A life to live long in the memory

 

 

Krishna Nath (1934 - 2015) activist, writer and scholar

Krishna Nath (1934 – 2015) activist, writer and scholar

 

I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility. (John Ruskin)

References to “great men” or “great thinkers” seem to be distributed quite liberally these days, and the attributes of greatness appear to have been diminished in an age of celebrity. Whilst I have been fortunate to meet many eminent scholars, writers and teachers during the course of my career, I have met very few to whom I might assign a title of greatness. However, I was greatly saddened during my recent visit to Bangalore to hear of the death of an individual who I first met in 2000 and was fortunate enough to spend time with on several subsequent occasions who certainly justified the much overused sobriquet “great man.”

Professor Krishna Nath, who was born in 1934 passed away a couple of weeks ago whilst staying with friends at the Valley School in Bangalore. Born into a family of freedom fighters who opposed British rule in India, Krishna Nath continued a heritage of dissent and protest throughout his life, often adopting the cause of Dalit and Tribal peoples who were oppressed and denied basic human rights. As a Satyagrahi he went to prison on thirteen occasions having taken non-violent action on behalf of people who had been subjected to demeaning actions by various authorities. By organising the occupation of Hindu temples by members of the disgracefully labelled “untouchable” castes, thus challenging the authority of a conservative and extreme leadership of that faith, he placed himself in direct opposition to powerful forces and paid the price with periods of incarceration. His actions attracted a number of critics and bitter opponents, but also won great respect from more liberally minded Indians and a wide range of politicians and intellectuals.

As a young man, Krishna Nath was politically active with the Samajwadi movement, campaigning on issues of social justice and equality, and deeply opposed to the dynastic politics of Congress and the inward looking approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Having seen the dawning of Indian independence in 1947, like many other idealists at the time, he quickly became disillusioned by the inability of successive Indian governments to provide greater stability and opportunity in the lives of the country’s poorer people.

It was not only for his work as a social activist that Krishna Nath was held in high esteem. Having spent much of his life studying the culture and traditions of the peoples of the Himalaya regions, he was regarded as one of the leading authorities in this area, and wrote a number of scholarly works that have informed an understanding of the region and its people. The World Buddhist Conference recently honoured him for his contribution towards Buddhist thought and culture. Sadly, very little of this work has been translated into English, though it is to be hoped that a suitable scholar might be found to undertake work that would be invaluable to those who would wish to understand more of the culture and history of this little known region. Perhaps the University of Varanasi, with which he was associated over many years may take on the responsibility of ensuring that his seminal work reaches a broader audience.

I was fortunate enough to engage in conversation with Krishna Nath on a few occasions when my visits to the verdant lands of the Valley School near Bangalore coincided with his. Listening to his profound thoughts on Gandhism, the state of Indian politics, the plight of Tibetan Buddhists and Buddhism, or on many aspects of Himalayan art, music or languages, one was soon aware of being in the presence of a true intellectual who had made an immense contribution to the life of his country. Amongst all of this, his apparent simplicity and humility stood out as a characteristic of a man who was more interested in his listener than in hearing his own voice.

Amongst all his intellectual prowess, there was a  very natural and often humorous side to Krishna Nath. I recall for example crossing a busy road in Bangalore with him on one occasion. By this time he was not terribly nimble on his feet and clearly did not enjoy the chaos of the traffic. Standing between hooting cars, lorries, motorcycles and auto rickshaws (not to mention an assortment of cattle) in the middle of the highway, Krishnaji turned to me and said:-

“Richard my friend, I always feel close to God when I am crossing the roads in Bangalore!”

I knew exactly what he meant and was grateful when we reached our destination in one piece.

On another occasion, leaving the dining hall at the Valley school, I was unable to locate my sandals that had been left outside the door prior to entry. Just as I was about to accuse the local monkey population of yet another theft, I heard Krishna Nath exclaiming that his feet had most certainly swollen as his sandals felt extremely tight! Gazing at his predicament I was soon able to solve the problem by locating his footwear and relieving him of my own.

I could have wished to have spent more time with a man who was a great scholar, and a tireless fighter of injustice and oppression. Listening to him speak I was acutely aware that every word he used was carefully measured and his statements weighed and considered before he proffered an opinion. His life was an example and an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. The Dalai Lama, and numerous Asian intellectuals considered Krishna Nath to be a friend and sound counsellor, and many have good cause to be thankful for his tireless campaigning on their behalf. The memories of the few occasions when I was able to sit and listen to him, are ones that I treasure, and I count myself fortunate to have known him.

Many of the recordings made of Krishna Nath Speaking are not available in English, despite the fact that he spoke the language fluently. This brief recording is one of the few to have English sub-titles and provides only limited insight into his great intellect

 

Ideas from the past which still resonate today.

Nehru and Gandhi, two great friends and leaders adorn a wall in Bangalore

Nehru and Gandhi, two great friends and leaders adorn a wall in Bangalore

Today is Gandhi Jayanti, October 2nd, the date on which Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869. Celebrated as a national holiday throughout India, the streets have been quieter than usual. Most people here have a day free from work, though our course continued as normal. This was most certainly not a mark of disrespect for the Father of the Nation, indeed, some students wore the homespun Khadi as a tribute to the memory of this great man, it was simply a fact that we have too much to cover within a brief timetable with our students this week that prevented us from taking a break. I feel certain that Gandhi would have appreciated our dilemma.

Gandhi spoke often of the benefits that he had gained from receiving part of his formal education in the West, and he retained affection for England and many of the friends he made there throughout his life. Indeed during a formative period of his life in South Africa, when he was still shaping his thoughts on Indian Swaraj and the use of non-violent resistance, he was a firm advocate of English educational approaches. However, on his return to India in January 1915, and following a tour of the country during which he was horrified by the poverty and oppression of so many of his people, his thinking about the role of education in promoting freedom and democracy shifted considerably.

Reading from his writings around this time and the years leading up to the Quit India campaign, it is possible to detect an emphasis upon education as a means of promoting self-discipline and equal opportunities. His notions of schooling took on a much more practical leaning, with consideration given to the importance of manual skills as well as academic learning. Much of his writing focuses upon what today we would term “values education,” with an emphasis on the creation of strong character and service. We can also find many statements, such as the one below in which he challenged the prejudice against educating girls, and those from the dalit community.

The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. The girls, we say, do not have to earn; so why should they be educated? As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education.

Gandhi also had views about the teacher and student relationship, promoting the idea that the classroom should become an environment in which everyone is a learner. Speaking to Khadi Vidyalaya students at Sevagram Sevak in 1942 he stated that:-

A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. Whenever I talk with someone I learn from him. I take from him more than I give him. In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students. If you will teach your pupils with this attitude, you will benefit much from them.

This consideration of the teacher and student relationship informed much of our work today, as our students reviewed approaches to greater pupil involvement in planning and assessing their own learning.

Sadly, I meet many people here in India today who see Gandhi simply as a historical figure, an elderly man in a dhoti who is to be seen on the banknotes of India and who is commemorated by statues in every city of the nation. Working with teachers I rarely hear reference to the ideas that Gandhi expressed on education, and it is apparent that much of the formal schooling that is dominant in this country, as elsewhere in the world, espouses a westernised, elitist and materialistic approach to learning. Gandhi was not a saint, he was a political leader and a great thinker, who based his actions on clearly stated principles and commanded authority by adhering to these. He was often stubborn and sometimes intolerant of those who opposed his views. Many of his views seem impracticable to the modern reader, but above all he was a man who demonstrated respect even to those who opposed him.

Whilst Gandhi’s educational beliefs may be secondary to those of his political and philosophical ideas, his views in this area are certainly worthy of more than a cursory glance. It is always a pleasure to be in Bangalore, but especially poignant on Gandhi Jayanti when people across the country remember the man and the moral and political leadership he gave to a nation.

Hungry to learn but starved of opportunity.

Kerala - a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

Kerala – a State that Prides itself on the quality of its education

In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used  to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change  because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.

It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure  the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.

With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.

On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.

Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.

The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.

A film that helps to keep a dream alive

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I remember many years ago I read Coretta Scott King’s account of life with her husband, Martin Luther King Junior. I recall at the time thinking how hard it must have been, living as a wife and mother to the children of a man who was constantly living under death threats and intimidation. As a man of principle and conviction, King led a non-violent movement fighting against injustice and seeking to secure a better future for an oppressed people, who looked to him to stand up against the racist cowards and bullies, wielding power in the southern states of the USA. Whilst leading the civil rights movement and campaigning for the freedom of black people and other oppressed minorities in America, King committed himself and his followers to non-violent direct action. But as had earlier been the case in a similar approach adopted in India by Gandhi, he and his fellow protesters were often confronted by opponents who saw physical force rather than debate as the means of stating their position.

I have on many occasions listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, made in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. I particularly remember hearing a recording of this being played at Coventry Cathedral during a visit a couple of years ago. It never fails to stir emotions and to make one think of the situation in which it was delivered. I suppose it is one of the most quoted speeches of the twentieth century. However, it is the quote from the great man presented at the head of this page, that has always seemed to me to most accurately sum up his life:

            “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve”.

Last night Sara and I visited a local cinema to see the film Selma, released this week in the UK. This powerful drama tells the story of the marches led by Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery in 1965. At times I found myself struggling to watch this vivid depiction of the events of those dark days in American history, as scenes were enacted in which unarmed men, women and children were attacked, wounded and in some instances killed by men who regarded themselves as law abiding citizens of the southern states. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, cannot be accused of over emphasising the level of violence for effect, but still I found myself wanting to turn away from the screen as the appalling assaults were so vividly portrayed.

The film has masterful performances from all the cast, but particularly from David Oyelowo who plays King, Carmen Ejogo his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the bigoted and somewhat sinister Governor George Wallace, and as with all good films of this nature I found myself immersed in the story line and emotionally drawn in right from the start. Even knowing of the historical events depicted and having read the accounts of the marches as reported by writers such as Clayborne Carson who was close to the King family, I was unable to relax for more than a few moments at a time throughout the film.

Whilst I suspect many other film goers from my own generation will be very well aware of the civil rights struggles led by Martin Luther King Junior, there may well be a younger audience for whom the horrors of this time, perpetrated in a country proud of its constitution and democratic values,  will be a source of shock and disbelief. I certainly hope so, because to simply write this off as a historical account would be to fail to appreciate the important messages within the film.

Two specific themes within this drama seem to me to have been particularly well addressed and might easily have been passed over in a more superficial telling of the story. The first concerned the personal anxieties and doubts of Coretta Scott King, as she feared for the life of her husband and family, and the tensions she experienced in balancing what she saw as her duty to a cause and these more personal responsibilities. Within the depiction of this complex and loyal woman, superbly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, there was a perpetual nervous frisson that penetrated the film, and conveyed the message that within any struggle for justice, personal sacrifices are inevitable. Sadly, the worst fears of Coretta Scott King were eventually realised in April 1968 when her husband was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39 years.

Equally evocative is a second theme, that of the duty of action, which is referred to several times in the film. The point is strongly made by Martin Luther King Junior and several other leaders, that whilst those who oppress their fellow men and women are guilty of an unacceptable evil, others who simply stand by, refusing to speak out or take action are equally culpable of perpetuating crimes against the oppressed. Throughout the film it appears that a silent majority, including many who were in positions of power and authority, believed that the civil rights campaigners had a just cause, but lacked the moral courage to speak out or stand with them as they were being abused and denigrated. Standing next to Martin Luther King Junior must often have been an uncomfortable place to be, but as he himself said:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I can’t help thinking that whilst this film is set within an historical context, the messages that it contains are as important today as they have ever been.

The film link below will enable you to hear the famous “I have a dream.” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Junior in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Interpretation is without a doubt the most critical part of reading

Raj ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

Raj Ghat Samadhi the memorial in Delhi that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. A moving place where respectful crowds stand in silence.

January 30th this year marked the 67th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindu fundamentalist Nathuram Godse, as he walked from Birla House in Delhi to conduct a prayer meeting. This savage act plunged a nation into mourning and is commemorated today by supporters of Gandhi’s stance on non-violence and social activism across India and the wider world. As is usual, the date provoked comments on Gandhi’s legacy in several Indian papers this year, and my attention was particularly drawn to one in the Hindu, written by Varghese K. George under the heading Gita, Gandhi and Godse (Hindu Jan 30th 2015).

The article is interesting for constructing an argument that both Gandhi and Godse had been opposed to British rule in India. They had also shared the same Hindu faith and were profoundly influenced by the contents of the Bhagavad Gita, which was written at some point between 400 BCE and 400 CE. In his article, George stresses the point that many great leaders and campaigners, including Gandhi, and Martin Luther King junior, and he might equally have added Aung San Suu Kyi, have been driven by a religious conviction that shaped their view of the world, and in particular their beliefs in both social justice and the means by which this might be achieved. He then goes on to discuss the fact that Godse whilst profoundly influenced by the words of the Bhagavad Gita, gave this text an interpretation that was so far removed from that of Gandhi’s that he became a murderer, whilst Gandhi died a martyr.

George makes a very articulate and well-reasoned case within his article for a debate about the place of religious doctrine in the politics of today’s largely secular societies. He points out that the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been very pointed in his presentation of copies of the Gita to a number of world leaders, including President Barak Obama, and the Japanese Emperor Akihito. This he suggests, may well have angered some of the Indian population in what has been firmly established by the 1950 constitution as a secular state. India is in fact home to representatives of all the world’s major religions, and it has been argued that the secular nature of the state has been an important factor in the retention of social accord since independence in 1947.

This is certainly an interesting debate, but reading this from a teacher’s perspective, of even greater interest is the discussion within this article of the interpretation of religious texts and the ways in which these are conveyed to others. Gandhi’s reading of the Gita was undoubtedly influenced by his contact with other religious texts, including the Christian Bible and the Moslem Quran, both of which he found to have passages that greatly moved him. Writing in From Yeravanda Mandir, Gandhi stated that in his opinion “All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect and liable to error.” However, he also believed that these great religious texts called upon adherents to their faith to treat all men with respect and to abhor violence.

Gandhi’s interpretation clearly did not sit well with Nathurum Godse and his colleagues, who chose to justify their appalling actions through reference to religion. It was in part, Gandhi’s respect for the rights of India’s Moslem’s to assert their opinions and choices that so incensed Godse and many others of similar extreme views. As a result of this a terrible crime was committed and both men lost their lives. Within his article, Varghese K. George makes the important point, that whilst leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King junior have used religious books to justify their non-violence, so have many despots of the past used the same texts to support their actions of mass killing through crusades, Jihad and “holy wars” against those who hold a different set of beliefs. As George emphasises at the conclusion of his piece, it is all about our reading of the text rather than simply the words contained on the page.

The Hindu article struck a chord with me as I was leaving Bangalore, having over the past two weeks enjoyed the company of Hindus, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and secularists all working together in various situations. At no time did I feel greatly distanced from these individuals, or the views that shape the ways in which they behave, despite not personally subscribing to their religious beliefs. Yet I read increasingly in the media and hear repeatedly on the radio that men are killing each other and inflicting their distorted view of the world and are justifying this mayhem by reference to scripture. Such behaviour is an affront to education which surely must have as a major aim the promotion of respect and tolerance. Those who are most directly involved in acts of violence are for the most part not educated men, and those who lead them choose to use their own education as a means of controlling others for their personal ends rather than working towards a better society for all.  As teachers there must be an imperative upon us to assist children to interpret religion as providing a set of guiding principles aimed at creating a more just and caring society. If we do not believe that religion has a part to play in challenging violence and aggression, then it should have no place in our schools.

Postscript:

Nathuram Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte were both hanged on November 15th 1949 for their part in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. I am quite sure that the decision to execute these two men would have been opposed by Gandhi, who would have seen violence as playing no part in the implementation of justice.

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From heat and dust to a warm log fire

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Visiting India regularly to work with colleagues and students is one of the greatest privileges experienced in my career. I have been coming here for so many years now, that I feel that whilst working here I am always in the company of good companions. Each visit brings new learning and renewed acquaintance with friends and colleagues for whom I have a great respect, and because of this I look forward to these trips with anticipation and enthusiasm. This latest venture to Bangalore has been no different, with an opportunity to share ideas with teachers and students who are committed to their work and immensely creative in their daily lives.

Whilst India is a place where I feel comfortable and for which I hold more than a little affinity, it could never be home, and today I begin the long journey by road, air and rail to return to my family and the familiar surroundings of Northamptonshire. The wonders of modern technology do of course, mean that whilst here I can stay in touch by text, or email and better still by skype. These important daily contacts with home are anticipated with relish and on the odd occasions when communication systems fail this is a source of disappointment and frustration.

Travelling west tomorrow means that my departure and arrival will, unless there are delays, see me leave India and arrive home on the same day. I was thinking about this last night when reading an account of merchants from the East India company who reported that a hundred years ago in 1814, the voyage from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope took at least six months. I somehow don’t believe that the University of Northampton would tolerate a six month journey to do two weeks teaching, followed by six months return passage! How much different are conditions now from those days of travel under sail, and written letters that might take six months or longer to reach home?

Having arrived in India to teach and to learn from my students and colleagues, I can reflect on so much that is similar in our education systems and so much more that is different. But amidst all this, a shared purpose of working to improve the education of children who are so often excluded from learning opportunities, gives us common ground and a firm foundation upon which we can build.

I am at that point in my visit when I am counting down the hours to departure, not with any sorrow for the time I have spent here these last few weeks with such good friends and colleagues, but simply in anticipation of being in the company of my family where I belong. Last night my conversation with Sara focused partly upon the sub-zero temperatures and fall of snow that I can anticipate awaiting my arrival – a warm log fire and woolly jumper sounds like the order of the day.

So having packed my bags and as I await a taxi to the airport I must say goodbye and thank you, to all my friends who have afforded me such excellent hospitality here in Bangalore. I value your creativity and friendship and look forward to keeping in touch and to returning to enjoy your company in a few months time.

 

Education is as fundamental as the air we breathe.

 

Might this picture from the past become a predictor for the school iniform of the future?

Might this picture from the past become a predictor for the school uniform of the future?

I live in a cottage, one of a row of four, which stand alone, surrounded by trees and open fields, in a beautiful part of the English countryside. One of the aspects of this bucolic existence that I usually take for granted, is the clear clean air  with which I am able to fill my lungs. I don’t usually give this a lot of thought, but a number of recent news items have given me good reason to be relieved that I live here, and not in other parts of the world.

On a couple of occasions when working in India I have developed a somewhat irritating cough. I generally put this down to the excessive noxious fumes emanating from the congested traffic, exposure to which is often intensified by travelling the streets in the back of an open sided auto-rickshaw. Belching exhaust fumes create a murky fog that hangs above the road and often make for an unpleasant travelling experience. Several reports from scientific surveys conducted in recent months confirm that my summation of the cause of my cough is probably correct. The Supreme Court in Delhi received a report from the Indian Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority last Friday, which gave an alarming picture of the air quality in the capital city. The report confirmed the assertions made in a World Health Organization study of 1,600 cities, which indicated that Delhi’s air pollution is now officially at the highest level of any city in the world.

Understandably the Indian Environment Pollution Authority have recommended urgent action to address this alarming issue, which is already having a negative impact upon the health of city dwellers. Limiting the number of motor vehicles allowed on the roads at any one time, and taking greater actions to manage exhaust emissions are proposals that one might expect. However, it was another proposal that particularly caught my attention. The authors of the report have urged the Supreme Court to order that all schools in Delhi should be closed on days when levels of air pollution are deemed to pose a threat to public health.

This proposal of such drastic action must obviously be of concern to all teachers and parents in the city, yet this would certainly not be a unique situation. In Shanghai recently, as the city experienced one its worst recorded instances of air pollution, the authorities ordered that all school children should be kept indoors for the sake of their health. Elsewhere in China severe pollution recently forced school closures and the shutdown of the airport in the city of Harbin.

My only visit to Shanghai was to the airport from which I departed China a few years ago. I recall from my window seat on the plane looking down and being disappointed that rather than a view of Shanghai’s famous skyline, all I could see was a murky orange cloud of smog. My memories of a visit to Delhi last year are of an excellent conference, the magnificent monument of the Qutub Minar and the moving memorial to Gandhi at Raj Ghat, but also of the slightly acrid taste of the air around the international airport.

The concerns expressed for the health of children living in these cities, and the many others which have high levels of pollution and poor air quality must surely lead to drastic action. The children currently attending schools (when they are open) in these toxic environments are being left a dreadful legacy. It is probably their generation that will be required to apply even more drastic measures to undo the havoc currently being reaped across the globe. That is, of course, assuming that they are fit enough to take on this daunting task. I find myself wondering how teachers in schools in these cities address the current environmental challenges with their students? Many of today’s primary school children have never seen a pure blue sky. At night there are no stars visible, and it is no longer possible to appreciate a view across the city from a distant hill. Will history teachers be recalling the time when blue skies and stars were experienced by city dwellers? Will sweeping vistas be understood only from the pictures presented by art teachers as a point of reference for their students?

Some scientists are claiming that it is already too late to reverse this terrible decline. Others are more optimistic and believe that if actions are taken now it may be possible to correct much of the damage. There must be an imperative upon every individual to assist in addressing this calamitous situation, and education should certainly be at the forefront of this action. It cannot be claimed that we do not know the causes of the environmental disaster that we are currently witnessing, not only in India and China, but in much of the world. It is unacceptable to expect that those children who are currently attending our schools should shoulder the responsibility for addressing this catastrophe in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where these students lead, may others follow.

Students setting an example which from which others could certainly learn.

Students setting an example  from which others could certainly learn.

Shweta, who is one of my student colleagues in Bangalore yesterday sent me an interesting series of photographs from the school where she works. One of the teachers at this school had been teaching her class about environmental issues and how these relate to hygiene and health. As with all good teachers she thought about how she could take the ideas discussed in class and enable her students to apply them in a practical manner. Deciding to take a lead from the students, she asked them to decide how they might apply the principles of improving their environment and creating a more healthy area in which to live and work. Just as we might expect from a class of bright and enthusiastic  students, they were full of ideas and suggestions. These included planting trees, cleaning the school building, and eventually the idea upon which they settled; cleaning up the litter from around the school.

My friends in India know that I have a real passion for their country, its culture, history, literature and the people. However, many of them are also aware that I am less than enamoured with the vast quantities of litter that are a blight upon the streets and parks of every Indian city. I am sure that many visitors to the country rarely see beyond the piles of plastic, paper, textiles and other detritus that foul almost every street corner of an otherwise beautiful city. Soon after his election and appointment as Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, broom in hand launched a campaign for a cleaner India. His own efforts in sweeping the streets were most certainly more symbolic than active, but at least he was making a point that there is an urgent need for Indian citizens to take some responsibility for cleaning up their environment.

The students and teachers at Shweta’s school had clearly recognised that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Campaign Clean India), was something to which they could make a contribution and agreed that they should equip themselves with brooms, bags, gloves and face masks in order to venture into the street and begin their chosen task. We should, of course applaud the initiative taken by these students and hope that others make follow their example and assume responsibility for their own environment. This noble gesture did not, however, meet with universal approval. The organising teacher was somewhat disturbed when one of the students suggested that;-

“she was a pampered child at home who was not allowed to do any work, and that she felt it to be below her dignity to take a broom and sweep roads.”

The teacher was clearly shocked by this attitude and reported that:

“I had a personal talk with her and made her understand that there is nothing undignified about cleaning your surroundings; in fact you are setting a very good example to many people who fail to understand the importance of cleanliness”.

I can imagine that this was not the easiest of conversations, but after seeing the teacher’s perspective, and appreciating the response from the rest of the class, the reluctant student decided that she would join the rest of the class in this activity. As the photographs show, the students went about their task with enthusiasm and by the end of the day they were rightly proud of what they had achieved in a relatively short time.

This story reported to me by Shweta and her colleagues had a particular resonance  as I recalled a chapter from the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, in which he described how during his time in South Africa he had argued with his wife Kasturba. Wishing to set an example and to demonstrate his opposition to the caste system, Gandhi insisted that everyone, including himself, should be responsible for undertaking all of the duties around the community that he had established. This involved as a priority maintaining a hygienic environment and included the cleaning of latrines. Having set an example by completing this task himself, he expected his wife to follow suit. At first she refused and this annoyed Gandhi who raised his voice in anger, an act that caused him to record the shame that he felt for having lost his temper. After some discussion and much forgiveness, Kasturba agreed that she too should participate in this most menial of tasks, and recognised that for the sake of a community everyone must accept the responsibility to play a full part in caring for the environment. The maintenance of a healthy and clean environment should not be seen as beneath the dignity of anyone, and neither should it be seen as the responsibility of others. This specific incident is depicted very well in Richard Attenborough’s film of the life of Gandhi.

It may seem like a large conceptual leap from the life of the Mahatma to a small school in Bangalore. But I think we should take heart from the fact that the students at this particular school are taking a lead in appreciating that they have a responsibility to the environment in which they live. Furthermore, they have shown a willingness to take action in order to improve the grounds in the immediate vicinity of their school. It would be easy to say that this action is but a drop in the ocean, and can have only a limited impact upon what must be the many thousands of tons of rubbish that pollute the Garden City of Bangalore. But if each individual resident took responsibility to manage their own litter and clean their own area of the city,  thereby following the example of these young people, it would not be too long before the Bangalore environment was significantly improved. The apprehensions expressed by one student within the class are not so far removed from those experienced by Kasturba Gandhi, and hopefully, like the mother of the nation she will have learned much by thinking through this situation, and may make a similar contribution to the welfare of India in the future.

So, today I wish to celebrate the actions of a small group of students and their teachers, who far from waiting for others to bring about change, have taken the initiative to do something positive for their neighbourhood. If these young people are representative of the students of Bangalore, there must be hopes for a healthier future in the city.

clean up 2 Brindavan clean 4 clean up 3

 

Real Gandhian action, not token gestures, will eventually bring change

 

Making a fair demand for quality education.

Making a fair demand for quality education.

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.

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.