Andar, andar (inside, inside),” says Sompal Singh Shastri, his eyes darting as he hurries inside the gates of the Government Senior Secondary School in B2 block of Yamuna Vihar, northeast Delhi. Ever since he survived a near-fatal attack outside the school in February, Shastri, 57, who teaches Sanskrit to the senior classes, says he doesn’t step out of the gates unless he absolutely has to. “If I can be attacked once, I can be attacked again. Nangloi ke baare me suna hi hoga (I am sure you know of what happened in Nangloi),” he says, easing a bit as the school gates close behind him.
The case of September 26 — when the teacher of a government school in Nangloi, west Delhi, was allegedly killed by his students — offers a glimpse into the complex, and increasingly fraught, relationship that teachers and students share in Delhi’s government schools, the laboratory of the Aam Aadmi Party government’s experiments aimed at transforming the face of public education.
Shastri’s is one such face. As he sits uneasily in the staff room of his B2, Yamuna Vihar school, “simply lucky to be alive”, he seems to realise that something about the relationship he shared with his students had snapped that evening on February 4.
That day, a student of Class XI-H had come to him, asking for his name to be reinstated in the school’s rolls — Shastri says he had struck off the child’s name for poor attendance. “When I refused, he said, ‘Jivan bima kara rakha hai tune? Nahi toh kara lena (Get yourself insured if you haven’t already)’. I reported his threat to the principal, who asked me not to worry.”
Around 6 pm, at the end of school that day — the boys’ school operates in the evening shift — Shastri noticed his bike had a flat tyre, but decided to ride it anyway. At the T-junction a few metres from the school, Shastri saw his student. “He was with a few others. Just when I turned left at the junction, they pulled out an iron rod and hit me on my head. When I raised my hand to protect myself, the blow landed on my hand. He then slashed my hand and face with a blade. Luckily for me, a woman shielded me and the boys fled. That woman and my helmet saved me. Else, I would have been dead. The thought of my four children…” he says, with a sob.
The attack has left his fingers in a permanent curl and the scars on his forearm, where doctors had to insert a steel plate to fix the broken bones, run like thick veins. But he is battling bigger scars. “Main ab apne aap kahin bahar nahin jata (I never travel alone),” he says. At their home in Ashok Nagar, his eldest daughter, who teaches in a private school nearby, says the family is worried for him. “We will always live in fear now. We can only thank God that he is alive. Being a government teacher is risky these days. That poor teacher in Nangloi…” she says.
On September 26, Mukesh Kumar, a Hindi teacher at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Nangloi, was in Room No 108, on the second floor of the school building, when he was stabbed, allegedly by two of his students — Vivek Jha, 18, and the other, a minor, whose name had been struck off the rolls. Vivek is in judicial custody in Tihar and the minor is in a juvenile home in Mukherjee Nagar.
At Vivek’s house in Prem Nagar, an unauthorised settlement 2 km from the school, his mother drops the washing to flop down on the floor, crying, as she talks about her son. “Itna achchha ladka ho kar bhi (How could this happen?… He was such a good child)” she says of her middle child, who, the family says, led a “disciplined life” — attending an RSS shakha every morning and coming back home before heading for school in the afternoon. Vivek’s sister brings his Hindi notebook, half-filled with his letters in leftward slant and with “Mukesh sir’s” signature dated August 29, exactly a month before he was murdered. “The school says he was a troublemaker, but shouldn’t they have told me, given me some hint?” asks Vivek’s father Vijay, who works at a hosiery unit nearby. MP Singh, the principal of the Nangloi school, refuses to talk about the case “since the investigation is still on”.
At the Nangloi Metro station, a few metres from the school, three students of Class XII B, classmates of the two boys accused of murdering the Hindi teacher, turn up after a “half-day” to talk about their school and their “sabse behterin (best) Mukesh sir”.
“In government schools, anything goes. Some of the back-benchers would be chewing tobacco and even spitting in class. Teachers would come and teach, they didn’t care whether we listened or not. But Mukesh sir was different. He was our class teacher. He could have his back to you and still know what was happening. Awaaz se pehchan lete the (He could recognise you from your voice),” says one of the boys, the “class topper” who uses his time before school to help his father in his “business” of packing plastic caps for perfume bottles.
The three boys call themselves middle-benchers — “we stayed away from the group of six boys who were involved in the murder and who sat on the back benches”. Sitting on a platform outside the station, they discuss the run-ins they have had with teachers, both in the Nangloi school and the nearby Punjabi Basti school where they studied till Class X. As they talk about the “torture techniques” their teachers adopt — stinging slaps on their faces, beatings on the knuckles, murga punishment for an entire period — they even manage a few giggles. “When I was in Class IX, one teacher yelled at me and I flung my geometry box in anger. He hit me, poora third-degree istamal kiya. I went home and told my father and he came and roughed up the teacher. After that, the teacher never dared to hit me,” says one of them, laughing, then turning around to ask, “Are you surprised? Government schools mein aisa hi hota hai (This is how things are in government schools).”
“Aisa hi hota hai” is a hardened acknowledgment of the lines that run deep: between private schools and government schools, between “hamare jaise bachche (children like us)” and “them”. “See, I know this doesn’t happen in private schools. But children like us are used to it. Aisa nahin hai ki ghar pe maar nahin padti (It’s not that we don’t get beaten up at home). So, we are okay with being slapped or hit in school. But I have a problem if you hit me without reason,” says a 16-year-old, who lives in Prem Nagar and whose father works at a welding unit in Moti Nagar.
Much like Delhi’s politics, the city’s government school system is carved up among multiple authorities, the dividing lines often a chaotic blur. While the three municipal authorities, all led by the BJP in Delhi, run the 1,850 primary schools (Classes I to V), the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education runs the 1,150 middle, secondary and senior secondary schools (Classes VI to XII), including the Sarvodaya Vidyalayas (composite schools from Classes I to XII) and Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas (for meritorious students). Then, there are the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas run by the Centre.
It’s schools like Nangloi’s Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Sultanpuri road, that is the Delhi government’s biggest challenge. Nangloi lies on the western tentacle of the Delhi Metro, three stations before the Green Line comes to a halt at Mundka village. The silver Metro that rumbles across its skyline is the only time that Nangloi feels part of the national capital. For the rest, it’s an urban smudge, its schools hobbled by ills that mark other such localities on the fringes of Delhi’s education map — a crippling shortage of teachers and poor learning levels among its students.
An assessment conducted by the government between July 14 and 16 of over 2 lakh Class VI students of Delhi government schools found that 74 per cent could not read a paragraph from their Hindi textbook, 67 per cent children could not do simple division, and 75 per cent children could not read a Class II English textbook. These dismal figures tell the story of an education system that’s in a shambles.
“The Nangloi incident isn’t the first such case. And violence in school is not specific to Delhi. This is a complex and classic inner-city problem,” says Atishi Marlena, member of the political affairs committee of AAP and adviser to Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia. “These children come from marginal communities and education is supposed to provide them a level playing field, give them a chance in the world. But let’s face it: there’s very little learning that happens in government schools. By the time they reach adolescence, they realise how unequal they are. They don’t see any life prospects despite all that schooling they did. All this manifests into the rage and violence you see now,” says Marlena.
Over the years, there have been several cases of violence involving students and teachers. The Government School Teachers Association, Delhi, which claims to represent nearly 50,000 teachers, has no data on such attacks, but in staff rooms, violence and indiscipline among students is an easy conversation starter. They talk of the woman teacher in a Kalkaji school who died of brain haemorrhage last year when confronted by “a mob of parents who wanted to know why she had failed their children”, of a Class VI boy called Pauwa (for a quarter bottle of alcohol, in Hindi) who had “his own gang”, of children who “produce fake parents” for parent-teacher meetings.
Sitting in a room of the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Padam Nagar, a guest teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says, “Why, just the other day, I caught a child cheating. He didn’t apologise, he stood up and said, ‘Main bhi Nangloi ka hoon. Kar lo jo karna hai (I am from Nangloi too. Do what you want).”
Such conversations reveal that there is very little meeting ground between teachers and students, two key stakeholders of the public education system. When they do meet, the lines are clearly drawn. “Look at the children who study in government schools. They come from jhuggi-jhopdis (slums), their parents have no interest in their studies. They send their children here for the mid-day meal and the yearly entitlement for uniforms and shoes and you don’t see them until next year,” says CP Singh, GSTA president who teaches arts at the Padam Nagar school.
Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the room of the principal of the Nangloi school. “Thoda out of the way jaana padta hai (We have to take some tough measures),” says Singh, who replaced acting principal, Badan Singh, after the September 26 killing. So now, his “out of the way” measures include making frequent rounds of the school to make sure no one’s loitering, and randomly pulling up children for their “thin pants” and “hair style”. He slaps a few children who head to the water cooler —“Pyaas to lagegi na (Can’t I be thirsty?),” says a child who rubs hard at his red cheek before returning to class. Has he spoken to the children, reached out to them after the murder? “Unse kya baat karni? Assembly mein jo bolna tha bol diya (Why do I need to speak to them? I said what I had to in the Assembly),” says Singh (Though, later, he separately addressed all three sections of Class XII).
At 4.30 pm, as the school breaks for lunch and the younger children queue up for the mid-day meal of poori and sabzi, the older children hang around in groups. Some scale the broken compound wall, others haul themselves across the wall next to the gate and disappear into the crowded market. “We are not supposed to leave,” says Paramjeet Kumar, a Class XII student. “But we don’t get food here so we sometimes jump across, eat chhole-kulcha and come back. Of course, some don’t come back,” he says, his arm around a friend’s shoulder.
The boys’ school, which shares its campus with the girls’ school that runs in the morning shift, has 1,569 students and 32 teachers; the principal says they face a 50 per cent shortage of teachers. The school doesn’t have a counsellor — there are only 200 of them in the state government’s 1,000-odd schools. “Everything you imagine happens in government schools — violence, drugs, now even murder. And you ask us what we do about it? What can we do?” says a teacher at the Nangloi school.
Ravi Gulati of Manzil, an organisation that runs a learning centre in Khan Market and which works with Delhi government schools, says, “There is a general acceptance in our society of violence, which is seen as an accepted way of dealing with conflict. Besides, many of these children come from societies where the parent works in the informal sector and the teaching community comes from a different social background. So the teachers are quick to judge. What’s needed is a shift in mindset so that teachers listen to children, form a connection. That’s what’s missing now.”
Inside the chemistry lab of a government school in C1 block of Yamuna Nagar, this “connection” looks irreparably frayed.
“Children and their parents know they can get away with anything,” says Prashant Priyadarshi, vice-president of GSTA and English teacher at the C1, Yamuna Vihar school. He blames much of this on the no-detention policy under the Right to Education (RTE) Act and the School Management Committees (SMCs), parent-led bodies created under RTE which have been given powers by the AAP government to supervise and monitor the working of government schools.
The no-detention policy, which prohibits schools from detaining or expelling any student up to Class VIII, is the most contested provision of the Act, with both teachers and the government blaming it for everything from poor learning levels to the increasing levels of violence. Marlena agrees the no-detention policy has its faults. “The school system here is not ready for a policy of this nature. There was very little accountability in the first place and no-detention has removed even that,” she says.
The SMCs are another sticking point. “These SMC members are mostly illiterate: rickshaw pullers, domestic helps. They walk in and tell us what we should be doing. Can you imagine?” says a teacher in the CI, Yamuna Vihar school.
The Delhi government, however, hails the SMCs as the “most ground-breaking” of its “education reforms”. An AAP source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says, “There is a class issue here. Teachers don’t like it that the people they consider illiterate and inferior can now walk into school anytime and ask questions about missing teachers and so on. But the fact is, parents make up 75 per cent of the SMC members and nobody cares about their children as much as they do. This is a transition phase. Things will change and teachers will soon get used to it.”
Back at the Nangloi Metro station, the three boys are not so sure. “Nothing is going to change in government schools. Things may change for a day or two, but it will soon be back to normal. Normal matlab, wahi maar-peet, wahi violence. (Normal, as in the same old violence).”
— with inputs from Alok Singh