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nandini nair | Updated on September 05, 2014 Published on September 04, 2014

Well played: CREST uses theatre and group activities to dissolve caste differences in the classroom

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How the Kozhikode-based Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST) is ensuring that the Scheduled communities too partake in India’s growth story

It is just another day at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. Sons pull weak fathers out of autorickshaws. Wives fan prostrate husbands in the corridors. A father carries his bandaged child in his arms. And the vendor selling plastic files titled ‘My clear folder’ is doing brisk business outside the OPD.

But it isn’t just another day at AIIMS, the largest public hospital in Delhi, for it is the first day of a workshop for the new batch of MBBS students. Hospitals are singularly unsettling places, that liminal area between disease and health; the one place few choose to be. But for the 72 students who got admission this year, the toil, the sleepless nights, the arduous days are yet to begin. Right now they are busy listing ‘qualities’ with ‘leaders’ (‘Obedience’ — ‘Manmohan Singh’, they gleefully suggest), creating skits, playacting scenarios, and generally having a whale of a time.

While one might wonder how these activities will make doctors of these students, the workshop aims to make well-adjusted adults and caregivers of these teenagers. Organised by the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST), this weeklong session provides the students with a set of essential soft skills, which tend to be neglected during their years of studies.

Between 2006 and 2012, 19 lower-caste students committed suicide at various professional colleges across India, reported a Caravan article. The death of a first-year student at AIIMS two years ago forced India’s leading colleges to urgently take stock of issues around social exclusion.

In classrooms, divisions arise all too quickly along the lines of skin colour, dress, occupation of one’s parents, rank in the competitive exams and, of course, language. These demarcations create a ghetto-like scenario, separating the ‘us’ from the ‘them’. Vinod Krishnan TY, associate programme coordinator, says that even in ‘progressive’ Kerala, the brand of your jeans can reveal your class. Lee and Levis come on top, Wrangler in the middle, and Ruff & Tuff at the bottom. An anthropologist and researcher, he says he has heard students say, “I wouldn’t wear Ruff & Tuff because those people wear it.”

CREST helps to dissolve these arbitrary and dangerous divisions through the power of theatre and group exercises. It hopes to replace the fractures of caste with classroom camaraderie. At AIIMS, the day is spent in a series of activities that force the students to mingle, cooperate, conceive ideas and implement plays and projects.

Initially, CREST organised workshops only for students who got admission through reservation, but quickly realised that this only furthered the divide in campuses. Krishnan says, “If we segregated students in a programme like this, then by attending it you are declaring your caste, your capabilities...” With the primary goal being to reassure students from SC and ST communities that they deserve to be in these premier institutes, that their parents made this country, they realised it was best to organise combined sessions with the whole batch, where issues of caste are never directly addressed but where the agenda is — make friends before you make divisions. In a deeply casteist country like India, where birth can still determine professions and opportunities, often that is all students need to hear.

Ask Ajay Singh, from Barmer, Rajasthan. Belonging to a family of daily wage labourers, he studied in Barmer until Class X and moved to Bharatpur for plus two. The second of three brothers, with a younger sister, he came to know about IIT from posters and ads. His family wasn’t even aware of the hallowed institution. He travelled to Kota for his IIT-JEE coaching, where he stuck formula and charts above the kitchen stove and sink, to ensure that he was studying all the time. When he got admission for a BTech at IIT Delhi, his family were disbelieving rather than enthusiastic.

“I first came to Delhi on June 7, 2010,” he says, “How can I ever forget that date?” While the bigness of the big city might have impressed him, the lack of ghee in food disappointed him. He was most astonished by parents dropping their wards off at IIT. “No one has ever dropped me, at any time,” he says, with a laugh and a shake of the head.

Getting admission was only the first hurdle. Four years later, Singh — now an MTech student at IIT who exudes an easy confidence — does not dwell on the past. Dr Rangarajan, who works with CREST and conducts communication classes, remembers a different boy — a terrified and overwhelmed teenager who considered dropping out on day two. The classes were too hard, the mode of instruction incomprehensible and the expectations unreal. Students like him — often the first in the village to make it to these top institutes — carry the hopes of a community, not merely a family. Singh, who has now become a local celebrity in his village, says, “Ranga Sir wrote in my notebook, ‘You will be a star one day’. That meant a lot to me.” At times, such simple words of encouragement can shift the scale from dropping out to forging ahead. His mother has never visited Delhi as she remains behind the confines of a ghungat (veil), but Singh has travelled miles, he meets the new batches at AIIMS to motivate them, and hopes to go to the US or UK for a PhD and become a scientist.

The back story

CREST is an autonomous institution under the Government of Kerala that was incubated by Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, from 2002 to 2008. It was conceived as a ‘national institute of humanities, science and professional studies, addressing the needs of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes while integrating with the globalised economy.’

It organises training programmes, seminars, and colloquia that address issues concerning the Scheduled communities, to help ensure that they too partake in India’s growth story. It conducts these short-term orientation programmes for undergraduate students across various Indian Institutes of Technology, National Institutes of Technology and engineering colleges of Kerala to improve the performance/aspiration level of students. Krishnan says, “CREST is the only such programme in India that caters to a particular sector to help them compete in an open market.”

CREST’s flagship programme is a five-month Post Graduate Certificate Course for Professional Development (PGCCPD), held in Calicut. The course provides skills to enable candidates from Scheduled communities to compete for jobs in the open market and for higher studies. Forty students from Scheduled communities are admitted to each programme. Krishnan says, “When such students go for campus selections, they might not have the required confidence level. Recruiters look for other qualities like ‘smart’ and ‘savvy’. Those from the margins tend to be less aggressive and don’t have the required cultural capital. This programme helps instil those qualities.”

Kavitha KG, from Thodupuzha in Idukki district, Kerala, an alumna from the 2011 batch, now works as an auditor in Thiruvananthapuram. Speaking in perfect English over the phone, the 29-year-old says, “I can easily divide my life into before and after CREST.” She believes that like the other candidates, she too was “very talented, but in a shell”. The sessions on personality development, the mentorship and weekly workshops helped these students gain a new confidence. From the Malayarayan tribe, Kavitha feels that CREST’s biggest contribution is that it made her proud of her own lineage. As part of the five-month course, her classmates and she had to interview an elderly person of their community who was not a family member. Speaking to a village elder, she came to know about the ceremonies, the patterns of worship, architecture and vocation of her own community — from this awareness arose a quiet satisfaction in her own adivasi past, her own story.

(This article was published on September 4, 2014)

Published on September 04, 2014
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