Posts Tagged ‘ Separate but Equal ’

An Education: The diversity in India’s classrooms is its greatest strength

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 is the latest example of public welfare laws to be passed by the Parliament. Even though this law promises to make elementary education more accessible to every child, there are several apprehensions as to its actual outcome.

The Supreme Court in its judgment on 12th April 2012 in the matter of Society of Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan v. Union of India, declared the RTE to be a child-centric law to support its decision in upholding the constitutionality of a provision in the law that mandated private and specified category schools to provide free elementary education to 25% children belonging to a weaker section and disadvantaged groups on admitting them to Class I. Although there are reasons to see why its detractors perceive it as an infrastructure-centric law.

Take for example, the provisions (See S.18 & 19) that necessitate every private school to fulfill a minimum number of criterion, that can be economically burdensome on a lot of financially weaker private schools, to obtain a Certificate of Recognition, without which they risk losing recognition, and consequently, shut operations. (Don’t worry, the children are taken care of. A provision mandates that no school shall be forced to close operations unless the children are transferred to another school, although it is again debatable how many schools are equipped to absorb such children of de-recognized schools).

The other main criticism is directed at the ambiguous procedure prescribed for the admission of reserved category students in private and specified schools (See S. 12 & 13).  Critics say that in the process of outlawing any screening procedures in private schools for such 25% of children belonging to myriad classes of disadvantage (viz., SC, ST, economically weaker section, cultural/linguistic or gender minorities) private schools would now be forced to explore a lottery system in order to ensure that the admissions for the reserved quota of students is based on a purely random selection method, in which case the odds are in favour of children who belong to categories such as SC, ST and the cultural/linguistic or gender minorities who may NOT be poor, and consequently poor families who cannot afford to educate their children have a smaller chance to get in. Yet it is a considerable improvement from until just a couple of years ago when a poor parent couldn’t even dream of affording a private education for his/her child.

I support the rationale in eliminating any screening procedures like interviewing or testing a child, or the parents, which are meant only to profile and eliminate ‘undesired’ candidates.

Why am I upbeat about the RTE then, you ask?

Well, infrastructure and economics is not my forte. I will leave the hard issues, or as I like to call them, boring issues, to persons who are qualified to comment on them to suggest changes in that department. I will talk about the soft issues, or as I like to call them, fun issues. There is a more nuanced criticism of the RTE that is couched in a language that purports to be politically-correct, but the dirt behind it is for everyone to see if they choose to.

This is my defense of the RTE’s policy on inclusive education.

The most contentious issue was the provision of the RTE that made it mandatory for a private unaided school and specified school to admit children belonging to a disadvantaged group and from weaker sections to the extent of at least 25% of class strength to Class I, and continues to remain so inspite of the SC order.

The SC declared this to be a reasonable restriction placed on private schools in pursuit of their trade/profession, as is permitted under the Constitution of India. The economic argument against it is understandable, as poorer schools may have to do with 25% lesser funds during the Academic Year. Although RTE  says that the Government will reimburse every private school the amount of expenditure it incurs on the education of every such child that is admitted based on the 25% quota.

The sociological argument against it is the one i have a problem with; one that suggests that children belonging to poorer families won’t “fit in” with children dominantly belonging to middle class to richer  families.

In a country where 700-800 million people are poor and have health-charts that are comparable or worse than several countries in that continent everybody loves to compare its failing benchmarks with, Africa, it is an affront to the elitist schools’ free-market sensibilities to reasonably expect of them to provide free education to a quarter of children in their classes upto elementary level. These so-called bastions of elite education worry that their “standards of performance” will suffer once anyone without merit is allowed to gain admission. Whose standards of performance are we measuring first of all? And if only merit were to be a criteria to deserve an education and be a have-it-all, why does P Chidambaram act like he’s got a big one stuck up his backside?

Perhaps the most acidic expression of distaste towards this step of more inclusive classrooms comes from an article titled “The RTE Act: A cruel and unusual punishment”:

“We live in a deeply segregated and hierarchical society. The poor are regarded with contempt, as lesser beings who are to be kept at bay. We want our maid to clean our bathrooms, but we don’t want her kid in our son’s classroom. The level of hostility  these children will encounter will be no less, more so since most private schools are virulently opposed to the act.

So these children, between the ages of 5 and 14, will enter an environment where they are barely tolerated, and in many cases, treated with disdain – by their peers, teachers, and authorities. Merely outlawing mental or physical harassment in law doesn’t eliminate it in life – especially not in India. Rather than remove “the psychological barriers” that hold these children back, it will likely reinforce them, and at a very tender age.

A recent Outlook story on Dalit student suicides revealed the intense hostility faced by them in places like AIIMS and IIT – which often drives them to depression and suicide. How do we think a six year old will bear up in that kind of an environment? And how much do we think they will learn?”

Notice the tone of the language used. These are loaded-statements about social biases. Yes, one can generally win a TV-debate by exploiting the dark history of racial and class discrimination in Indian society, and its prevalence in contemporary times. But the RTE is not a TV-debate. Even though it may be flawed with various misgivings about the mode of delivery of the service, it is seeking to create a system of opportunity to encourage more children to seek at least elementary education, and with “quotable-quotes” by forthright argumentative Indians such as above, a poor child looses yet another opportunity to see the inside of a elementary school.

These ideas are so redundant they make me want to quote a line from a song by that hack of an activist-turned-rocker (or was it the other way around?), Bono: ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same’. Yeah, take that FirstPost!

It is outright class-discrimination. Observe also how unapologetic the argument appears about the exploits of abuse by our fee-paying kids against the protected ones. It is as good as giving approval to the kind of offensive sensibilities one hopes to educate children against when they are sent to school to become more intelligent persons. Instead of condoning such dangerous and irresponsible acts, the critics would do well to understand that it is primarily a parent’s job to inculcate a sense of civility and harmony in their child to understand and be polite to persons from varied backgrounds.

What’s that? You think I’m crazy? Okay, let’s even assume this argument is born out of the best intentions. Still, giving legitimacy to it will be perpetuating segregation of the worst kind. The critics would rather exhort the Government to increase spending on public education and allow good access to education for poor kids. It’s alright, but it’s never happened. It’s tantamount to saying ‘Separate, but equal’. I’m sure the level of distrust between Hindu and Muslim society post-Independence must have been at its peak, but did that mean their kids studied in exclusive schools?

This brings me to my second point.

As per the proponents of this argument there exist only two worlds in our classrooms that need to reconcile their differences: the rich/middle-class and the poor. Allow me the opportunity to burst your bubble. Following is a list of   persons that all along existed in a parallel universe with you fabulous ones, while you were busy planning to go out for a “cheese pizza” with your hot classmate (these are just some that come to mind at the moment) :

  1. Children that are Muslim.
  2. Children that ethnically belong to the North-Eastern states like Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
  3. Children that belong to socially disadvantaged groups like a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe.
  4. Children that are gay and lesbian (If you are bi, stop complaining, that was always a cool thing).
  5. Children suffering from a disability.
  6. Children that are not ‘hot’. (Granted, this might seem like a cosmetic issue, but people around you will testify that teenage bitchiness is as upsetting as classist barbs).

It has always been the case that, generally, children from dominant social positions have ruled the school-hierarchy, (Too much political-correctness itself becomes politically-incorrect, hence, I am merely stating facts from personal experience without taking away the merit from anyone who has been an asset to their schools). While children from   weaker social positions have been often subjected to verbal abuse (being called a terrorist, Paki, cutlet, chinky, Gurkha, chamar, bhangi, homo, faggot, hijra etc.), and very often also physical abuse for exactly this: possessing a distinct identity. Assimilation of diverse identities has always been an uneasy issue all over India (for some without choice), so why this hullabaloo when the same is desired to be achieved at the smallest levels of our system, where such issues can be nipped in the bud?

Try substituting ‘a Muslim, Dalit or a gay child’ instead of a poor child in the excerpts from the article quoted above, and see if it still makes sense(don’t go verbatim). Also, try asking any of your friends who might belong to one or more of the categories mentioned above, what it was like going through school where they might have been exposed to a hostile environment because of their identity. It is difficult enough for many young adults to understand their distinct identities, and then to face ridicule, insult and discrimination from peers and having come out of it with strength is a different learning experience altogether. If asked, I’m sure many would say school was a bleak time in their life, but would still choose to go through an integrated school and learn valuable life-lessons rather than go through an artificially-created comfortable environment that could push them over the edge once exposed to the world outside school. Our classrooms have been privy to several battles, and they have not fallen yet, which is a testament to the reconciliation of our divisions, at least to some degree. If stories of violence against children who hail from North-Eastern India or who belong to any disadvantaged group of society should teach us anything, it should be that parents are increasingly getting alienated from their children’s lives, and due to  inadequate nurturing and a lack of a sound value-system, the child is prone to victimize other vulnerable groups of children. Home is where things need to be re-visited at, for it to translate into healthy classrooms.

This brings me to my other point. While it is true that a lot of this hate and discrimination is still going around, the children are smartening up too. I’m sure many of us have seen an insensitive remark gone un-forgiven by friends. Just last year, my 11-year old sister realized that one of her friends was being disrespectful to another girl in their friend-circle, because she is Muslim. I don’t blame the child entirely to harbour such ideas, because her mother is known to blurt her stupid thoughts around her. I don’t know what exactly transpired between the girls, but today, all of them still play together, except the problem-child.

All children go through different kinds of trouble at school, some more difficult than others. The point is, we all learn to develop some basic survival skills(some go to Self-Deprecatory Humour Class, while others go radical with Emotional-Eating 101) and eventually turn out as fine adults, so please don’t under-estimate the children because of some dumb problem created by bigots centuries ago. Give them a chance, and they’ll show us they’re smarter than we think they are.

There are a hundred good reasons to segregate children and put each of them in exclusive social-category schools. Do we give in to the worst in our human nature, or do we accept it as a challenge and make it work by re-thinking social attitudes?

But there is an even better argument to make them all go through the hellish period of school together, which is perfectly encapsulated in one of my most loved speeches of all times. When leading Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 5th April 1968, Robert F Kennedy (then Presidential candidate) delivered a speech that reflected on what it meant to live in a diverse society. A few excerpts from ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ are reproduced below:

“For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short span of life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hated or revenge.

 Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

 But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

 Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

If you still don’t get it, watch Remember the Titans now!

Notes –

  1. Summary Analysis of the Supreme Court decision by PRS legislative Research – http://www.prsindia.org/theprsblog/?p=1442
  2. The RTE Act: A cruel and unusual punishment, Firstpost – http://www.firstpost.com/india/the-rte-act-a-cruel-and-unusual-punishment-274965.html
  3. Let’s stop pretending there’s no racism in India, The Hindu – http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article3466554.ece
  4. Full-extract of ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ speech by Robert F Kennedy, John F Kennedy, Presidential Library and Museum – http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx
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