The past week has brought the issue of caste bands worn by students in parts of Tamil Nadu to the fore. The school education department issued a circular banning the alleged practice of government schools making students wear such bands in order to discriminate against them by caste. The move, surprisingly, raised criticism from certain Hindu groups. Subsequently the School Education Minister K A Sengottaiyan all but disowned the circular and claimed such practices were not in vogue.
But whether or not schools made students wear caste bands—colourful bands worn on wrists to signal caste—students from many communities wear them anyway. In north TN, for instance, students from a dominant community wear bands. In response, as an assertion of their own identity, in some of these districts Dalit students have also been seen wearing them. Other ways in which caste is signalled include wearing coloured T-shirts under uniform shirts. Caste pride is being passed down to younger generations and therefore being reinforced.
For all its social progress, TN remains caught in caste dynamics. Part of the reason for this is that oppression of Dalits by other communities was a blind spot for the Dravidian movement. It was the Communists who worked with Dalits, though they more often than not looked at their problems through the prism of class. Instead of working to eradicate caste, various parties have nurtured caste groups for electoral purposes. Films too have reinforced notions of caste pride. So, caste tensions are almost always simmering in many parts of the state. Now, these values are being transmitted to younger generations.
That a state which preaches progressive values is so enmeshed in caste politics is an embarrassment. That students are flaunting caste in classrooms requires introspection from political leaders, communities and opinion makers. The state must work with experts to create meaningful tools with which notions of caste pride and discrimination held by children can be challenged in schools and colleges—not mere bans or warnings. Sometimes change must come from the top, and caste is one such issue.