Varnanam brahmano guru! Meaning: among all the varnas only the Brahmin can be appointed as a teacher. This dictum is followed in Indian society from time immemorial. But in contrast to this principle there has been frequent mention of a non-brahmin teacher called Shukracharya, the guru of the Rakshasas, in the Vedas and Puranas. Interestingly, there was a time when India earned the title of vishwa-guru ('the teacher of the world'). Needless to mention that the credit for this honour goes to another famous non-brahmin teacher, the Buddha, under the influence of whose philosophy India had built universities of international repute, such as Nalanda, Vikramshila, Odantpuri, Vallabhi etc., which attracted a large number of foreign students. Yet in popular knowledge, ancient Indian teachers and education are synonymous with the Brahmins.
The long list of famous Gurus - Dronacharya, Vasisth, Kripacharya, Manu and Gautam – circulated by mainstream culture consists of only Brahmins. These names are popular in Indian tales, myths, religious scriptures and to an extent are even considered history. However, one cannot call this as caste based reservation, because these gurus earned their position owing to their so-called 'merit'. The Brahmins' complete domination of teaching was of course not without any reason. The teaching profession is directly related with knowledge which is the key to human development and progress; in such a situation it is natural that the Brahmins restricted the teaching positions to themselves alone. Allowing non-brahmins to teach would lead to the collapse of their sacred fourfold societal division: so, how could they accept others as teachers?
In modern India too, there has been no significant change in the situation: like their ancestors Shukracharya and the Buddha, the Phule couple - Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule - and Dr Ambedkar too spent their whole lives for the sake of the poor and despised masses and successfully educated them about their rights and created awareness. But the 'mainstream' of Indian society does not see these leaders as synonymous with Teachers' Day. Instead, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's name is reserved for this great day and why not? He is a great philosopher of international repute and as a teacher, he also resembles, in some ways, the ideal vedic guru Dronacharya - who is still honored and remembered by Hindus for cutting off the thumb of his tribal student Eklavya to maintain the merit of his favorite student Arjuna.
It is true that Radhakrishnan didn't cut off the thumb of any of his students but he did commit intellectual theft of a student's work. Very few people know that Radhakrishnan's famous work 'Indian Philosophy' is largely plagiarized from the PhD thesis of Jadunath Sinha (please read: 'Subcontinental plagiarism' by Idrees Bakhtiar in the Dawn; also published in other South Asian media), one of his students. However, when Sinha came to know about this theft, unlike Eklavya, he didn't follow the path of sacrifice and instead filed a case in court against his teacher. It is another matter that owing to Radhakrishnan's influential position, the case was disposed of without causing much trouble to him. But how can truth be totally extinguished? It ultimately turned out that Radhakrishnan was not so lucky after all because most of the chapters of Sinha's thesis had already been published in other magazines prior to the publication of Indian Philosophy. Thus it was well proved, without the need of any court's intervention, that Radhakrishnan's most magnificent and glorious work was nothing but an intellectual theft.
Even today, there are many teachers in India who have earned their names in the academic world by plagiarizing the works of their students, like Radhakrishnan, and there are many more teachers who due to caste, religion and gender biases, like Dronacharya, force their students either to leave their education before completion, or even to commit suicide.
One needs to recount only the tragic case of Jaspreet Singh, a Dalit-Sikh student of Chandigarh's Government Medical College, to illustrate what kind of deleterious effect such biased teachers could have on their students' lives. On March 27, 2008, after a long period of harassment, Jaspreet ended his life by hanging himself in the hostel library as his casteist teacher deliberately failed him in his MBBBS final examination.
It is not in Chandigarh alone, but all over India, particularly in premier educational institutions such as IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and other central universities, that you will find frequent occurrence of suicides by Dalit and Tribal students every year. In recent months, on the complaints of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students of Safdarjung Medical College, New Delhi, about the casteism prevalent in their campus, a committee was appointed by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) under the chairmanship of Prof. Mungekar.
Among the many important findings of the committee was the ugly revelation that the teachers in the college were allotting marks to students on the basis of caste. In Jaspreet's case too, when his papers were rechecked by an expert committee, it was found that he had passed in all the subjects! But unfortunately, by the time he was vindicated, he had already lost the battle of his life.
This is not the case of higher education alone; school education is not much different. Reports of students being beaten so severely, by teachers, that some of them even lost their lives frequently appear in the media. Recently, there was a news report about a girl student being forced to drink her own urine by her teacher in Shantiniketan near Kolkata. There are many schools in rural India where dalit students are forced to clean toilets and sweep classrooms. But so strange is Indian culture that it grants the status of god to the teacher and anoints a guru who committed theft of his student's work as an ideal teacher!
However, one good news is that now a section of people have started raising their voice against this mainstream culture and are challenging the celebration of Teachers' Day on the birthday of Dr Radhakrishnan. This year, a large number of Dalit, Tribal and other backward people gathered at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, to commemorate January 3rd, the birthday of Savitribai Phule, as Education Day. As Dr Ambedkar once said: 'what is wrongly settled must not be accepted as tradition but must be resettled'.
Ratnesh Katulkar works in the Department of Dalit studies at Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi.
Cartoons by Unnamati Syama Sundar.