School and Caste: Why the IIT Kharagpur Incident Took Me Down Memory Lane

Recently, Seema Singh, a professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, was caught on camera hurling abuses at students belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe communities during an online class. The incident has burst yet another bubble of perception of many elitist individuals who still argue that caste-based discrimination is a thing of the past.

Reading about the atrocities perpetrated on the marginalised communities of India on a regular basis has unfortunately hardened the mind to consume even the worst type of incident. Even then, one finds oneself in a vulnerable spot – feeling absolutely miserable and helpless at the lack of significant improvement in the situation at large even after more than 70 years of democracy.

Something about this incident led me to revisit the last 24 years of my life and dig up some events from my childhood that made me ghastly aware of an identity I thought I could ignore but never really could.

When I first read about the IIT incident, it instantly took me back to an experience in Class 9 when I was studying in one of the best schools in Lucknow.

It was a so called “moral science” class with a teacher whom everybody happened to admire. So did I, until that day.

The teacher celebrated for having a very “modern” outlook on the world revealed that day a rather regressive, highly prejudiced and a casteist side. She delivered a lecture purely dedicated to discrediting the meritoriousness of the SC/ST community. Out of the many things she said, I distinctly remember her telling us that, how, whenever she had to visit a hospital, she would ensure that the doctor who would eventually treat her, did not belong to the “quota category” as their credibility was questionable. And how 60 years or so should have been enough for ‘such people’ to rise up from their disadvantages.

Forty minutes down the line, we had a bunch of brainwashed students who are probably now blaming the reservation policy for every single failure of the country. She was so successful in her indoctrination that a student suggested in class that a skit against reservation should be performed before the school assembly.

Also read: How Events at Presidency From a Decade Ago Have Never Quite Left Me

The teacher not only forced her insularity upon impressionable minds that could have otherwise been groomed into a more empathetic and scientific temper to sensitively understand such issues, but she also contributed to legitimising ‘othering’ tendencies and age-old discriminatory practices that have long stymied the progress and development in our society in its true sense.

So, when kids of my age then and younger would use words like “chamaar” and “bhangi” as playful abuses, they could almost pass for being unobjectionable. Or when a classmate wouldn’t allow you to enter her house because you don’t share the same social status as her, you know it’s a natural follow-up.

Another teacher from my school in Shimla once objected to the way I had placed my notebook on the table. A stern look and a straightforward remark would have been enough for me to make amends – as it was in the case of other kids. But what she said ended up making for one of my most scarring memories from school days.

She said, “Looks like some people don’t have tables in their homes which is why they don’t know how to use them.”

A child in Class 4 could barely make sense of the statement given the fact that bookshelves and tables made most of her house’s furniture. But a seasoned mind could easily read between the lines and understand the larger implications of that remark. If only I could have told her then that someone who was once deprived of sitting in a classroom – let alone using a table and a chair – ended up writing the constitution of this country.

Caste-based discrimination doesn’t always come in the most rustic and brazen form – it has its own sophisticated and concealed versions that have an equally damaging impact on an individual. When teachers actively create an unjust and exclusionary ecosystem at a place where precisely the opposite should be done, it is a damning indictment of the education system as a whole.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon teachers to understand the responsibility that comes with their profession. The platform they are provided with should not be taken for granted at any point. A teacher’s responsibility lies not only in the adherence to the tenets of the subjects he/she teaches but also to the tenets of a democratic society.

After all, in the words of Karl Meninger, “What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”

Sanya Darapuri is a graduate based in Lucknow, currently preparing for competitive examinations.

Featured image credit: Mwesigwa Joel/Unsplash