Confronting ignorance and prejudice


This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

This report from Human Rights Watch raises a number of disturbing issues regarding obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive education system.

I suspect that anyone who has taught for any length of time has at some point had to deal with incidents of bullying or name calling, where one child has exercised power over another. Such incidents make life miserable for the victim and can cause anxiety and fear amongst his friends, who may distance themselves from him in apprehension that they may also fall victim to the bully. Schools should be safe havens for all children and fortunately most deal with bullying quickly and sensitively and do their utmost to protect children, but sadly some forms of bullying are particularly pervasive and vicious. When race, religion or caste are involved this seems particularly to be the case.

Human Rights Watch an independent, international organization that works to advance the cause of human rights for all has recently published a report with the shocking title “They Say We’re Dirty”.  In this report evidence from interviewing 160 people, including 85 children in four Indian States examines the obstacles preventing certain children from attending school. The report is written in response to the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009) that has focused on getting children from marginalised groups, including those from scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and with disabilities into schools. The Government of India has made a huge commitment to achieving universal education, as this report acknowledges, but the number of children out of school remains high. This inevitably varies from state to state with major socio-economic and geographical challenges placing considerable obstacles in the way of speedy progress. However, there are many examples that demonstrate that where there is a commitment, schools can become far more inclusive for the benefit of children who would previously not have received a formal education.

It is, in my opinion, important to recognise the many positive actions that have taken place, some of which I have witnessed during my visits to Indian schools. But that does not mean that we should ignore some of the disturbing details that appear in this report produced by Human Rights Watch. The very title of this report is an affront to the sensibilities of any reader. To give a report a heading which states “They Say We’re Dirty,” immediately suggests to the reader that there are going to be a number of negative statements within. This is indeed the case and even a cursory reading of the document leaves one with a certain feeling of despair. There are many critical points made within the report, I am still absorbing some of these and will probably return to the report over the next few days, but I must make reference to an issue that appears to permeate the whole text.

At the outset of this piece I highlighted issues of bullying, which many of us as teachers have had to address over the years. What we should never have to confront are blatant incidents of prejudice and bullying by teachers and pupils in collusion. This report suggests that such occurrences were seen frequently in the schools visited and were particularly aimed at children from scheduled tribes or scheduled castes. There are several references made to transcripts from interviews with children that describe their experiences of schooling. These are far from edifying and in some instances will surely provoke feelings of revulsion from any teacher or other adult concerned to create a more just education system. The quotation below from a twelve year old girl in Bihar is typical of several contained within the report

“I never knew about caste or what Dom [sweeper] is. I first came to know when I was in Class V. All the children used to make fun of me and say, ‘You are Dom caste, your mother doesn’t give you proper clothes.’ One day, I came home and told my father that the other children insult me. He decided to speak to the teacher. He said to her: ‘Do the Dom have no honour and dignity, are those children the only ones who have it?’ The teacher asked him not to interfere in the fights among children. So my father threatened to send a written complaint to the education department. She got scared and pleaded with him to not send a letter or she would lose her job. He relented, but not much has changed since then. Even now the children say such things.”

How do children become so prejudiced against others? What have they learned from the adults around them who have surely shaped their views of the world? Of particular concern is the apparent indifference of a teacher who is only prepared to address such issues when she feels that her own job is at risk. Is this not an affront to the whole profession of teaching?

It is, of course, easy to jump to conclusions in such situations. There is insufficient evidence in a report based upon very low numbers of pupils and teachers and in only four states to generalise about the behaviours within this report. However, even one incident of this nature is surely unacceptable and there is a clear indication here of the distance that needs to be travelled in order to fulfil the expectations of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act. In my experience the majority of teachers in India are anxious to do the best for all the children in their care and for those who are new to the formal schooling system. This report indicates to me the urgency of providing support to teachers in order that such attitudes can eventually be eradicated.

Bullying often results from stresses in the bully’s own life. Whilst this is not an excuse for the kinds of behaviour discussed in this report, the problem certainly goes much deeper than the individuals involved. Unless we examine and confront the causes of the prejudices reported in “They Say We’re Dirty,” progress is unlikely to be made.

Today students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Course in Bangalore are beginning a module examining issues of social emotional and behavioural needs. Sadly I will not be with them this week but my excellent colleagues will undoubtedly provide many opportunities for learning and debate. It seems to me that this report may well be pertinent to the issues at the heart of their work.

A full copy of The Human Rights Watch report: “They Say We’re Dirty” can be downloaded at the link below


2 thoughts on “Confronting ignorance and prejudice

  1. Richard,
    A frightening but factual post. Teachers participating and colluding in bullying is a very scary situation and bound to cause despair. However, as a positive outlook, it should initiate a debate on the commitment, training and accountability of the profession in all aspects particularly within the profession itself.
    I do not doubt that despite reservations about generalisation, this issue is very pervasive, yet little resisted because of several reasons including fear of worse treatment from the bullies or misplaced reverence accorded to undeserving members of the profession. Some might disagree with me on this, but it is a fact that there is some sort of reverence accorded to teachers, particularly in more deprived areas and I say undeserving because there are teachers who deserve it for sheer hard work and dedication like many who have been mentioned often in your blogs.

    However, the culprit is the caste system which put people in a catch-22 situation. Labels such as SC/ST are intended to support emancipation of the marginalised and as such a necessity. However, it also serves to perpetuate the discrimination by identifying these groups thereby providing the bullies with the opportunity to target them. Only those who have encountered or witnessed it can even begin to understand how deep-rooted and pervasive it is within the Indian society. At times it might force one to consider terminal cancer a lesser misfortune.

    Having said that, we live in hope that this disease too can be wiped out, particularly with the commendable work of the emerging breed of professionals with a great vision of which you are a great champion – you Richard are one of those deserving ones – Thank you.

  2. Hi Benny,
    The majority of teachers I meet in India are wholly committed to the children with whom they work and it is a great privilege for me to have an opportunity to work with them. Great leadership with regards to the promotion of a more just system in India was given by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar and Vinobe Bhave. Sadly even in India these great men and their works are often ignored. Change will come, but it will require great leadership from other Indian nationals such as yourself if this is truly going to be sustainable.

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