Communicating caste, invisibilizing violence: An assessment of how NCERT textbooks teach caste
Sumit Chaturvedi is an independent journalist and blogger (OpinionTandoor.in). He writes on political economy, political processes and political sociology. He also undertakes research assignments in an attempt to combine empirical and theoretical understanding of politics.
How is caste communicated through NCERT textbooks? In this piece, Sumit Chaturvedi undertakes a content analysis of how caste appears in Indian school textbooks and finds that caste is taught with an implied “pastness”, i.e., it is presented as a historical phenomenon that does not have any continuity in the present. He calls this “textbook gaslighting” where the textbooks make students believe that vulnerable caste groups now have protections, and in doing so, largely invalidates the lived experiences of Dalits which are rooted in violence. Against this backdrop, the government mandated removal of certain sections dealing with caste in these textbooks becomes even more controversial since it reduces what students learn about caste violence.
On 18 March 2019, the news broke that the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) was removing certain sections of the Class 9 history textbooks. Amongst the 70 pages to be deleted was a significant section that explained the struggles of the Nadar women of Travancore. These were women of the Nadar sub-caste (earlier called Shanar), who were not allowed to wear an upper cloth to cover the tops of their bodies. This rule was enforced by the Travancore royalty to accentuate the Nadar community’s so-called “low-caste” status in society. Between 1813 and 1859, the Channar Revolt ensued during which many Nadar women were assaulted by Nairs for wearing the upper cloth. In 1859 they were permitted to wear an upper cloth but it was to be unlike what was worn by their “upper-caste” contemporaries.
This censoring of NCERT textbooks has been in the making for a while. A similar request was made in 2016. These redactions of specific caste-related sections of textbooks also require us to take a deeper look into what function textbooks perform about raising awareness about caste in India. In the past two decades the social science curriculum and textbooks at the national level have witnessed drastic transformation in their objective, content, structure and design. The textbooks developed by the NCERT for the social sciences at primary, secondary and higher secondary levels had undergone many progressive changes. By 2014, both history and political science textbooks reflected a newer approach in content selection and syllabus design. Great efforts were made to reflect the reality of caste in a multi-dimensional way with both theoretical background and empirical understanding.
How is caste communicated through NCERT textbooks?
The NCERT creates content for school textbooks prescribed in Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) schools across India. For this essay, I conducted an in-depth study of history textbooks between Class 6 and Class 10 to study how caste and caste violence are taught to students. I found nine categories under which references of violence emanating from the caste system can be clubbed. These references are not merely descriptive but have the potential for student sensitisation.
The categories are:
- Exclusion from social and public life: These two issues have been referred to in a chapter in the Class 6 textbook titled “Kingdoms, Kings and Early Republic.” The exclusion here refers to that of shudras from public rituals, and women, slaves and agricultural labourers from public assemblies. With reference to the latter example of exclusion a question has been included at the end of the chapter, asking if these groups have voting rights at present.
- Slavery and caste: The above extract also highlights similar discrimination practiced against slaves and lower castes. Another extract from the Class 9 textbook talks about the abolition of slavery in Travancore in 1855 which led to frustration among dominant castes as a result of losing control.
- Untouchability: While there are many extracts on untouchability with a basic definition or details of the practice, the one selected here provides a more sensitising perspective in order to enable the readers to understand the violence inherent in the inhumane practice of untouchability. This reference is from a Class 6 textbook which mentions an account of untouchability documented by the Chinese pilgrim Fa Xian who travelled in India between the 4th and 5th He wrote about people deemed “untouchables”, who were expected to live outside the city. He said, “If such a man enters a town or a market place, he strikes a piece of wood, in order to keep himself separate; people, hearing this sound, know what it means and avoid touching him or brushing against him.”
- Ghettoization and Segregation: The above example can also be categorised as ghettoization or segregation as it refers to restriction of people considered “untouchable” from living within the city limits. There are other examples of caste-based segregation and ghettoization as well. One such example is found in a Class 7 textbook which talks about a small hamlet of a social group called “Pullaiyas”, (considered as outcastes by Brahamanas and Vellalas) mentioned in a 12th century Tamil work ‘Periyapuranam’. This work gives a detailed account of the hamlet on the outskirts of Adanur inhabited by agrarian labourers engaged in menial occupations whose lives and world comprise of the very basic amenities or even less as they make do with whatever resources are available to them. The extract is also supplemented by a question which asks “Were there any Brahmans in this hamlet?” Another example is found in the chapter titled “Work, Life and Leisure: Cities in the Contemporary World” in the Class 10 textbook. The allusion here is to the city of Bombay in the pre-Independence period as the metropolitan was coming up resulting in a crisis of living space due to overwhelming migration of people to the city. The extract specifically mentions “People who belonged to the ‘depressed classes’ found it even more difficult to find housing. Lower castes were kept out of many chawls and often had to live in shelters made of corrugated sheets, leaves or bamboo poles.”
- Caste based systemic discrimination: A chapter in the Class 9 textbook exclusively deals with the history of cricket in India, presumably to make learning of history more contextual and relevant to students. In this chapter there is a mention of a Dalit cricketer named Palwankar Baloo born in 1875 in Poona. A brilliant bowler and the best player in his team, the “Hindus”, he was never made the captain because of his caste and the systemic discrimination from upper caste selectors. Later however his younger brother, Vithal did manage to become the captain of the team and under him India defeated the Europeans in 1923. A fan of the sport wrote to a newspaper analogously associating the team’s victory under Vithal’s leadership, as a member of the “untouchable class”, with Gandhi’s vision of attaining swaraj through removal of untouchability. The extract has been taken from Ramachandra Guha’s “A Corner of a Foreign Field”.
- Caste based social regulation: In a chapter dedicated to the history of clothing in the Class 9 textbook, there is a reference to an altercation between the Shanars (now Nadars) and Nairs between 1813 and 1859. The Shanars were not allowed to use umbrellas, shoes or accessories such as golden ornaments. Moreover they (both men and women) were prohibited from covering their upper bodies in front of the dominant castes. As per the extract, under the influence of Christian missionaries, the Shanar women converts began wearing tailored blouses and cloths to cover themselves in the 1820s. Nairs objected to this and attacked these women and tore off their upper cloths, besides complaining against this dress change in the courts. The Channar Revolt was also accompanied by the Shanars refusing to work for free for the dominant castes. The government of Travancore initially ordered Shanar women in 1829 to abstain from covering upper parts of the body in accordance with the social custom. However, upon their persistence to cover their upper bodies, the Shanar women were again attacked in 1859, stripped off of their upper cloths, their houses and chapels burned, after which the government allowed them to cover their upper bodies in any manner “but not like the women of high caste”.
- Caste based social degradation and physical violence: Besides regulation of everyday lives through social custom, the above example also illustrates use of brutality and violence by the dominant castes. The extract above can also be cited as one where caste-based practices are used to socially degrade vulnerable groups hurting their sense of self-respect. Another extract within this chapter talks about the insistence of men like Dr Ambedkar on wearing western-style clothing Sumit Chaturvedi is an independent journalist and blogger (OpinionTandoor.in). He writes on political economy, political processes and political sociology. Apart from journalism he also undertakes research assignments in an attempt to combine empirical and theoretical understanding of politics.) despite Gandhi’s insistence on wearing Swadeshi or Indian clothing, as a political statement for self-respect since clothing was used to discriminate against those considered lower castes.
- Challenges against Caste-based violence: Few of the examples above, with reference to clothing illustrate the resistance of vulnerable social groups against the dominant castes and the violence in different forms perpetrated by them. In another such extract in a Class 7 textbook, 16th century poet and Bhakti saint Mirabai has been referred to as challenging the norms of “upper” castes.
This is a short summary of how NCERT textbooks communicate caste. Unlike textbooks from 20 years ago these textbooks do address caste in a slighter more explanatory way. However, these explanations are anecdotal and few in number. It is easy to see then how removing even one section of these explanations reduces the manner in which Indian students end up understanding caste.
The purpose of these textbooks is to perform both a pedagogical function as well as a social-political one as they attempt to educate and sensitise students about social, historical, political and cultural phenomena. Indian school education has not been the best in addressing one of the starkest and ever-present social realities in the society – caste. But in these textbooks the topic of caste was highlighted, however imperfectly. Different chapters in both the textbooks of history and political science based on different concepts and phenomena were illustrated and exemplified with theoretical, hypothetical and empirical links to caste in the form of story boards, excerpts from books, brief case studies, perspective building questions and exercises. Thus, the study material has consistently included the topic of caste all throughout keeping in mind the best ways to engage the students with the topic.
A lot of these changes followed the recommendations of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005. This document provided a number of illuminating perspectives on how to inform the students’ viewpoints with human rights as a concept embedded in a universal frame of reference. Similarly, the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education (NCFTE) 2009 provided important insights into teacher training with respect to issues of identity such as gender, caste and class that was intended to help students as well as teachers recognise their own positionality vis-à-vis these identities and take that into account while educating students. Even Draft Learning Outcomes for elementary education, a document prepared by the NCERT that came out in the year 2017, talked about sensitisation of students towards issues of caste.
Yet even with all the advancements made in the curriculum and the teacher education framework, school textbooks and learning outcomes, there are some key challenges that need to be overcome for students to be effectively sensitised on the issue of caste. Even though the textbooks and various policy frameworks regarding school education give ample space to discussions of caste than before there are still major shortcomings. I will discuss these in the next section
Problems with the NCERT’s framing of caste
The discussion on caste in NCERT textbooks looks only at vulnerable caste groups when talking about the lived experiences and identity formation. In doing so it has failed to interrogate dominant caste identities and the very logic of the caste system. It is through these dominant castes and varnas that the concept of the varna system derives its legitimacy, narratives, strength, longevity, and its immense capacity for violence.
From my research on these textbooks, I found that school education in India places a greater emphasis on sensitisation of students to problems of vulnerable caste groups, but it does not amply talk about the source of their problems, i.e., the underpinning of caste itself and the sociological processes through which dominant caste groups form their perceptions and notions regarding their own caste identities and their attitudes towards other castes.
What this process of teaching caste does is the following. First, it creates the perception that caste related issues are a concern only of the vulnerable castes. From this perspective all the topics discussed under caste – reservations, atrocities against Dalits, Bahujan movement, and so on – come to be synonymous with vulnerable caste groups. Simultaneously, this forms the basis for indemnity for the dominant castes from any discourse on caste related issues. It allows the upper castes to detach themselves from this discourse and even otherise any conversation belonging to caste purportedly with no role in the production of this vulnerability.
Second, this phenomenon allows the youth to claim “castelessness”, i.e., to say that caste has had nothing to do with their identity or status in society. It also helps them deny their privilege derived from their upper caste identity in all formal spheres of life, even though they associate pride and honour with these identities in informal and sometimes in formal spheres as well.
Third, by not questioning the caste system and the dominant castes’ role in perpetuating this system the very foundation of a discourse on caste-based violence remains vacuous at best and sociologically damaging at worst. Such sensitisation also runs the risk of being synonymous with fetishizing violence against vulnerable castes. Thus, social sciences at school level which aim to focus on sensitisation have remained poised for failure in their agenda. This problem with school curriculum is part of the larger picture regarding the discourse on caste in India.
There are two components of this larger picture. First is the issue of representation of lived experience. The second issue is that of self-identification in the caste matrix or hierarchy. Social science textbooks’ predominant focus on vulnerable caste members provides space only to their lived experiences as well as self-identification. Any reference to the dominant caste groups is merely explanatory and mostly historical. There is no critical engagement with the identity formation of dominant caste groups or the privileges and status that they acquire from their identities. So while the textbooks did highlight the atrocities and ill practices of caste system, they did not explain the gathering of historical privilege of the dominant castes. Not questioning the dominant group in any system of power is tantamount to not questioning the system itself. So while the NCERT textbooks have certainly communicated caste, they have failed to teach uppercaste students how they are implicated in the production of caste inequality and violence.
One of the reasons for this problem lies in the approach to caste in India’s politics and policy. Indian constitution and laws have outlawed all forms of caste discrimination but have no objections to the very concept of caste. We can see this clearly even in politics. Even though politicians pay lip service to constitutional ideals of equality and dignity, on every occasion we also witness them paying homage to their own castes and varnas and sometimes even demeaning castes or varnas considered lower than theirs. Taking pride in one’s caste is not limited to field of politics but also intellectual circles such as media, literature and arts such as cinema. This identification and assertion of “uppercasteness” by dominant caste groups is a form of structural violence as it helps prop up the caste system. Thus, for a society to tackle caste violence it has becomes vital to shine a light on the processes that shape dominant caste identities and ideology.
The social science textbooks take shape as per the policy of the state which is in turn shaped by the realpolitik of the land. Thus, when the political sphere is not ready to confront upper caste dominance and interrogate the very basis of the caste system, no textbooks can properly educate or sensitize students to the very violent and destructive nature of caste. While caste-based discrimination has been outlawed, many of its features such as untouchability, apartheid, social boycott etc. are not yet obsolete and are very much a part of India’s social reality. Humiliating practices in everyday life and cases of physical violence, atrocities, riots etc. against Dalits are some maladies perpetuated by this system.
Social science textbooks have an important role to play in sensitising students about the kind of violence that caste system entails in India. It is not only crucial to understand this violence in a historical context but also in a more contemporary socio-political context.
Teaching caste as history primes society for the denial of caste
The contradiction which Dr. Ambedkar poignantly pointed out in his last speech at the Constituent Assembly unfortunately still continues to exist. While politically we have established formal equality and liberty for all, in social reality there are various ways in which these principles are violated on an everyday basis. One of them is the caste system which Ambedkar was keen on rooting out from Indian society. Caste system has an infamous legacy of many centuries of some of the most inhuman practices and violence codified through many scriptures as well as social customs. These practices still continue to plague Indian society and inflict upon the vulnerable caste groups (Dalits) both emotional, financial and physical violence while also resulting in systemic forms of capability deprivation.
The question is why have the principles of equality and liberty for all guaranteed in political and civil spheres not translated into the social domain? The official narrative of “secular” India on caste discrimination and violence has still not successfully countered caste-based prejudice and violence in society. The NCERT textbooks have made some progress in highlighting the many ways in which caste-based violence is perpetrated which could well shape the way young adults learn about the historical injustices of caste.
However, what has not changed is the approach of history textbooks in framing the narrative. There are two important observations to be made here. First, caste is taught as “history”. This implied “pastness” means that students end up thinking that there is no continuity to these practices in the present. In doing this, the textbooks suggest that all the atrocities and derogatory practices associated with the caste system belong in the past. The Constitution is then invoked with is anti-discrimination policies to demonstrate that these practices have been outlawed.
For those who have not faced caste-based discrimination, prejudice or violence, such lessons in history allows them to distance themselves from acknowledging caste-based violence as a persistent malady in Indian society. This is literally textbook gaslighting for vulnerable groups – how can they be experiencing humiliation, degradation, violence and fear when the Constitution protects them? The priming of society for denial of caste-based violence through its relegation as a mere artefact of history is perpetration of violence against those who still experience it in their lived reality.