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By Ipshita Agarwal

Edited by  Namitha Sadanand, Senior editor, The Indian Economist

In India, schools are called the ‘temples of education’. Temples are considered the most sacrosanct institutions, the belief in the sanctity of which is upheld by every strata of society. They say that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Rich, poor; male, female; black, white – everyone believes in His force. The marginalized believe that He will empower them with some tools to find a way out of their poverty and social conditions. One of the most important of these tools is said to be education. It is widely accepted that there is no equalizer as big as education – it is the way out of the labyrinth for those who have been victims of an apathetic society and their own poverty.

Yet, today, these very ‘places of worship’ and ‘temples of education’ have become discriminators within society, widening the societal gap with every passing day. Why and how, you may ask?

You go to any ‘renowned’ temple in India and wish to donate a handsome amount to the temple trust. In most temples, you will be escorted by a temple employee to the main shrine where the idol is housed. In the process, you would have circumvented countless people having stood there for hours in a queue that moves painfully slowly. What’s more, you will be granted the privilege to enter the small praying area closest to the idol in most temples, where entry for the general public is prohibited. The ‘panditji’ will perform a special ‘pooja’ for you, and you will then be escorted to all other such praying rooms in the temple, with a sense of exclusivity. All for what? For possessing the capability to donate a certain sum of money to the temple. How can we allow someone’s financial capability to circumvent the queues of worshipers, who are as devout, if not more, than the person who donated? Donations kept aside; even senior government officials are provided ‘praying privileges’.

Taking the case of education, educational institutions in India are the harbingers of elitism. They breed and propagate elitist behavior. Today, government schools in India are in a sad state, what with no trained teachers, lack of basic infrastructure and teaching innovation, and an apathetic environment. Private schools get all the ‘good’ kids. These schools nurture their students, provide them with the best faculty, infrastructure, teaching tools and support system. How are the students studying in private schools, any different from those in government schools? The financial capabilities of their parents determine their potential in the eyes of the education system, which then determines their destiny. Thus, education, which was supposed to provide a way out for the poor and marginalized, actually serves to widen the gap. At every step of the way, we support elitism, as a means to maintain our sense of exclusivity and superiority over those who cannot avail of the same facilities.

Now consider the most sacrosanct places of justice – and you think of the courts and the judicial system. The judiciary, as an institution, exists to fulfill the tenets of justice and equality in the eyes of the law for every citizen in the country, irrespective of her/his background. Courts are supposed to be the harbingers of justice. Yet, ever so often, we hear of judges becoming corrupt, major court cases being decided in the favor of the party who could afford to pay more and family members of known personalities being protected by these courts. The common man, who cannot afford a private lawyer, stands little chance to win against a rich industrialist or the son of a politician in a court case. Crimes for which compounding or settlement is not allowed are so often settled out of court. The most sacred temple of justice stands opposed to its very purpose of existence.

Elitism, as a philosophy and as a practice, has become so inbred in our value systems that we fail to realize where it exists. It has become so accepted by even the marginalized and poor that they do not put up a show of resistance. They accept it as their destiny and we, as our birth right.

When the equalizing forces of a society are themselves discriminators, how can we ever hope for a society that does not discriminate against a person on the basis of her/his background?

We require temples where each and every person is given equal opportunity for worship; we need hospitals where each and every patient is administered the same quality of treatment; we need schools where every teacher believes in the potential of each of her/his students; we need courts which fulfill their purpose and repose the faith of the wronged in the judiciary.

What we need are equal opportunities for each and every member of society. Equal opportunities drive equality at all levels, in all institutions – opportunity to pray equally, opportunity to study equally, opportunity to fight equally in a court.

Our sacred institutions need to realize and recognize that the elitism that they propagate actually widens the gap, which they seek to reduce. If we are to move towards equality, at least of opportunities, our sacrosanct institutions need to uphold that belief of equality. Only then is there hope of ever being able to talk about equality, devoid of hypocrisy.


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