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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

In the dark at Hathras: Would it have made a difference if the girl had not been forced to drop out of school?

Would it have made any difference to the young Dalit girl had she not been forced to drop out of school? We cannot say, for such is the state of information about education in UP.

Written by Krishna Kumar | Updated: October 31, 2020 9:23:42 am
(Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Once upon a time, the states were known as provinces. Hindi carries that memory by continuing to use pradesh along with rajya, the latter being closer to “State”. In English, however, the only way you can now distinguish the state in its broader sense from one of the Indian state is by spelling the latter with a capital “S”. Young readers don’t find it easy to make the distinction, especially if the topic is how federal India’s central state functions in the states. For upper-primary teachers of social science in English-medium schools, life would have been a lot easier if the prescribed textbook occasionally used the old term “province”. The taboo against that is possibly related to an unwholesome connotation of “provinciality” — it evokes remoteness, not being well-linked. This negative sense is not recent, so there is no point suspecting that neo-nationalism has conquered provinciality.

If teachers were allowed to display occasional flexibility to use “provinces” for states, it would encourage clarity in children’s minds. But it might not address the opacity that provinciality implies. No matter where you get your education, you can’t avoid ignorance about life beyond your own state’s border. If you have attended a school affiliated to one of the two all-India boards (CBSE and ICSE), you are likely to learn very little about life in the states, including your own. Socialisation into a pan-Indian outlook means that you will regard state borders as little more than an administrative necessity. On the other hand, if you went to a school linked to a state board, you will imbibe a deep sense of “borderliness,” carrying solid ignorance of neighbouring states. You will be socialised to see your state as your base, a marker of your identity.

Absence of knowledge and curiosity about what lies beyond the border of one’s own state can’t necessarily be attributed to language. If that were so, the Hindi belt would offer exemplary instances of trans-provincial awareness and interest in the educated citizenry. Problems may be similar, even identical, on the two sides of a provincial border, but popular preoccupations sharply differ. In a state-board school, you are taught about the geography and society of your own state. In a CBSE school, you transcend provincial life altogether and focus squarely on all-India tests. No wonder, environmentalists hate the system of education. Their activism makes them both unique and lonely. They rightly feel that little progress can be made on ecological issues without social and political cooperation across provincial borders.

In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the police also realise how useful it might be to know the terrain across the border. They face a hard time when UP criminals escape into MP and vice-versa. Recently, a famous gangster did just that, and the UP police had to waste precious time in bringing him to home turf for a final solution. Older people of the two states can tell you many stories of the post-Independence decades, when famous dacoits used the long border from Gwalior to Rewa to play hide-and-seek with their chasers in livery.

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In the era of GST and Google, one might assume that all borders have shed their opacity value. The growth of media was also supposed to melt away the barriers that inter-state borders present to the flow of awareness. Seized by these positive thoughts, I felt curious to know how UP’s citizens felt about the sharp opprobrium their state had elicited from the national press over the recent Hathras episode. Editorials of several national English dailies had harshly criticised the administrative handling of the incident that had occurred in Bool Garhi village. How did the English-reading public of cities like Lucknow, Allahabad and Varanasi react?

Outsiders’ criticism doesn’t affect UP, an old colleague who now lives in UP told me. This is partly because readers of English dailies are few in number and the Hindi press does not publish sharp criticism — of anything to do with the government. In a pre-Hathras conversation, a retired Lucknow professor had told me that the administration was doing its best to control the goon culture that had seeped into UP’s ethos. His point was that outsiders don’t understand UP.

How can they? If you want factual information, UP is the toughest among the Hindi states to worm it out of. During the days Hathras was in headlines, one of the news reports on Bool Garhi mentioned that the girl whose body was burnt under police guard was a primary school dropout. That must have happened in 2011. The Right to Education Act had been promulgated a year earlier. A feature article in one of the dailies indicated that this girl stopped going to school because a new highway made it too dangerous. To ascertain the facts, I called up an NGO who contacted an officer at the directorate of education. He flatly refused to discuss Hathras. Might a Google map help? It showed Highway 509 passing through the Bool (spelt Bul) Garhi village, splitting it into two unequal parts.

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My search for the school did not succeed. I was hopeful because UDISE (Unified District Information System for Education) showed that the primary school in Bool Garhi village had a pucca boundary wall. Why it doesn’t show on Google is puzzling. Though Bool Garhi is not a remote village — it is quite close to Hathras town — it got its own primary school in 2003. The latest available enrolment figure (2017-18) on UDISE was 25 children. There were the other usual official facts, such as the presence of a ramp, a toilet for boys and a separate one for girls, a hand pump, and two teachers. Data-wise, the school was doing well but that couldn’t stop a Schedule Caste girl from dropping out of Class V. Would it have made a difference to what happened to her last month? Who can say?

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2020 under the title ‘In the dark at Hathras’. The writer is a former director of NCERT and editor of the Routledge Handbook of Education in India.

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