“I think the first time I really recognized the potency of communal discrimination in schools was while I was teaching in a private school in Delhi in 2017. A student(upper caste) had come crying to me saying that his best friend(a Muslim) had not only touched his tiffin with his bare hands, but had also finished half of it. This was nothing out of the ordinary; except this was an auspicious day, and according to him, his religion cautioned that eating food contaminated (jhoothan ho jana) by a member of any other caste or community on this day could be sinful for him. This was what his family had told him, and he was mortally terrified of some eternal judgement book where this incident would probably leave an indelible mark. Being new to the school and the profession, I was at a loss for words. At the time I managed to discard the incident as a one-off event, without thinking of it as having any structural or systemic implication.”
— From the Introductory post of The Delek Archives
The Delek Education Foundation
The Delek Education Foundation was established in September, 2019 with a view to make an intervention in the field of school children’s access to books and reading. Co-founded by two Ashoka University Young India Fellows Bhaswar Faisal Khan and Rajshree Behara, the organization aims to build a network of free community libraries and develop a curriculum of reading programs and activity workshops for members of these libraries. The Community Library, Noida is the first initiative taken by Delek foundation. The library is located in the girls’ hostel of Mahamaya Balika Intercollege and at the moment, houses about 750 books of different reading levels. The children view this library very differently from the teacher-supervised school library not only because it has open cabinets and books beyond their syllabus, but also because they can participate directly in ordering, arranging and cataloguing books, and generally customizing the library space themselves. They are also enthused about the monthly storytelling, creative writing, art and design workshops organized by friends of the Delek team. Older children additionally get career counselling and mentorship sessions over call or otherwise, and this is the only activity that has continued functioning even after the Covid lockdowns began. It is partly because of these interactions with the school children that the idea for the Delek Archives emerged in 2020.
The Delek Archives
As pointed out by activists, students, teachers, scholars and others, educational spaces are full of inequalities, overt and covert discriminations, exclusions and violence. This is reflected in policies, practices, pedagogies, curriculum content, as well as in interpersonal interactions. While this has some visibility in discussions related to colleges and university campuses, it is far less common in the school education discourse. This is partly because school structures are more rigid and students often do not have a lot of say in what is decided for them. Moreover, owing to the infantilization and patronization of children, that the culture of schooling in India often perpetuates, even if they are to speak out, they are ignored or suppressed. Besides there are all sorts of problems with school children’s testimonies since most of them are by definition, below the age of consent (18 years). Hence any exercise of their independent agency may meet with the charge of them being brainwashed or influenced. The Delek Archives was initially started with this very idea.
An immediate inspiration for the project was Stephanie P. Jones’ Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools which keeps a current account of all kinds of racialized violence in US schools. Indian websites and social media profiles that have been major inspirations are Nirantar, PARI and CasteCrimeWatch. The plan was to document instances of islamophobia and casteism in school contexts primarily through testimonies of students, ex-students, teachers, and then also to connect these threads to the broader systemic nature of marginalization. This is because testimonies have been an important part of conflict related archives, due to their ability to foreground personal and intimate experiences, and are representative of a bottom-up approach. The genre was also acceptable to most of our contributors, and most stories in the archives are in the form of anecdotes.
Gradually, we started accepting personal stories beyond student-centric narratives. Both young and senior faculty wrote about times they were bullied by administrators and guardians, and also about instances when they had inadvertently been the perpetrators. We also got one contribution from a school textbook editor who wrote about the kind of dilemmas they face in including or rejecting certain content.
In order to link these stories to the larger educational discourse, we started building a database. It has links to a large repertoire of sources and texts pertaining to surveys, policies, news reports, op-eds, curriculum directives, academic work. Depending on the nature of the text, it is placed under a specific subheading. Sometimes, in the form of reading lists, some links are clubbed as “series”: for example, the Mid-Day meal series, the Digital Divide series, etc.
While working on the database, it was unanimously decided by the team that we must also include the interventions and alternatives that so many people in this field are exploring in several capacities. So now the database also has a section on lesson plans, critical-creative pedagogic methods, as well as institutional and personal examples. Speaking of interventions, we did a couple of collaborations with two other platforms : Orikalankini and Turbine Bagh. Orikalankini’s teen fellows sent us three of their projects on Dalit feminism to be published by our platform. This was also one of the ways by which we solve the issue of getting consent from our young contributors — if we approach them through a third body, we do not have to involve their parents from our end. With Turbine Bagh, which is an artist-activist platform based in the UK, we published one of their children’s letters about the Elgar Parishad arrests. We thought it reflected the spirit of teaching caste awareness to children through an immediate and ongoing event.
We were concerned about the nature of the relationship we build with our contributors. We always take the consent of people who are giving their testimony about the nature of the post they want to make: interview/ personal write-up/ art/ photography/ an audio recording, etc. One of us usually establishes contact with a potential contributor over email, social media or in person and we have a chat with them about it. This approach is not perfect, as it sometimes is weird and too random to approach a complete stranger about some traumatic memory from their past. So, in most cases, we try to go through a friend with whom they would be more comfortable in opening up. Even then, we have had many rejections and backing-out-at-the-last-moment episodes. And that is okay.
We wish that the archives of personal testimonies, along with the database would help in sustaining a important dialogue about discrimination in school education in India. We use our social media handles on Instagram and Facebook to not only to publicize our stories, but also to amplify and advocate for other platforms doing similar work as ours. The hope is that we can create a network of people trying to spread awareness for a more inclusive and safe school environment for children.
This article was commissioned by Sritama Chatterjee
Titas Bose is a PhD student at University of Chicago, working on children’s fiction in postcolonial India. She is the editor of the Delek Archives, the archival wing of the Delek Education Foundation.