I am grateful to my good friend Sunil who has drawn my attention to a news item from India, which whilst in many respects disturbing, is also reassuring in illustrating how much children appreciate the opportunities to be gained from education. A report from the Hindu newspaper of 2nd November (you can read the article at http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/when-the-girls-came-marching-in/article6556251.ece#.VFzfJTMp9-A.gmail) describes the actions taken by students from aajakiya Balika Ucha Madhyamik Vidhyalay (Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School), in Bhim, Rajasthan in protest against the failure to appoint teachers to their school. The student population of this school numbers 700 but only three teachers make up the staff.
The authorities responsible for staffing the school having failed abysmally to provide sufficient teachers to deliver the curriculum, have now been confronted by a well organised group of girls determined to take matters into their own hands. Very appropriately choosing Gandhi’s birthday (Gandhi Jayanti) to begin their action, the girls marched through the town chanting slogans such as ‘Shiksha ka adhikar diya padhane wale koi nahin ’ (You gave us the right to education but no one to teach us), and Raghupathi raghav raja ram, sarkar ko buddhi de bhagwan! (Raghupathi raghav raja ram, dear god, please give the government brains!)”. The girls quickly gained the sympathy of local people who have declared their support for their cause. Their determination is such that they have attracted the attention of both local educational administrators and the national media. Gandhiji, who himself campaigned hard for universal education in India, would certainly have been proud of the actions taken by these girls who by all accounts conducted themselves in an orderly manner and with great dignity.
One student, Hemlata Kumari stated:-
“I am the eldest of three girls. My mother is a widow and a daily wage labourer. Coming to school my sister and I spend 40 rupees every day on travel, which is almost half my mother’s daily wage. She sends us to study and hopes that we will get educated and achieve a life that is different from hers. A life without hunger and struggle. Not having teachers is shattering our dreams and hopes.”
Another student voiced her opinion that:-
“We do not get clean drinking water or have toilets within our school campus. The boys’ school has toilets, clean drinking water and a steady supply of books and teachers. Why such inequality? How are they superior to us? With enough teachers, we will get better marks than the boys do.”
The actions of the girls, and the support they have received from the local community has certainly had an impact and stirred local administrators into action. So much so that they agreed to meet with the protesting students. However, when the officer in charge of education gave the excuse that there was an acute shortage of qualified teaching staff in the state, his comments were met with derision by the students who responded that “there are enough teaching staff at every boys’ school, but the government is ignoring our voice since we are girls.” The students made it clear that if teachers were not appointed by October 7, they would lock the school gate and take further action. On October 8th, no new teachers having been appointed, this was exactly what they did.
The education authorities at this point accused the girls of disrupting classes. In response the students set up a tent to hold classes outside the school and did so very pointedly in a position where they could be clearly observed by the very people who were accusing them of disruption. The local community have rallied around the girls with shopkeepers and other providing them with food and voicing their support for the actions taken.
The students are demanding that the authorities appoint at least one teacher for each main subject of the curriculum and have demonstrated their determination to see their action through to a conclusion. Recent reports suggest that the school staffing has now increased from three to seven with the authorities recognising that the whole community is supporting the campaign. This is the first of what I am sure will be many successes achieved by these brave girls.
I was in Bangalore on Gandhi Jayanti this year and recall the publicity gained by Prime Minister Narendra Modhi when he and some of his cabinet took to the streets with brooms, and claimed that in Gandhi’s name they were taking actions to clean the streets. I do hope that the Prime Minister has been watching the actions of these students who are demonstrating that peaceful and determined actions, rather than tokenistic gestures can bring about the changes that we surely all would wish to see.