Rupamanjari Hegde

Schools have for long been subtly promoting majoritarianism

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Schools have for long been subtly promoting majoritarianism
One can walk into any school in any part of India and experience the overwhelming presence of symbols, rituals, and practices of the majority community. Image: iStock

Those high up on social hierarchy — male, upper caste, from majority communities, with 'cultural capital' — are often projected as 'ideal' citizens

A video from a school in Uttar Pradesh is going viral on social media currently. It shows a female teacher instructing a few students to spank one of their classmates, a young Muslim boy, as a punishment for not completing his homework, as she makes some inflammatory comments regarding his religion and community.

In another horrific incident, a group of teenage boys from the dominant OBC community in a village in Tamil Nadu brutally assaulted one of their classmates, a Dalit boy, and his sister, with a sickle when they were alone at home. It happened when the boy’s mother, an anganwadi worker, lodged a complaint with the school authorities about the continuous harassment and bullying experienced by her son by the same group of boys.

Are these stray incidents — mere aberrations fomented by momentary outbursts of hatred and anger between individuals or groups who otherwise coexist in relative harmony? Or are these manifestations of a deeper malaise in society originating in certain deep-rooted prejudices that the different social groups, especially those situated in the more dominant position in the social hierarchy harbour against their not-so-privileged counterparts, especially the marginalised groups?

Since schools are situated within a certain social context and, at the same time, play a significant role in the socialisation of young children, to what extent do they foster such biases?

Schooling and identity formation

Years ago, when I began my journey as a researcher in education, I recall visiting a primary government school in South Delhi regularly to collect data. As I would sit quietly every day in one corner of the playground during recess, a group of girls, all 10 years old and studying in Grade 5, would often pick up a conversation with me, perhaps out of curiosity.

One day, one of the more articulate ones approached me. Introducing herself as ‘Anjali’, she asked my name. I told her my name and, as I was looking at the other girls, she began introducing them, too: “Ma’am, look, these are my friends…Namrata, Akansha, Rupika…” And then, suddenly, she began to giggle and pointed to another girl, who was standing quietly a little distance away, and declared half-teasingly, “That’s Domren…she’s from Manipur and she is a foreigner.”

As Domren meekly tried to oppose the “foreigner” tag so casually attributed to her by her friend, Anjali continued, undeterred: “You know, she can’t even speak Hindi. She also colours her hair when she goes to a party!”

I was quite taken aback and asked Anjali, “Why do you say she is a foreigner? Isn’t Manipur a part of India? And where are you from?” Unfazed, Anjali replied, “No, Manipur is not a part of India. I am from Bihar, and Bihar is in Delhi.”

The bell rang at that moment and the girls returned to their classes. At that point of time, I didn’t have the official permission to go into a classroom and observe classes or talk to the teachers to understand what had prompted children like Anjali to form such an opinion about a classmate who came from another part of the country. But the conversation remained etched in my memory.

Grooming young minds

What was shocking was that for children like Anjali, as young as 10, who had little or no geographical knowledge as to what India is and what its constituent parts are, had already learnt to differentiate between who could be regarded as an “Indian” and therefore, a citizen, and who could be categorised as a “foreigner”. To what extent schools contribute to such constructions, it made me wonder.

Existing research informs us that schools within a modern nation state are expected to play a major role in grooming young children into future citizens by instilling in them the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. However, this process of socialisation also results in a kind of social and cultural reproduction, with schools endorsing and perpetuating the culture, values, and knowledge that usually privilege the dominant groups in a society.

This happens not only through the curriculum and textbooks (the overt curriculum), but is also mediated through certain cultural practices and norms within the school — the disciplinary regime, routine rituals like assembly, songs, and celebrations, displays and symbols — which together constitute the “hidden curriculum” of the institution.

These contribute largely towards identity formation among students, often leading to fractured constructions of citizenship. Usually those occupying the more dominant positions in the social hierarchy — male, upper caste, upper/middle class, belonging to majority communities, and possessing the requisite “cultural capital” — are imagined as the “ideal” citizen. Such a citizen is also expected to possess certain socially desirable qualities — respect for rules, obedience to authority, patriotism towards the nation, capability to contribute towards national development through sheer diligence, among others.

On the other hand, the marginalised (usually the rural and urban poor, religious and ethnic minorities, Dalits, Adivasis, women, and LGBTQ community) are imagined to be lacking in these characteristics. Hence, they are constantly reminded of their “inadequacies”, made to feel excluded, and are discriminated against and vilified. They are thus constructed as the “other” or lesser citizens in the national imagination.

One can walk into any government or private school in any part of India today and experience the overwhelming presence of symbols, rituals, and practices that reflect the ethos of the majority community in society. Whether it is a government school in remote Barmer in Rajasthan or in the capital city Delhi, it is not unusual to find idols or photographs of Hindu deities — usually Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Ganesha, the Hindu deity for success — prominently displayed within the premises.

Majoritarian bias in cultural ethos

During my visits to one such school in Delhi, Jawahar Vidyalaya (name changed), I often witnessed such idols being worshipped regularly, following traditional Hindu rituals. Such a practice was openly encouraged by the school authorities even though the school functioned under the Central government and was set up to promote “national integration among children”, as mentioned in the school diary provided to students.

However, many teachers did not find this contradictory and, when asked, one of them commented: “I don’t know of any other religion that has a specific god/goddess for learning…So, there is nothing wrong in keeping an idol of Saraswati. This is an educational institution, and all students can seek blessings from her!” His views were echoed by the students.

The morning assembly in a school is an important ritual aimed at bringing together the entire school community — students, teachers, and administrative and support staff as one whole. Research and ample news reports have, however, shown that during assemblies in most government schools across the country, a preference is usually given to prayers in Sanskrit selected from Hindu scriptures like the Vedas or Upanishads and they often include songs like the Saraswati Vandana — a Sanskrit hymn dedicated to the goddess.

I was witness to such majoritarian bias in the cultural ethos of Jawahar Vidyalaya. Though most of the time the teachers remained in denial and cited the inclusion of songs from other regional languages to prove the secular credentials of the institution, the overwhelming presence of songs and prayers from Hinduism and the conspicuous exclusion of content from other religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, or Buddhism rendered such claims to be suspect.

Subtle messages

Based on ethnographic fieldwork, scholars have argued that while some rituals, symbols, and practices within a school acquire a certain validity and become normalised, others are often regarded as less significant or are excluded. This provides a subtle message to the students as to who is accepted and who is not and who belongs to the nation and who doesn’t.

At Jawahar Vidyalaya, for instance, one of the Friday morning assemblies prior to Diwali was specifically used to elaborately discuss its importance. This was followed by a short speech by the principal who emphasised the need to adhere to safety measures while bursting crackers.

However, a similar fanfare was not observed during Muharram, one of the major Islamic festivals, although the school had a substantial number of Muslim students. Though it included a write-up on the significance of the festival, the content, when read out by two senior girls, appeared disorganised, incoherent, and filled with innumerable grammatical errors. When asked, the students shared that they had sourced the information from a website.

Though they were unable to explain it, one girl nonchalantly shared: “I am not a Muslim. How will I know the meaning of all this?”

Since all the displays, rituals, and performances at Jawahar Vidyalaya had a distinct Hindu symbolism, which projected the Hindu way of life as synonymous with the Indian way of life, a Hindu emerged as the prototype of the normative Indian, thereby excluding all other identities. This was evident in the way the Hindu students looked at their counterparts from the minority community.

During an interaction, one of them shared: “The Muslims I have seen do everything differently from Hindus…. They pray five times, while we pray twice a day; we pray with folded hands while they keep their hands open during praying; they even wash their hands differently.”

News reports and research have often highlighted how schools become sites that strengthen the fault lines between different social groups, reinforcing deeply entrenched biases against the less dominant communities. Sometimes, they may not consciously encourage such practices, but they do not proactively adopt measures to disrupt such behaviour and actions either. In the process, schools become veritable breeding grounds for polarising communities and augmenting hatred.

Nazia Erum’s book Mothering a Muslim, based on her research among students and parents in some of the elite private schools in Delhi and NCR, provides a deeply disturbing account of such harsh realities.

A possible way forward

Schools don’t exist in a vacuum. They are nested within the larger society and often tend to reflect the values, norms, and prejudices harboured by the dominant groups. The institution has also been characterised as an “ideological state apparatus” and is often prone to getting hijacked by the ideological preferences of the ruling political dispensations.

The recent hijab controversy that rocked Karnataka, and the way some school authorities responded to the students, especially girls from the minority community, or the disturbing incident when another school in the same state made students re-enact the Babri Masjid demolition with great fanfare a few years ago, are shocking reflections of such tendencies.

But schools are also expected to play an instrumental role in bringing about social transformation. It is in this context that Krishna Kumar, one of the renowned educationists of our times, has highlighted the immense possibilities that exist within the institution to facilitate a process of “counter-socialisation” among students.

So, if children coming from diverse socio-cultural contexts and socialised differently in their families bring with them conflicting ideas and beliefs regarding what a nation is, and who belongs to the nation and who does not, can schools proactively try to challenge the dominant narrative?

It may not be easy and may not happen without stiff resistance both from the state and the society, but it is not impossible to achieve. Schools need to evolve into inclusive spaces where all children, irrespective of their socio-economic and cultural background, ought to be equally loved, nurtured, and valued. Is it not possible for schools to organise assemblies that celebrate different cultures? Is it too difficult to encourage children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to share food and play together?

There is always a possibility that the diversity of opinion and practices can lead to conflicts and controversies among students. But, as educators, teachers, and school leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that such situations are dealt with with sensitivity, maturity, and a degree of professionalism to ensure that the school becomes a safe space where every child is respected and assured of a sense of dignity and justice. It is something worth trying.

(Rupamanjari Hegde teaches at the School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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