shoes and clean the toilets."

One afternoon, he said, he was in an irritable mood and refused to clean up after the higher castes. They urinated on him and hit him with sticks.

"I couldn't go to that place anymore. Respect is not there. But I liked all my subjects. Maybe I will try again," Bahadur said, his voice barely above a whisper. "But I don't think so."

In a separate interview, Bahadur's teacher said he didn't recall the boy's case. But he said lower-caste children generally expect to be treated better than others because they are poor. He described them as lazy and unwilling to help themselves.

"They are backward people who want everything handed to them," said the teacher, who asked not to be named because he said he didn't want to offend others by "speaking truths."

Even in communities where Dalit leaders have made strides, prejudice remains.

In one case last month, upper-caste students refused to eat school lunches because they had been cooked by a Dalit woman. The incident took place in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which last year elected a Dalit woman, Mayawati Kumari, as its chief minister.

Officially, caste-based discrimination is outlawed by the national constitution. Affirmative action programs also ensure that lower castes have at least some access to higher education and jobs in government.

But the reality is that the consequences of the caste system can be seen everywhere. Activists say the real problem starts in primary schools, where children form their ideas about caste.

Some panchayats, or local governments, have recently held a series of hearings on caste in the classroom in an effort to break down stereotypes.

"What many in India have to realize is that the Dalit cook is not going anywhere," said Anjela Tanega, an education officer with the nongovernment group Action Aid who recently ran one such meeting in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. "As the rich get richer, we have to make sure that more people in India are feeling the benefits. In many ways, it's up to the schools."

'A to Z, Everything Is Missing'

In a neighborhood of ragpickers and rickshaw pullers on the outskirts of New Delhi, Agarwal, the activist lawyer, sat in a circle with teenagers from low castes on a recent Saturday, trying to raise awareness about the poor conditions at their schools.

Agarwal, who has a puff of salt-and-pepper hair, approached his job the way a union organizer might. Hoping to get the government's attention, he was organizing a national boycott of public schools for Feb. 5.

"Sometimes lower-caste students are ignored because they are poor," he said. "But there comes a time when a child must cry. Maybe someone will hear."

During the meeting, some of the students cheered or stood up and spoke.

"A to Z, everything is missing. We usually don't have any electricity. I share my desk with three people," said Shiva Papple, 17, who said he dreamed of becoming a computer engineer but had never used a computer. "I want to go to private school. But my parents can't afford it."

The gap between castes is particularly striking when it comes to their respective concerns about education. Middle- and upper-caste students gripe about competitive entrance interviews at private schools, heavy homework loads and stress. Lower-caste students say their schools lack running water, electricity and books. Their parents echo their frustrations.

"I hate knowing that my children have to sit on the cold floor because the desks are not there," said Shanaja Asraf, a mother of six whose husband offers haircuts at a street-side stand. "Our schools need help. But we aren't sure what to do."

Since gaining its independence from Britain 60 years ago, India has made strides in education. In 1971, for example, only 29 percent of the population was literate. Today, an estimated 65 percent can read, according to the government's most recent report. Literacy among girls has jumped from 9 percent in 1951 to 54 percent in 2001.

Government officials acknowledge that widespread inequalities remain, especially for Dalit children. Many have also been quick to acknowledge the problems of caste discrimination in the classroom.

In 2005, the school curriculum was amended across all subjects, and social studies textbooks were rewritten to include lessons on the history of discrimination against lower castes.

Officials say that in the past, their focus was on getting children into schools; now they want to improve the quality of the education they get there.

"We are talking about making learning in the schools meaningful in students' lives," said Krishna Kumar, director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, which is in charge of the curriculum. "Dignity and justice are nonnegotiable. There is no question that education is a major source of mobility in India. No country in the world has been able to achieve equal education without help from the state."

A Changed Destiny

Private schools such as Ramu's, along with the more progressive public schools, represent the best hope of many Indians.

At Ramu's school, students have computer rooms and small classes. And they are taught English -- a subject rarely taught at government schools -- so they can compete with higher castes for jobs with multinational companies.

On the school's campus, everyone takes turns cooking, cleaning the bathrooms and tending the beans and lettuce in the school's organic garden, part of an effort to create a casteless system, the teachers say.

Ramana's Garden is funded with donations from U.S. organizations from Takoma Park, Md., to Berkeley, Calif.

The school has met with resistance from higher castes angry that it is providing Dalit children with a quality education, teachers said. But it has persevered and even grown. The students often go on to jobs in large cities, sending home money to parents who work as bricklayers or street sweepers.

Ramu recently visited his former boss at the restaurant to explain how he had started his own business, selling postcards of photographs he'd taken. Ramu said he really just wanted to show the man he could read now.

"I wasn't angry with him at all," Ramu said, smiling. "I got a feeling he was surprised and even proud of me. It was like my destiny had been changed."

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