In India, educators, students and parents alike hold their traditions, faiths and family values in high regard. In such a diverse country, it is important to note how equity must cut through all these different faiths and traditions because of our globalized, cosmopolitan market. Although we all understand on some level that equity is important as a virtue, it is also important to learn about where this concept comes from. Why has equity become so significant?
Equity is a consequence of the need for equality – the recognition that everyone has the same human value – despite having come from varied situations and backgrounds. Equity is a concept that refers to the attempt to establish the status of equality. Differences in people’s lives can result in an imbalance in status across class, caste, race, gender etc., and this is a problem world over. This disturbs the possibility of harmony, which is an outcome of ignored inequality. The corrective actions and initiatives that can be undertaken to acknowledge these differences that disadvantage certain people, while privileging others, can be collectively referred to as processes of equity.
First, lets look at the concept of equality. It is be worth noting that equality as a concept is fairly new(on a relative scale in terms of how old humanity is) in the world. Although it is an ideal that most religions have espoused in one form or another for thousands of years, it is only through the spread of Christianity in the world in the last few hundred years that equality as a concept that can extend to all humankind has been formulated. At the time of Imperialism and Colonization, many 18th and 19th century thinkers and philosophers, grappling with the changing dynamics and broadening political horizons in the world, began acknowledging human value through human reason and thought. This intellectual project led to a slow process of disregarding the idea of faith as an end-all be-all.
Yet, certain ideas and concepts spilt over from the religious orders that widely persisted – and this has in fact benefited us. Equality is one such positive value that we have inherited from religion. A country where different values from different lines of faith are accommodated and encouraged, is truly secular. In India, equality thus takes us a prime position – the idea of embracing the diversity can only be conceived of through the lens of equality, and secularism. While it may seem like a history of equality is hardly relevant in an article about the education system in India, this concept of secularism helps bridge that gap.
An immediate point of discussion about equality in the Indian classroom would be religion. A lot of schools oversee a majority intake of students belonging to Hindu or Christian religions – depending on the school and its particular spiritual leaning, location, values, brand etc. In the spirit of equality, and in undertaking a project of equity, schools must acknowledge the privilege that certain religions enjoy over others in the subcontinent. One concrete way that this could be practiced within schools is by fostering an atmosphere in classrooms whereby students belonging to all faiths feel encouraged to speak about the values of their religion. Much like how the concept of equity itself finds roots in religion, teachers can take and impart to other students whatever may seem appropriate and valuable from each student’s interpretation of their own faith. This can simultaneously make the classroom more secular, and equal.
The predominant practice of sweeping religion under the rug is hardly secular, it is merely ignorant. Although the Indian education system claims not have any religious content in their curriculum, this is hardly the case. For instance, Kristen Neimi, a scholar who studies education systems, conducted a study about the presence of religion in the Indian education system. She notes that, “religious content presents itself in a rather unreflected manner. Religion presents itself as content matter in subjects such as History, Hindi, and Social Science, treated as ‘fact’”. She also notes that, in practice, such as prayers and language used, it seems that there seems to be a form of ‘natural religion’ in Indian classrooms. This she notes, with ethnographic evidence, is a “form of Hinduism” that most Indians conform to, and that minority perspectives are largely simply ignored.
Another issue that is similarly swept under the rug in schools in India is that of caste. Schools in India predominantly fall prey to unconscious, and sometimes very conscious, caste biases. School systems and education are the key developments tools that are available to a government when it comes to upliftment of disadvantaged groups – such as Dalits in India for instance. An example from Bijnor, UP, as ethnographically recorded by the academic Craig Jeffrey, will help highlight how this tool has failed to benefit the disadvantaged. Although multiple policy interventions were made to introduce more socially disadvantaged students into the mainstream schooling system, this did not result in any marked upliftment for the group. This was because students belonging to marginalized sections were not able to ‘equally’ benefit from the classrooms owing to “discrimination within the institute by teachers”.
Unlike religion, a student cannot explicitly be asked to speak about their own caste in India – this results not only in ostracization but also posits a threat of violence. Certain castes have been shamed for their caste identities for generations in most parts of the countries. Does this mean that the caste differences must be ignored in a classroom in order to practice equity? Professor of Religious and Caste Studies Sukhadeo Thorat points out certain examples whereby Dalit students where “paid less attention to” in the classroom. Teachers with caste biases must be sensitized by the school, and be encouraged to, without revealing the students identity explicitly, set an example for how they must be treated – just on par with everyone else, if not better to ensure corrective action. They must be paid special attention to and protected against any possible discrimination from other students. A classroom must always be an egalitarian space that fosters equality outside it too.
Some ideas of equality have found huge pronunciations everywhere, whose effect in real terms might not necessarily be as pronounced. Gender equality is one such trope. There are various policies by the government in India to encourage girl child education, and to encourage women to undertake higher education as well. However, just this provision of places and financial subsidies hardly makes up for the widely internalized patriarchy that governs the minds of most parents, teachers and students in the school system. An accurate depiction of this can be seen when one sheds light on the condition of female education during the pandemic. In addition to problems of technological access, female students were at a greater-risk of losing out on education as a result of a ‘natural’ association of domestic duties with the girl child at home, instead of the male child. This is especially true in poorer and oppressed-caste households, both rural and urban. Can policies tackle practices within the home? The fact that marital rape is still not recognized as a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code, reflects how the government policies seldom dare to pass over into the home which is still regarded as a safe space to practice patriarchy. Students and teachers both come from homes. How then can a classroom be a space of equity?
Students who identify as transgendered individuals are majorly invisibilised in the education system. However, recently there have been some efforts to combat this problem. Kinnar Vidyalaya, a school opened by the Mahashakthi Charitable Trust for instance is one such effort. They have endeavoured to provide free education to transgendered students, in a town in Maharashtra. However, the question of religious, caste, and class equality must be kept in mind too, in such efforts. Any trope of inequity in a classroom effectively invalidates any effort to make a classroom equal. As the American writer Audre Lorde once said “There is no such thing as single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
In addition to structural changes, such as efforts to improve representation, through reservation and motivation to improve education levels among all the underprivileged in the system, classroom practices go a long way in fostering equity in classrooms. Listening to students’ opinions, allowing for different learning patterns even when they seem to not conform to certain ‘syllabi’, allowing for children of different levels of learning abilities to collaborate, highlighting and encouraging differences rather than brushing them aside, asking students to speak for themselves instead of bringing parents into classroom matters, and being considerate of every individual student, are some ways that teachers could strive to create a space of equity.