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3. Caste discrimination and education policy

One of the earliest pieces of “social” legislation in British India concerned attempts to provide schooling to impoverished “low” castes in the 1890s. In view of the protests of elites who did not want their children rubbing shoulders with “social inferiors”, this legislation was seldom enforced. But it has nevertheless played a critical role as historical template: low caste access to state-sponsored education is now considered an unquestionable responsibility of government. What forms of thought have led policy-makers to view education as central to the governance of the low-caste poor? In postcolonial India, the massive rise in the popularity of these policies also requires investigating; despite marked transformations in styles of governing, these policies have not only endured, but grown in importance. Can we read the effects of these policies on the successful bids of low caste movements for political power in the last two decades? And not least, how are the social consequences of these policies transformed in the context of an increasingly privatized educational sphere?


Arun Kumar
Working Lives and Schooling in Late Colonial India (1880s-1940s)

Inserted within the pages of contemporary accounts, yet mostly absent from the mainstream historiography are the histories of the schools for the poorer sections in colonial India. This project is an exercise to uncover the records of these ‘absent institutions’ of educational and labour histories. These didactic institutions (industrial, reformatory and factory schools, orphanages, children’s homes, workhouses, and railway workshops) were set up by Christian missionaries, ‘natives’, and colonial masters to educate poor children who were deemed unfit for book-centred, “proper” schooling. These schools were instituted with the objective of producing a modern, disciplined, and semi-skilled work force out of an unruly indolent class of low castes and untouchables, artisans and workers, beggars, vagrants, juvenile offenders, fakirs, gamblers, thieves, criminal tribes and poorest of the poor Europeans and Eurasians. Looking at the atypical nature of curriculum, school timings, and pedagogy etc. of some of the specific educational and reformatory institutions where children’s labour was exploited to manufacture goods with the aim to train them a life of manual labour, the project asks the question: is it historically appropriate to view these as normal ‘schools’? The project will also look at the issues of poor childhood, child labour, and reproduction of social hierarchies. While looking in and out of the British Empire, the thesis will also look at the flow of missionaries from Germany, Britain, and America into the territories of British India and examine the circulation, contestation, appropriation, and transformation of ideas to educate, train, regulate, order and reform both morally and physically the bodies of the poor children in the colonies. By looking at the everyday histories of schooling for the poor in India at the fin de siècle, this project unfolds the shared global vision of an education attempting to reform the figure of the ‘poor’ in nineteenth and twentieth century. To trace the network of clues, it employs missionary and colonial writings, school records, vernacular literature, and oral testimonies.

Divya Kannan
Recasting the Self: Missionaries and the Education of the Poor in Kerala, 1854-1956

(Project completed)

The on-going research is an attempt to write a history of education of the labouring poor in Kerala. The study will analyse varying notions of poverty perpetuated through education by both state and non-state actors. Textbooks, agricultural and industrial education and technical education have been some of the avenues through which children of lower castes were brought face to face with changing societal notions and power structures. As part of the research, I am currently using records of the Basel Mission(currently known as Mission 21), London Missionary Society and Church Missionary Society, apart from various official sources.

An interesting approach would be to examine the textbooks published and used in government and mission schools for elementary education. Since the majority of children of the labouring classes did not complete high school in the early decades of the twentieth century, textbooks at the elementary level provide a glimpse of the debates involved in the shaping of a curriculum and pedagogy for them. This study aims to move beyond a mere chronological narrative and understand the social changes, if any, that were brought about by the spread of education and its role in identity-building. Three kinds of schooling institutions will be examined: industrial schools, boarding schools, and regular primary and secondary schools. Informal schooling with the help of newspapers, religious literature and social movements shall also be looked into. Pedagogy for the poor will also constitute a major research area.

Sunandan K.N.
Critical Mind and Labouring Body: Caste and Education Reforms in Kerala

(Project completed)

Exploring the various educational reform programs implemented in primary schools and high schools in Keralam in India in the last two decades, the project seeks to analyze the dichotomous concepts of mental and manual labour, theoretical and practical knowledge, and general and technical education which constituted the premise of these reform interventions. The broader objective of the project is to understand the role of caste practices in conceptions of body, skill and knowledge as constructed and disseminated in the practices of educational institutions in India. The work focuses on the crucial connection between the reproduction of the above concepts and caste as it is practiced in contemporary Keralam.

The critical scholarship has already mapped the failure of reform initiatives in challenging the continuing domination of patriarchal and casteist forces that operate in the domain of education. Most of these studies conceptualize the question of domination as problem of exclusion of the marginalized groups. This is expressed as the lack of representation of women and Dalits in the decision making bodies, lack of resources for these groups, their low enrolment and high drop-out rate in schools and in general as a problem of socio-economic exclusion. Naturally the suggestions were focused on educational programs which can become more inclusive and incorporative of marginal groups. While these explanations are valid and important, this works attempts to extend this criticism to basic concept of “school” itself, and as an extension, to the basic assumptions behind the present educational methodologies. The attempt in here is to shift the debate on the exclusions and dominations in education from the domain of institutional to the epistemological. I attempt to locate the Brahmanical and patriarchal domination not just in the institutional structures but in the very conception of education based on the division between mental and physical labour. The major objective of this project is to develop some preliminary concepts that would help us understand education not only as a project of developing ‘critical thinking but also as a project of creating ‘critical action.’


AR Vasavi, ‘Government Brahmin’: Caste, the Educated Unemployed, and the Reproduction of Inequalities (TRG working papers series; forthcoming 2014)

Nandini Manjrekar, Schooling in the face of ghettoization: Reflections from a study in the old city of Baroda, Gujarat (TRG working papers series; forthcoming 2014)