Caste, Class and Education

Caste, Class and Education

Today, in 2019, India stands to be the seventh largest economy in the world, while also witnessing a steady increase in the gross enrolment ratio in both men and women portraying strengthening educational system. However, when it comes to domestic development, more attention needs to be given to issues that have impacts on populations across different States.

Concerns remain across key development areas such as hygiene, wages, and educational quality. These are being addressed by the Centre and States through legislative processes and campaigns like the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ etc. If one were to specifically explore the education paradigm, it is worrying to note that a considerable portion of the Indian population continues to be deprived of opportunities to acquire formal and quality education. It is particularly imperative to understand to what extent formal education can undermine the established processes of caste and class reproduction, with a specific reference to the views of young, educated Dalit youth.

The Dalit community, traditionally considered to be located outside the four-tier caste system, has long been associated with occupations that are believed to be ‘polluting’ such as manual scavenging or waste picking. Historically, Dalits were ostracised in both villages and urban centres with little to no access to formal education and interactions with other communities were generally minimised.

Even in the modern era and the implementation of the Constitution which gives them legal equality and reservations in public sector employment and institutions across States, many members of the Dalit community are still occupationally restricted to menial wage labour and continue to depend on richer upper castes for employment.

Where one is born in the caste hierarchy often determines access to public institutions. Being born in a certain family, caste, and class often decides which religious sites one may visit, the schools one can attend, and the job one is permitted to do. There is a vicious cycle that holds Dalits captive from an early age. According to scholars like Craig Jeffrey et al. (2004), even though young Dalit men receive education and may grow up with a sense of dignity and confidence in their village, they are not able to convert this earned ‘cultural capital’ into secure employment. This has led to a ‘reproductive crisis’ which manifests in an evolving culture of masculine Dalit resentment.

As a response, the parents of young Dalit men have started to refrain from investing money in their children’s higher education. This scenario is evidently growing in the region of Uttar Pradesh, India. Scholars are divided on the extent to which formal education can uplift previously excluded sections of the global South. While scholars like Sen (2000) argue in favour of the power of formal education to provide the previously excluded with necessary skillsets and confidence, others (Levinson and Holland, 1996) argue that formal education acts as a ‘contradictory resource’ as it might open opportunities for the disadvantaged; however, it may also pull the groups more tightly into the system of social inequality.

In India’s case, where the caste system and class hierarchies are prominent, educational initiatives are expected to be partly successful in mounting the social-economic standing of the disadvantaged groups without a significant reallocation in material assets. With empirical evidence collected in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, Jeffrey et al. argues that in vastly unequal societies with limited job opportunities, the schooling strategies of suppressed groups may not follow an upward trajectory towards increasing participation in school education. Some of the reasons for the same may include discrimination within the institute by teachers and lack of economic and social resources that may permit the young men of the suppressed community to follow through with formal education.

Studies show that amplified school education has led to a degree of manumission from caste suppression. However, quite often, young men from lower castes have been unable to convert their skills and educated status into secure employment. When comparing different communities, namely the Chamars (a Scheduled Caste group) and Jats (an Other Backward Caste community), the latter have the advantage of family wealth and large landholdings. The economic advantage possessed by members of the Jat community leads the youth to be enrolled in private primary schools, continuation into secondary schools and completion of formal education. In 2001, 94% of Jat youth (13-17 year old boys) were enrolled in formal education in contrast to 55% of Chamar boys of the same age group. 

Apart from economic factors driving enrolment in formal education, Chamar youth also face caste discrimination by not only other students but teachers as well (Craig Jeffrey et al. 2004). Further, while Jats can exploit social links with local government officials and offer bribes to win places in offices, well-educated Chamar youth do not possess the economic or social capital needed to secure employment. Due to the lack of translation of degrees into secure jobs, such young men have to return to the stigmatised jobs typically performed by lower caste communities. The sustained grip by wealthier Jats over local labouring prospects aggravates the humiliation faced by these youth who return to wage labour which effectively discredits their degrees.

There are economic and social barriers faced by the Dalit communities, especially in regions like Uttar Pradesh, where ‘superior’ castes oversee several employment opportunities. While the Chamar community acknowledge the importance of knowledge, they are aware of the importance of financial resources and social contacts which also determine access to decent jobs. The vicious cycle is re-cemented with the youth falling back into daily wage labour and causing a stigmatisation of work like manual scavenging, butchering, and waste picking.

Many would argue that education is the way forward. The reality for many members of lower caste communities should, however, raise questions. In a country like India, which is said to be developing and growing across international fora, the caste hierarchy acts as a barrier for domestic development. Only time can tell whether the hierarchical system will take a back seat or continue to act as a barrier to the country’s development.

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