The quest for education by the Scheduled Castes/ Dalits /Untouchables has followed a similar pattern to the Indian Freedom Struggle: Unsatisfactory compromises by the government providing an impetus for greater demands for education. Complete freedom, however, is still pending.
The Scheduled Castes, the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system, were the uneducated, exploited segment of society compelled to perform the traditionally considered demeaning tasks from cleaning toilets to sweeping streets. This has been beautifully encapsulated by Mulk Raj Anand in his book, Untouchable. Shunned by society, they were kept out of educational institutes, places of worship and communal places. Unfortunately, there has been little change in the attitude of the ‘higher castes’ towards Dalits, continuing to leave them largely uneducated and inhibiting their progress.
The situation of the Untouchables can be likened to that of the black population of South Africa. In modern day, post-apartheid South Africa, less than 2% of the black population has a degree as opposed to 17% of the white population [FN1]. This can be largely attributed to the Bantu Education Act 1953 in apartheid South Africa, in which the black population was deliberately oppressed and given poorer education and job opportunities than the white population. In order to rectify this febrile situation the government needs to tackle the problem at the grassroots level. Similarly, for the Untouchables, the way forward is increased education.
Reservations, used correctly, would be an effective tool towards this goal and for the Dalit to lift himself out of the morass. This was the motivation behind incorporating reservations into the Indian Constitution under the chairmanship of Baba Ambedkar (1951), the architect of the Indian Constitution and a Dalit by birth. His struggle is well documented and his success attributed to the legal education that he received. While inspiring, it poses a question: should every Dalit have to struggle as much to live a life of equal opportunity?
Reservations have not produced the envisaged results because it has become a weapon used by politicians to exploit the Dalit vote bank. With some universities having close to seventy per cent reservations, deserving candidates do not find a place in educational institutions owing to the absurd levels of reservations. In fact, this has created antipathy towards the concept of reservations and the Scheduled Castes, compounding the problem.
To say that reservations have been a complete failure would also be incorrect. The rate of increase in literacy for the Scheduled Castes has grown at a much higher rate than the overall rate since the Indian Independence. Additionally, while in states like Bihar literacy among the Scheduled Castes is dismal, in other states, such as Mizoram, through effctive implementation of reservations, the Scheduled Castes have an almost 90% literacy rate [FN2]. The results highlight a shortcoming in the implementation of the policy by certain states.
The alternative to reservations would be the policy of ‘racial blindness,’ as followed in South Africa, in which there are no reservations based on race. However, as seen earlier, this policy has not provided acceptable results and a large portion of the black population remains uneducated in comparison to the white population. Another drawback has been that there is no integration of students, with most ‘African schools’ having 100% African students [FN3]. This causes segregation, and therefore does not achieve the objective of assimilation.
The solution needs to start at the lower levels of education. By providing a good primary and secondary education to the Schedued Castes there will hopefully come a stage when they can compete for university placements without the need for reservations. A fundamental problem is the dearth of schools in villages, compounded by the socially prejudiced people purporting to run them. The government continues to focus on the urban sector and ignores the rural sector largely, where the majority of the Scheduled Caste population still lives. Essential facilities, which increase the value of an education, such as libraries, laboratories and other essential facilities are lacking in schools in rural sectors. These deplorable conditions have been discussed by authors like Mahasweta Devi. Yet large populations of India’s rural sector remain uneducated. Most schools in these sectors don’t require a lot of capital to set up. A problem faced by the government is finding teachers who are willing to go to these villages. Another effective tool to alleviate this problem is the use of technology such as internet and video communication. Furthermore, there can be a common school for a small group of villages that are in close proximity. Not only will this increase the level of education in the country, but this will start integrating people of Scheduled Castes with other communities at an early stage. The government has taken a step in the right direction with the launch of EDUSAT, which is an alternative form of education. EDUSAT is a satellite, launched to beam classes being conducted in a studio to remote areas where children cannot go to school. Children can ask questions through emails, text messages and any other mode of communication. This will revolutionize the educational system in India.
It has also become easier for the government to provide students with computers owing to the OLPC Foundation, which provides students with laptops for $100. This has significantly reduced the cost of providing students with a technical education which has become a mainstay of the work environment. Giving students a technical education teaches them vital skills that can be effectively used.
Another major obstacle is the prejudice of the people who run these schools. Many of them are still biased and do not provide Scheduled Caste children equal opportunities, often refusing them an education. This is a major stumbling block in the way of their social rehabilitation which needs to be tackled at the roots. The way forward is by instilling the idea of equality in the minds of everyone through education, creating a society of equal and fair opportunity.
The Bollywood movie, Arakshan, which had a lot of opposition from people of both sides, conveyed that the only way forward is education, and reservations should not be done away with, but monitored carefuly.
The KIPP programme was started in New York City to provide underprivileged children from the Bronx with better opportunities by starting schools that were geared towards people of certain backgrounds, working with them on ther weaknesses and training them for a college education. Similar schools are needed in the rural sectors of India to educate Scheduled Caste children, who would usually not be given the same opportunities or attention were they to attend regular schools. Only through this focus will they be able to achieve more than they are currently being allowed to and finally destroy this impervious wall that is restraining them.
The government has taken another step in the right direction with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, which provides every child free education until the age of 14. The problem lies in its implementation, which must be focused on if it is to transform millions of lives.
A misconception is that a good education must consist of a university degree. A good education can also incorporate vocational skills like welding or craftsmanship to learning farming essentials like dry-farming techniques and water-harvesting mechanisms. These seemingly basic skills could be life-changers for people of this stratum of Indian society. The Chinese proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’ is apt for this situation.
It is relatively easy to implement this vocational education. Centres could be set up in areas that are easily accessible to these people. There have been several state-sponsored centres for teaching students computer skills. However, they have mostly been opened in urban areas and the government continues to ignore the rural sectors which have a greater need for these facilities.
The reason that education is the ultimate freedom fighter for these oppressed people is because it helps give them self-belief. Providing them with an education gives them the tools to live and excel with people from all other backgrounds, privileged or underprivileged and that will eventually help break the current mindset in the country. If done effectively there soon will be a stage when there will be no need for reservations or separate schools; no need for the status ‘Scheduled Castes’. They will be equals to themselves and others. They will be transformed into the leaders of tomorrow.
Even though India fought one hundred and ninety years for freedom everyone in the country is not free. Even during the freedom struggle most leaders believed that the sole way out of colonial rule was education. This seems to be a lesson unlearned. Only through education will it achieve the goals set out in the preamble: justice, equality, fraternity and ultimately liberty.
- The Economist 2010
- Literacy and SC/ST
- The Economist, 2010
- Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. London: Penguin, 1990
- ‘Last in Class’, The Economist Special Report, 03 June 2010
- ‘Literacy and SC/ST’, University of Montreal (accessed 22 September 2010)