The one thing for which you could count on civil servants was finding satisfactory justification. If something had already happened, civil servants knew how to find an argument in its defence. That is what political leaders used to look for in bureaucrats they trusted. A news report from Bihar suggests this quality may be in decline. Perhaps the decline in educational standards is taking its toll on civil servants.
A booklet designed to spread the message of sanitation and cleanliness has run into trouble. Its cover carried a photograph downloaded from UNICEF’s website. It shows a small girl in her school uniform — green shirt and white dupatta — drawing something on a piece of paper. Some nitpicker has pointed out that the girl is Pakistani. The drawing is hardly visible, but this critic has deciphered it as the flag of her country. This discovery has rudely yanked the little known Jamui district into national news.
The district bureaucracy is reportedly embarrassed about this episode. The matter has been referred to the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, who has ordered an inquiry. Meanwhile, steps are being taken to ensure that the booklet does not reach children’s hands till the picture of the Pakistani girl is removed from its cover.
It is clear that the nervous administration of Jamui is unable to work out a decent justification. Imagination and some historical awareness might have helped it to notice that the booklet’s cover carries a symbol of officially approved policy. Perhaps no one in Jamui, not even an IAS officer, can recall the various resolutions issued at SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summits over the decades. As a leading member of SAARC, India has initiated some of these resolutions. They articulate the collective aspiration of South Asian countries to cooperate in matters pertaining to the welfare of children through cooperation in health, nutrition, sanitation, and education. Quite a few of these wordy declarations emphasise the importance of SAARC member states pursuing jointly-funded programmes for improvement in education. The South Asian University located in New Delhi is a symbol of this aspiration. A booklet designed to promote the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in a district of Bihar could surely carry forward this spirit by carrying a Pakistani schoolgirl’s picture on its cover.
Jamui district is ideally suited to be the site of such a bold initiative. I say this with a precious memory of meeting two great educationists in Jamui. Four decades ago, I had the opportunity to visit Khadigram, a Gandhian institution located in Jamui. There, I met Acharya Ramamurty and Vidya Bahen.
The school at Khadigram was like a dream, with children and teachers jointly managing all aspects of collective living. Acharya Ramamurty was deeply involved with the numerous responsibilities of the Sampurna Kranti (Total Revolution) movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narain (JP). Later on, he chaired a major committee appointed by the Government of India for suggesting reforms in education. He was a member of the steering committee which drafted the National Curriculum Framework in 2005. He believed in peace as a crucial resource for learning. Had he been alive today, he would have advised Nitish Kumar, to launch the Jamui booklet himself at a public function.
It is not difficult to guess why Jamui’s bureaucrats are feeling nervous. In the ethos surrounding them, the image of a schoolgirl from an enemy nation appearing on an official booklet can only be viewed as an evidence of gross negligence. That she is trying to draw her country’s flag makes matters worse for the Jamui administrators. They can hardly convince their critics by arguing that they chose this image to convey the significance of drawing and art work in the school curriculum.
Perhaps UNICEF can take some pride in this unnecessarily apologetic mood in the Jamui administration. For decades, UNICEF has been trying to use children’s faces as a medium to convey the message that human welfare and happiness are more sacrosanct than national boundaries. UNICEF’s website is a treasure trove of children’s faces from around the world. The mistake made in Jamui tells us how right UNICEF is. Someone in charge of choosing a visual for the cover of a booklet about cleanliness mistook a Pakistani child for an Indian. As a product of JP’s Sampurna Kranti, Nitish Kumar can surely appreciate that mistake as something to cheer about.