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Q. Do you agree with the view that inequality is endemic to educational practice? Examine
caste inequalities in education in India.

“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of
men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

-Horace Mann (father of the common school), 1848

As the 20th century ushered in an era of democracy, the position of education as a repository of
common good was firmly established. The kinds of goals envisioned for educational practice were to
ensure equality, build a ‘moral’ society, to strengthen individual character and the likes. Given these
ends, education was to be universal and non-sectarian by its very nature. This is the germ of the idea
that reckons with education as a force that can level out all disparities in society. A widely held belief
is that good education ensures good employment and this kind of economic advancement is the first
step in the social ladder.

Despite these lofty aims, education has remained inaccessible to numerically large, historically
disadvantaged sections of society for the longest time. To be clear, this inaccessibility is not in the
sense of entry being denied into educational institutions. This is a more telling kind of inaccessibility;
a sense of alienation that is instilled by the procedures and methods of education.

This essay explores why and how both in practice and in principle, inequality is embedded in the
education system. In the Indian context, the caste system is arguably the largest factor governing
inequality in education. Section 1 explores how research in the field of education has turned a blind
eye to this reality. Section 2 situates the affirmative action policy as a solution to the traditional
caste-based exclusion in Indian education. Section 3 describes the Brahminical-capitalist sway over
the system and the mechanisms that uphold this. Section 4 analyses how the concept of
‘meritocracy’ has effectively disguised age-old resource-discrimination that obstructs fruitful
learning. Section 5 cites instances of overt, blatant caste-discrimination that plays out in both school
and university education. These serve as concrete examples of the problems discussed in the
previous sections. Section 6 describes how succeeding in this system comes at the cost of forced
negotiations with discrimination.

1. Research on Educational Policy

Given that the aims laid out for educational practice were in conjunction with the ideals of the 20 th
century nation-state, educational research unfolded with a very narrow focus on policy-analysis. Any
possible critique was not mounted on the education system as a whole, only on its component

1.1 Narrow Focus of Educational Research

The issue of inequality in education was thus taken cognizance of in educational research only with
respect to access and achievement. To this extent, solutions were sought to the problems posed by
the social and cultural background of students. The difficulties arising from the very manner in which
education was structured went ignored (Velaskar 2015:428-29).
1.1.1 Education as an Equalizer: A Myth

Since educational research has mostly toed the line of state ideology, it emphasises upon the idea of
education as the single greatest equalizer without fail. Moreover, as already mentioned, education
as a stepping stone to social advancement is a widely-held belief. But as Padma Velaskar and others
have shown, this is a myth that ought to be de-bunked in the face of existing realities.

“The persistence of tremendous inequalities in educational access, retention, academic

performance, and outcome between oppressed sections, such as Dalits, Adivasis and backward
minorities, and the rest of society has laid bare the huge gap between the promise and reality of
state-sponsored education. Despite this, however, the mythology of education as the great equalizer
persists in public and academic discourses and continues to shape policy, research and action”
(Velaskar 2015:428). Evidence on Educational Inequalities

There is no dearth of evidence to corroborate the claim that inequalities in educational practice are
rampant, and that the structural reasons behind these have been left out of research for the longest
time. In India, these inequalities are largely determined by caste. The All India Survey on Higher
Education for 2012-13 found that Scheduled Castes are 13.1% of the total students enrolled in
institutions of higher education. However, their share in the population is approximately 16%
(Tierney, Sabharwal, Malish 2018:2).

The India Human Development Survey (IDHS) 2005 was conducted by the University of Maryland
and National Council of Applied Economic Research in conjunction with a voluntary organisation,
Pratham. The aim was to test reading, writing and arithmetic skills of children aged 8-11 years in
41,550 households across 25 states and union territories of India.

The primary variable of interest in the IDHS 2005 was the social group, defined as a mix of caste,
ethnicity and religion. Results showed that children from upper castes and religious groups like
Christians, Jains and Sikhs performed far better than the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), Dalits,
Adivasis and Muslims (Desai, Adams, Dubey 2012:239). OBCs are half as likely, Dalits are roughly
one-third as likely and Adivasis are only 0.32 times as likely to attain the same reading level as upper
castes (ibid. 246).

1.2 Educational Research in Developed Countries

Inequalities in education on the lines of race, ethnicity, religion and other identity markers exist
around the world, and its varied forms has inspired different kinds of research. In the highly
industrialised or ‘developed’ countries, classified as the first world, research has addressed how the
school that a child attends and the community it comes from influence learning experiences and
outcomes. For example, American social scientists have understood educational inequality by
situating the student in its family and school. They explore how these environmental factors interact
with race, ethnicity and socio-economic status to shape educational attainment (Desai, Adams,
Dubey 2012: 232-33).

1.3 Educational Research in Developing Countries

In industrialising, ‘developing’ countries like India, educational research revolves around two

a) Lack of Access: Since disadvantaged communities tend to live in remote places, access to
schools is hampered by the great distance from their homes which causes trouble in
commuting every day.
b) Family Factors: Children from disadvantaged communities have to labour, do not receive
parental support and struggle with poverty. These inhibit going to school (Desai, Adams,
Dubey 2012: 232).

Since the key concerns of educational research are of this sort, it translates into policies that focus
on quantity- building more schools and getting more children into them. There is a want of quality-
driven policies since there is no focus on the functioning of schools. What this means is an ignorance
of the structural origins of educational inequality.

2. Policy of Affirmative Action

At the moment of birth of the new Indian nation-state, caste was acknowledged as a great social evil
that had to be eradicated. To this extent one of the largest programmes of affirmative action and
positive discrimination was implemented, i.e. the historically disadvantaged groups recognised by
the Constitution of India are entitled to special privileges in education and employment.

2.1 Inadequacy of the Affirmative Action Policy

The existence of this kind of affirmative action programme in India was believed to be sufficient to
build an education system that delivered on the promise of justice and equity. However this
assumption obstructed the formulation of a theoretical critique of the education system per se, and
gave all the more reason for quantity-driven policies to be pursued. Since affirmative action was
considered to be enough, the goal remained to build more schools and enrol more children.
Improving the functioning and administration of schools, analysing dominant ideologies and
classroom pedagogies- these were secondary if not invisible concerns of state education policy.

2.2 Features of the Affirmative Action Policy

According to the policy of affirmative action, reservations are set aside in legislative assemblies and
public-sector employment and education for the historically disadvantaged sections of Indian
society. SCs are entitled to 15%, OBCs to 27% and Scheduled Tribes (STs) to 7.5% (i.e. a total of
49.5%) of all government jobs and higher education seats. These proportions were determined
according to the share of each group in the country’s population.

The policy of affirmative action is one of the two approaches adopted by the government of India for
uplifting the educational and economic status of the downtrodden. The other approach involved
putting legal provisions in place against discrimination, violence and atrocities on the ground of
untouchability (Tierney, Sabharwal, Malish 2018: 2).

2.3 History of Affirmative Action Policy

The genesis of caste-based affirmative action in India can be traced to the late 19th century, albeit at
a regional level in the southern states. At the national level, such measures were initiated by the
British Government for the first time in the 20th century. The first of this kind were the Minto-Morley
reforms of 1909 but these primarily recognised religious and ethnic groups like Muslims, Parsis and
Anglo-Indians; not caste groups.

The cause of the ‘Depressed Classes’, comprising the untouchables, was brought to the fore in the
late 1920s. The British plan to grant a separate electorate to the Dalits received staunch opposition
from Gandhi, who embarked on a fast-unto-death in 1932. The Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, a
champion for separate electorates, had to succumb to this and arrive at a compromise. What
followed was the famous ‘Poona Pact’, as a consequence of which the castes and tribes recognised
in the government schedules were to enjoy special privileges. The reservation policy came into
effect in 1950. Following a recommendation by the Second Backward Classes Commission, these
privileges (apart from electoral reservations) were extended to the OBCs in 1990.

3. Stratification in the Indian Education System

The policy of caste-based affirmative action stands in the face of a caste-class stratified education
system in India. As Velaskar has pointed out, the education system is not a standalone, independent
of the larger structures and ideologies of power and domination of the political economy. Caste, in
India, comes together with class, ethnicity, patriarchy and capitalism to create a dominant ideology
of the state that is expressed through educational policy and practice (Velaskar 2015: 429).

3.1 Foundation of Educational Stratification

According to Velaskar, the seeds of stratification and inequality in education were laid by the fact
that there was no dedicated education policy till as late as 1968, roughly 20 years after
independence. Moreover, decisions in this realm had a significant Brahminical influence. For
instance, the common school system recommended by the Kothari Commission (1964-66) met much
public advocacy but not actual investment. This was because the elite continued to covertly oppose
any tampering with the traditional hierarchical design. On the other hand, private education for the
middle classes received great state subsidies (Velaskar 2015: 432).

3.2 Brahminical-Capitalist Domination in Education

“...the dominant cultural, social, and economic values, both Brahminical and capitalist, held by the
ruling classes are deeply embedded in the hierarchical design of the (educational) institution, making
it a most significant source of inequality” (Velaskar 2015: 429).

Caste is a rigid system of ordering the society, membership into which is determined by birth. It is
arranged hierarchically with Brahmins at the top, followed by the Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the
Shudras. The last category comprises of those who have been traditionally ear-marked as
untouchables, i.e. the Dalits, who do ‘de-filing’ work. The system is rigid because one’s position in it
is unalterable and has to be maintained by following rules of occupation, inter-marriage, sharing
food and social interaction. It derives legitimacy from the Hindu religious texts, which sanctions this
‘divinely ordained’ division of labour. As is evident, this stratification directly affected access to
material resources and ultimately determined ‘life chances’ (Deshpande 2014: 128).

This is the context in which education was heralded, post-independence, as an instrument of

national development and nation-building. Thus Jawaharlal Nehru called for a ‘revolutionization of
education’ as a departure from the colonial model of education, which had been formulated for the
needs of the colonizers. But as the goals of nationalist development rapidly transformed into those
of capitalist development, this revolutionization faded into the background (Velaskar 2015: 431).

“Due to an overwhelming Brahmin domination in almost all categories of the national ruling elite,
Brahmin ideology held sway, along with colonial, in the shaping of the post-colonial education
system” (Velaskar 2015: 431).

Together with the economically and politically powerful non-Brahmin elite, Brahmins were able to
maintain their hold over education, an age-old tool for exercising domination (Velaskar 2015: 432).
This domination of their ideology plays out in the covert hierarchical design of the education system
which continues to make invisible the struggles of the traditionally oppressed.

3.3 Hierarchy in the Education System

3.3.1 Internal

The hierarchical structuring of the education system is evident by the fact that it does not
accommodate the specific life aims, economic situations and social circumstances of the
disadvantaged strata. The non-terminal structure obstructs the advancement of the low-caste or
tribal child, for whom public education at the middle- and high-school level remains restricted.
Vocational education, which is of great practical value, is a largely ignored area. Moreover, this
hierarchy runs counter to evaluation via the school leaving exam. The latter simply assumes that all
students will have the same educational experience (Velaskar 2015: 434-35).

3.3.2 External

Even when viewed from the outside, the education system reflects the hierarchy inherent in it. The
best of education meted out in expensive, elite public schools is only accessible to those at the top
of the social ladder. Groups that have been traditionally assigned to the bottom of this ladder have
to make do with basic state-run rural and urban schools (Velaskar 2015: 433).

3.4 Content and Curriculum as Contributors to Stratification

“Curriculum and content as ideological apparatus have also been central to cultural domination-
subordination through the educational system” (Velaskar 2015: 32).

Velaskar’s claim can be sharpened through actual instances where curriculum has been experienced
as an alienating tool. Geetha Nambissan’s study of experiences of Dalit children in school brings this
to light. She conducted fieldwork in the Phagi tehsil of Jaipur district and in a poor settlement or
‘Tila’ in Jaipur city. To begin with, most of her SC respondents did not seem to have given much
thought to whether the experiences of their communities were part of official curriculum. But on
pressing further, some responded that it was unusual for their lives, struggles and leaders to be
discussed in class (Nambissan 2012: 263).

Om Prakash Valmiki, the acclaimed Dalit writer, had this to say in his autobiography ‘Joothan’

“Ambedkar was an unknown entity to me then....Despite my twelve years of studying at Tyagi Inter
College, Barla, I had never encountered this name. The college library also did not have a single book
on Ambedkar. I had never heard this name from a teacher’s or a scholar’s mouth...All the media of
communication had been unable to inform people like me about this name” (Valmiki 2003: 82).

Valmiki also recounts being kept from participating in extra-curricular activities and being forced to
remain a silent spectator (Valmiki 2003: 19). Even respondents in Nambissan’s study reported feeling
shy and feared being ridiculed by classmates, which is why they did not participate in school events.
Some also said that those with ‘prior knowledge’ were preferred and since Dalits were less likely to
possess this kind of cultural capital, they had to inevitably keep out (Nambissan 2012: 264-65).

3.5 Role of Teachers

As Velaskar has rightly pointed out, teachers cannot be seen as pure occupational categories as they
are often done in research. They are also products of the same society and hence end up acting as
representatives of the ideologies that keep the hierarchy within education in place. Apart from
blatantly labelling and classifying children, many harbour ‘realistic’ low expectations from low-caste
students (Velaskar 2015: 436-37). It is within this context that one can understand discriminatory
pedagogic practices such as those described below.

S. Srinivasa Rao, in his exploratory study of SC and ST students in IITs, found that the attitude of
teachers towards those from these sections makes the already great academic pressure worse (Rao
2013: 210). In N. Sukumar’s account of how first-generation learners from the marginalised
communities deal with pedagogical prejudices, the language barrier is much highlighted. Most of
these students lack fluency in English, which means that teachers neither interact with them as
much nor make extra efforts. As a result they often end up occupying back benches, refrain from
classroom discussion and this is ultimately reflected in biased marking (Sukumar 2013: 213). Also,
many Dalit research scholars are rejected by teachers on grounds of not being sufficiently
meritorious (ibid. 214).

The following is an account from Valmiki’s autobiography again.

“One day I went to the staff room and told him that I needed help with Math. He avoided me. He
asked me to come to his house the next Sunday...When I got there, he and his wife were cooking
something in the kitchen. As soon as he saw me, he said, "Put your books on the ledge. There is
some wheat in this cannister. Go get it ground. By then I will be free"....By the time I came back he
had left...After this experience I resolved that I would not go chasing teachers like these...He had no
hesitation in getting his private errands done. But when we needed his help, he steered clear of us
or found some excuse. Somehow or other, caste got in our way” (Valmiki 2003: 64-5).

4. Meaning of ‘Meritocracy’

As has been established in the previous section, there is almost always a dominant ideology that
holds sway over the education system, in addition to several tools to ensure its constant
implementation. But the idea of education contributing to the creation of a just ‘meritocracy’
conveniently hides this fact. Moreover, dominant ideology itself has played a central role in defining
merit according to what is easily achievable by the upper castes (by way of social origins and
cultural, economic capital). As Velaskar points out, these new liberal values have only strengthened
old patterns of cultural domination by re-enforcing the idea of inferior natural intelligence of the
lower castes (Velaskar 2015: 435-36).
4.1 Modes of Exclusion

The notion of merit serves to legitimise certain aspects of the education system, which are actually
modes of exclusion. In the case of higher education, this institutionalisation of exclusion is one of its
very features. Since the number of aspirants for higher education is always more than what it can
accommodate, it is a selective field by nature. Therefore, modes of exclusion are built into it as a
necessary feature (Deshpande 2014: 135).

4.1.1 The Examination System

The examination system is an institutional mode of exclusion, a practice that rests on the principle of

“The idea of merit is particularly important as it bears the heavy ideological burden of legitimising a
system explicitly based on exclusion by merit” (Deshpande 2014: 136).

Merit, which means a special kind of knowledge or aptitude, is practically identified by one’s relative
rank in an examination. This rank is determined by the cut-off point, which is set according to the
number of seats available. In other words, the number of ‘meritorious’ students is pre-decided. The
examination only exists to identify who they are, with the cut-off point demarcating two
homogeneous but exclusive groups (Deshpande 2014: 139). The examination system, standing on
the ‘moral’ ground of merit, exists to legitimise a system of discrimination and exclusion.

4.1.2 Resource Discrimination

The merit argument assumes as a pre-given, or rather does not take cognizance of the fact, that
access to and success in education require prior possession of economic, cultural and political
resources. The discrimination born out of the inadequate endowment of these resources is called
‘resource-discrimination’. In the context of caste inequality in education, discrimination in principle
(described above through the examination system) and discrimination in practice get conflated in
such a manner that one seamlessly passes off as the other (Deshpande 2014: 137-138).

William G. Tierney, Nidhi S. Sabharwal and C.M. Malish's combined study of four male SC students in
university reveals how resource discrimination plays out. They employed Pierre Bourdieu's concept
of social capital to analyse how SC students cannot create viable networks in elite institutions, which
places them at a disadvantage both in education and in employment. In the long run, these students
are deprived of the benefits that such group membership entails. According to them,

"The creation of these sorts of networks and the concomitant development of social capital is a key
explanation of not only how inequality functions but also how it is maintained" (Tierney, Sabharwal,
Malish 2018: 4).

Lower-caste students often have to make their foray into higher education without prior 'college
knowledge', arrive on campus devoid of social networks, feel left behind without material goods like
laptops (since caste and class often intermesh) and lack technical skills (such as creating
spreadsheets). All of these are instances of resource-discrimination that obstructs learning
outcomes. Moreover, similar socio-cultural preferences mean that SC students often keep to
themselves and do not become part of new social networks from which they could otherwise gain.
5. Practices of Caste Discrimination in Education

Indian educational practice is tainted with blatant caste-based discrimination. As several accounts
and case-studies show, the education system is one of the many sites in which age-old practices are
re-created in the contemporary era.

5.1 Kinds of Discrimination

G.G. Wankhede describes four forms of caste-discrimination that combine to form practices that
favour the upper-castes in different contexts, including education:

a. Caste-intensified Discrimination- This refers to empowering one group at the cost of rendering
another group powerless.
b. Caste-specific Discrimination- This refers to discrimination based on cultural norms, beliefs,
practices and customs.
c. Caste-imposed Discrimination- This refers to the social construction of caste inequality to
protect social and political interests.
d. Self-imposed Caste Discrimination- This refers to the lower-castes internalizing their position in a
divinely ordained social order.

5.2 Caste Discrimination in Schools

Nambissan's study shows how caste rules of accessing drinking water and sharing food are re-
created in pedagogic practices. For instance, her Dalit respondents mentioned not drinking water
together with general caste students and keeping at a distance when the latter did. The practice of
washing the mouth of the hand pump/tap by the upper castes was also common to communicate
messages of purity and pollution (Nambissan 2012: 257). Dalit children were also not involved in
serving the Mid-Day Meal in schools. They were not allowed into the kitchen by general caste cooks
which restricted them from asking for extra helpings. Even schools would not employ Dalit cooks
(ibid. 271).

That educational practice is a site where caste hierarchy is replicated has also been mentioned by

“One day the headmaster, Kaliram, called me to his room and asked: “Abey, what is your name?”
“Omprakash,” I answered slowly and fearfully....“Chuhre ka?” the headmaster threw his second
question at me. “Ji.” “Alright. See that teak tree there? Go. Climb that tree. Break some twigs and
make a broom. And sweep the whole school clean as a mirror. It is, after all, your family occupation.
“Go—get to it.” Obeying the headmaster’s orders, I cleaned all the rooms and the verandas. Just as I
was about to finish, he came to me and said, “After you have swept the rooms, go and sweep the
playground” (Valmiki 2003: 5).

5.3 Caste Discrimination in Higher Education

Rao used Erving Goffmann's theoretical framework of 'stigma' to understand the position of Dalit
and tribal groups in higher education, particularly in IITs. He also analyses the pedagogic and non-
pedagogic processes of labelling these stigmatized groups. SCs are labelled due to their stigmatized
identities as impure, outcastes and untouchables. In the face of these realities, dealing with the
question of academic failure and social maladjustment of lower-caste students requires looking at
these interactional contexts rather than making simplistic arguments like the simple lack of 'merit',
academic pressures and economic troubles.

Caste-discrimination in higher education has effectively produced an academic culture of silence for
lower-caste students. This has been discussed by several scholars including Sukumar, Tierney,
Sabharwal and Malish. It is augmented by the fact that there are no structures to assist these
students who arrive on campus completely unaware. Even faculty, most of whom are critical of
reservation polcies, do not engage with them to solve their problems outside of class . Added to this
is the lower caste students' lack of technical vocabulary (Tierny, Sabharwal, Malish 2018: 9).

6. Resistance to Caste Discrimination

Despite the structural caste inequality ingrained in the Indian education system, there have emerged
success stories- tales of utmost courage and resilience. Anoop Kumar Singh has explored the many
ways in which Dalit and Adivasi students negotiate with their positions through interviews with
successful professionals from these groups. Many of them identified a specific person, most often
fathers, who served as a source of inspiration in their journeys. The other kind of response to caste-
discrimination has been active mobilisation, both formal and informal, particularly in the context of
professional education. This was seen as a significant step to establishing positions within the system
that could not be easily ignored.

It is, by now, clearly evident that inequality is endemic to educational practice. In the Indian context,
caste is one of, if not the most, overarching factor that frames these experiences of inequality. Any
challenge to this has to target the disguised yet dominant ideology on which this inequality rests.
The next step would be to identify and systematically dismantle the many apparatus, both visible
and invisible, that keeps this ideology in place. It is only in this kind of a context that affirmative
action policies aimed at uplifting the educational status of the lower castes will be able to realize
their full potential.


Desai, Sonalde. Adams, Cecily Darden. Dubey, Amaresh. 2012.'Segmented Schooling: Inequalities in
Primary Education'. Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India. Edited by Sukhdeo
Thorat and Katherine S. Newman. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Deshpande, Satish. 2014. "Inclusion Versus Excellence: Caste and the Framing of Fair Access in Indian
Education'. South African Review of Sociology 40(1): 127-147.

Nambissan, Geetha B. 2012. 'Exclusion and Discrimination in Schools: Experiences of Dalit Children'.
Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India. Edited by Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine
S. Newman. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rao, S. Srinivasa. 2013. 'Structural Exclusion in Everyday Institutional Life: Labelling of Stigmatized
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Sukumar, N. 2013. 'Quota's Children: The Perils of Getting Educated'. . Beyond Inclusion: The Practice
of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education. Edited by Satish Deshpande and Usha Zacharias. Delhi:

Tierney, William G. Sabharwal, Nidhi S. Malish, C.M. 2018. 'Inequitable Structures: Class and Caste in
Indian Higher Education'. Qualitative Inquiry 25(5): 1-11.

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Columbia University Press.

Velaskar, Padma. 2015. 'Educational Stratification, Dominant Ideology and the Reproduction of
Disadvantage in India'. Education and Society: Themes, Processes, Practice. Edited by Meenakshi
Thapan. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Wankhede, G.G. 2013. 'Caste and Social Discrimination: Nature, Forms and Consequences in
Education'. Sociology of Education: Changing Concerns and Emerging Concerns. Edited by Geetha B.
Nambissan and S. Srinivasa Rao. Delhi: Oxford University Press.