The incident in which Dalit students were driven out from their classes by the school authorities in Barmer district in Rajasthan should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
What followed was even more shameful, showing as it did how functionaries of the state are prone to encourage social prejudice through inaction and, worse, complicity. Had the denial of water to Dalit students by their schoolmates, followed by ostracism and expulsion from the school, been an isolated incident, strict administrative action could have been mooted as an adequate corrective. Unfortunately, it appears that in the area concerned such incidents are quite prevalent. We have this on the authority of the NGO which was instrumental in bringing this incident to light and pursuing it with the result that some corrective action is now on the anvil. What is all the more unfortunate is that state functionaries at various levels were aware of this incident but at first chose to turn a blind eye to it. The local panchayat even had the temerity to take the members of the NGO who had raised the matter to task. The district education officer and the tehsildar, who were deputed to look into the matter, seem to have grievously abdicated their constitutional duties. It is a matter of great shame that it was left to the persistence of the crusading NGO for the matter to reach higher officers who have now promised action. This action must be unsparing, so that the upper-caste villagers realise their folly and desist from repeating it, and state officials at the local level realise that they have constitutional duties which cannot be abdicated with impunity.
But the larger question of the widespread existence of caste prejudice will remain with us. It would be comforting to the urban classes if they could pretend that such prejudice exists only in the remote reaches of rural India. Unfortunately, this is not true. Caste prejudice impinges much more closely on our lives than we would like to believe. It is the primary responsibility of the state to eliminate such prejudice and it can do so only if it is active in two broad areas. The first is education. It is unfortunate that more than half a century after achieving independence the state has made very little effort to invest in the kind of human and material resources that are needed to make the primary and secondary sectors of our state-sponsored education system strong enough to meet the demands of nation-building. The campaign against prejudice and superstition, and more broadly speaking, the propagation of the vision of India that is enshrined in the Constitution, cannot succeed only through the strong, mostly elite-inhabited higher education sector. While this is not to denigrate India s undoubtable achievements in science and technology and the liberal arts, it must now be realised that these achievements rest on a feeble base. The state must prioritise grassroots education, and not in the shambolic fashion that is current now. The second is political commitment to the constitutional vision. The political leadership has to make clear to state agencies, and through them to the people, that it is committed to an India free of caste prejudice. And this is an opportunity to do just that.