Religious revival, education, and caste

Sosamma ammachi remembers the late 1800s in central Travancore as a time of religious revival and reformation (valiya unarvu). “My grandfather and his brothers and cousins cut the stones, carried it up, and built this church with their own hands. Our church must by 118 years old.” The old, spirited lady with all-white hair tied up haphazardly traces the precise year by linking the church building to the carefully recorded and locally available histories of the 118 year old Maramon Convention, the “biggest religious gathering in Asia” according to the Convention website. 1895 it is then. Churches (palli) had schools (palli kudam) attached to them, and this parish church was no different. The parish church became a school during weekdays, and the headmaster became the pastor (upadeshi) on Sundays.

However, this was a church with a difference, or a church of difference. The 95-year-old bishop of the reformed Church in Kerala clarifies, “in those days, “backward classes” did not have church membership. When we tried to give them membership, there was much resistance from upper-caste Christians. So we started a separate missionary section that served “them” [lower caste families]; this was such a parish church.” Those from “good families” attended worship at the “main” church about a kilometer away. Sadly, and not unexpectedly, 118 years later “they” have church membership but continue to be spatially and socially segregated in Valiagramam. But, how did the education serve to strengthen and transgress caste boundaries?

The earliest admission records available at the Valiagramam Malayalam Primary School are from 1914 (Malayalam year 1089). 32 students joined school that year of which 29 were upper caste Christians. Though they worshipped separately, both upper caste and Dalit Christian children attended primary school together. Did they sit separately, in the same classroom? I don’t know and it seems unlikely that I will find out. Though only two Dalit students are listed in the admission records for 1914, average Dalit student admissions till 1920 was about 27% of the total admissions. In which case, Dalit students representative of the village population attended primary school with upper caste Christians, but for a segregated congregation that worshipped separately what were these educational experiences like?

“English” School and higher education

During those years, students and families aspiring for (and rich enough to afford) “higher education” had to walk over five kilometers to the neighboring village to attend Upper Primary School. The closest High School was about 10 kilometers away, and students walking to Valiagramam from school would reach home by 9pm, unless they took a bullock cart, which would get them home a tad earlier. In 1910, 15 years after the Malayalam Primary School was established, three upper caste Christian families in Valiagramam came together to establish an “English” Upper Primary school that was soon “upgraded” to a High School. The stated official objective was “evangelical work” but conversationally “good education” for “our children” emerges as equally important. Were the two objectives mutually inclusive? Did the English School admit Dalit students during its early years?

The genial bishop of the reformed Church, all of 95 years old now, studied in the English High School in Valiagramam during the 1930s, and remembers that his high school class did not have any “backward class” students. However, there were a few exceptions. The bishop remembers a P. C. Chacko, whom the Church educated through High School and College during the 1930s. “Upper primary and high school fees were much higher than primary school fees”, the bishop explains, and Dalit students and many low-income upper caste families stopped schooling with primary education. Valiagramam thus had educated-poor and educated-Dalits who could not change their life histories through education.

After 1950 the Constitution of independent India legalized affirmative action, and Dalit student presence is recorded at the High School during the 1950s. School attendance records at the High School from 1952 list 70 students out of a total of 895 students in the “no fees” category. While other families paid a princely sum of Rs. six per month for each child (and most families had between four and eleven children and only afford schooling for the “brightest” child), Dalit students were entitled to a free education by the Constitution. And yet, caste continued to be a powerful social order. When I asked why Dalits did not worship at the upper caste church during these years I was told: “How can you expect upper caste Christians to sit with Dalit Christians?” In fact, when a Dalit dissident attempted to “return” to Christianity in the 1950s, he was told: “We have made a church for you people there (referring to the Dalit church); you can return to Christianity there”.

Football and school, and “higher education”

“The field in front of our house was were everybody played football. My maternal uncle who worked in Malaysia, or my paternal uncle who lived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), brought a football when they came home for visits. That was the only football in the village. We had the only football in the village.” Football is fondly remembered as a total social fever that transgressed caste, and maybe even gender, boundaries. “Our village probably had the only women’s football team in all of India”, says an old timer but I am yet to meet a elderly lady who played football while many elderly men talk about footballs, tournaments, bets, and all-India tours. Dalit and upper caste footballers played together, practiced together, toured together, studied together, and often failed school together in the 1950s. In fact, students from the 1950s remember the English School as where they played football, rather than as where they studied.

However, very few Dalits went on to study further at the then prestigious and upper caste Christian dominated college about ten kilometers away. One of the first Dalits from the village who attended college, also a footballer, Gopalan got admission on the recommendation of an upper caste professor from Valiagramam. Gopalan’s father worked at the professor’s house as a laborer, which was the occupational status of almost all the Dalits in the village. “Returning home from college”, he remembers, “I would not take the road. I would run through the by lanes. They (upper caste contemporaries) would wait for me on the road. Their abuses were terrible. But I was “forward” (not shy). I studied. I played. Once when we won a (football) trophy, we came back to the village on an elephant (like kings). And I made sure I was on the elephant.” An exception rather than the norm, like P C Chacko before him Gopalan attended college. Later, he passed the government exam for administrative services, benefited from accelerated promotions, and became the envy and pride of several Dalit and upper caste families in the village.

To summarize, “higher education” was a moving target that eluded many Dalit families and poor, upper-caste families in Valiagramam. During colonial times, primary schools were accessible but high schooling was necessary. In independent India, high schooling became accessible but college education became necessary for employment. At the same time, religion, caste, and class created shifting intersections with education that sometimes, not frequently, enabled individuals and families to rise above their histories through educationHopes attached to education, thus, became naturalized and education became the way out of poverty, both conceptually and empirically.

New “English” “Central” School

In 1957, the Communist Party led Government of Kerala enacted the Kerala Education Bill, which quasi nationalized all private schools to state-funded schools. The English High School in Valiagramam thus became a state-funded school, student enrollment increased manifold, and access seems equitable (for the high school level). When the winds of modernity blew next in the 1970s, the need was felt for an English Medium Lower Primary School (Kindergarten to 4th grade). Again, the (upper caste) church became the enabling agent providing a temporary building, and later raising money from parishioners for a more permanent building. The objectives did not change in fifty years: “evangelical work” and “English education for our children”. In its first year of operation, in 1979, the new English School admitted 21 students to Kindergarten—all of them upper caste and fee paying. (What did evangelical work mean in this context?) The next year, the numbers more than doubled to 49. But, it would take exactly ten years for the first (fee paying) Dalit student to be admitted to this school.

By the late 1960s “central” schools were recognized as the new elite schools of India. Central government employees administered and managed Nehru’s plans of national development, operationalized as industrialization and bureaucratization. To serve the children of “central” government employees, “central” schools were set up across the country, affiliated to the “Central” Board of Secondary Education. For the elite corps of “national development”, the nation was prepared to disproportionately fund educational expenses. While government funds for schooling were abysmal during the Nehruvian period, central schools lacked neither funds nor trained, accountable teachers. The New English school in our village first sought affiliation with the Central Board, but administered as it was (democratically and dissent-ially) by members of the upper caste Church, questions over finances led to a change in affiliation. The New English School thus became affiliated with the Kerala State Board of Education, but twenty years later it would again seek affiliation with the Central Board.

From 1978, student enrollment fell consistently at the old Malayalam Primary School in Valiagramam while Dalit “residualization” (also see Sancho, 2012) slowly increased. From 33 in 1978, the number of students seeking admission at the oldest school in the village fell to 19 in 1989, and three in 2008. Presently, the school has sixteen students across four grades, all of them poor Dalits.

And now again, new “English” schools

The 1990s saw many changes in India, and in Valiagramam. Liberalization came with many faces—new shops, jeans, many more “soft drinks” than the lone Gold Spot, World Bank recommended and funded education reforms, and the establishment of new schools. In 1994, barely 500 meters from the old Malayalam School, a return migrant and some well-intentioned educators from the village established a new kind of new English School. It was both a central school and affordable (low-fee private school). By 1996, new student admissions at the old Malayalam school had fallen to 12, and it never climbed back. However, this time Dalit families were exiting the Malayalam School for the new, affordable, central, English school. “Like the others in the village, they also want the best for their children”, says the retired Head Mistress of the Malayalam Primary School. “How can you blame them? Anybody, who has even a little money, will not send their children to our school.”

Rational choice: Some questions about neoliberalism and socialism

Educational researchers like Tooley promote low fee private schools for the poor as the logical solution to educational inequity in India. Tooley argues that if low-income parents “choose” schools, they will ensure accountability and better provision of educational services. Some of Tooley’s concerns about accountability bear out in the village, particularly in state-funded primary schools.

The earlier English High School is now a state-funded English Medium High School and serves students from grades five to ten. With 695 students, the school employs a peon and other office staff. Furthermore, in Upper Primary and High Schools, “subject” teachers teach the subjects they have graduated in. On the other hand, in lower primary schools the class teacher teaches all subjects to his/her class. What’s more, with over 50% primary schools listed as “uneconomic” across the state (with less than 25 students per grade and incurring financial liabilities for the state), almost all Primary Schools have four (or less) “class” teachers, one of whom also triples up as the Head Master/Mistress and the peon! Therefore, if teachers of Primary Schools fall sick there are no substitute teachers, and without a peon, the Head Mistress has to often do peon work, like collecting salaries from the sub-treasury, during school time.

At the same time, as Tooley argues, socialist job security fosters non-accountability in primary schools. Not only do students bear the brunt of poor infrastructure but they also bear the sloppiness of disinterested teachers. Teachers in Kerala are paid well and have job security, but (or therefore, according to Tooley) many either teach poorly or are often engaged in “personal work” during school time. A retired Head Mistress further clarifies, “the new (World Bank reformed) syllabus lends itself well to both excellent and poor teaching. It totally depends on the teacher (kaikaryam chaiyunnathu pole irikkum). At one school I visited, only two out of eight students could read (any) Malayalam in the fourth grade. Conversely, at the 118 year old Malayalam Primary School, all three second-graders could read Malayalam well.

Nevertheless, Tooley’s arguments for low-fee private schools—as more accountable did not hold up at Valiagramam’s low-fee private schools. Conversely, critiques of neoliberalism as branding, marketing, misleading, and exploitative (muthaledukkuka), rather than substantive service seems relevant. Students from grade 1 to 3 at a low fee private English medium school could reproduce dictated answers but did not know what “I” (grade 1), “wake-up” (grade 2), and “come” (grade 3) meant. These words are used in their lessons, which are quite interesting, but the emphasis is on memorization of “correct” answers. Moreover, since students score well by “throwing up” the same answers, they are seen by their families to be doing well. Accountability is maintained, but at what cost? What then are the paradoxes and complexities of “rational choice” under contexts of neoliberalism and socialism?

118 years old, the oldest school in the village is now "child-friendly" as per World Bank indicators, but empty.

118 years old, the oldest school in the village is now “child-friendly” as per World Bank indicators, but empty.

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About leyamathew

Penn GSE, CASI Summer in Kerala 2012