PUCL Bulletin, April 1995

Human rights education and dalit children
By Dr. Geetha B. Nambissan
(Zakir Husain Centre of Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi )

In the broadest sense Human Rights is the right of every citizen in this country to be treated with dignity regardless of caste, community, gender and thereby realize their own capabilities and capacities. Access to education is but a part to this right to a life of dignity.

There can be two ways in which the question of human rights can be dealt with in the context of education. One is to state that the education system should facilitate the spreading of an awareness of the importance of human rights and an awareness of the importance of human rights and an understanding of the premises on which they are based as well as the safeguards that are available for the protection of these rights. This can be broadly referred to as Human Rights Education (HRE), and NCERT and UGC documents broadly refer to this. The second is to critically look at the practice of human rights within the education system.

There can be no quarrel with the objective of wanting to strengthen the subject content in relation to human rights wherever it is appropriate in subject areas such as social studies, civics as on. In this context it is probably adequate to integrate the teaching of human rights within the content of what is already being taught rather than introduce an additional subject at the school stage and thereby increase and lad of an already burdened school curriculum. There is considerable potential within existing content areas to do so and it is a matter of how effectively and sensitively this is done.

Of crucial importance to the issue of human rights in relation to education is the practice of human rights within the education system itself. In other words we probably need to first understand the concrete practice of human rights within the education system (and the manner in which the experience of different social groups varies in this context), before we can speak in general of Human Rights Education, the content of this education, whom it should focus upon and so on.

Any one who looks at the schooling statistics in any government document will be struck by the extent to which certain social groups lack even the minimal access to opportunities where they can acquire basic skills of literacy and numeracy, i.e., to the primary stage of education. I am specifically referring to the relatively low enrolment and high drop-out rates from school of children from Dalit communities, officially called the scheduled Castes. What is however important is that these are social groups that have also been traditionally denied a life of dignity in society. Today when we are discussing the role of education in human rights literacy it becomes important to see whether children from communities whose human rights continue to be trampled upon are able to receive education with dignity from schools. The school is of particular importance as these are institutions that occupy public space and profess aims of equity ensuring equality of educational opportunity with social justice.

There are two points of importance that need to be remembered in the context of the education of Dalit children. One is that these children come from communities that have been traditionally denied opportunities for education. The lack of exposure of generations to skills of literacy, numeracy, literature and other forms of knowledge considered desirable is likely to put them at a disadvantage where access to school knowledge is concerned. This would imply that such children are likely to require specific pedagogic supp9rt from the school system. This is integral to their right of education. The other point is that Dalit communities have been denied learning in the past specifically because of the caste to which they belong. There is hence need for special vigilance to see that they do no continue to face social discrimination with in the school.

As mentioned earlier the majority of Dalit Children in both rural and urban areas do not attend schools. Though education documents assure us that schools are available within walking distance to all children in rural areas, this does not even hold if one looks more closely at official statistics. Further, given the spatial segregation of Dalit communities in villages and among them specially those who traditionally remove night soil and the fact that schools are located within the upper caste areas, the question of how socially accessible schools are is also relevant.

Coming to the schools themselves what needs to be seen is the qualit6y of facilities that are available to Dalit children. One knows that the general quality of primary schools in rural areas is poor. What is the condition of schools that cater primarily to Dalit children by virtue of being located in their habitations? Passing references in a few studies and reports give rise to the suspicion that schools where Dalit children predominate may be in poorer conditions than the average rural schools-the minimal facilities may not be available to ensure that education is received in conditions that maintain the dignity of the individual child. Inadequate inputs in schooling, the poor quality of teaching, and as on-likely to be particularly detrimental to the education of children from these communities-are relatively less exposed to the kind of skills required in the classroom.

Equally important particularly for Dalit communities are the social processes within school and classroom that influence the learning environment provided for children. There is not much research evidence on what it means to be a Dalit child within the Indian classroom especially in the rural areas where the majority of Dalit school children are to be found. Scattered references in a number of studies do indicate that the eduation of Scheduled castes may still not be looked upon with favour by upper and dominant castes in many parts of India.

Within the school it appears that Dalit students continue to experience social discrimination and this can be seen both in the official curriculum, i.e., in the approved content of education and the hidden curriculum of schooling. Scheduled caste communities and the experience of untouchability rarely form part of school knowledge. Textbooks are silent about Dalit communities, even in states where these communities form a significant section of the population. Though untouchability and the maintenance of social distance from certain communities still persists in most parts of India such practices are rarely mentioned in school books or discussed in the classroom.

Dalits who look back upon their often painful experiences in school refer not to their invisibility in textbooks but to the distinct message of social inferiority that is conveyed to them by their teachers (the majority of teachers continue to come from middle and upper castes) and peers. Personal experiences of Dalits educated in the post independence period mention instances of Dalit children being asked to sit separately from their classmates, of being refused drinking water and served in broken teacups, made to dine separately and so on. A number of observers have noted the fact that teachers refuse to touch their slates or copies, or even resort to physical punishment for fear of pollution. Discouragement from teachers (who by and large still belong to the middle and upper castes in rural India) and indifference on their part to the academic needs to Dalit students is also reported in a few studies. Passing reference is also made to friendship patterns tending to remain within caste boundaries in schools.

The point being made here is that children belonging to communities that belong to the lowest of castes in the social hierarchy continues to be discriminated within the school and classroom. While blatant practices of untouchability may be less common than in the past, discrimination continues to exist in school practices particularly in the attitudes of teachers and school authorities as well as in peer behaviour. The inadequate academic support given to dalit children, the prevailing attitudes regarding these communities and the stereotypes that teachers and other members of the school community hold regarding their educability and their destiny impinges on the right of the child to education with dignity.

Given the scenario that exists regarding social groups that suffer from the backlash of caste in society at large, it is unlikely that human rights education in the abstract will bring about any significant change in the education environment provided for children belonging to these communities. What is required is that school practices in relation to discrimination, or the need for social justice within schools, is directly addressed. How this needs to be done is a matter of democratic debate and discussion but one can point to a few areas of intervention.

One is the official content of school education where a conscious effort should be made to critically analyze the manner in which school text books portray socially vulnerable communities both in terms of their visibility as well as the kind of roles they are seen to play if represented. In the context of what is called the hidden curriculum there is need for a multipronged strategy. One is the need to ensure that all children (specially in the rural areas) are entitled to equal access to facilities within educational institutions and the meting of stringent punishment where there is any form of discrimination. The other is in the context of programmes to sensitize and create awareness among teacher educators, teachers and school administrators not only of human rights where these children are concerned but also of the deleterious consequences that social discrimination can have for the development of children and the realizing of their full potential. The special role that the schools can play in reinforcing academic inputs for these children need to be stressed. Similarly within the classroom the raising of awareness of human rights requires that such awareness is linked to critical consciousness of school practices including peer group behaviour in as sensitive a manner as possible. For both teachers and students this can be done more effectively through dialogue and discussion rather than in a didactic manner. Group projects can offer opportunities both for the recognition of underlying attitudes and critically looking at them.

Children especially those from Dalit and Minority communities are in an extremely vulnerable position in the classroom. Protection and support to children in order that they can exercise their rights will be important in efforts to create an educational environment conductive to learning with dignity. In this context the links that democratic and civil liberties organisations forge with schools will be critical.

(Paper presented at HRE Workshop. 11 March, 95)

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