By Jeyaraj Veluswamy
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela
January 26, 2021 marks our 71st Republic Day. More than anything else, it is primarily a day to celebrate ourselves as one popoli or one nation, to celebrate our Constitution as the one supreme law of the land and to repose our collective faith yet again in our one nationhood and our one Constitution. In other words, it means we as a people with our own unique and distinct identity renew and celebrate the ‘Indianness’, with a renewed pledge to uphold and abide by the noble and fundamental values enshrined in the Constitution: namely justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.
Education affirms human dignity
In the Preamble to the Constitution, we candidly articulate a twofold objective to achieve: i) first, the dignity of every Individual and ii) secondly, the unity and integrity of the Nation. ‘..and to promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;..’ this phrase unambiguously states that guaranteeing the dignity of the individual, every individual, including the last and least among us, the anthiyam amongst us, is the true way to build and establish ourselves as a Republic. Or else it would become an illusion and a futile endeavour to think that a Republic, governed by its people, can be built while at the same time, we go about ignoring and denigrating the dignity of individuals or even any groups of people from amongst us. Nor can the unity and integrity of a nation ever be achieved by undermining or trampling upon the dignity of thousands of vulnerable and voiceless citizens.
The dignity of the Dalit and Tribal people was anything but unheard of then. They had little or no dignity ever recognised in their life or their personhood. If anything their life had only a minimum arbitrary value of a cheap labourer or servant or an unpaid bonded labourer. In the millennia-old caste-ridden social order, the people of the lowest strata, Dalits, used to be perceived and judged, valued and devalued by the standard of the Manusmriti, which sanctioned and glorified the Varna system.
Caste scares for no dignity Thanks to the digital medium today, we get to know at once about what and how evil and cruel acts are committed in the name of casteism in any nook and corner of India. The recent rape and murder of the Hathras Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh state is symptomatic of the deep-seated prejudice and atrocities daily meted out to a countless number of Dalits and Tribals in India by the dominant ruling caste groups. Too long had the Dalits, tribals in particular been treated as untouchables and hence outcasts in our Indian society.
Apartheid racism in South Africa is history now, but not this infamous caste system. It continues to systemically target and keep them out of mainstream society. Both subtle and open attempts are made by caste-minded persons and groups across various spheres in society to limit or even deny their rights to access education, job opportunities, government posts, even pilgrimage to and worship in holy places and temples. The caste system has as it was cast a spell over all sections of society. A caste minded priest, a bishop, a communist, a magistrate and an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer are all as much casteist in their thinking, outlook and attitudes as any casteist loyal Indian out there in a traditional Indian village or any agraharams of Brahmin enclaves.
We are in reality a divided, caste-ridden society, divided into many accounts: caste, colour, creed and community. We are deeply caste conscious, colour conscious, creed conscious and community conscious. No matter how hard we seem to try, our smiles cannot hide our caste coloured narratives, discourses, conversations and gossips in all places and situations. Therefore, all of us tend to both consciously and unconsciously brand and categorize people as ‘they vs we’ or ‘us vs them’. We cannot but look more at what separates us than what unites us. We see others as being ‘more different’, ‘more distant’ and ‘more alien’ than ‘our neighbours’ or ‘fellow citizens’.
Quality education is what every parent desires to give to one’s children. This awareness has even entered the household of the poorest in India. They see quality educationas the sole game-changer in the life of their children and their future. Many success stories of the sons and daughters of the underprivileged parents such as rickshaw pullers, taxi drivers, and domestic workers bear testimony to the fact that education has become a game-changer for the economically and socially backward Dalit and tribal families as well. Therefore, there is an increasing demand by those parents for quality education to be made available, accessible and affordable to their wards as well. The socially marginalized sections deserve it more urgently though. And it is the duty of the government in each State and at the federal to guarantee this to them, because it is their right, not a favour.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), free and compulsory education is made a fundamental right of every child across the globe. Hence, it is the indispensable duty of every state and its government to ensure that every child therein enjoys this basic right, no matter where the child may reside. Education ought to be made accessible, available, affordable and attainable in all places and situations. India too as a secular, socialist and democratic republic, is committed under its inestimable Constitution to ensuring quality education to all her children and citizens, regardless of caste, creed, colour and status.
The responsibilities of government in this regard are thus underscored as follows:
Available-There must be adequate materials, classrooms and trained teachers, so that quality education is available to every child.
Accessible- Schools must be within reach, suitable for disabled children and fit for purpose. They must be affordable for all children. There must be no discrimination based on gender, caste, race, religion, or any other reason.
Acceptable- Education must be of high quality and include the relevant and appropriate information. Children with disabilities have the right to the same quality of education.
Adaptable- Schools and school systems must be suitable for the communities they serve.
‘Creativity is the key to success in the future and primary education is where teachers can bring creativity in children at that level.’ – APJ Abdul Kalam
(Jesuit Fr Jeyaraj Veluswamy is the Rector at the St Xavier’s College, Kolkata).