india, caste, killing, crime, education, discrimination, racism
A student demonstrates against Uttar Pradesh government in 2020. Uttar Pradesh records the highest rate of caste-based crimes. Nikhit Dohre’s case is the latest. Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images

‘Our Kids Are Dying in Schools’: Is India’s Caste System Turning Teachers Into Killers?

On September 29, a school teacher accused of beating his student to death was arrested. Cops say it’s an isolated murder, but his family says it isn’t.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID

Nikhit Dohre came home from school without his usual cheerful disposition. Normally, the 15-year-old would dive into chores to make life easy for his economically-disadvantaged family. But on September 7, Nikhit came back with blood oozing from his face, and his body covered in deep-blue bruises. 

Nikhit’s family lives in the dusty underbelly of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has the highest caste-based hate crime rates in the country. He told his family that his upper-caste teacher, a man named Ashwini Singh, beat him with a metal rod for making a mistake in a school test. For the next 10 days, Nikhit was in and out of hospitals. On Monday, Nikhit succumbed to his injuries. 


“My son’s mistake was not to get a wrong answer in a test. It was his caste,” Nikhit’s father Raju Dohre told VICE World News. 

In the world’s largest democracy, Hindus still practise the 3,000-year-old social hierarchy that divides them into four supposedly divinely ordained groups. Dalits, like the Dohres, fall outside the Hindu caste system, and are subjected to the banned practice of untouchability, daily humiliation and extreme violence. 

India banned the caste-based hate crime of “untouchability” in 1950, but the discriminatory caste system has had a violent uptake with the resurgence of Hindu nationalism across the country. A person of “Scheduled Caste” – the official term for 1,109 oppressed castes – faces a hate crime every 10 minutes in India. In the last two months, at least four children from oppressed castes, including Nikhit, have died after allegedly being beaten in classrooms by their teachers from dominant castes.

india, caste, killing, crime, education, discrimination, racism

A photo of Nikhit Dohre (left) shared by his father Raju. Raju said his son was in excruciating pain for weeks until he succumbed o injuries inflicted by his teacher. Photo

This week, massive protests shook Auraiya, one of the state’s most underdeveloped districts, where Nikhit lived.

“Why else are our kids beaten up in schools?” Dhore said over the phone from Auraiya. In India’s caste system, family’s surnames often denote the caste as well as the occupation the family is expected to stay within. Dohre denotes manual labour. He said his village has an equal distribution of Dalits and dominant caste families, but the latter take up powerful positions in administration, police and education and want to keep his caste in menial jobs and out of school. 


In schools across India, a large proportion of 200 million Dalits face caste discrimination and violence. In Rajasthan state, a dominant caste teacher was arrested for killing a 9-year-old Dalit student because the latter drank water reserved for upper-caste teachers. The same month, another upper-caste teacher beat a 13-year-old Dalit student to death for not paying school fees on time, while another was arrested for thrashing a 14-year-old Dalit student for requesting to go to the toilet. Yet another was arrested for assaulting a Dalit student for sitting in the front row of his class. 

The reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, experts and activists say, as the majority of incidents go unreported. “We all know who governs the local administrations, and people of Dalit communities are afraid of lodging complaints with the police station,” Vivek Kumar, a professor at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who researches caste in Indian democracy and politics, told VICE World News. 

Official data shows a disproportionate underrepresentation of oppressed castes in India’s police services as well as the judiciary

Schools, too, are primarily dominated by dominant-caste teachers. There’s no data for primary schools, but official data show that Dalits and indigenous people account for less than 5 percent of teaching roles in higher education. Meanwhile, Dalit students are segregated from dominant-caste students, forced to clean toilets or tortured for speaking up. In 2016, the suicide death of university student Rohith Vemula sparked a global #DalitLivesMatter movement, exposing high rates of Dalit suicides in the education system. 


On Thursday, Auraiya police arrested Ashwini Kumar, the teacher accused of killing Dohre. The arrest followed Raju’s police complaint last week, which he said didn’t come easy as the cops dismissed him initially, saying his son must have done something wrong to provoke the teacher. 

Kumar has been booked for culpable homicide and for violating laws that protect Dalits. Charu Nigam, the local police superintendent, didn’t respond to specific questions about the case, but said in a statement that Kumar was caught while attempting to flee the state and will soon be presented to the local courts. 

When asked whether the police look at it as a caste-based crime, an official who spoke on condition of anonymity told VICE World News that “there is no caste in crimes.” The same official confirmed that Kumar is a “thakur”, a dominant caste whose members are often accused of attacking, raping and killing Dalits in the state. 

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The accused Ashwini Kumar (in mask) was arrested by the local police on September 29. Photo: Auraiya Police

On Wednesday, after massive protests seeking justice for Nikhit turned violent, the police registered a complaint against nearly 300 people, including Raju, his family, and over a hundred Dalits. 

“Our kid dies and we are the ones to face a police complaint,” said Raju. Chandra Shekhar Azad, a prominent Dalit rights leader in India, called this move by the Uttar Pradesh police a “suppression of Dalits.”


Even as U.S. universities ban caste-based discrimination in its campuses, in India, this is a distant dream. “One critical aspect these crimes highlight is how much upper castes are afraid of Dalits getting education,” said professor Vivek Kumar. “Not only is there a fear of their jobs being taken by the so-called untouchables, but also, who will be left behind to do their menial labour?”

For Raju, the suspect’s arrest isn’t enough. He has requested financial compensation from the state government, and he wants the riot case against him and his community dropped. At home, there’s a pall of fear and trauma. His 10-year-old son Raghav, who brought his bleeding brother home, hasn’t gone back to school since, and the family hasn’t eaten in 20 days. 

“We heard that another kid of our caste was beaten up by his teacher a few days ago,” said Raju. “Even our youngest will not be spared because of caste discrimination.”

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