The spirit of protest remains alive and well in India

If parents and teachers were able to join together to ensure the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, it would eventually be impossible to ignore their voices

If parents and teachers were able to join together to ensure the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, it would eventually be impossible to ignore their voices

I recently finished reading Ramachandra Guha’s excellent book “Gandhi Before India.” Guha is one of my favourite writers on India, and along with John Keay and William Dalrymple has provided detailed insights into the many historical influences upon the development of that complex country. In this, Guha’s most recent book, he demonstrates how Gandhi’s experiences whilst training for the law in England, but more especially during his time in South Africa, were critical in shaping his social and political theories, and even more so his confidence as a leader and social reformer. In his early days in Natal, Gandhi was far from the confident and astute leader of men and spiritual guide that he became in the second half of his life. In “Gandhi Before India,” Guha discusses how Gandhi’s association with supportive Europeans and local Indian and Chinese leaders in South Africa and his reading of Tolstoy and Ruskin alongside the works of great Indian thinkers such as Raychandbhai, helped him to develop as an astute politician and community activist.

I have been reading Gandhi’s own writings alongside much of what has been written about him for the past forty years, and have come to admire him not as a saintly figure, as he is commonly described in some of the more hagiographic works, but certainly as a great social and political reformer and a man of outstanding principle and humanity. Whilst he was undoubtedly flawed, particularly in  relationships with  his family and in some of his denials of the values of certain aspects of modern science, such as the efficacy of modern medicine, he did provide an example of how we might live for the greater benefit of society, and in support of those who are the most vulnerable members of our communities.

I suspect that many people if asked to describe Gandhi’s greatest achievements  would identify his leadership in the campaign for Indian independence. Furthermore, they are likely to say that he committed himself to achieving this  through the use of nonviolent means and paved the way for other leaders who followed him in various struggles for freedom. Significant world figures such as Dr Martin Luther King junior, and Aung San Suu Kyi have cited Gandhi as influencing their work and the ways in which they have approach their struggles for justice. But it is also true to say that many less influential people have learned much about how they may conduct themselves in order to overcome oppression or injustice through his example. Gandhi gave us satyagraha (roughly translated as “soul force”) as a non-violent means of protest. This is often (wrongly in my opinion) interpreted as passive resistance, a term I don’t like, because the word passive implies that the use of satyagraha requires little action on the part of the protester. This form of protest or demonstration proved highly successful in Gandhi’s campaigns in  South Africa and India and remains a potentially potent means of effecting social and political change.

I was reminded of the importance of protest this morning when catching up with news through various Indian media outlets. My attention was drawn to a picture in the Hindu newspaper (June 5th) of two fathers seated cross legged at the door of the office of the Education Department in Puducherry along with their two children, a girl and a boy. The newspaper article reports that the two men, described as a hawker and a tailor were both protesting that a school, located near their homes was refusing access to their children, despite the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009). One of the fathers is quoted as saying:-

“This protest is not only for our children’s admission, we want the State government to implement the RTE Act in letter and in spirit.”

It is reported that the police eventually removed the protesters who were then allowed to return home.

A search across Indian media indicates that such protests are becoming increasingly common in various parts of India. Scores of parents from Pollachi, Mettupalyam and other parts of the Coimbatore district staged a sit-in protest at the offices of the Chief Educational Officer in the city on Saturday. These parents claim that schools are refusing to admit students  under the requirements of the RTE that expects the reservation of a quota to enable students from poorer families, scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, or those with disabilities to gain access to school. Some of the protesters claim that private schools were admitting children from “affluent families”  stating that they were legitimate candidates under the requirements of the Act.

Similar reports of protests can be found from many parts of India and it is clear that an Act that was well intentioned and gave a commitment to improve the educational opportunities of previously marginalised groups, has run into  difficulties.

At present the protests appear to be small scale and ill-coordinated and as such their impact is somewhat muted. However, in a democratic nation the right to protest is recognised and the voices of individuals and groups who feel that they are aggrieved can be heard. The spirit of non-violent protest is clearly alive and well in India and is being used in support of children and their right to receive a better education. I am sure that Gandhi would have approved of these potential new satyagrahis, though I also suspect that he would be raising his eyes at the fact that there appears to be little co-ordinated national response, towards those who are failing to ensure the fair implementation of an Act intended to change the face of Indian education.

4 thoughts on “The spirit of protest remains alive and well in India

  1. To be honest, I was flooded with a mixture of feelings when I read this – anger, frustration, shame, and an overwhelming powerlessness at being unable to change all this with a magic wand as well as some sort of failure to understand how this can be changed, but I would admit, the first three were dominant and in that order. However, I am also comforted by those rare signs which indicate a tiny glimmer of hope that it will change one day, but at the moment, I wish with Tagore, “into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake”.

  2. Hi Benny,
    Wonderful to see Tagore’s words posted – what a great humanitarian. The greatest frustration I feel is when people in positions of comfort, such as myself and yes, even you, seem to do so little to raise awareness of these issues. Unless we raise awareness and express opinions we are destined to remain in a world of such gross inequalities.

  3. India is a land of diversity is known to all. But how this diversity leads to exclusion (e.g. housing, employment, healthcare, education, civic engagement and democratic participation in social processes) is not recognized by many.Children with disabilities and special needs also have the right to education just as normal children do. It is hoped that inclusive education may help break down age-old traditions, practices and discrimination, as children from different communities participate together in education.In World Education Forum, Dakar, 2000, countries agreed on ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, will have access to complete free and compulsory education of good quality. J.P. Unnikrishnan, the Court affirmatively stated that education is a vocation, mission and not a profession, trade or business. Right to education has been treated as one of transcendental importance in the life of the individual and has been recognized not only in this country since thousands of years but all over the world. The citizens had a right to free and compulsory education to children between the age group of 6 to 14 years.It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats to children from underprivileged families (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan).. It also prohibits all unrecognised schools from practice, and makes provisions for no donation or capitation fees and no interview of the child or parent for admission. The Act also provides that no child shall be held back, expelled, or required to pass a board examination until the completion of elementary education. There is also a provision for special training of school drop-outs to bring them up to par with students of the same age. Also prevents physical punishment or mental harrassment.The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights shall review the safeguards for rights provided under this Act, investigate complaints[34] and have the powers of a civil court in trying cases. States should constitute a State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) or the Right to Education Protection Authority (REPA) within six months of 1st April 2010. Any person wishing to file a grievance must submit a written complaint to the local authority.But it is quite sad to note that India is far behind in realization of this goal.The inclusion needs substantial and sustained effort at the level of school, teachers, community and the system.

  4. Hi Meena,
    Thank you for this thoughtful and informative posting. India has indeed always had a proud education system, since the days of the Gurukul, the development of innovative centres such as that founded by Tagore at Santiniketen and in recent years initiatives such as Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and the RTE. The difficulty has always been, and continues to be, that gaining access is a challenge. In a country as diverse as India control and management of systems to ensure that they are equitable and just is a major difficulty. The market place approach to education, which is dominant in Indian society, means that some have seen education as a business opportunity and do not what their assets impaired by those seen as undesirable – low caste, tribal, migrant, disabled etc. However, I am always optimistic in India. We are talking here of the world’s largest democracy where people express their opinions and can have an impact on change. The greatest crime is to remain quiet about these issues. The sadness for me is that many appear reluctant to join the debate. Is this complacency or a feeling of personal helplessness I wonder?

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