India: Education and the Caste System Today

26 August 2014

Guest blogger Shona Buchanan discusses the challenges facing India’s ‘untouchables’ in access to education.

The Indian government, in the 1950 national constitution of India, officially abolished untouchability in the country. However, the system lives on in India today, having been ingrained into the state and its culture for hundreds of years.

The caste system began around 7 A.D., based on a Hindu belief that the position of a person in their current life is dependent upon the sins of their past life. One’s caste is therefore set in place at birth. The so-called ‘untouchables’, or the Dalits, exist even below the caste system. They make up around 16% of India’s population. The Indian Prime Minister Mannohan Singh in 2006 acknowledged that the Indian system of ‘untouchability’ was parallel to apartheid, and that it still existed in India, despite attempts by the government to abolish it through changes in the law.

Positioned below any of the other four castes, life for a Dalit in India holds many challenges. An area which carries particular hardship for those of lower castes is in education, which has a detrimental impact on the rest of their lives.

Some progress has been made in this area: the percentage of children enrolled in schools has been increasing for several decades, especially at a primary education level: enrollment in primary school is now almost universal in the country, reaching 98% gross enrollment rate in 2004-5 (UNICEF). In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act of 1989 have created job and education quotas for lower castes. However, many Dalits continue to face discrimination in education, as well as reports of verbal and physical harassment towards them by teachers and other students. The group continues to have low literacy rates and high drop-out rates. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) say that ‘intolerance, prejudice and harassment towards Dalits are equally prevalent in institutions of higher education’. Preventing segregation of castes at the level of education is vital in order to avoid the further institutionalisation of the system at later stages.

In the recent elections, one of the main concerns of the Indian youth after jobs and development was provision of education, especially higher education. Many of the poorer areas do not have the facilities or the finance to provide higher education for children in their area, forcing the young to move further afield and take away future money from the area. India will look on to see how the newly ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, elected in May 2014, attempt to help with the all-important provision of education in the country where more than 50% of the population is under 25.

In order to provide all of its youth a fair and successful access to education, the new government will have to work to overcome the segregation still suffered by Dalits today. The IDSN recommends that governments use the draft United Nations principles and guidelines for the effective elimination of discrimination based on work and descent as a guiding framework to confront the issue.

With this provision, the other problems that Dalits face today, of which a primary one is employment, will hopefully also improve, as a reduction in discrimination in access to education could also reduce discrimination and segregation in access to employment, for example, and increase the average skill-level of the group.

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