Education challenges

As states push separate educational systems for backward groups, debate about ghettoisation grows

But many activists say this is needed to build confidence in students who face discrimination.

Telangana set up 30 colleges for Dalit women in June last year. A university for Adivasi students in Jharkhand was announced in January. And last fortnight, a committee tasked with recommending ways to improve education standards among religious minorities submitted its report proposing the creation of 211 central schools, 25 community colleges and five national institutes for them.

These will be run by the Maulana Azad Education Foundation – an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Minority Affairs, which prepared the report – and not by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees India’s education sector and is responsible for implementing the Right to Education Act 2009.

The central law mandates inclusive education – the public system must be open and accessible to children from every type of background, caste, religion and ability. But the practice of creating separate schools and colleges for children of marginalised communities is growing. While the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has been running Ashramshalas or residential schools for Adivasi children since 1990-’91, a separate structure for religious minorities will be a first.

RS Praveen Kumar, secretary, Telangana Social Welfare and Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, which runs Telangana’s schools and colleges for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students, thinks such parallel systems help.

“In regular government schools, the pattern of oppression in society is replicated,” he said. “Telangana’s welfare schools have built confidence in children from marginalised communities, helping them find place in premier higher education institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. I do not think this would have been possible if they studied in the regular government schools.” Kumar is an alumnus of a welfare school himself.

But most education activists say segregating students this way is harmful. It creates an educational ghetto of the already-marginalised and institutionalises the exclusion. “Schools must be diverse and accessible to all,” said Ambarish Rai, convenor of Right to Education Forum, a forum of education and child rights groups. “The law requires schools to be suitable even for disabled children.”

Another educationist asked: “Why is the government not focusing on making the regular system more inclusive instead?”

Low retention, high dropout

Everyone – education activists and marginalised communities – agrees that both the Centre and the states have failed spectacularly to make public education inclusive even after the Right to Education law was passed. Consequently, children from marginalised groups are harder to retain in school.

Latest data from the District Information System for Education, the only centrally-maintained government database on schooling, shows that retention rates for these communities over Classes 1to 5 is lower than the national average and the dropout rates for Classes 1 to 8, higher

Historically, India’s caste system excluded Dalits or Scheduled Castes from all learning. Adivasis or Scheduled Tribes were also denied education. As a result, most of their children now attending school are first-generation learners. In addition to discrimination, they face problems due to poverty, not having teachers from their own communities and, in some cases, a medium of instruction they do not understand.

The gap continues in higher education. Maulana Azad Education Foundation’s report shows only 6.74% of Muslims aged 20-24 were graduates or had enrolled in higher education in the 2011 Census, well below the national average of 11.81%.

The percentage of Dalits and Adivasis enrolling in higher education is significantly lower than the national average.
The percentage of Dalits and Adivasis enrolling in higher education is significantly lower than the national average.

“The truth is children still experience a lot of discrimination and humiliation in the classroom, both from students and insensitive teachers,” said Annie Namala of the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion. “This has a long-term negative impact on children.”

Telangana secretary Kumar pointed out that there are still schools where upper-caste children refuse to eat mid-day meals prepared by Dalit cooks. Suicides of Dalit students on university campuses – such as that of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in January 2016 – exposed how they struggle even in institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Hyderabad Central University, which are top-ranking universities, known to be liberal spaces. Dalit university students have also recounted humiliating admission and viva voce interviews – they felt they were treated differently, especially for not being comfortable with English, as many of them are not.

Governments have responded to the challenge of educating communities long excluded from formal systems with a range of special measures.

Dalits and Adivasis

Andhra Pradesh’s social welfare department was the first to form a separate society – the Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Institutions Society – in 1987, to run residential schools almost exclusively for children from Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

Other states, including Gujarat and Odisha, have replicated this format since. Now both run “model residential schools” for Adivasi children.

Measures taken by the Union government have included the ashram schools and, since 2000, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, for girls. “Residential schools have played a crucial role in educating tribal communities and provided a route to higher education,” said a Delhi-based academic, requesting anonymity. But she, and others like Namala, have pointed out that in many states the condition of these schools is very poor. Maharashtra, for instance, has seen over 1,400 deaths of students in them over 15 years, most of them attributed to “severe illness” or not explained at all. A state committee constituted to look into it found poor quality food and children going hungry for many hours in a day.

Telangana social welfare department, which already ran separate schools for Dalits and Adivasis, added 30 colleges for Dalit women and another 14 for Adivasis last summer. The objective, Kumar said, was to “break the cycle of early marriage”.

He added: “Women of communities are doubly marginalised.”

Kumar defended policies for such separate institutions. “Even in the so-called liberal spaces, a softer version of oppression is practiced,” he said.

But Abhay Xaxa of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights said separate institutions were not the solution. “This will lead to further segregation and stereotyping,” he said. “You need centres in mainstream institutions for Dalit studies and inclusion and exclusion. Thirty-two were established in universities around 2007 and these have guided about 400 PhD scholars. But the government is now withdrawing support because the study of discrimination makes it uncomfortable.”

Xaxa believes that institutions addressing the Dalit or Adivasi experience as an academic discipline make a more positive intervention than those offering regular courses to students from those communities. Speaking of the Indira Gandhi Tribal University in Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh, he said: “The Amarkantak university [for Adivasis] has courses like bachelor in business administration. That does not serve any purpose or change things. It is merely tokenism.”

Religious minorities

The committee under the Maulana Azad Education Foundation analysed data from the 2011 Census and concluded that “the educationally most disadvantaged community amongst the minorities in India are Muslims.” The report said: “They are lagging behind in literacy, enrollments and in successful completion of courses at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.”

Muslims lag behind other minorities at every level of education.
Muslims lag behind other minorities at every level of education.

The committee zeroed in on limited access to central institutions as the primary reason. It mapped the percentage of Muslim children enrolled in existing central schools – Kendriya Vidyalayas, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas – against their percentage in the population and found a gap in every case. It made no assessment of mainstream government schools run by states’ education departments. Instead, it offered to set up and run a separate system.

It has proposed 211 schools, affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, for areas with high concentration of religious minorities. Additionally, 25 community colleges and five national institutes to run postgraduate and research programmes, have been proposed. Although the report carefully skirts the question of reservation, it promises that, from primary education to research, this “three-tier model” will “take care of the minorities”.

So far, support for education of minorities has been extended through schemes for scholarships to individuals and grants to institutions. The National Commission for Minority Education Institutions, established in 2004, grants minority status, looks into complaints and protects against violations or denial of rights.

Abdul Rashid Agwan, of the Institute of Policy Studies and Advocacy, does not believe the Maulana Azad Education Foundation committee is suggesting a parallel system. “The law does not permit it,” he said. “This is just setting up central schools in areas where there may not be any, to allow easier access to minorities. But it will be open to all children.”

Education activist Naaz Khair said that having more central schools will help, because they are “better run”. But she said that she cannot endorse the plan unreservedly. “The goal is to have a common schooling system,” she said. “Letting the Ministry for Minority Affairs run these separately will represent a deviation from that path.” She also noted that the report made no mention of the educational status of Muslims categorised as Other Backward Classes who are “the most backward”.

Mainstream is not inclusive

In principle, Namala, Agwan and Kumar, all believe in a common education system that students of all backgrounds attend. But Namala argued that given the glacial pace of change waiting for the mainstream to grow sensitive will mean writing off an entire generation of students and their futures.

“You must be practical,” said Namala. “You cannot ask people to bear the humiliation for another decade.” She is also singularly pessimistic about the possibility of change.

“After Una [in Gujarat, where seven members of a Dalit family were beaten brutally by cow vigilantes last July] and Saharanpur [where caste violence erupted in May], I think marginalised communities need the safety of institutions where they form the majority, at least for the immediate future,” she said.

But in the long-term, this can have serious consequences. “The school is often the only place where children from different communities can interact with each other,” said Geetha Nambissan, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It can help instil values of equality and fraternity. In this country, communities are already separated and religion is especially divisive. A separate system is not an equal one.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.