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  • Meena Kandasamy

Keeping people out of education embedded in DNA of Hinduism: Letter to saffron-shawl-wearing kids


Dear saffron-scarf-wearing girls and boys,


Namaskaram! I take the liberty of writing to you although I have never met you. When I first saw your videos, I admit that I was very scared. I could not believe that something like this was happening in India, our shared country. I was scared not because any of you are dangerous, you are still children in my eyes, but because you are being used by extremely divisive forces. I want to come and visit you, sit down and speak with you, but in the meantime, I thought, a letter is the best way to address you.


Dear students, I am thirty-seven years old, more than twice your age, so I hope you do not disregard me as one more old person giving you a lecture. I am not here to give any advice—I am here to ask you to think, and to feel, and to revisit a little bit of our nation’s history along with me.


Maybe those who taught you history told you about the British, about colonialism, about the world wars, about the independence struggle. I also learnt the same history in my school. That was only one part of the story. There is another history which is kept away from us, that history is the history of education in India. Especially the history of education among the Hindus in India.


If I was going to begin at the beginning, remember that this Hindu society did not see education as common to everybody. It did not accept that it was everyone’s right. Only the Brahmins and the twice-borns could get educated. The Sudras were kept out of education. If a Sudra even heard the Vedas, the Manusmriti says, the molten lead must be poured in his ears. If the Sudra recites the Vedas, the Manusmriti says, his tongue must be cut off. Not all Brahmins and Savarnas could learn of course—the women were completely kept out of it. Even a hundred years ago, if you look at the census reports, you will see that less than two women out of a hundred could read and write.


Keeping people out of education, keeping people out of education by using the gravest threats of violence ever possible—that is embedded in the DNA of our religion. It is against this denial of education that our greatest revolutionaries have fought. They have set an example by throwing open the doors of education to everyone.


In Maharashtra, Savitribhai Phule and Jotirao Phule founded the first school for Sudra and Atisudra girls in 1848. It was a challenge against Brahminical patriarchy which forbade women from learning. Detractors used to throw dung on Savitri Phule when she went to teach at her school. That was how much our society was opposed to the education of women. And do you know, who else braved these attacks and taught alongside Krantijyoti Savitribai at that school? It was Fatima Sheikh, a Muslim woman teacher.


In Kerala, the story was no different. In 1904, when Mahatma Ayyankali wanted to start a school for the Dalit children in Venganoor, it was burnt down by the caste-Hindus on the same day. In 1910, when he tried to get a young Dalit girl Panchami admitted to the Uruttambalam school in Balaramapuram, the headmaster denied her admission. The situation led to anti-Dalit violence: Nairs set fire to Pulayar homes, took away their livestock, molested their women, injured the men. The Nairs did not want Pulayar children to get admitted to schools in South Travancore. Ayyankali fought back against this blanket ban by leading an agricultural strike—he prohibited his people from working for the Nairs. Newspaper reports say that it took six Nair men to compensate the work of a single Pulayar woman—that is how unused to physical toil the upper castes were. They had to relent and allow the education of Dalit children in public, government-run schools.


Dr.Ambedkar, the father of modern India, the chief architect of India’s Constitution, entered this right to education into the law of our land. The right to equality states that we cannot be discriminated on the basis of our religion, or our caste.


Following in the footsteps of Dr.Ambedkar’s radicalism, Thanthai Periyar led the protests in Tamil Nadu in 1951 leading to the first amendment of the Indian Constitution. The first amendment of the Constitution empowered the state to undertake affirmative action (reservation) for the advancement of any socially and economically backward classes or categories of SC/ST. Periyar also led another unforgettable struggle—he thwarted attempts to reintroduce hereditary education in the syllabus. Kulakalvi Thittam, hereditary education, would have meant that all of us only do the traditional labour of our parents—a prison-like grid which means our education can never help us escape the horror of the caste system.

This struggle to smash down the Brahminical patriarchal nature of Indian education—this struggle to claim it as something that belongs to all of us continues to this day. Whether it was the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in education, whether it is the struggle to implement OBC reservation in medical college seats, whether it is the struggle against NEET or the New Education Policy, whether it is Rohith Vemula or Fathima Latheef—the struggle has not ended.


We have public education in India because people from deprived castes and religious minorities came together to make it happen, and they made sure that nobody is excluded from the sphere of learning and creation. And the idea of public education is precisely this, nobody can be excluded on any basis.


I have narrated such a long and difficult history because I want you to know that what is happening today—closing the doors of education to hijab-wearing Muslim women is part of the same oppressive system.


Look at what you are being made to do. You are forced to wear saffron scarves and asked to march into universities. I was born a Hindu woman, and I have never seen a saffron scarf in my home in all these years. My own father was a full-time RSS Pracharak who quit the organisation because of its Manuvadi caste-supremacy, because of its hatred of minorities, and because of its hatred of regional languages. I write to you because I have seen before my eyes that even the most brainwashed Sanghi person has the opportunity to leave the hatred behind. You can become a new person, you can become a better individual. You can say no to the politics of hate.


Why should you fight against this Brahmin supremacy that has pervaded the education system in our country for thousands of years? This system has far-reaching consequences because a Manuvadi casteist understanding means that only the Brahmin male is seen as an intellectual. Only he is seen as deserving of education, and therefore, seen as capable of intelligence and thought. The rest of us, seen incapable of intelligence and education, are treated by this caste system as thoughtless beings, as irrational idiots, as buffaloes in a herd. You are treated as the footsoldiers. And when you wear your saffron shawls and take out these marches, remember that you are behaving exactly like buffaloes in a herd, incapable of independent thought, incapable of human empathy, like brainless idiots following the marching orders of our modern-day Hitlers. To see you in this manner is an insult to your intelligence. Have you seen any of your forefathers, or your foremothers go to school or college wrapped in these garish shawls? Where do these outfits mushroom from? In which lab where they made?


Instead of getting an education that is a practice of collective learning and forming lifelong bonds of cooperation and collaboration, these divisive forces want you to march with saffron scarves and oppose certain students who wear a certain costume (hijab here, but tomorrow it may be anything.) These communal forces are trying to make you live a life of seclusion and hatred, where none of the learning lessons will be productive and significant because it is contradictory to true education.


Remember dear ones, a society that practices so much hate can never call itself a healthy society. It can never be a society of people who are happy, satisfied, and healthy. If you follow in the diseased footsteps of division and hatred, your imagination is stunted, your ideas are distorted. A life of dignity starts with the foundation that hatred is always harmful, whether it is against Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, women, or anyone else. As education provides us opportunities to go beyond what our current capacities are, and imagine something remarkably different, we have this opportunity to refuse the forces of hate and division, forces who want to maintain the structures of exclusion and oppression, forces who don’t want us to imagine something new. They want us to become prisoners of the old. You are better off smashing these prisons.


Stand with your sisters who are wearing the hijab. They are showing Muslim women to you as your enemies—do not buy into this hate propaganda. They want to keep you distracted because they want to prevent you from concentrating on the real questions which preoccupy the younger generation: what is happening to our economy? Where are we going to find jobs for our future? Will you be the lost, nowhere generation these distractions keep you away from mobilising for what is your right: quality and free education, jobs, the promise of a future.


Remember, the young have no future if you do not fight for it.