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Stigma and discrimination in 21st century classroom

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Article 15 of the Indian Constitution forbids discrimination of citizens on the basis of religion, caste, race, sex, place of birth, or any of them. It has been more than 70 years that this mandate was adopted, and yet it has not fully transpired into our society. Discrimination is prevalent in our society based on ethnicity, disability, descent, region, dialectal, age, family occupation, class in addition to caste, religion, sex, place of birth. These have crept into our education systems, which ironically is considered instrumental in fighting and eradicating discrimination.

Education institutes cannot function in separation from the society; therefore, to bridge the gap between reality and academics, NCERT introduced “Social and Political Life (SPL)” replacing earlier subject “Civics.” SPL introduces real-life examples and specifically mentions communities like Muslim, Poor, Dalits, etc. It emphasizes teachers to deliver the matter sensitively while maintaining the dignity and respect of all the students in the classroom.

The RTE (Right to Education) came into effect in April 2010, mandates free and compulsory education for all kids from 6-14 years of age; it further requires that the special need students be provided free education in a suitable environment till the age of 18. It also directed private schools to reserve 25% seats for socially disadvantaged and economically weaker section children. In addition to this, the government has been coming up with various other initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Abhiyan, SAKSHAM for Differently abled children, Mid-Day Meals Scheme, etc.

However, these measures have still not been substantial in removing the stigma and discrimination outside our classrooms. The RTE forum in 2014 reported that less than 10% of the schools across the country comply with RTE norms. These discriminated children are not just devoid of their constitutional rights but miss out on the opportunity to learn and fight the social evils in society.

Types of Discrimination

Though we all understand discrimination, it is imperative to understand the severity of the matter with hard facts.

  1. Caste Based Discrimination: It is any form of verbal, written, graphical, signage or conduct against an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, geographical origin, ancestry that will severely impact his/her/their well-being or limit his/ her/their participation or access to resources. A study by Jan Sahas Social Development Society in 2009 reported that only 22% of Dalit children sit in the first row while the remaining 78% sit in the middle or back. 52% of those discriminated against said they were asked to bring separate plates for mid-day meal. 25% were made to sit in a separate line, and 11% reported that they were called by their caste names. Oxfam India report in 2015 reported that 75% of more than sixty lakh children out of school belong to Dalits (32.4%), Muslims (25.7%), or Adivasis (16.6%).
  2. Gender bases Discrimination: Discrimination of an individual based on gender, sexual orientation, or pregnancy. As per the census of 2011, the literacy rate of females was 65.5 % compared to 82.1% of males. The only positive outcome is that the gap in literacy rates between males and females has continued to decline from 26.6% in 1981 to 16.6% in 2011. The same positive trend does not hold true for transgenders, whose population stood at 4,87,803 with a literacy of 57.06% in 2011. As per the CBSE press release of 2020, there were only 19 transgenders in the 10th standard and six transgenders in the 12th standard, whereas there were more than 54,854 transgender children below the age of six in 2011.
  3. Religion Bases Discrimination:  Discrimination of an individual based on religious beliefs or religion.  Examples are offensive jokes about a specific religion and verbal, physical, or written bullying of an individual because of his/her/their religion.
  4. Discrimination based on Physical Disability: Disability discrimination happens when an individual is treated less well or has a disadvantage due to disability. This can happen either directly or indirectly via unfavorable policies, infrastructure, etc. As per the census of 2011, 45% of disabled Indians are illiterate compared to the national average of 26%. The situation is worse for disabled girls. Families feel that since marriage is unrealistic, investment in their education is economically unviable.

Though these are broad categories of discrimination, it is prevalent in many other forms and variations. One fails to understand how these educational institutes, whose sole task is to empower and enlighten students, have failed to remove prejudices and biases.

Why discrimination exists?

Understanding discrimination is easy but explaining why it exists is far more complicated.

Do you know how it feels to be discriminated? asked Ms. Jane Elliott to her third-grade students in a small town of Riceville, Iowa. She was wondering how to explain to these kids what discrimination is and why it exists. Elliot divided the class into a group of two, blue-eyed and brown-eyed. The first day, she said blue-eyed were smarter, kinder, neater, and better than the brown-eyed. Therefore, blue-eyed will have longer recess, will be the first in the lunch line, they can drink from the water fountain. Whereas brown-eyed had to wear collars around their neck, they cannot play with blue-eyed, they will have to drink from paper cups. Soon, she realized that the blue-eyed kids started using offensive, vicious, discriminating comments against brown-eyed. In the test as well, the blue-eyed performed better than brown-eyed. The next day, she said that she had lied, and instead, the brown-eyed were better, and they should have all the privileges, whereas the blue-eyed will have to wear the collar. But this time, the brown-eyed kids were not as mean as the blue-eyed were in a similar situation. They had realized how it felt and did not want anyone to feel the same. She explained that prejudice is an attribute attained due to the environment and society around you. “If it can be learned, it can be unlearned.”

An NGO in Delhi, similarly, conducted a study on Classes 3, 4, and 5 to understand the socio-economic impact of EWS quota in private schools. They found that while the children from poor families were not being discriminated by their wealthier peers but were looked down by non-EWS parents. These parents felt that their children would pick up bad habits and languages that will decrease their learning pace.

It seems that discrimination stems from fear and misunderstanding. It’s the years of conditioning and prejudice that has created this vicious cycle of discrimination. This cycle appears to be fueled by hatred, misunderstanding, fear, prejudices, biases, etc. and despite efforts, society has not been able to break this chain.

Challenges in addressing the issue

There are many challenges in addressing this social stigma and discrimination in schools.

25 percent of all private schools’ seats are reserved for children from the EWS under the Right to Education Act. Through this, the government is trying to treat children equally and provide them with equal opportunity, but they are not able to give equity to children. This is because they cannot provide infrastructure and facilities to the economically weaker section to compete with other regular students. This also leads to discrimination, as other children perceive they are inferior to them.

There is no effective monitoring mechanism to keep a check on the prejudice by school teachers and staff. Keeping a check on it and maintaining records is a tedious and time-consuming task.

his is furthermore challenging when children with a disability come into the picture. Protecting their right to education by ensuring the accessibility of education remains a distant priority for the schools.

Mid-day meal was started to give incentive to students to avail the education facility. One of the purposes of the program was also to reduce discrimination by making people eat together. But there are cases where discrimination was still reported in terms of the treatment towards a particular class of students.

Since these discriminations can be intentional or unintentional, it is difficult to measure and keep a record of the discrimination in schools. The prejudice leading to discrimination can be due to varied reasons, and working on each of them is a difficult and challenging task.

At the core of the issue is the tolerance for inequality and a belief that the underprivileged, marginalized, and person with disabilities are responsible for their situation. This has led to the creation of an intergenerational cycle which has been surviving and thriving for years. Simultaneously, society prefers academic results rather than inclusion and equality.


  1. All the stakeholders, including educational institutes, NGOs, state, and central government should create an environment that openly recognizes discrimination at all levels and create an environment for dialogue, discussion, and redressal of issues. It is suggested that every institute have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) comprising of teachers, parents, NGOs, district administration members encompassing every caste, religion, gender, race, etc. that may represent the educational institute being discussed. The ICC should take cognizance of any discriminatory behavior observed and take actions as per law. Every institute should keep a record of all the discriminatory behavior observed in the institute for audit by relevant authorities.
  2. Since the role of teachers are highly crucial in institutes. It is essential to train and reform teachers so that they are not just able to overcome their prejudices but also enable them to handle, sensitively deal with and eliminate discriminatory conduct by anyone in the education system, including other children, parents, teachers, etc.
  3. Institutes should have open discussion and sensitization about discrimination. The institutes should conduct workshops on prevalent discrimination in society. They should invite guests from discriminated groups to speak their experiences and feelings. Students will understand how discrimination cripples their society, which will change their perspective and attitude. It will be an engaging learning experience that will show that discrimination can happen with anyone their friends, family, neighbors, etc, and change starts with them.
  4. Educational institutes to be audited and certified Right To Education compliant, which means ensuring inclusive education in school. This inclusion should not just be in letter but also in spirit. The government should recognize those institutes by giving them ratings and offer incentives to such institutes.
  5. The educational institutes should give students the project to live a day or week like the marginalized groups and express their feelings and opinions after the project. They can tie-up with NGOs to carry out the activity. Seeing and experiencing the situation will change the outlook and perspective of the students. Once they know what it is to be a victim, they would not like to be the victimizers. The only way to learn inclusion is by practicing it.

Years of education and laws have not been able to keep away the prejudices, biases, and stigmas present in the classrooms and society.

Unfortunately, discrimination is common across all walks of life. However, one learns this at an early stage. Therefore, only education has the power to reduce it – and eventually prevent it. It won’t happen overnight, but we need to start asking the difficult questions; we need to question our biases so that we all are treated as a human race who equally deserve the chance to lead a happy and successful life.

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