We set out early in the morning with a hearty breakfast of luchi and ghoogni cooked by a family of Bengali speaking Assamese staff in the Circuit House despite Shobhan, one of our resource persons fearing indigestion after the lavish helping of the oily refined wheat product. Shobhan is from Telengana, dead serious about his duties as a resource person. He is so serious that even if we sighted the odd urchin fishing in a swamp by the roadside instead of being in the school, Shobhan’s heart would sink, he would clasp nervously on to his bucket seat and look furtively at us apologizing that he has been an underperformer.
Throughout my stay in Assam I sensed this deep anxiety, a fear of failure that seemed to grip the people. Teachers’ faces went white when we would alight at the premises of a primary school. People would immediately say that the school buildings were not in place, there was no drinking water and there were no toilets when apparently things did look perfect. Our education campaigns have created such a fuss over toilets and class rooms that having only a building with its sanitary facilities seemed to be the be all and end all of education. Nothing can be as ridiculous as to have a school being defined in terms of its infrastructure; no one by a city based stupid policywallah can think like this. In the open fields of villages, a pucca building is the last thing which is required and sending children to a closed toilet without proper water supply and drainage is to harm them even more. Village people have their own ways of defecating; to my mind there is no tearing hurry to imitate city people especially when the required infrastructure is not there. Who needs a pucca classroom when one can easily keep the school together with bamboo poles and straw? Such classrooms are less intimidating for the children; schools with classrooms inside closed walls look like prisons anyway. But a pucca building, toilet, drinking water flowing out of a pipe seems to be the defining features of our education system. What really goes unnoticed that the children can neither understand the meaning of the letters they learn by rote, nor can “read” the illustrations and pictures contained in the pages of their books, yet teachers are tense with worry, as books have not arrived. For Heaven’s sake teach one single book for the entire duration of the school years but teach that perfectly, it will do. But the NCERT must have its own syllabus completed. What it designs for children from families of the educated, it also designs for children from families who have never seen letters from the time their species took birth upon earth. The pursuit for equality and uniformity everyday creates wedges and deepens inequality and the universal education lays the foundation for that.
Does the community participate in the child’s education? Yes, they do by complaining against the teacher who is more often absent than present. Unfortunately when the teacher does arrive, in almost all cases it is a man, he fails to teach. It is not as if he is not trained, but he is trained in a syllabus which is one size that has to fit all and it does not fit his. A Santhal or a Bodo does not come from a literate culture. Theirs is an oral culture. The two cultures have very different sets of cognition and one does not always easily translate into the other and each require a set of processes while transforming from one to the other. An important way to move from an oral to a literate culture is to learn how to verbally articulate. I suggested to a Bodo teacher, why you don’t allow the children to be on their own, play their games or just play truant for a while and then come and speak out what they did while they were out. The teacher gaped at me, but, he said, this is not in the teaching manual! How daft our programmes are, what takes only a few minutes for me to find out has never occurred in these long sixty five years to our educationists? I started doubting my ingenuity, for questioning the foolishness of so many people over so many years seemed absurd.
Whenever I insisted that every child should have cultural education, learn her own songs, memorize folk tales of the community, exercise through the dance forms and martial art, I appeared to have offended the communities. We want none of our stuff, they said. I sensed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was flowing out in action here. The communities felt that they were oppressed by people like us, the middle class, the government officer, and the English speaking gentry in towns. Hence education was to create their children in the images of such oppressors. The children were thus to be as far from their own communities as their oppressors were. Universal education was intended to create internal colonizers and exploiters of one’s own community. No wonder the Bodo officers were so eager to show the members of their own community in poor light. Education seems to have created monsters for our civilization, denying our historicity, our context, and the inner dynamics of our communities.
When I met the ABSU leaders later in the course of the day, they too had the same narrowness of vision. Their politics was over education, reservation, quota, appointments. But what does your community control? How would you control the means of production? What of your life will you command? There is no answer. Education would make them officers and with that they will command those who command and exploit them. Politics also serves a similar purpose. When communities lose control over their means of production, they seek to control those who control them; politics and education become the twin tools. I understood now why Rakesh every now and then would think aloud, education is not welfare, it is politics. When education and politics converge into the same intent, social conflicts are bound to arise.
Kokrajhar is a disturbed district and I had a question in my list to ask around, what constituted the disturbance? It appears that in recent times, especially since 2010, everyday violence has ceased; I could frankly see no apparent damage. But now the non Bodos have come into the mood of retribution and hence they have chosen a more insidious path to violence, bad mouthing Bodos. I soon found out that I had been fed on a heavy dose of lies. I was told that all anganwadi posts were filled by Bodos. False. Every community had its own member as the anganwadi worker. I was told that every teacher was a Bodo. Wrong again, the Santhals had their own teachers. I was told that every school building was incomplete because the contractor was extorted and exhorted out. Wrong. School buildings were completed, even when they were only with a single class room. Bodos were constructed as villains through rumours and bad mouthing. They were the monsters to eliminate, the virus to be exterminated. Santhals were the worst in this respect. The Bengali Muslims merely “heard” such tales, but the Santhals seem to face genocide every day.
I was also told that the Bodo women stole rations from the midday meal. I was shocked but then Bodos were supposed to be animals, a species of homo sapiens less developed mentally and emotionally. He truth was contrary; in all the Bodo schools, midday meal was being cooked, the community paid out of their pockets when rations from Assam were not released. It was in the Santhal schools that midday meal scheme suffered because women had no role anywhere near the school. Wherever women were strong the meals did well. It did best in the Bengali speaking Muslim community where women were assertive and also had money.
The entire eastern region is culture conscious. People here have their standards of cultural refinement and cannot tolerate anyone not falling into such standards. This is why the Assamese have a deep contempt for the Bodos, disown them all the time. I recalled that my Assamese boss tried to tell me that in Kokrajhar there are Muslims who look like the Chinese; he was referring to the Bodos and he was an Assamese, he was in Assam at the height of the AASU movement, then why did he lie. He also lied that Kokrajhar could only be approached through Bengal and not via Guwahati. This was to mislead me; Kokrajhar is nearer to Guwahati than to New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. And now Assam state government was on some fiction that Bodo women were stealing food from their own children stopped supplies meant for children’s nutrition. Also, they were under the influence of some corporate house to supply biscuits to the children. In fact, many teachers paid out of their own pocket to procure food for the children in the schools. Such sacrifice by teachers must also be recognized and lauded. But let the Brahmaputra not be generous to wash the sins of the Assamese.
If Santhals were against the Bodos, Bodos were ever so eager to appease the Santhals. They took up issues of the Santhali language, the appointment of the Assamese teacher who taught at a school of mixed communities and they were very eager to campaign against witch hunting among the Santhali communities. Bodos treated their girls very well, Santhalis in a bid to modernize, acquire political power have started marginalizing their women. The denial of their culture is also a part of the package to marginalize women. Girl child trafficking flows out of similar intentions. Had they access to facilities of the ultrasound, the Santhal community would also have killed the female fetuses.
The violence that was external has now travelled inside into social envy, prejudice, witch-hunting, rumour mongering. Santhals need someone to flay for their own desire to and failure in creating their oppressors. At one level they seek money at any cost even if that is through sale of children and prostitution because they are as yet too weak to become extortionists, at another level they create scapegoats to cover their deficiencies.
But why did the violence on the ground, a violence that was perpetrated by gangs of boys settle down after 2010? The key to this is the balbandhu scheme. The Balbandhu scheme is a rather clever move by the NCPCR, a kind of its own Salwa Judum to protect child rights which are abrogated during times of civic unrest. The Balbandhus are a band of young boys and girls who move about in the community beseeching the children to return to school, gathering community initiatives to put the school system back in place, invigilate other deliveries such as health and nutrition through the community health workers. Kokrajhar district has 37 Village Clusters, each cluster containing anything between four to as many as twenty villages depending on the population and size of these villages. The Balbandhu scheme operates in 20 out of the 37 village clusters and there are 20 balbandhus. But these balbandhus are not confined to single village clusters as they freely move around the community, throwing their weight at contractors who employ child labour, parents who do not send children to school, families who marry off young children, agents who smuggle children across borders into flesh trade and begging and reporting such matters to the police and the National Commission. The NCPCR has a list of indicators with which it wants to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the balbandhu scheme such as whether enrolment into school has improved, drop outs decreased, attendance improved and teaching become better. These are important things to do; but what has really happened due to the balbandhus is that the communities seem to have got a new purpose in living and thinking about their future, which reflects in an increased awareness towards education. In Kokrajhar, the balbandhus have brought about a new role model for the youth to follow rather than the rash, extortionist mafia image.
The balbandhu is a smart idea; they are in the same age group as the terrorists and the unsurrendered violent students groups and hence offer certain kind of competition to the glamour of the extortionists. The balbandhus are equally vigilante and yet they work to integrate rather than intimidate the people. The balbandhus have created not merely awareness about the Right to Education among the villagers but infused them with a new purpose in life after which they look more gathered up and sorted.