In southern Tamil Nadu, caste-based wristbands and ‘tilakas’ on forehead have been a silent method of discrimination in schools and colleges.
While reports of such discrimination surfaced years ago, The Federal found out that these practices are still prevalent in several regions of the state.
Earlier this year, a group of IAS officers belonging to the 2018 batch had filed a representation to the state government, stating that in some schools in Tamil Nadu, the students were made to wear colour-coded wristbands to indicate their castes. In the representation, the officers had also conveyed how rings and ‘tilakas’ on their forehead were also used as a caste-marker.
Based on this representation, on August 12, Tamil Nadu Director of School Education Department, S Kannappan, instructed all the chief education officers to take appropriate steps to identify the schools where such practices are still prevalent. They were also instructed to issue necessary directors to the headmasters of the schools to prevent such practices.
While the move was hailed by the opposition party leaders, including DMK MP MK Kanimozhi, it also invited criticism from BJP leaders. Demanding the withdrawal of the order, BJP general secretary H Raja said that ‘tilakas’ and caste-bands are Hindu religious symbols.
However, Tamil Nadu School Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan has denied that such practices exist in schools in the state. He told reporters that the circular was issued without his knowledge. Without much clarity whether such practices would be banned or not, he asserted that the schools will continue to function.
When The Federal spoke to headmasters and teachers working in government schools, and a few academicians, it found that such practices still exist in even more places than before.
An HSC-level economics teacher working in a village in Madurai said that it is a herculean task to educate the students when it comes to stopping them from discriminating against their fellow schoolmates on caste lines.
“It all starts with the wristband, which they intentionally wear. But, when we question them about it, irrespective of their castes, they would cite their religious beliefs,” the teacher said.
He said that the bands were caste-markers that the students wear to identify people from their own caste. “During the midday meal, students wearing the same colour band would sit together. They will not sit with those wearing bands of other colours,” the teacher added.
S Madasamy, a retired professor, said that earlier, most of the students were divided on political lines, and now, they are being divided on the lines of caste. “In late 2000s, the practices of tying wristbands was seen only among the teens, but now the adolescents voluntarily wear such bands,” he said.
Observing that it is much easier to educate children before they reach adolescence, Madasamy said, “After Class 8, the students think they are matured enough and it becomes difficult to educate them thereafter.”
According to teachers working at government schools in the southern districts, the wristbands vary in colours — for instance — saffron, red, blue and yellow twined, and several such that come in varying combinations.
A headmaster of a government school in Tirunelveli said that such practices aggravated in recent years on the sidelines of caste killings.
“Widespread practice of identifying and discriminating students on caste lines through wristband and ‘tilakas’ emerged largely after the recent caste killings. While such practices were earlier noticed only among the boys, now the girls from forward castes too are wearing such caste-marking bands,” he said.
“So, if a boy from a backward caste talks to a girl belonging to a forward caste, he is easily identified and a quarrel ensues between him and those belonging to the forward caste,” the headmaster added.
The situation is even worse in the interior villages in Madurai. The Dalit students in the Kurayur village are still deprived of their basic right to education in their local school.
Since the majority of the villagers hail from a dominant caste, Dalit students have not been given admission in the Panchayat School for over four decades, school teachers told The Federal.
Thus, the Dalit students were being forced to walk over two kilometres to study in a government-aided school in a nearby village. But, despite getting admission, they still faced discrimination there, said M Kumar, a member of the discrimination eradication front’s Madurai district committee.
“The students are identified by their wristbands and the name of their villages. On being identified, the Dalit students of Kuruvayur village are abused by those from other castes. Often, the villagers have to approach the teachers and insist them to take care of their children,” Kumar said.
He further said that such clashes that occur inside the school premises are settled in an amicable manner.
While it is largely believed that the practice of identifying the castes of the students started in the southern districts, where inter-caste clashes were more prevalent, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary and MP D Ravikumar said that it is slowly spreading to the northern districts as well.
“The major problem in our education system is that of students dropping out from studies. And this largely happens due to the discrimination that they face,” Ravikumar said. Besides this, he added, “There are various other forms of discrimination that are not addressed, including those on the lines of gender. Differently-abled people too face discrimination.”
Further, he claimed that the new education policy also did not address such discrimination and ensure equality in education system. He also blamed caste outfits for an increase in the occurrence of such incidents of caste discrimination.
Speaking to The Federal, teachers too echoed the same view, and said they find it difficult to prevent such practices in the school because of the interference of caste outfits.
“When we make the students remove their caste-bands outside the school, the caste outfits lay siege on the school and pick up a quarrel. Parents too raise such issues during the parents-teachers’ meetings,” said the headmaster of a government school in Madurai.