28 high school teachers from 18 schools in Kolkata participated in the workshop titled 'Caste in/and the Indian Constitution' at The Seagull Foundation for the Arts on June 28, 2023. The workshop aimed at addressing biases and negotiating caste identities in everyday life.
Seagull Foundation for the Arts’ inventive venture of creating lesson plans and workshop ideas on topics from the ICSE and CBSE History syllabus that are relevant to students socially, culturally and politically was the driving force behind History for Peace’s second workshop on ‘Caste in/and the Indian Constitution’. The workshop, held on June 28, 2023, in collaboration with the Teachers’ Centre saw the participation of 28 high school teachers from prominent institutions of the city. The workshop aimed to be a space for interaction and conversation, where each fact or information disseminated was followed by discussions in the open forum. It was divided into three segments—the introductory ‘Caste Matters’, followed by ‘Caste in the Constitution’ and finally four group activities outlining the implications of all that was discussed earlier.
The workshop began with the Caste Matters segment in which two videos narrating the experience of caste were shown. First was a video by a Dalit activist from Rajasthan named Bhanwar Meghwanshi. Being a member of an untouchable weaver community in Bhilwara district, he narrates his experience of ostracization and castigation in school, locality and later in his brief stint with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The second video was a testimony of Sujatha Gidla, author of Ants and the Elephant. She shares about the consciousness of her Dalit identity and contrasts her life in India with that in the USA. These videos opened the floodgates of discussions around pertinent questions such as: Does caste matter? Have you experienced caste-based discrimination? Do you think awareness around caste is important? Does this hierarchical system of identity based on birth and no other merit or skill seem logical?
(Right) Bhanwar Meghwanshi narrates his experience of casteism within the RSS. (Left) Sujatha Gidla talks about her Dalit identity and consciousness, that materialized into her much-acclaimed novel.
In the second segment titled Caste in the Constitution the facilitator and participants discussed the constitutional provisions for all citizens, fundamental rights, abolition of untouchability and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, all of which led to a much-heated debate on reservation. Overall, the common conclusions that were reached were: caste discrimination might not be explicit in urban locations but are still prevalent in situations such as that of matrimony; caste consciousness is so innate that sometimes people are unaware about their actions and words; pedagogically, it will only be possible to raise awareness if such discussions are introduced within the classroom.
For the group activity, teachers were divided into four groups, and each group was given tasks to examine the intersections of caste in the social, political and cultural sphere.
Group One was assigned a worksheet titled Caste and Constitution in which they were asked to look at provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and relate to whether recent cases of caste violence and crimes received redressal pertaining to the law. The group came up with the widely-discussed Hathras rape case where the victim died, was secretly cremated without a post-mortem, and prime witnesses targeted and evidence tampered, in which justice and redressal were a far cry. They also opined that cases of violence against Dalit women were far larger in number than other upper caste women and men across all castes.
Group One shed light on the much disputed Hathras case and brought out the aspect of gender violence within caste.
Group Two called Caste and Literature was given excerpts from sample texts authored by Dalit writers and asked to reflect on the differences between the language and articulation of savarna writers and Dalit writers. The excerpts provided were as follows: Becoming a Brahmin by Meena Kandasamy, Tree of Violence by Namdeo Dhasal, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari, Coming Out as a Dalit by Yasica Dutt. A representative of the group read out Marathi poet L.S. Rokade’s poem To be or not to be born which voices the dilemma of an unborn fetus of whether it should be born in a land of unjust discrimination and cruelty. They concluded that identity, marginalization, subjugation and trauma were the common themes in these excerpts. In contrast with upper caste savarna authors identity politics played a huge role in Dalit writing.
Group Two analysed the excerpts given and contrasted them with other writers that are generally taught in school. During the discussion, they commented on the boldness of language and fearlessness of articulation that stems from their subordinate position and subdued status in society.
Group Three examined the language we use daily to look for casteist slurs and verbal abuses. They were handed a list of common slurs such as, ‘chandaal’, ‘kameeni’, ‘anpad-gawaar’, ‘dhobi’, ‘chamaar’ and others, and asked to reflect on whether they have heard such language being used among their students. This was the Caste and Social Life group. They were given a situation where they encountered fighting groups of students insulting each other in this manner, and asked to share how they would handle the situation.
Group Three brainstorming about the presence of caste in our daily language usage.
Group Four dealt with the very pertinent issue of Caste and Academics. They were tasked with reflecting on the issue of caste based discrimination in academia. With the increasing number of suicides in higher education institutions, they were asked to consider whether such cases were suicides or institutional murders. The cases of Rohith Vemula and Payel Tadvi were points of reference. The group opined that there are multiple instigations to such suicides and the institution authorities play an active role in that. The representative very firmly stressed that bias and prejudice should be addressed as early as middle school so that peers in higher education can stand by victims of discrimination and form networks of solidarity to address and counter such incidents.
The representative from Group Four shared an acquaintance's experience about facing problems regarding thesis submission at a very prominent university, on account of being a member of the Scheduled Caste.
Overall, all participants agreed that eradication of caste is of utmost importance and for this, awareness and sensitization alone are not sufficient, students need to be taught how to protest and seek redressal if and when injustice happens.