In February, more than 10 lakh candidates for the Class 10 and 12 board exams in Uttar Pradesh dropped out after the first two exams. The attrition was attributed to the tightening of security at exam centres and new protocols introduced by the Adityanath government. To find out more, I travelled to Allahabad where the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad has its headquarters.

Apart from an atrophied secondary school system, I was startled by the deep distrust and prejudice with which perfectly ordinary citizens view members of other castes and communities and the candour with which they express their beliefs.

In the car, on one of my several trips to Naini, an industrial township across the Yamuna river from Allahabad, I wondered aloud what the story of these students who had dropped out was. Were there more boys than girls? Did they hold down jobs as they studied? What role did poverty play in this mess of an examination system? The school board had not released any data on the students. Without it, it was impossible to tell.

But not for Meera (name changed), an employee of a private coaching service who was accompanying me to Naini to introduce me to private school owners. “Most of them will be Muslims,” she said, with an air of certainty. I was mortified. The driver of the car I had hired was Muslim. I braced for what she would say next. She proceeded to elaborate upon this hunch which, in her mind, had now gained all the weight and solidity of a fact. “You see, their parents have no control over their children, they do not care,” she reasoned. “Unlike our kids who study, their children don’t.”

I struggled to remind myself that she was a good person, as generous and hospitable a soul as I was likely to find anywhere. She had given up her work day, abandoned her lunch box at her office, and unhesitatingly accompanied me to sundry corners of Naini and smoothed my way into notoriously suspicious private schools.

But casual bigotry would become a familiar feature I encountered on that trip.

Caste and religion

Another friendly and equally helpful Allahabadi claimed the fortunes of different communities in the state changed with the political parties in power. “Pehle Dalit aur Muslim malai khaate the, ab Brahmins kha rahe hai,” he said. It meant earlier only Dalits and Muslims ate cream – a metaphor for prosperity – and now Brahmins can eat cream too. There is an abiding belief among those I met from his community – he is Brahmin – that under the rule of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, Uttar Pradesh’s Dalits and Muslims enjoyed extraordinary power and oppressed upper-caste Hindus and that the present BJP government is now only balancing things out.

Each group seemed willing to believe the absolute worst of the others. Every act and incident was first examined through the lens of caste and religion – in both public and private life.

A young man who drove me on my last trip to Naini was supposed to pick me up on the first day but had not turned up at all. He felt he owed me an explanation. He had married just a few months ago, his wife was Muslim like himself, but the relationship had already soured. On the day he failed to pick me up, he was caught up in “work” related to his divorce. “She fights with everyone,” he said gloomily.

He informed me that his family had been against the match because she was a “low-caste Muslim” and that he was beginning to see their point. “You do know there are different castes among Muslims too, right?” he asked, throwing a quick glance at the rear-view mirror to check if I already knew or needed schooling. He explained how his wife’s background was different from his own, how she was unable to adjust in his family who, he said, did everything they could to make her feel welcome. All his marital problems were chalked up to his wife’s caste identity. “I did not believe in caste earlier but now I do,” he said. “There is certainly something there.”

Months after the trip, a young man from Lucknow, who belonged to a community counted among the Other Backward Classes, came to Delhi for work. With the same sort of confidence and candour Meera displayed, he informed me that the surprise checks during the crackdown on cheating specifically targeted private schools owned and run by the Other Backward Classes. I had not seen much evidence of this but he was sure – his relatives ran schools and they planned to settle scores later.

In this series, reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.

Read more in this series here.