Over the past two days, my Twitter timeline has been inundated with unspeakable horrors committed against young students in several ‘elite’ schools in Chennai. After accusations regarding sexual harassment and predatory behaviour about a teacher from Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) surfaced, student testimonies regarding experiences of casteism and misogyny flooded social media.
One student recounted her harrowing experience dealing with vicious Brahminism in PSBB – where she had to confront extreme caste violence and bigotry in the form of rape threats. She painstakingly highlighted the extent of impunity her Brahmin classmates exercised in harassing her, with the open backing of teachers.
Another student highlighted his experience of being bullied for bringing eggs in his dabba (tiffin box), being publicly chastised and made to sit on the floor to eat his lunch. These instances of Brahminical disciplining were only the tip of the iceberg, with several student testimonies spilling over social media and alumni discussions over the next couple of days.
Profoundly disturbed by these experiences, I resolved to understand the Brahminical ideology in the liberal institutions that I had grown up in. These are “alternative” schools in Bengaluru that advocate for holistic and democratic learning. These are the very spaces that continue to be riddled with the same caste contradictions that characterise Indian liberalism today. While I owe a big part of my critical and free thinking to the cushioning and perspectives these institutions have given me, the PSBB incident did open up the uncomfortably intimate aspects of elitism that I had to confront. My cultural and social capital afforded to me by my caste position had enabled me to experience school as a space without fear – a privilege not available to all.
And so, I asked on my Instagram story, whether we would be able to call out “alternative” institutions in Bengaluru for the “Brahminical dens” that they are.
Castelessness is caste-blindness
Among the responses I received, all of them requested me to attach and send student testimonies.
Upon sharing the deeply problematic and painful experiences that had already emerged on social media about private schools in Chennai, I readily shared link upon link, eager to prove the veracity of my argument.
However, following this, I was repeatedly asked to explain what I meant when I called these schools “Brahminical dens”. What is so phenomenally unsettling, and indicative of the caste character of these elite private schools, is the unabashed defence by parents and students from the institutions I had named. To me, the caste character of these institutions was apparent. And I was pretty sure, it was more than evident to any reasonable person.
What was troubling however, was that the liberal, English-speaking, fair-minded, Brahmin uncles and aunties, kept requesting me for testimony upon testimony, so that their thirst for proof and evidence could be satisfied. It appeared to me, that the business of collating such stories of oppression with utter fascination, was to get a front row ticket to the trauma of others.
Much of my education was ‘casteless’. It reproduced urban myths, including the oft-repeated “caste does not exist anymore” and that it is the system of reservations that keeps it alive. I barely recall B.R. Ambedkar or Periyar’s name in my history classes, and my civics classes on fundamental rights breezed swiftly past the question of untouchability. It surprises me that much before I came to read about anti-caste movements in my country, I had already learned the term “creamy layer” from school. These instances barely scratch the surface about the embedded Brahminism in my school curriculum.
When the video of actress Madhuvanti Arun surfaced, proclaiming that caste-based division of labour is natural – I recognised how similar her mannerisms and confidence closely resembled many of the Brahmin women in my family, and those who taught me. As far as I can recall, the teachers in the elite schools I went to were mostly Brahmin women. Today, I recognise the double role that women in such a position of power play in caste society – in appropriating the labour of Bahujan women, and rationalising Brahminical control in their conversations with other Brahmin women. However as a child, my caste blind experience of schooling prevented me from correctly characterising my own social location, along with the positionality of my family, friends, teachers and school.
In my school, like several others, the day would often start with chanting Sanskrit shlokas. We would be expected to recite a Sanskrit prayer at the dining hall as well, before we consumed our purely vegetarian lunch. Many boys in my class wore the poonal thread, and many of us were engaged in the traditional pursuits of “classical” music and dance. In my modern school, caste was repeatedly naturalised – by intertwining older “cultural” practices into the pedagogy along with the scientific new.
The structure of private education, premised on profit revealed to me, quite unsurprisingly, that all schools (liberal or conservative) maintain and reproduce casteism in similar ways. The deeply pervasive nature of Brahminical ideology, coupled with the political economy of private schools clearly indicate the urgency required in dismantling such an exclusionary system, in order to protect marginalised children from the clutches of Brahminical oppression.
Achintya Anita Gurumurthy is a law student who is interested in Marxist and Ambedkarite theory.
Featured image credit: PSBB’s official website