If their story is missing from classrooms, what do Dalit students learn about themselves? In the first analysis of caste bias in Indian textbooks, researchers from ISI-Bengaluru and IIT-Hyderabad found in a case study that for every 16 pages on dominant castes, there was just one on Dalits.
"Academic research on textbooks in India has largely focused on issues of communalisation of history, and gender... The presence of caste bias in textbooks has not been systematically examined in the Indian context thus far," the paper, 'Caste biases in school textbooks: a case study from Odisha, India, published by Taylor & Francis's 'Journal of Curriculum Studies' on July 20, said.
The researchers analysed 10 textbooks from Odisha on literature and social science for students at the elementary level, from class I to VIII. They found seven of those 10 textbooks did not represent Dalits at all. Not one book excluded dominant social groups. And while about 260 of the 328 pages that spoke about social lives, or 79%, were devoted to dominant groups, Dalits found space in just 16, just 5%.
"This is not just about Dalit students. Future citizens should be sensitised to human rights violations. Look at the atrocities on Dalits in India. Why do certain forms of understanding persist? Because we have not systematically attacked those beliefs, those social practices. Why can't that be tackled through education that the state expects everybody to go through?" lead author Subhadarshee Nayak told TOI. And it's about more than representation on paper.
"Inclusion has to be meaningful. It has to explain why certain things exist the way they do." The researchers also picked up instances from other states. The paper said, textbooks in Gujarat, for instance, did speak of the caste system but as a "benign institution". The same was done in Rajasthan, where texts were rewritten to argue that "caste was a good system based on professional differences."
The researchers found caste matters were either being erased, removed from context, falsified or entrenching stereotypes. For instance, there is no person of SC origin in any literature text for students from classes IV, V, VI and VIII. When Class V students are taught about the freedom struggle, no SC leader finds place in the discussion. And in a Class IV book, government initiatives for Dalit communities are written about but there's not a word on why these provisions were needed.
"It reflects the much deeper invisibilisation of the practice of caste and the refusal to accept it as a dominant form of inequality," the paper said.