In Mayiladuthurai town, papers to mark different castes were stuck on free bicycles distributed at Government Girls Higher Secondary School in Sembanarkoil. The papers were in different colours, to mark different castes. The incident has drawn significant attention and condemnation.
District secretary of the Student’s Federation of India, Amul Castro, states: “It is unfortunate to see caste classification happening in schools. We, at Student Federation of India, vehemently condemn this.” The Students Federation of India has been paying close attention to the issue, with representative Bhagat Singh demanding strict action so as to prevent such events from happening again.
The staff from the school has published a statement apologising for the incident, claiming it was an accident. There is still no news on who is responsible; the Education department is said to be looking into the matter, however, they have not been open to commenting on the investigation when approached. Collector R. Lalitlha stated that she herself will go to the school to carry out an investigation.
Caste markers supported by educational institutions is not new in Tamil Nadu. The practice of wearing caste bracelets or jaathi kayir on one’s hand has been common in the state for decades. Only recently, the government gave strict warnings to schools to stop the practice in 2019. However, similar to the case of bicycles, there is significant vagueness from the state, with regards to whether these markers are discriminatory or not.
With the lack of response from the department of education, it seems not much action is being taken against such an act in the case of the cycles. With the case of the hand bands, while activists have been fighting against the practice for decades, it only received state attention after an IAS trainee officer submitted a petition on the issue.
According to Marimuthu Bharathan, a Dalit Human Rights Activist, other forms of caste marking are common in schools, such as wearing a particular coloured shirt, or vest to school, pictures of caste leaders will be inserted in shirt pockets, tattoos and chains indicating caste are also worn by students. Even in terms of housing, the lamp posts outside neighbourhoods are of a certain colour to mark the caste of the residents. Dominant caste students also are sent with separate plates from home so as to not eat from the ones used by Dalit students. Parents even often stitch caste symbols onto cuffs of shirts of students.
In an article on edex Live, a number of activists mentioned that teachers are a big reason why caste marking practices still continue. “The activists say that many teachers encourage this casteist behaviour , as they are mostly casteist themselves and discriminate against lower- caste students.” Dominant caste teachers would often not provide their full names to SC and ST students, so that their names wouldn’t be uttered by them. In another example provided by activist Kathir from Evidence, he mentions how a mathematics teacher would refer to dominant caste students as “plus” and Dalit students as “minus”.
These bracelets then simply become the tip of the ice-berg. Caste is deeply ingrained in the associations formed in schools and the bicycle incident is yet another example. Conflicts among students on caste lines in the state is extremely common, with Dalit students often being the ones attacked by dominant caste students.