It is not what you think is wrong with ‘education in India’


Mr. Bhagawan a teacher of English language and his students, as he is leaves school premises. (Image Courtesy: The News Minute and PTTV)

Writing this in a haste, with an urge to put down what I feel about this piece that Scroll published a few hours back about a government school teacher who was mobbed by his students and urged to not leave, when he was transferred from the school. The students and teacher are visibly moved and emotional in the photograph that is being shared. This is real! It does happen. Students do get attached to teachers for a variety of reasons. Does this mean that there is something systemic to be said about it? How do we want to see it or read opinions on it? Media in this country is in the business of passing its ill-thought, half-baked and pathetically ill-informed opinion on absolutely anything and they go for such low-hanging incidents. It is sickening to read the views of this journalist someone who felt it would be opportune to extrapolate it and speak of what is wrong with ‘education in India’, beginning and ending with only one photograph flashing on her screen.

I am a bit enraged at this piece for several reasons. The tone of writing is high handed – “It seems Bhagawan did what good teachers do.” Another one that this writer wants us to believe – “This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India. ” Sure. This school teacher now goes on trial for his work by a writer who most likely has seen far less of classrooms, teaching and days at a government school in a village. This isn’t my immediate problem.  The real one is that this piece insults, demotivates and discredits several hundreds of teachers who work in the system and try to do their best, with resources, abilities and opportunities that their contexts have to offer them. Why is this not being regarded? This is upsetting! Why is it that these writers are so brazen and lack even the faintest humility to consider that they might be reading the situation wrong? Teacher and student affection can be a lot more than this myopic reading of it.

The writer introduces a grand sounding sub-heading ‘Impediments to public education’ and fills it up with careless, ill-informed observations about education system. It is enraging that instead of substantive arguments it is filled with ad hominem remarks. This I find are insensitive, flawed and of course uncharitable. I can’t imagine how did this pass the editor’s desk. She writes –

The first impediment concerns teacher competence. Bhagawan, an English teacher, is not fluent in the language. In a short comment he made on TV, he was unable to form grammatical sentences or find the right words to explain his situation. It is possible that he has bookish knowledge and is able to teach his students the rules of grammar and prepare them for simple writing exercises that they need to pass their exams. Because he has the instincts of a good teacher, he will undoubtedly contribute to the overall growth of his students. He may, however, not have the tools to make them learn the language he is employed to teach them. This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India.

Here is someone passing comments on an English teacher’s competence to teach by watching him on TV. Beat this! Moreover, this is deemed acceptable by the editor. I am compelled to ask if this writer ever stepped into a school of the variety that concerns this event or pursued a closer reading of situations from other sources. This isn’t ‘lack of mastery’. It is a lack of commonsense and even the most basic exposure to teaching and learning in India’s government schools. Do you imagine that the best education systems in the world are run by masters of subjects? This says nothing about education in India. Instead, it speaks a lot about how people with no clue about education, teaching, learning and challenges there in, write with impunity and reckless confidence in this country. And god forbid, if they end up changing public opinion.

With all the wisdom expounded in the piece, the writer finishes with sentences like “India needs to think about its schools and its teachers differently if its intention is to educate its massive school-going population.”  and offers little about what this thinking might entail! May be the writer needs to think if ad hominem remarks against a school teacher’s competence and ability to teach is a wise way to clock articles.


Travel in the post-colonial times

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

This little Dutch settlement has always attracted me with its brilliant blue skies and the expansive ocean. Last week we drove into this seaside village, which was a twenty five mile long stretch of coast leased out to the early Dutchmen by the Tanjore king in the late 1700s. The Dutch called it Tranquebar. The Tamils call it Tarangambadi, translated loosely as ‘the land of singing waves’. The last couple of hours remained of the day light as we entered this town and took up a hotel by the sea side. The evening wore a calm look and a quaintness that is hard to find along the dense and busy east coast road in Tamil Nadu. The intact (and partially restored) arch at the entrance of the Dutch settlement physically marked a time travel zone that we were about to enter. The narrow road led to an old church, the fort – called the Dansborg and a lovely sea side villa which now is a heritage hotel run by Neemrana group.

I have been visiting this place on almost all my rides along this coastline much like the Danish, Portuguese, British and the French ships which did the same but from the other side. From the records of protestant missionaries and the Portuguese trade documents I learn that this was one of the busiest regions in maritime trade along with other now disappeared ports like Porto Novo (about 80 kilometers north of Tranquebar). We stopped to take a look at the statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary to India, who traveled to India to spread the word of God. A marble slab underneath the statue listed many other minor firsts that the local Diocese could dig up, or perhaps imagine, about the man and made a laundry list of achievements down there. The statue didn’t cut much an impression on me, especially with its gold paint but the little tidbit of a history there – of he being the first protestant missionary in India – set my thoughts wandering into a past that I have often loved to imagine and recreate. A past much like a movie set in which fort Dansborg rises in the horizon with the Danish red flag fluttering and the young Zigenbalg hoping to set foot as he approaches the land, at this very place on the eastern coast.

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719 (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

The other details blurred out as I read the history of protestant missionaries in Madurai, Tirunelveli and the incursions of the Tranquebar mission. These men were clearly fired with a spirit of adventure and fascination of ideas which captured their imagination. An imagination which saw a world made possible by their God, their faith and that these are supreme – and that the rest, the ‘heathens’ must be brought to the fold. In my reconstruction of the 17th and the 18th century India when the Dutch arrived, I was inclined to think more about their adventure and rawness of the endeavor of these men who set sail in a direction they hardly knew of. And yet when they arrive they have plans – of trade, commerce and evangelism. Perhaps they were fired by the enthusiasm of the newly formed Dutch Republic back home when they declared independence from England and formed a federation during the end of 16th century.  One can see Tranquebar as a consequential small story in the larger canvas of the Dutch Golden Age (“Gouden Eeuw”) during which the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring and economic powers in the 17th century. Interestingly, many economic historians regard Netherlands as the world’s first thoroughly capitalist country.

Well, in the heat of such a splendid economic and power charged run the Dutch were understandably getting adventurous and sure had plans for it. And from the many ships sent out in the world, one of them was to reach India and hit the coast somewhere around the place where I stood that evening. Fort Dansborg was rather unimpressive and likely so to an Indian who has seen the massive, intimidating and fascinatingly beautiful forts in the Rajputana – Mehrangarh, Jaisalmer, in the Deccan – Golconda, Gingee, Vellore and in the high hills of the Konkan coast. Meanwhile, the fishermen on a small landing spot were busy sorting their nets and separating the catch after an early morning round of fishing. The scene was mildly strange – a bright 21st century morning with motorized fishing boats on the coast and a very busy history in the background with Zigenbalg’s grave marking the end of a generation of adventurers.

Reading accounts and papers of the colonial era and experiencing them often generates different narratives. And that is the point I was reflecting upon. On the Sunday morning in Tranquebar, gospel music flowed in the air from the church nearby, interspersed with hymns in Tamil. The church is as old as the fort. The hymns stood in contrast to the reality of the day. This in a way appeared as the way in which the dead Dutchmen’s conquest lived. In these hymns and a formerly alien faith which arrived by the ships that laid anchor on this coast over three hundred years back. Colonial era may have been past and the research papers mark that historical juncture fairly well. But at the core of the post-colonial times lies the colonial, healthy and mutated. Those hymns were by the ‘heathens’ who embraced protestant Christianity and years later venerate the man who brought this alien faith to them. The faith that makes the people of this settlement sing these hymns and regard Sunday as a day of prayer and mass is clearly not theirs. It was a part of the conquest, of men charged with commercial and technological prowess and a part of the project of shaping the world into becoming what they imagined it as.

Conquests I now think are little about physical forms like forts, territories and countries. They are more about conquest of minds, of people’s faith, practices and of their beings, into becoming what the conqueror wants it to be. This variety of conquest impregnates generations to come and lives, as strong as ever. The physical forms, even of the conqueror are gone yet the effects remain.

Micro-managing the odds

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Micro-managing the odds” an Op-Ed piece in The Hindu by Srikrishna Ayyangar a Professor in Politics at APU. It looks at the this year’s Magsaysay Award winner IVDP’s work and relates it to the larger political process in Tamil Nadu. It is simple and clear in argument. However, I do not quite agree with the idea that scaled-up organizations like IVDP actually participate or even effect political processes in any measure.

I think in that sense IVDP is an exception and the article too indicates this towards the end. The ‘scaled up’ organizations (like IVDP) do not stand up, in spite of having a fair degree of capability and social strength to do so as we have seen in our work in Tamil Nadu. They ensure that they are at a safe distance from the political dynamics and maintaining that distance they drive their agenda, whatever that may be- health, education, livelihood etc. It is only the activist, ‘people’s struggle’ sort of groups like PMANE who tend to take things head on. May be that this too is a generalization, but a fertile ground to explore how civil society-politics relationships can bring about positive social outcomes in an informed manner, not just as unintended consequences. In my experience, I have found larger NGOs (by this I mean NGOs with an annual budget of Rs 5 crore and upwards) only maintain a minimal interaction with the political end-points, just the amount that can let them go their way.

It will be a while before I can line up substantial observations towards this.