What was education in India like in the 1830s? In Naigaon, among the Sayadhri hills of Khandala, Satara, Maharashtra where the Nira River flows, not far away the Bhima River? The nationalist movement was still 70 or more years away; as was the Wood’s Despatch on education of 1854 and the Hunter Commission of 1882. In the deeply embedded colonial India of the times, we do know that in 1833, Thomas Babington Macaulay stated:
In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern. … To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.
Although not public knowledge of its existence till 1931, and detailed knowledge emerged only in 1990s, the British had compiled several reports of numerous surveys undertaken in Bengal, Punjab and Madras Presidencies between 1800 to 1830, about the state of education in indigenous India-the number of schools, caste compositions of students, how many Hindu and Muslim students, male and female students.
Similar information is not easily forthcoming from Naigaon, where Savitribai was born, in 1831. As was the practice of the times, Savitribai was married when she was nine years old to 13-year old Jotiba Phule in 1840. A year later, she began her education – a unique journey from among the ‘body’ of people whom Macaulay intended not to attempt to educate directly, in this case a Shudra young husband educating his younger Shudra bride! According to a news item that appeared in the Bombay Guardian on 22 November 1851, the responsibility of Savitribai’s further education was taken up by Jotiba’s friends Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar (Joshi). Savitribai had also taken teacher’s training at Ms. Farar’s Institution at Ahmednagar and in the Normal School of Ms. Mitchell in Pune and J. Wilson of Bombay University. “Savitribai Phule may well have been the first Indian woman teacher and headmistress. Her stepping across the threshold of the home to teach marks the beginning of the ‘public life’ of the modern Indian woman,” observed Hari Narke in a 2008 NCERT lecture on Savitribai.
Almost exactly a century before Independence, on New Year’s Day 1848, in Pune she and Jotiba opened the first Indian school for girls, including specifically ‘untouchable’ girls. The young couple faced severe opposition from almost all sections. Savitribai was subject to intense harassment everyday as she walked to the school. It is reported that men pelted stones and threw cow dung or mud at her. Savitribai would carry two saris when she went to school, changing out of the sari once she reached school, which would again be muddied on her way back. The following year, after they started a school for adults of all castes, but especially the Shudras and atishudra (the ‘untouchables’) Jotiba’s father, to avoid social criticism, showed the young couple the door.
More than a century and a half later, what has been the impact of such a courageous movement on independent India? Have the enormous strides that Savitribai Phule took in her time against huge odds acted as a beacon for the education of girls, the Dalits, the OBCs (stree-atishudra-shudra) and the marginalized?
The deafening silence about Savitribai in contemporary mainstream education literature, despite scholarly work available, speaks volumes of our wilful ignorance and is utterly indefensible. The incisive pathways she forged for the education of the marginalized at a time when there was no independence or Constitution, shows up the anaemia of current efforts to universalize education, notwithstanding the 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002 and the Right to Education Act (RtE), 2009 through which, by law, all children from 6-14 years of age have a right to free and compulsory education.
Current statistics on the number of literates as proportion to population by age groups speaks of educational efforts of independent India. Even going by the very low standard by which an Indian is judged literate, across school-going age groups (6-17), the pattern is sharply declining percentage from the General category students to OBCs, then SC/STs and, at the bottom, Muslims.
Literacy Rates, 2006
|Age Groups||Hindu General||Hindu OBC||Hindu SC/STs||Muslim|
More members of the SC, ST and Muslim communities are below the poverty line compared to the rest of the communities.
ST and OBC teachers
|% Distribution of ST teachers to total teachers||% Distribution of OBC teachers to total teachers|
Given the deep-rooted discrimination against marginalized sections, the presence of teachers from the SC, ST and OBC communities can do much to instil confidence among children. The trend however is reversing slightly negatively for ST and OBC teachers. [see table]
Girls School Enrolment Primary (%)
DISE 2010-2011 pp.32-34
Also troubling is the substantial portion of teachers being hired on a temporary contract basis, though a slight decline is seen at an all-India level. The so-called “contract teachers” are usually less qualified, thus negatively impacting the quality of school education.
Despite the RtE, the percentage enrolment of girls, the gender parity ration remains stubbornly at 0.94 from 2008 to 2011. At the upper primary levels, the GPI was 0.91 in 2008, and has improved slightly to 0.94, both figures far short of the ideal of 1.0. The enrolment of SC, ST, OBC girls as proportion to total, of SC, ST, OBC children at primary and upper primary levels has inched up a few notches all India, but declines in certain states.
In 2009-2010, 7.13% boys and 6.37% girls dropped out. Also significant, is that the retention rate of children (Grades 1-V) have been declining from 2008 to 2011. The states with very large SC, ST and/or OBC populations show that half to two-third of children do not complete primary education.
So what are the stories behind these disappointing numbers? Soul destroying discrimination of taunts and neglect are faced by students from marginalized communities in the classrooms from teachers, apart from structural exclusions. The physical distance to school is a major barrier for SC children, as the places they usually live are at the outer edge of the village. Then there is the ‘social distance’- children of SC communities who are unable to go to the schools which are typically situated near the houses of the dominant caste – the distance, even if it is less than a kilometre from home to school can be fraught with caste tensions.
To add to the problem of access, teachers in India, who are predominantly from the upper castes, bring their own hierarchical mindsets and stereotypes into the class rooms that manifests in emotional, psychological and physical trauma for the young SC, ST, OBC child. Schools with mainly SC, ST children also tend to be single or two teacher schools, poorly equipped and with greater teacher absenteeism. Several studies and community accounts consistently point out that teachers even when they do come to school, barely stay in school for more than two hours.
Segregated seating of children from SC communities in the classroom, making children of SC, ST communities sweeps the classrooms. “We send our children bathed and clean to schools, and the teacher makes them sweep the whole school with brooms bigger that the child – and then they complain that our children are dusty and dirty,” said an irate mother from the SC community in R.K. Puram, New Delhi. This was echoed across voices of community members from several districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and other states.
Nearly a third of children are not in school because the costs associated with supposedly ‘free’ schooling is prohibitive. Nearly a third of boys who have never gone to school, state they are not interested in studies. This proportion goes up to two-fifths among boys who have been to school and dropped out. While the reasons guiding the boys who never went to school can be attributed to lack of knowledge about ‘studies’, this cannot be said of those who actually experienced schooling and find that it is not of interest to them. For girls, the irrelevance is just as high. This is a damning indictment of the relevance of education we provide to our children. A significant portion of girls drop out from school or do not go to school so that they can help at home.
What would Savitribai, who would have had to face the same if not worse challenges, make of this? There is a need to understand that individual decision-making regarding sending their children to school has to be read in conjunction with the voicelessness and powerlessness of the marginalized communities in their relationship with schooling.
Savitribai provided both voice and education. Her schools were right where the children were – in the areas where the ‘untouchables’ lived – effectively eliminating physical and social distance barriers. For her, “education should give one the ability to choose between right and wrong and between truth and untruth in life”.
“Go, Get Education
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work—gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animals without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You´ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste
Throw away the brahman’s scriptures fast.”
It is difficult to find such an education uninteresting! How
pale the present day slogan: School chalein hum sounds in
Savitribai was able to draw girl children to school, something India is still struggling to do today. According to the Poona Observer on 29 May 1852, “The number of girl students in Jotirao’s school is ten times more than the number of boys studying in the government schools. This is because the system for teaching girls is far superior to what is available for boys in government schools. If this situation continues, then the girls from Jotirao’s school will prove superior to the boys from the government schools and they feel that in the coming examinations, they can really achieve a big victory. If the Government Education Board does not do something about this soon, seeing these women outshine the men will make us hang our heads in shame.”
In addition to academic content including English, Jotirao and Savitribai focused on providing girls and boys with a system of education that was vocational, to make their students self-reliant, not as oppressed labourers, but as persons capable of independent thought. In 1852, they wrote, “an industrial department should be attached to the schools where children could learn useful trades and crafts and be able, after leaving school, to manage their lives comfortably and independently”. Accurately identifying that poverty prevented children from coming to schools, they made provisions to give a token ‘salary’ to the students and planned a syllabus which was geared to the interests and creativity of the girls and boys. When a young girl from their school went up on stage to receive her prize, she told the Chief Guest, “Sir, I don’t want toys or goodies as a prize; we want a library for our school”.
Will Savitribai smile? Perhaps, if we collectively have the wisdom to tread on her unerring path! She taught us, that education cuts across all areas. That, the histories and experiences of people who have been left out of the curriculum is just as important to understand why things are the way they are in terms of power relations and equity issues. She equipped students, parents, teachers with the tools needed to combat discrimination. Her tools: What kind of pictures are put up on the wall of the classroom? What kind of festivals gets celebrated? What are rules and expectations, kinds of language that is considered acceptable? What kind of interactions is encouraged? How are children grouped in present-day classrooms?
Savitribai unerringly focused on the fact that the dominant culture is just another culture, it is NOT the culture. But it doesn’t get named as ‘another’ or ‘other’. It gets named as normal, standard. Anti-discriminatory education has to move this perspective over to the side to make room for all cultural perspectives.
For us to even begin to understand what Savitribai means to education, policy makers, civil society, academics, school teachers, parents will need to acknowledge that their own education and worldviews have a cultural bias. They need to look at how dominant cultures and biases affect their view of non-dominant groups in society. They need to look at their own culture, and realize it is quite limited and is just reflecting a particular experience. They have to see that what they often view as universal is actually exclusionary. To be really universal, they have to begin to first unlearn and re-learn. To listen with humility and learn from the marginalized silenced groups. Without that, they will always be incomplete and obscurantist about the human community.
So, when will Savitribai smile? Only when we get our act together.
Published in the January 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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