In his 1936 speech titled “Annihilation of Caste”, BR Ambedkar advocated inter-dining, inter-caste marriage and destroying religious scriptures as steps to ending the degrading caste system. Eighty-eight years later, India grapples with the business of annihilating not just caste but also class – a challenge that has become even more urgent in the face of the Maharashtra government’s amendment to the August 2009 Right to Education Act in February.

The Act made education a fundamental right of children between the ages of six and 14 in all government, government-aided and private schools. Crucially, private schools were required to reserve 25% of their seats for children belonging to the economically weaker sections of society and those from the backward castes.

But according to the amendment, private schools located within a kilometre of government or government-aided schools will no longer be required to reserve 25% of their seats for children from the backward classes and castes. Kerala and Karnataka already have similar rules.

One of the most harmful effects of the amendment is that it will lead to segregation of children on the basis of caste and class. It will essentially mean cocooning students from the so-called forward castes and upper classes in affluent private schools, while ghettoising those from the backward classes and castes in government-run schools. After all, in urban India, there is hardly any neighborhood that does not have a government or government-aided school in a one-kilometre radius.

If one regards Ambedkar’s advocacy of inter-dining and inter-caste marriage as routes to a more equitable society, the ghettoisation fostered by the Maharashtra government’s amendment to the Act will have the opposite effect: it will engender both casteism and classism.

Elite private schools have for long been opposed to the Right to Education Act. The government does not transfer the fee money of the RTE students to their accounts on time, they argue. The RTE students come from a non-English environment and find it difficult to cope. The parents of forward-class and forward-caste students often complain to the school about their wards picking up the roadside manners of the RTE kids, they claim.

We are back to the days, then, when marginalised Dalit and tribal children, if at all they were allowed to attend the village school, had to sit outside the classroom, so that they did not pollute the Brahmin boys who sat inside even with their shadow.

One only has to read Laxman Gaikwad’s award-winning autobiography Uchlya, and Laxman Mane’s autobiography, Uprah, to be reminded of how this dehumanisation proceeded.

This is not without its ironies. As far as school education is concerned, aided Christian schools still provide some of the best education available in India. The teachers here are a dedicated and motivated lot, unlike teachers in private schools with their hire-and-fire policy.

The RTE amendment, however, may result in forward caste and forward class students being told that since their parents can afford it, they should seek admission in private schools. It’s a bit like the Citizenship Amendment Act, where Muslim migrants are told that since Muslim countries will accept them with open arms, they should leave Indian citizenship to all non-Muslim migrants.

We blame the British for their policy of divide-and-rule. But today, aren’t we perpetuating the same policies if we can’t stand our children and the children of our domestic workers studying together in the same classroom, eating together in the same canteen, and perhaps, when they grow up, falling in love with each other and getting married?

R Raj Rao is a writer and professor.