News that the son of a rickshaw puller cracked the toughest engineering entrance exam or qualified to become an elite-class bureaucrat regularly feature on India’s media platforms. Such news represents both the equality and the inequality of India’s dynamic education sector. Equality because hard work of such candidates has paid off and education has been empowering for them and their families. Inequality because they represent the exceptional ones among of their communities, castes, and classes.

The sensational reporting of their success does not only show how dreams of a new India are being sold by a highly privatised education and coaching system but also depicts a strange elite world of well-paid, respectable jobs where the entry of a poor labourer’s son is a news item, rather than a norm.

Such sensationalisation presupposes an education system that has significant learning gaps between students from different classes and social profiles. India’s current education system is witnessing a twin phenomenon: greater access to public education by India’s socially marginalised castes and classes and a greater privatisation drive of the education sector from bottom to top.

As spaces for affordable education get limited and competition grows for seats and employment, India’s social and economic inequalities are becoming more prominent at the site of education. An extended reflection of this anomaly can also be seen when successful students from socially marginalised backgrounds are not seen as legitimate claimants of this educational empowerment because they are inherently viewed as less “meritorious” than their socially well-off background peers. Their success is often attributed to special favour due to their socially marginalised backgrounds. From these perspectives, India’s education system is both open and close to marginalised students.

Historically, India has come a long way since its colonial life; in fact, one can say it has undergone a slow education revolution. Today’s India boasts a literacy rate of more than 77%, which at the time of Independence in 1947, was below 18.3%. In the 1900s, India was referred to as a nation of illiterates. Now it is the hub of a dynamic education system. However, it is still a society marked by extreme forms of socio-economic inequality that continues to plague its educational achievements.

Credit: Pippa Ranger/Department for International Development, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

India has produced the most intelligent and globally-renowned software engineers, doctors, and scholars. At the same time, it is home to people who have never gone to a school, read a book, and struggle to send their children to school. The grand narrative of education in modern India, whether viewed from a nationalist or caste struggle perspective, has been framed as the greater democratisation of the education system at the expense of interrogating the nature of education itself.

However, when socially and economically marginalised students enter education, their struggles do not necessarily remain about equal access to education but become about gaining equal opportunities and knowledge like their peers from socially and economically well-off backgrounds. Understanding and recognising this latter issue, both as an educational problem and policy concern, is key to reforming the existing education system.

Language training, cultural capital, curriculum learning achievements, ability to buy educational resources to continue education, unequal student life experience due to class and caste variation, and norms and safety for women on campus are some of the issues that emerge while making claims for equal opportunities and knowledge. These issues affecting education equity place education in a broader socio-economic framework from which we cannot abstract education.

Education shapes society and economy as much as society and economy shapes what goes inside the education system. I would like to historicise this problem of access-versus equity in knowledge experience through the case of the education of labouring subalterns in the late 19th and 20th century for whom some limited education was envisioned by the state, employers, religious bodies, and social reformers.

Who works? Who studies?

India’s education and labour historians have forgotten to write the history of the labouring poor’s education in terms of access and experience. It has been assumed in the discourse of the colonial state and elites on the labouring poor that workers were an illiterate group who were indifferent to projects of education. Such a portrayal is also reflective of the subalternity and marginality of labour from the world of book reading, document production, and school experiences – which has also been traditionally associated with the world of cultural elites, literate upper-castes, and upper-classes.

Portrayal of this fundamental division between mental work and manual labour has characterised the much of South Asian scholarship in history and educational studies. Writings by colonial officials, employers, and social elites characterised the illiteracy of the working subalterns as failures of these groups to participate fully in modern economy and society, which also explained the incomplete/incoherent modernisation of India in modernisation theories of the 1950s and 60s. In official writings, illiteracy and ignorance was featured as justification for the poverty and backwardness of Indian labour.

Little did we know that bottom-up demand for education by the labouring and service class poor from across castes and a greater demand for a trained, disciplined, and skilled labour force under colonial economy resulted in the setting up of varied types of industrial and technical schools since the mid-19th century.

As the demand for skilled educated labour was distributed in various industrial sectors and various stakeholders were involved (factory owners, the colonial state interested in infrastructure projects, social service reformers disciplining the urban poor, and religious bodies educating the marginalised), these schools emerged unevenly in various shapes and places.

Examples include industrial and technical schools to train industrial artisans, factory schools to train factory children, night schools to train the urban poor classes, depressed-class schools to educate Dalits, craft and trade schools to reskill hereditary artisans, and Christian mission industrial schools to train converts from socially and economically poor backgrounds. Up until now, these schools catered largely to labouring castes who were destined to perform labour. For the educated and traditionally literate castes, literary schools and college, along with a few higher technical institutes such as engineering colleges and vocational institutes, were established.

A European master seated at the table surrounded by students from the matriculation class at Bangalore High School in this photograph from 1866.Credit: Archaeological Survey of India Collections, India Office Series (Volume 46), in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The modern education system that emerged in the 19th century in various industrialised societies and colonies, including the UK, US, African, and Indian colonies, was premised, on one hand, on a differentiated curriculum to produce a professional and literate class and, on the other, a blue-collar worker class. In India, caste inequalities and caste prejudices already informed a framework (in principle) of work and education through notions of purity and pollution and castes who should do manual labour and who should not, who was a literate caste and who was not.

The capitalist demarcation of mental and manual labour in industry and society added to this layer to the point where caste and capitalists’ division of work and management/expert became indistinguishable. Thus, either a totality of capitalism or a totality of pre-capitalist identities (capitalism’s Other) cannot explain the intertwined caste-capitalist nature of mental and manual division of labour that emerged in India.

As education for the poor and marginalised was created as a powerful instrument of producing an efficient and trained labour force, the nature of education for labouring subalterns was kept predominantly practical, technical, mechanical, and industrial – both to make them productive labouring bodies and to control any higher aspirations.

Thus, an 1893 editorial in Azad, a North Indian vernacular newspaper, said, “If the low people are to be educated, they should be instructed in the principles of agriculture and manufacture, and special schools opened for the purpose, so that they might usefully apply their newly acquired knowledge to their ancestral occupations.”

Similarly, in 1915, a Christian missionary journal, Harvest Field, commented on the “lofty” educational dreams of converted Dalit Christians “born into the traditional state of the ‘outcaste,’ taking their allotted place in a social ladder made up of all classes reaching from those who furnish the labour (without any assistance in that labour from ‘education’) at the bottom, to those at the top whose two chief distinctions are that they are ‘educated’ and that they do not labour, it is no wonder that Indian Christians, even more than American Negroes, have come to feel that ‘education’ will emancipate the uneducated from labour”.

In today’s India, the privatisation of the education sector, which is growing at the expense of increasing educational demands from all sections of society, has the potential to both expand the education sector, but most importantly, sharpen inequalities produced at the site of education.

Huge tuition fees and increased living costs in major urban centers where these desirable educational institutes are located are segregating student bodies along caste and class lines. Unless we recognise that education is a site producing new forms of inequality, we cannot deal with the challenges it poses. The debate on the Indian education system must move on from access to equity of experience.

Arun Kumar is a historian based at the University of Nottingham and is currently writing his first book on the educational experience of labouring subalterns. He tweets at @arunk_patel.

This article was first published on India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.