Colourful bands and tattoos may be fancy wearables and art forms for many, but for students in several government schools in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, these symbolise their caste identities and deep-rooted prejudices.
Cuddalore in north Tamil Nadu is dominated by Most Backward Class Vanniyars, while Scheduled Castes, the second largest in number, account for nearly 30 percent of the population, with the two communities being at odds with each other for long.
The tug of war between the two has been spilling over to schools in deep pockets of the district, where compound walls are painted with graffiti of outfits espousing their respective causes, with students seeking to assert their caste identities.
A red and blue wristband denotes the suppressed caste or leanings towards a regional Dalit-based political outfit, while a yellow-green one points to Vanniyars or support to a political party known to be backing the community, said a police officer.
Tattooing of a single star or a mango, symbols of the rival parties, are among other means used by students to exhibit their caste affiliations.
Frequent conflicts erupt between students for reasons as innocuous as tucking in shirts, boys talking to girl students, wearing pressed clothes and having a neat haircut, the officer working in the district told PTI on condition of anonymity.
Inevitably, there is a backlash from the suppressed community. "Caste conflicts are a regular affair in schools. Even some teachers have a bias and mete out unfair treatment to students of lower castes," the officer said.
Three FIRs - involving caste-based tiffs between students - had been registered in a local police station so far this year, he added.
In view of caste-based tussles among the students, a 17 point code of conduct, prohibiting among other things, use of such colour bands and tattoos in schools had been issued by the district administration.
The rules, later adopted by the Education Department for all schools in the state, were issued during the tenure of Johny Tom Varghese as the sub-collector of Cuddalore. Varghese, who has since been transferred, said schools should be kept out of politics and electoral campaigns.
"Students must explore the complexities of caste and culture, but in an academic sense, which does not promote hatred," he told PTI. But the Dalits feel that flaunting of such affiliations help them. "The exhibits guard us against troubles.
It sends a message that we have a network to fight back. No longer do we feel insecure of belonging to the Scheduled Caste," a parent said.
The number of FIRs, the police officer said, could have been much higher had it not been for efforts by police in settling several issues amicably. "Local politicians try to gain mileage out of such issues even if rival students declare a truce.
We have appealed to students and parents not to take up trivial issues or give issues a communal twist," the officer said. A district official said a teacher was recently suspended for allegedly restricting Dalit students from using the toilet in a school.
The official, however, said the 17-point code of conduct was being strictly followed in the schools. Kaani Nilamum Mupporumai Aniyum, an activist collective working with government schools in Naduveerapattu,C N Palayam, Vellakkarai and surrounding villages in the district, came out with a report early this year in which it noted that there has been a sharp increase in cases against juveniles in the belt in recent years.
Radhika Ganesh of the activist collective said the Dalit community felt injustice had been historically perpetrated towards them and hence believed aggression on their part was justified.
"Even parents advise their children not to be passive," she said, adding the collective was extending its activities to southern parts of the state, where caste conflicts have been rampant in schools.
In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took note of the reported use of different colours by school students to identify or indicate caste in southern Tirunelveli district, known for violent clashes between OBCs and Dalits.