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Caste in CBSE Texts, Who is to Blame?

While the CBSE issued a clarification over viral 'casteist' text in Class 6 History textbook, the fact that caste bias surfaces time and again, over decades, in official board texts is a matter of concern.
Caste in CBSE Texts, Who is to Blame?

Image Courtesy: The Federal

Part One of a series

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) took to the Twitter social media platform on Tuesday, September 27, to clarify allegations that it has included a 'casteist' text, in the Class 6 History textbook, which talks about the Varna system and went viral on social media. The Boards defense: CBSE, which acts as a board that sets exam and affiliation guidelines, is not a publisher of textbooks across the country and schools affiliated to them use NCERT curriculum, especially from class 9 to 12.

"The class 6 History textbook containing topics on Varnas has been wrongly attributed as published by CBSE. This is factually incorrect. It is clarified that CBSE does not publish History textbooks, thus the matter does not relate to CBSE. Team CBSE," said the tweet by the national level of board of education. which received backlash from netizens and political parties such as Actor and Politician Kamal Hassan's Makkal Needhi Maiam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, two prominent political parties in Tamil Nadu.

Who then published the errant text?

The Free Press Journal reported the controversy and the board’s clarification. CBSE, which acts as a board that sets exam and affiliation guidelines, is not a publisher of textbooks across the country. The book, which has the viral image of the text, was published by XSEED Education which is a publishing house based out of Singapore. The issue of tenders, costs and profits over textbooks is one that has dogged government text book boards for decades.

How did the controversy erupt?


It was social media users shared a chapter's page about the Varna System that went viral. According to the lesson's text, the Brahmins were priests and instructors, the Kshatriyas were warriors, the Vaishyas were businesspeople, artisans, and landowners, and the Shudras were labourers who “assisted” the other three varnas, which created an uproar among netizens.

Caste in Indian textbooks has been a long standing issue, unresolved and unaddressed. In 2021, as reported by The Telegraph, an Odisha-based study revealed a strong bias against the oppressed castes in school curricula. The findings corroborate, with evidence, what many have said: School curricula erase Dalit and non-elite caste histories and lived experiences.

Details of the study:

A research group consisting of ISI Bengaluru and IIT Hyderabad experts analysed ten literature and social sciences textbooks taught to classes IV to VIII in Odisha schools. It found that only three of ten books ever mention Dalits, or only five per cent of the total pages that present Indian social life. This stark finding underlines the near invisibility of Dalits in our school curricula.

Textbooks, especially for the social sciences, formally open up the world for learners. This is why inclusion is crucial to representation and participation and exclusion perpetuates exploitation. Put differently, it is shadows and silences in our textbooks that hold a mirror lesson for teachers, students, families and society.

Exclusion as denial

From the late 1990s to presently, first Communalism Combat, now Sabrangindia have tracked these shadows and silences. Vimal Thorat, Convenor of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and a former professor of Hindi at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), speaks to co-editor, Teesta Setalvad of her decade’s long struggle to ensure that Dalit literature from seven Indian languages (translated into Hindi) is available to MA Part II students at the IGNOU.

 “There will be no social transformation without the consistent and creative propagation of the fundamental values of equity and non-discrimination,” said Vimal Thorat. “If we want a society where there is camaraderie, fraternity, a sense of justice and equality, then these issues need to be brought in, inculcated and taught from standard 1 onwards; but we don’t have these basic constitutional values in our syllabus. Why?”

Excerpts from the Interviews:

“The first all girls school was set up by Savitribai Phule, a radical feminist in Pune in 1848; she challenged gender exclusion and the caste order and yet this narrative is absent from our textbooks….“There was a resistance even in the NCERT to ensure the inclusion of Phule, Jyotiba, Savitribai Phule and Ambedkar earlier. The first NDA government removed references to these radical thinkers in 2002; we had to struggle to get them back in 2012 but we are not sure what this government, given its orientation, will do.”

Due to the strong Dravidian movement in the South, due to the heritage of rationalism and resistance led by Periyar and Narayan Swamy against Brahmanical hegemony, there was a strong impact in the social sphere and even in the area of education; there is a need for a new awakening in the north.”

“The period in India, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, was also a period wherein atrocities against Dalits in Punjab and Haryana also sharply increased…“This reached a terrible climax in 2013, when 42 Dalit girls were raped in Haryana and the organisation that I represent, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) raised the issue consistently through mass meetings and campaigns. The incidents were shocking; they shook the nation. I recall when we held the Haryana Dalit Mahila Samaan Rally so many other cases came up before us. These should be the issues for the mainstream Indian feminist movement.”

The pain and exclusions experienced by Dalit feminist writers, expressed powerfully in their literature has not been foregrounded as Indian feminist writing.

How many Indian children in schools, or students at universities know the work of Kumud Pawde a Dalit Feminist who made a powerful statement in her essay, “The Story of My Sanskrit” an extract from her a autobiography Antasphot?

[The work traces the path of a Dalit woman in the public sphere of education and employment: bureaucratic apathy to in-egalitarianism and an absence of revulsion to untouchability]

“The issue of the Feminism of Dalit, Adivasi and Minority women needs to be considered carefully. The life experiences of Dalit and Adivasi women are different; they are life and death issues rarely seen and articulated in the middle class urban feminist movement”.

“Security is a key issue for Adivasi women as is becoming clear in the heart of the Adivasi areas. Dalit women face attacks almost every day and the issues faced by Muslim women are also specific. For the Indian feminist movement to be representative and meaningful, all these issues need to be represented. In 2013 in Haryana in the course of two months there were 42 gang rapes of Dalit girls and women”.

“Dalit feminist writing like that of Kausalya Baisantry (Dohra Abhishaap, Twice Cursed) speaks of the combined curses of untouchability and patriarchy”.

“Urmila Pawar’s autobiography Aaydan (2003) is seminal. She is also known for her short story writing in Marathi. She hails from the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Urmila Pawar, Daya Pawar, Baby Kamble and Shantabai Gokhale are among the other prominent voices of Dalit literature. Her memoir Aaydan speaks of the weaving of cane baskets. It was the main economic activity of the Mahar caste to whom, she belongs”.
The symbolism of 'Chani' in Dalit women’s writing: 'Chani' is the name given to dried pieces of meat; handling of animals was an activity segregated to the ‘untouchables’ and therefore the women among them would perform this difficult task. The symbol of Dalit women, in their autobiographies speaking of carrying basketfuls of meat taken from dead animals on their foreheads even as the blood from the animals flows down the bodies. Hunger is the most compelling motive and to quell this hunger women would subject themselves to this. Then they would dry and cure the meat”.

2021 Odisha study of history texts 

Though the 2021 study focuses on schools in the state Odisha, there are suggestions hat the situation in many other states is no different. The invisibility of Dalit characters distances the texts from reality. It may also teach students to adopt a hierarchical approach in social interactions. In India’s social life, which is based on exclusion, notions of purity and pollution get enforced with (overt and covert) violence against the less powerful. The study refers to school texts in Gujarat, which call the caste system benign. In Rajasthan, too, caste is described as a good system based on professional differences.

In 1999, a study of the Gujarat state textbooks conducted by Khoj Education for a Plural India programme, (and published in Communalism Combat, October 1999) described the caste system as the ideal way to build society. “Of course, their [lower castes’] ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise the importance of education in life,” the book noted.

‘Caste is a precious gift’, 1999 Social Science Texts

The caste system receives generous treatment in Indian textbooks, as analysed by the Khoj study, be it the ICSE text books or the Gujarat board.

“ Even the section in the text book of the Gujarat state board that seeks to explain the constitutional policy of reservations makes remarks about the continued illiteracy of the ‘scheduled castes and tribes.’

“So, for instance, the same textbook pays lip service to political correctness through a fleeting reference to the fact that the varna system later became hierarchical, but in the same chapter, a few paragraphs later, literally extols the virtues of the intent of the varna system itself.

“There is also no attempt nor desire, either in this text or the ICSE texts to explain the inhuman concept of ‘untouchability’ (based on the notion, “so impure as to be untouchable”) that Jyotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar made it their life’s mission to challenge, socially and politically. In understanding and teaching about caste, both this text and other ICSE texts display a marked reluctance to admit or link the ancient-day varna system to modern-day Indian social reality.

““The ‘Varna’ System: The Varna system was a precious gift of the Aryans to the mankind. It was a social and economic organisation of the society built on the basis of the principle of division of labour. Learning or education, defence, trade and agriculture and service of the community are inseparable organs of the social fabric. The Aryans divided the society into four classes or ‘varnas’. Those who were engaged in the pursuit of learning and imparted education were called ‘Brahmins or Purohits (the priestly classes). Those who defended the country against the enemy were called the Kshastriyas or the warrior class. Those who were engaged in trade agriculture were called the Vaishyas. And those who acted as servants or slave of the other three classes were called the Shudras. In the beginning, there were no distinction of ‘high’ and low. The varna or class of a person was decided not on the basis of birth but on the basis of his work or karma. Thus a person born of a Shudra father could become a Brahmin by acquiring learning or by joining the teaching profession…In course of time however, the varna system became corrupted and ‘birth’ rather than ‘vocation’ came to be accepted as the distinguishing feature of the varna system. Thus society was permanently divided into a hierarchy of classes. The Brahmins were regarded as the highest class while the Shudras were treated as the lowest. These distinctions have persisted in spite of the attempts made by reformers to remove them. Yet, the importance of the ‘Varna’ system as an ideal system of building the social and economic structure of a society cannot be overlooked”. (Emphasis added).(Social Studies text, Gujarat State Board, Std. IX)

The only reference in this standard IX text to the indignities of the caste system as it exists today is through an attempt to blame the plight of the untouchables on their own illiteracy and blind faith.

“Problems of Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes: Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise importance of education in life. Therefore, there is large-scale illiteracy among them and female illiteracy is a most striking fact. (Emphasis added). ” (Social Studies text, Gujarat State Board, Std. IX, 1999)

The ICSE texts are similarly non-critical and evasive. The New ICSE History and Civics, edited by Hart and Barrow, Part 1 has this to say.

“The Caste System: The division of society into four varnas (classes) had its origin in the Rig Vedic period. Members of the priestly class were called brahmins; those of the warrior class, kshatriyas; agriculturists and traders, vaisyas; and the menials, sudras. It is said that the caste system in the Rig Vedic times was based on occupations of the people and not on birth. Change of caste was common. A Brahmin child could become a kshatriya or a vaisya according to his choice or ability…

“Varna in Sanskrit means the colour of skin and the caste system was probably used to distinguish the fair coloured Aryans from the dark coloured natives. The people of higher castes (brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaisyas) were Aryans. The dark skinned natives were the sudras, the lowest class in society, whose duty was to serve the high class.

2019 New India

In 2019, the NCERT issued a circular announcing the culling of three chapters from its Class IX history textbook under a policy to rationalise courses. The topics were clothing and caste conflict, cricket history, and the impact of colonial capitalism on peasants. This would imply that the struggles of the Nadar women of Travancore in the early 19th century to wear upper body clothes to cover their breasts, or the discrimination against the talented cricketer Palwankar Baloo to lead the Indian cricket team as he was a Dalit, would not be spoken of in textbooks.

However, a 2019 study of how caste was communicated through textbooks for Class 6 and 10 students has found some improvements compared with twenty years ago. In 2005, NCERT textbooks tried to address caste in a more explanatory way. The author of the study, journalist Sumit Chaturvedi, credits the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and the Draft Learning Outcomes for elementary education, a document prepared by the NCERT in 2017, which spoke of sensitising students towards caste. Yet, Chaturvedi also notes some problems. The books focus on vulnerable caste groups and their lived experience, whereas dominant caste identities or the logic of the caste system is not interrogated. The perception is also created that caste is an issue of the vulnerable only, which supposedly indemnifies the dominant castes. Third, he notes, the books still allow the youth to claim they are “casteless”.

However with the coming and consolidation of the NDA I and NDA II governments, the NCF 2005 has been abandoned, texts slashed of their content and the New Education Policy (NEP-2020) implemented.

Though caste re-formulates over time, it is often taught as  a thing of the past that has no relation to or continuity with what happens today. It allows the dominant castes to distance themselves from recognising that caste-based exclusions and violence are an existing malady. It thus facilitates denial of the lived experiences of the Dalits and perpetrates violence against those who experience caste discrimination and bias.

Courtesy: sabrang India

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