Looking deep into 8-year-old Susmita’s eyes, anyone can tell that hers is a difficult life. The clothing on her back is ripped, dirty and worn. Her slightly jaundiced face reflects the illness caused by a lack of medical care. She has learned to live with the constant toothache she has had since she was six. She sits in front of her small hut, made from grass, broken bricks and scraps of heavy plastic, and watches as children in her village make their way each morning to school. She admires their clean, pressed uniforms and wonders what it must be like to attend such a great institution of learning. However, Susmita knows she may never darken the doorway of a school. She may never carry a backpack filled with books. As a tear rolls down her face, Susmita realizes hers is a life unlike those of other children. It is a life of despair, poverty and injustice. It is the life of a Dalit.
The Dalit people of India are victims of centuries-long, socially-sanctioned bigotry. Nearly three hundred million people fall into this lowest caste of the Hindu caste system. Because of the Dalit’s low social standing, affluent parts of society deny them basic human rights. Unable to access education, and because of the social stigma of “untouchability,” society forces Dalits to take low-paying jobs that provide inadequate income. They cannot afford food, clothing, shelter, medical care or education. Society denies Dalits human rights and shackles them to a social and religious system that removes personal freedom.
Dalit Leaders and the Christian Church Join Together
However, after centuries of caste-based oppression, Dalit leaders are asserting themselves. Often this assertion is met with violent hostility. Yet the Dalit leadership across the nation is committed to the abolishment of caste and to an end of inhumane discrimination. In 2001 many of India’s Dalit leaders entered into an alliance with Christian leaders for the emancipation of Dalits. The Christian Church in India is nearly eighty percent Dalit/Tribal and so it was natural that this movement of solidarity began.
Dalit leadership invited Indian Christians to give their children an English education which included a biblical worldview that touched on the dignity of men and women, creation, salvation and union with God. This historic decision to educate Dalit children in the English medium—the language of the ruling elite—was the culmination of more than fifty years of intense struggle. Dalits insist that the best way to change lives, achieve measurable results in the community and escape the plight of oppression is through education that serves the whole person and includes community and spiritual development. Indian Christians enthusiastically accepted this invitation, pledging their solidarity with the Dalits. Christians agreed to provide this education, knowing that it would result in a life-changing transformation in the Dalit people.
Susmita is now one benefactor of this tremendous opportunity for education. Today, thousands of children like her are in schools specifically created for Dalits. These schools are the method by which Dalit emancipation will be delivered in the new generation. They are building tomorrow’s Dalit leaders and are building a hope and a future for the Dalits that never before existed. Already fifty such schools are operating across the nation. The hope is to have a thousand in the next few years. All this is being done under the auspices of the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN). The DFN works in four areas of Dalit emancipation: education, human rights, medical care and economic enterprise. Each component is necessary to end the caste system stigma.
Why is an English Education so Important to the Dalits?
For three thousand years, Dalits have been denied access to education by the upper castes. Because they are uneducated, they cannot get jobs reserved for them in the Indian affirmative action/reservation system.
This also means that very rarely do any Dalits get an education in the English language, the language of the ruling elite in India. English education is private and expensive in India. And because Dalits cannot speak English, they have been denied right of entry to the globalization process which is impacting the world. The Dalits have been kept in ignorance, denied their rights and become victims of yet another injustice.
Many argue that India has changed and developed exponentially in the fifty years since independence from British rule. India will likely be another major superpower with its growth in economics, technology, medicine, engineering, bio-technology, nuclear power and sheer population numbers. Surely, these people say, this tremendous growth must have had a trickle-down effect on all parts of society, including those in the lower strata of the culture.
However, a closer look at India’s movers and shakers is eye-opening. By and large, those in the limelight are the elitist and educated upper caste, many of whom who are also fluent in English. These are the ones who have accessed English education over the last fifty years because they have had the financial capacity. They have also known that English is the language of global economics, medicine and the Internet.
The world sees the apparent commitment on the part of India’s leaders to economic, social and political growth. The deception, though, comes in the fact that India’s Dalits remain in oppression under the upper caste rulers. Access to an English-based world class education for the Dalits will mean the death of upper caste domination. Therefore, the upper castes seek to fool the world into believing that the entire nation is achieving new heights and is growing stronger. National marketing campaigns such as “India Shining” have no realistic bearing on the plight of the nation’s low caste and Dalits. India is not “shining” in the slums, in the villages that still apply extreme segregation or for the children who are bonded in labor to their upper caste landowners. It is estimated that forty to one hundred million children are in child labor in India, the vast majority from the low and oppressed castes.
The dichotomy facing India today is incredible. The rich are getting richer and the poor are sinking deeper and deeper into an unbreakable cycle of poverty. The educated have access to the world, while the opportunities for the uneducated become less and less. The upper castes shine, while the lower caste and Dalits remain in their dull, lifeless existence.
Take, for example, the stories of Sushma and Lakshmi, neighbors living in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Both women are 21-years-old. Sushma comes from a high-caste family background. Her father studied abroad and served in the Indian military as a dentist making a significant wage. Sushma’s mother enjoyed the benefits of being a homemaker. She kept their large home clean with the help of lower caste servants, and her children were well-educated and immaculately dressed. Sushma is now privileged to attend one of the top universities in the nation and is studying to be a doctor. She knows that someday her parents will find her a handsome and successful upper caste man to marry. He will love her and help her raise beautiful children who will be afforded all the luxuries Sushma enjoyed as a child and as a young adult. Sushma’s future is certainly bright.
Lakshmi, however, is from a Dalit background. She lives in a small makeshift hut in the vacant lot immediately adjacent to Sushma’s mansion. Lakshmi’s parents were too poor to send her to school and thus, Lakshmi is uneducated and illiterate. Already married to a man who is an unemployed alcoholic and beats her, Lakshmi sits from sun-up until sundown on the side of the busy highway. There she crafts cricket bats out of wood to sell to passing motorists. Her four children do not go to school. Instead, they play alongside the road in the oncoming traffic. Everyday Lakshmi watches as Sushma and her younger siblings leave their upper caste home in their imported vehicle and go to university, to coffee houses, to bookstores, to nightclubs. Lakshmi, however, knows nothing of Sushma’s world. Lakshmi knows nothing of global news events. She will never experience the latest in fashion or computing. Lakshmi’s children will inevitably fill their parents’ roles in the lowest rung of society and will likely remain in the seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.
India is not shining for Lakshmi. Lakshmi and her children need an education. They need the English language and they need to be empowered.
Despite how obvious it is that English is the way forward for India’s Dalits, upper caste political leaders have thrashed and maligned the English language and English-based education, charging it to be the language of the colonial rulers even as all their own children have been educated in English schools and institutions. And this denial of empowering Dalits through education guarantees the future of upper caste power in India. Take, for example, the Woodstock School in Mussoorie, North India, which has been one of the world’s premier boarding schools for decades. It has top of the line academic and extracurricular facilities. Its graduates attend prestigious schools abroad. It draws its student body from both an international and domestic pool of potential candidates. Naturally, however, it is filled with wealthy upper caste children. Woodstock School is not a possibility for the Dalits. What was once a Christian institution for children of missionary children is now filled with children of the powerful upper caste elite in India.
In addition to international boarding schools, English-based international standard primary schools are popping up across the nation and are filled with the upper echelon of Indian society.
The strategy to deny Dalit rights has gone so far that the upper castes have even convinced some international and domestic non-profit aid agencies offering education to poor Indian children that the state/village/tribal language is the only and best (contextualized) option for the Dalit children of India’s villages. They claim that children who know English will be alienated from their families and will eventually become a new class of children no longer accepted by their own heritage. We know this is not true. English education combined with a learning of the local vernacular language or mother tongue is the way forward. Bi-lingual Indians throughout the world are involved with commerce, technology and politics. And none of them claim to have lost their cultural heritage because of it.
Empowering Children through Dalit Education Centers
Thankfully, Dalit leaders have seen through this upper caste deception and are seeking to empower their children through Dalit Education Centers (DECs).
Global partners of the Dalit movement like the Dalit Freedom Network offer equal-opportunity education to Dalit and low-caste children across India. It is not a compassion-based movement/program; it is a justice-based movement. The Dalit movement follows closely the old adage, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish you can feed him for a lifetime.” The Dalit movement seeks to empower Dalits to provide for themselves now and in the future.
Only justice for the Dalits will bring about true change and life transformation. This justice must be evident in every part of Dalit life. They must obtain full human rights and be considered equal to their upper caste peers. Dalits want full participation in the control of power in India.
Dalits are not asking for compassion. They are asking for justice. To get justice, Dalits across India must eliminate or break free from the caste system and loosen the stranglehold caste has on India’s education system nationwide. They want to claim their right to a world class, English-based education.
Casting Off Caste
The statistics are staggering:
– Less than twenty-five percent of Dalit men are literate, while only ten percent of Dalit women are literate. Of those who are literate, less than eight percent are educated and even fewer are English-educated. Computer literacy is but a dream.
– Nearly half of all Dalit children drop out of school at the primary level, while two-thirds drop out in junior high school and more than three-fourths of all Dalit children never make it past high school.
– Only two percent of seats in higher education institutions are filled by Dalits (despite reservation status allocating a greater number of seats) because they are unable to legitimately reach this academic level and compete in an English-based education standard.
– Over seventy percent of all children bonded in labor are Dalits. More than sixty-five percent of all young girls used in female prostitution trafficking are from the depressed Dalit castes.
The Dalit Education Centers seek to change these statistics, to end child labor, to end child prostitution and to bring justice to a new generation of Dalit children.
A top goal of the DEC program is to create a caste-free environment where children from all castes, religions and walks of life are encouraged to study, work, play and eat together. It is built on the worldview that all men and women are created equally in the image of God and all are equally loved by God.
Justice Becoming a Reality
The small village of Papaiahpet in Andhra Pradesh, South India, is a beautiful example of how these goals are being fulfilled. Plagued by extreme caste division, Papaiahpet was one of the first villages to construct and fully develop a Dalit Education Center. For the first time, Dalit children went to school and were afforded the same educational privileges as the upper caste children in the village. They wore uniforms and carried school bags. The boys carefully shined their school shoes and the girls proudly wore red ribbons in their long, black hair. The teachers at the school worked diligently to provide an excellent educational atmosphere for these oppressed children. The result was a genuine transformation.
Shortly after the DEC opened, the upper caste residents of the village noticed the excellent academic standard by which the school was run. They saw the Dalit children’s behavior improve. They noticed that Dalit parents were taking an active role in their children’s education. As a gesture, the upper caste leaders of the village invited the Dalit residents to dinner in an upper caste home. Never in the history of the village had the upper caste and lower caste eaten together, let alone in the home of an upper caste member.
Dalit Education Centers are places of equality and love. DEC managers are often thrilled to admit high caste students into the DEC schools. Teachers treat all students with love and respect regardless of their family background. There are legitimate enrollment allotments for high caste children in some of the DECs because the enrollment reflects demographic distribution of the community. In addition, because of the high quality of education offered at each school, upper caste parents beg DEC staff to enroll their children.
Despite the schools’ apparent popularity and positive reputation in each community, there remains high caste opposition in many places to the emancipation of the Dalits through the education the DECs offer. Yet, the DECs and those committed to seeking the empowerment and freedom of the Dalit children will continue to work until the task is fulfilled.