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Caste in NCERT textbooks: Social identities, lived realities of students and teachers

Excerpts from the paper “Engaging with ‘Caste’: Curriculum, Pedagogy and Reception” by Devika Mittal, Assistant Professor, Bharati College, Delhi University, published in Space and Culture, locates the challenges to this curriculum by focusing on the pedagogy and reception of the curriculum. In doing so, it argues that the challenges emanate from the social identities and lived realities of the students and the teachers: 
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This study examines one such effort of a state-mandated school curriculum to address caste-based inequalities. The research emerged out of my doctoral research on the popular discourse on secularism in the Indian context. This has been studied through an ethnographic study of a government-aided school in Delhi for a duration that spanned about 11 months in the years 2015-16.
The study is structured, to begin with, a detailed description of the objective and content of the National Curriculum Framework 2005. It then moves on to examine the different ways in which the students engage with the content. The contents examined are from the textbooks:
  • NCERT (2006). Social and Political Life – I: Textbook in Social Sciences for Class VI. (SP-I)
  • NCERT (2006). Social and Political Life – II: Textbook in Social Sciences for Class VII. (SP-II) 
  • NCERT (2006). Social and Political Life – III: Textbook in Social Sciences for Class VIII. (SP-III) 
  • NCERT (2006). Democratic Politics – I: Textbook in Social Sciences for Class IX. (DP-I) 
  • NCERT (2006). Democratic Politics – II: Textbook in Social Sciences for Class X. (DP-II) 
The paper also focuses on the pedagogy, reflecting on teachers as the bridge between the text and the students. The study tries to capture how teachers make sense of the curriculum and how their identity and interest influences their pedagogy. While reflecting on the design and the transaction of the curriculum, the study engages with how caste is being understood in contemporary India.

‘Caste’ in the National Curriculum

Education, as Advani (2009) among others argue, holds much importance in the nationbuilding project in the Indian context (Advani, 2009, pp. 56). This explains the persistent state interventions in the form of laws and policies to structure and restructure the education system. The objective of education was to nurture students or citizens of a united country who would have faith in the constitutional ideals and will work for the development of the country.
This was integral not just for a country that was ethnically so diverse, but it was also essential in a society that was inherently so unequal. The differences, as well as the inequalities arising out of caste and community, received importance in this project. There has been a close association between caste and education in India. Some castes have traditionally had a virtual monopoly over education while excluding others. The notion of purity and pollution underlying the caste system also helped maintain this order.
Modern education, however, strived to alter this set-up, as Beteille (2006, pp. 174) rightly points out, ‘it was unthinkable for Brahmins (the so-called upper caste) and Dalit (the so-called lower caste) children to even sit together’. Beteille regard schools in post-independence India to be one of the few public places where caste-based inequality and discrimination could be defied (Beteille, 2006, pp. 174).
While there exist reports and studies of schools, especially those located in the rural areas, that reveal discriminatory attitudes and practices towards students of the oppressed caste groups, these incidents are seen as an impediment to achiev[ing] the constitutional ideals and provisions (Sharma, 2016, pp. xvi). In its objective to improve the education system to make it more ‘effective’ in forming and embedding the national imagination, the curriculum has also held been an eminent site for constant debates and deliberations.
Amidst these deliberations, emerged the National Curriculum Framework 2005 (hereafter, NCF 2005). While NCF 2005 reiterates the aim of education to inculcate faith and commitment to the ‘chosen ideals and principles’ like its predecessors, for Kumar (2012), NCF 2005 represents a ‘paradigmatic change in the educational landscape’ (Kumar, 2012, pp. 22). The books presented themselves to be starkly different from the previous books. The preliminary pages of these new textbooks stress on how the books strive for a more dialogical approach to education.
For this, the chapters, especially those in the social science subjects, are also organised and structured to reflect this approach, with section headings in the form of questions, the chapters full of political cartoons, photo essays, in-text and end-text questions. These news books are a contrast to the previous books which as Madan (2003) and Jain (2004) argue familiarise the students about the political system, the rights and duties of the citizens in an ideal way.
The old books tend to engage with the issues of caste, gender and class as abstract entities. On the contrary, the new textbooks explicitly declare their aim to promote critical thinking, to help the students to bridge the gap between the text and the real world. For Menon and Banerjee (2018), the NCF 2005 understood child as ‘natural learner’ and tried to understand how the child learns, situating ‘the child in contexts’ (Menon and Banerjee, 2018, pp. 216). The new books strive to help students comprehend knowledge that they find in different contexts, and to guide their actions, inspire them to change the world around them.

Analysis of the Textbooks

Coming to our specific focus, the new curriculum engages with community and caste in different grade levels. In the grade 6 textbook ‘Social and Political Life – I’ (SP – I), the second chapter titled ‘Diversity and Discrimination’ initiate the discussion on caste as a form of inequality and discrimination. The chapter introduces the caste system as a division of labour that not only hierarchises work but associates with the differing kinds of jobs, a differential degree of social esteem and the notion of purity and pollution.
To illustrate, the chapter gives examples of oppressive practices in the past. The chapter reads, ‘Caste rules were set which did not allow the so-called "untouchable" to take on work, other than what they were meant to do. For example, some groups were forced to pick garbage and remove dead animals from the village. However, they were not allowed to enter the homes of the upper castes or take water from the village well, or even temples. Their children could not sit next to children of other castes in school’ (SP - I, 2006, pp. 19). The chapter then goes on to give a detailed narrative that traces the life and struggle of B.R. Ambedkar, an eminent Dalit Icon and a visionary of Modern India.
The chapter argues that the constitution of the modern, free India outlaws caste-based discrimination and guarantee equal rights, yet it also acknowledges that equality is still to be achieved. The chapter ends with, ‘Though these ideals are enshrined in our constitution, this chapter points out that inequalities exist even today’ (SP - I, 2006, pp. 23).
The textbooks of class VII and VIII also continue the discussion on caste-based discrimination as an enduring challenge in post-independence India. The chapter I titled ‘Equality in Indian Democracy’ of class VII textbook ‘Social and Political Life II’ (SP – II) shows how caste has been an important social identity that one grows up with.
The text reads, ‘If you live in rural India, your caste identity is something that you probably learned or experienced very young’. The chapter also dismisses the idea that caste identity is crucial only in the rural area. It states, ‘If you live in urban India, some of you might think that people no longer believe in caste. However, just look at the matrimonials shown from a leading English newspaper, and you will see how important the issue of caste continues to be in the minds of higher educated urban Indians’ (SP - II, 2006, pp. 7).
Similarly, the class VIII ‘Social and Political Life III’ (SP – III) textbook also brings together stories and experiences of Dalit exploitation, especially in terms of ritual impurity. There is also a special section on manual scavenging which points out that while it is banned, it is still practised in different parts of the country. The textbook also introduces affirmative action in the form of the reservation system though it only talks about the reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) groups.
The textbook places affirmative action as an approach to equality, as positive discrimination. Resting it on the long history of marginalisation and discrimination that prevented the Dalits to progress, the affirmative action in the form of the reservation is shown as a medium to ensure equality and social justice.
In class IX, with the discussion ought to be more elaborate and engaging, an aspect of the approach to caste is introduced in chapter 4 titled ‘Working of Institutions’. As the chapter delves in to explain the decision-making process in India, it takes the example of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation. The chapter elaborates on how the decision around the reservation for the OBC was made and identifies the different institutions like the Government and the Supreme Court that were involved in this decision-making. The chapter notes that despite protests against the OBC reservation, the reservation was upheld by the Supreme Court and implemented by the Government.
The reason is stated in the next chapter. The text in Democratic Politics - I (DP-I) reads: “The Government of India has provided reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. Various governments have different schemes for giving preference to women, poor or physically handicapped in some kinds of jobs. Are these reservations against the right to equality? They are not. For equality does not mean giving everyone the same treatment, no matter what they need. Equality means giving everyone an equal opportunity to achieve whatever one is capable of. Sometimes it is necessary to give special treatment to someone in order to ensure equal opportunity. This is what job reservations do” (DP-I, 2006, pp. 80).
The class X textbook titled Democratic Politics II (DP-II), while reiterating the persistence of castebased inequalities, introduces some other aspects of the caste issue, including the overlapping of caste and class. The text makes use of the statistics to make the point: The caste groups that had access to education under the old system have done very well in acquiring modern education as well. Those groups that did not have access to education or were prohibited from acquiring it have naturally lagged behind. That is why there is a disproportionately large presence of 'upper caste' among the urban middle classes in our country. Caste continues to be closely linked to economic status. (DP-II, 2006, pp. 13) The chapter also discusses another aspect of the contemporary situation that of the caste-based political assertions and caste-based vote bank politics.
The curriculum, as we see, not just educates but sensitises students about caste as a menace in society. Through the text, in-text questions, photo essays and activities in the chapters, the curriculum designers sought to seek empathy, inspire students to imagine and think of what they should do to eliminate caste. There are, however, some limitations and gaps that we can see in the content of the curriculum itself. The curriculum does not focus sufficiently on OBCs.
This is crucial as we will note through the students’ voices in the subsequent section that the popular discourse on caste and caste-related issues is often modeled on the opinion around the OBCs. The curriculum also does not address another critical issue that appears in the debate on the reservation system that is of intergenerational mobility. While as we see, the curriculum strives to address an essential issue in the society and approaches different aspects of it, with the hope that students will develop their understanding and guides their action based on the curriculum, the curriculum, however, does not produce knowledge by itself. It is imperative to understand how the text is transmitted and received.

Engaging with the Curriculum: Students’ Understanding of ‘Caste’

The first thing to note as we move to understand the relationship between the text and the environment in which the former speaks, is the hierarchy of subjects constructed or maintained by the students. Neha and Preeti (names changed) study in class VII. Civics is not their choice of subject. Talking about their interests, they express their passion for watching latest Hindi movies. They, however, make it clear that they do not like serious or issue-based movies.
I asked them about caste-based discrimination, to which Neha says, ‘Yes in earlier times, people used to discriminate on the basis of caste. People of Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes were badly treated’. When asked if it still persists, they both state that there is no caste-based discrimination in contemporary society. They attribute their knowledge to the books. This is interesting as, as we had noted in the previous section, the curriculum does talk about caste in post-independence India, yet the students attribute it as a practice of the past. They, however, are not alone in doing so.
Questionnaire circulated among students of class IX gives an insight into the student’s reception of the curriculum and their understanding of caste-based inequalities. In the sample of 86 students from class IX, 38 students deny the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in society. They talk about caste as an outlawed practice that existed in the past. A student writes about caste as a practice of the past and denies witnessing it in contemporary society, at least in urban cities like Delhi. Another student reiterates the notion of caste being abstract and distant reality: Yes, there is caste-based discrimination. Earlier, there was much discrimination against Dalits, but now it has reduced. Today, it is practised mostly in villages.
In doing so, the students contrast with the content of the textbooks that point out the persistence of caste-based inequalities and discrimination in modern and urban India. Twenty students opine that there is caste discrimination. Some students even regard it as their everyday, lived reality. A student asserts: There is caste discrimination in our society. People discriminate in different ways. There is discrimination between black and white and between upper caste and lower caste. Some talk about discrimination, the practices that draw from the book but go beyond it. A student remarks: Yes, there is caste discrimination in India. In the past, there is vast discrimination against Dalits, but today this has reduced. Today this has ended in some places, but in some places, discrimination still exists.
Like in schools, societies (housing) or other places, if there is any person from Gujjar caste, then there is definitely discrimination. Gujjars scare other people and create difficulties for them, especially for students. The school draws student population from diverse ethnic communities, including the Gujjar community. From informal conversations with students and staff also, it emerges that some of the Gujjar students do try to dominate over students of other communities.
So the student may be referring to his own school and his own reality that he/she probably encounters every day in and beyond the school. Some students deny caste discrimination and instead talk about caste-based reservations. According to a student: In the 19th Century, there was caste discrimination but not today in the 21st Century. There is no caste system now. Nevertheless, we have a reservation system. Why do we need it now?
Many students speak against the reservation, not to uphold caste identity and norms to govern access to education and jobs but to uphold ‘merit’. In doing so, they oppose the understanding that the textbooks offer. They do not accept the argument that the class VIII textbook gave for affirmative action, regarding it as a step towards equality and social justice. While this data is from students of class IX who at the time of the questionnaire had interacted with chapters till class VIII, students of higher classes who have studied the chapters on caste that show the correlation of caste and class, also object to a caste-based reservation, seeing it as a ‘new form of caste system’.
As we see, there are different engagements with the discursive knowledge on caste being produced through the official curriculum. While some students experience caste as a form of discrimination in their school and everyday life, some understand it to be an evil that somehow still remains somewhere in certain parts of the country but away from them. For some others, caste is only observable through caste-based politics.
These differing views emanate from their own caste identities and social upbringing. The students are engaging with the knowledge they receive based on their own social positioning, their everyday world and engagement with different sources of knowledge, school and curriculum being only one of them.

Teachers on teaching ‘Caste’

Like the taught, those who teach may also have varying understandings of the knowledge that they are expected to transmit. It is, thus, equally important to focus on the teachers, their understanding and the way they transact the knowledge from the books. Teachers are, after all, the bridge between the text and the student.
The teachers of the school who vary in their socio-economic background, perceptions about knowledge, teaching and contemporary issue are united in talking about the difficulty with these new books. The social science teachers share that while they find new books to be much more interesting, they come with their own set of problems. Kartik (name changed), one of the social science teachers, shares: While the books are good, they are talking about issues which are important. They also create problems as they make students aware of their and other’s caste identity.
He shares instances wherein when students read about the practices of another community or even about the discrimination meted out to a particular community, they may call out to their classmates who belong to those communities: Look, what this says about you!’ (Dekh tere bare mein kya likha hua hai) or ‘See they are writing about you people!’ (Tum logo ke bare mein likha hua hai) are common comments that Kartik says he hears in his classroom. For him, this visibility to caste structures and discriminations through the curriculum can have unintended implications as it produces stereotypes and can victimise students who belong to the marginalised group.
His concern also reflects the pedagogical dilemmas associated, in this case with how to teach this curriculum in a society which is so caste-conscious and divided but which often get ignored, unattended in the education system which rarely consults the teachers, as several teachers in the school often argue. There are also, however, differing opinions on these new books.
Kriti (name changed), another social science teacher, finds the new books interesting from which she herself gets to learn a lot. She asserts: These new books generate much discussion in class. Students have many questions and even share their own experiences. It does make the class very lively. I myself get to learn so much. She acknowledges that students also surface many stereotypes but then: I explain, give examples, try to convince, even if on some issues (she says this for the reservation), I myself may disagree with the book. The teacher has to address these issues himself/herself, she says.
It is imperative to note the difference in the views of the two teachers who seem to draw from their own social positions. Kartik is from Gujjar community which has engaged in the caste-based political mobilisation and is classified in the OBC community in some states. Kriti is from an upper-caste background. While both Kartik and Kriti acknowledge the challenges in the form of stereotypes that students may exhibit, Kartik is more conscious and gives the disagreements and the behaviour of the student more weightage.
The teachers, as we see, are not a homogeneous group, their social identities, motivations and intentions have a varying influence on them. These orientations also affect the nature and content of their teaching processes.

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