The Death of Merit: Caste and Education

By Madhura Chakraborty

In Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, a primary school accommodates students from nearby villages. Among them is Mansi, a student of class two. Mansi has a startling revelation: the principal forced her to dispose off the carcass of a puppy. When she refused to do so she was brutally caned. That is not all, she is also regularly made to sweep the school premises. Investigation reveals that many children like Mansi are forced to perform menial tasks like this in school. The reason? They belong to the Dalit community. The principal, in her interview, admits to asking Mansi to clean and dispose of dead animal. But it is clear from her expression that she thinks this is acceptable.

Mansi’s story is not unique or an aberration. According to UNICEF Dalit girls have the highest rate of exclusion from school due to social discrimination. 51% Dalit children drop-out of elementary school as opposed to 37% children from non-Dalit and non-Adivasi communities. The state’s self-congratulatory rhetoric of reducing overall illiteracy and dropout rates hides the murky underbelly of caste discrimination that makes access to education a distant dream for most children from marginalized communities. This, despite the 86th amendment to the Constitution which makes free education for children upto the age of fourteen a fundamental right. Further, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act which came into force in 2010 specifically mentions that schools are duty bound to ‘to ensure that child belonging to disadvantaged group ( i.e. SC/ST ) are not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education on any grounds’.

And yet time and time again caste-based discrimination rears it’s ugly head in schools. In a 2014 report the Human Rights Watch found pervasive discrimination against students from marginalised communities in schools across six states of India. This discrimination takes many forms such as segregation in classrooms, name-calling and abuse, preventing children from marginalised backgrounds attaining leadership positions such as class monitors, and forced manual labour, particularly jobs considered dirty such as cleaning toilets.The report further noted that schools located in communities of marginalised people most often lack proper infrastructure and have appalling teacher-student ratio.

The abolition of untouchability is enshrined in Article 17 of the Constitution and further provisions such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 make these forms of caste based discrimination punishable criminal offences. And yet these findings are corroborated in tale after harrowing tale of humiliation and segregation. A report from Gujarat by Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondent (CC) Neeru Rathod, reveals how ingrained such practices are. In her video report, Hiral a twelve years old upper caste girl says that the Harijans have to sit separately from ‘us’–those belonging to upper castes. Sonal, her Dalit classmate is made to sit on the ground during lunch times by the teacher while upper caste kids get to sit on platforms. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ of caste division is normalised within family and perpetuated by the education system.

The impunity with which untouchability and discrimination is practised when it has long been outlawed through constitutional and legal provisions and the silence around it seems astounding. In 2013 The Hindustan Times reported that in Madhya Pradesh an elected government official made it compulsory for Dalit parents applying for scholarship for their school going children to submit photos with dead animals. DK Dubey, the tehsildar responsible for this regulation justified his actions thus:

“I have made this ‘clause’ for my personal satisfaction. How would I believe that a person is from that particular community? I have not stopped anyone from signing but demanded the photographs as proof. There is no such clause of the government but I have to do this to ensure there is no fraud,”

The fundamental right to education, is the way the state invests in the youth–the future of the country. Statistical data, however, reveals how this promise has failed some children dismally. The total number of out of school Dalit Children according to the National Sample Survey is a staggering 2 million. Education is considered a form of cultural capital that is crucial to social mobility. As research among Dalit youth show, many of them seek to overcome the stigma of caste by aspiring to education that will lead to occupations other than caste-based ones. Even Dalit parents pin their hopes on education for a better future of their child. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit village consisting of 200 people until recently had to send their children kilometers away for schooling. A government primary school was finally set up in their village in 2013. Yet several children, based on their caste identity, were denied an opportunity to enroll. In an interview Prabhvati, the mother of a child denied admission says; ‘We thought that as poor people we could somehow send our children to school and get them educated. We face so many kinds of problems. Other people can afford to send their kids to big [private] schools. We thought at least the kids could get primary level education. But even when we want to educate our children, they aren’t allowed admission’.


Caste based discrimination is pervasive, not just in the actual institutions of education but even in accessing basic standards of living that enables attainment of rights. The UNICEF report from 2014 notes that in ‘areas with a concentration of SC, ST or Muslim communities, civic services like electricity supply, water supply, etc. are poor. The provision of schooling facilities is also deficient’. A report from Bihar by a Community Correspondent shows that a Dalit village has not had access to electricity for over a decade. The school-going children interviewed say that they are forced to study during the day because it’s very difficult to study by lamp light. And often evenings in the village are spent in complete darkness when there’s a shortage of kerosene disbursed through the Public Distribution System.

But why is such pervasive discrimination invisible? We live in a time when only the goriest of caste atrocities make front page news–so common the violence. The National Crime Records Bureau reported a 19% rise in crimes against Dalits between 2013 and 2014. And yet this doesn’t evoke outrage in middleclass urban Indians. Instead, the only way caste makes its way into our metropolitan existences is in decrying caste-based reservation quotas. A simple search with the terms ‘anti reservation’ on Facebook reveals pages and communities with up to ten thousand members.

Let us then look at what in actual terms reservation for Dalits has meant for higher education in the country. Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in Higher Education in India is 23.6. The same figure for Scheduled Castes, it is 18.5. Dalits constitute only 13.4% of the total number of students enrolled in higher education in the country although 22.5% seats are reserved for them. Given the kind of discrimination through the schooling system coupled with crippling social and economic barriers, it’s surprising that even these few make it beyond school. Manisha Mashaal– a Dalit woman activist and movement singer who is currently the Haryana state coordinator of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum (AIDMAM) writes:

Teachers and administration make it difficult for us to obtain everything from entry into labs, library books, scholarships to job opportunities. We are made to run around from one office to another for the signatures, for scholarships to be released, for food and everything else. I always felt we were deliberately kept in desperation mode right at the edge of meeting our needs

The false dichotomy of ‘reservation’ versus ‘merit’ has been brought to the fore repeatedly in context of the recent churnings across institutions of higher education in India. The death of Rohith Vemula and the subsequent state violence on protesting students at the Hyderabad Central University stand out in that they have forced us to confront the deep-seated casteism in Indian society by bringing the issue of caste to the forefront, in urban arenas, in so-called liberal spaces. Independent research shows that between 2007 and 2011, just on the basis of cases reported by the media, 18 Dalit students in colleges and universities have committed suicide. This is the real ‘death of merit’. Students like Rohith have overcome insurmountable odds. PhD students comprise 0.34% of the total number of students in higher education and the All India Survey On Higher Education does not give the numbers of Dalit students among the PhD scholars. As The Hindu reported, at least 15 of the 25 protesting students arrested by the Telangana police from Hyderabad Central University are first generation learners from marginalised communities.

There is a raging populist discourse, fanned by certain sections of the mainstream media, on how taxpayers are subsidising education for students, who are engaging in ‘politics’ instead of studying. B.R. Ambedkar wrote: ‘It is the education which is the right weapon to cut the social slavery and it is the education which will enlighten the downtrodden masses to come up and gain social status, economic betterment and political freedom’. The Dalit students from Hyderabad Central University to IIT Madras have overcome insurmountable odds to achieve education that is systematically denied their community. And it is this education that is then enabling them to voice the discontents of their people. The present government seems to want to leave no stones unturned in forcefully stifling these voices. Behind the rhetoric of PM Modi’s pronouncements of standing with the Dalits, the 2015 Union Budget under the BJP-led government has seen a 57% reduction in budget for welfare schemes for Dalits and Adivasis. Further, The Hindu reported that between 2012-23 and 2015-16 there was a 50% budget cuts for SC/ST subplan in UGC.

The hollowness of the ‘merit’ stands exposed if we take a moment to consider how caste privilege masquerades as merit. On one side of my family–the Brahmin side, unsurprisingly–I’m the fourth generation to attend university after going through an expensive private school. Am I therefore, more meritorious than a first generation learner from a government run school whose family has been forced to perform poorly remunerated caste based occupations? Access to social privilege has also meant access to better education and employment. To deny this is to misunderstand the perverse politics of ‘merit’. As a country we are constantly failing multitudes of Dalit youth. The time has come to examine what caste means in our daily lives–especially for the privileged few for whom caste has always been an oft-ignored aspect of identity. Or we will have failed Rohith once more.

Madhura Chakraborty is an activist and researcher who is part of the Research and Communications Team at Video Volunteers.
The videos in this article have been shot by Community Correspondents from Video Volunteers. VV empowers people from marginalised communities in rural India to bring stories from their contexts to the fore. This is also to address the bias in mainstream media which hardly covers rural news despite the fact that 70% of Indian citizens live in villages.
Edited by Manisha

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