The desert and the icy Arctic landscape have an identical effect on people. An effect that cuts out the social subterfuge in conversations. I experienced that for years in north Sweden, and now in the Thar. The immediate, matter-of-fact dousing of pretences about casteism was unlikely in other places. Here in the Thar, with sand dunes as a backdrop higher than the two-storey building we were in, the cutting down to the bone of truth was in character.
“Does caste influence behaviour, in and out of schools?” The first response to this blunt question was a hedgy paean to progressive changes. Even by the standards of the desert, the ever-smiling Hari Ram has a rapier for a tongue. He said, “Why do your eyes change when you hear the names of people?” Names are a sure giveaway of caste in this area. And with his first sentence, Ram had cut out the fluff.
Now, after 20 days, the ensuing conversation feels like I may have imagined it. How could a real dialogue between 35 people about their own biases and failings have such candour? But I did not imagine it. The conversation did, in fact, happen on that cold January evening in Baytu. It took place between a group of public (government) schoolteachers who meet often to discuss educational matters.
The conversation began with the question of what we were all doing in education. Not in the sense of doing a job, but in the sense of what we wanted from education. There was quick agreement that subjects had to be taught and learnt but our purpose of being in education was not limited to this. The group thought of education as an effort to help develop good human beings—and so to a better society. For most people in the room, what had started off just as a job had acquired this deeper meaning over the years.
Perhaps the desert’s ability to cut to the truth has helped uncover this meaning. Children in your charge compel you to think of what you are doing for them. In the desert, where getting a glass of water is an effort, the enormous effort of education is stark. Why does a child, unprotected from the scorching heat and icy winds, come to the school every day? In that physical and economic barrenness, close to the children that you take care of every day—most of whom live in poverty—you cannot escape the deeper purpose that education serves. Realization seeps in little by little every day.
The next phase of the discussion could not have had a ready agreement, and it did not. What was a better society and so, what should education spark and what should it douse? The absence of agreement did not mean that common ground could not be found. And the common ground was found in the Constitution of India. It was this that started the discussion on what each one was doing about fostering the values that the Constitution upholds.
This is what led to the question about casteism. Each one who spoke after Ram narrated their reality of the caste structure, its dynamics, and its influence on their behaviour. Some felt that the government requirement to fill out one’s caste in various school documents ran counter to efforts to dismantle the caste structure. The elemental conflict was obvious and did not need explicit articulation.
A commitment to constitutional values and aims demanded education to help do away with caste. But if caste was such a fundamental part of their identity, and they were so much within the caste structure, how could they expect to battle caste within schools? Wouldn’t their own beliefs and biases defeat any effort? Would they even want to engage with this issue?
How can educators who are filled with prejudices conduct education that battles the same prejudices? This elemental conflict was not only about caste. It was about gender, about religious beliefs, about other religions, about superstitions, about corruption and so on. An unending list of things, on which we are all far from perfect, especially when it comes to living up to the demands of the Constitution.
Such elemental contradictions in human beings are not resolved with one conversation. They need years of reflection and action. But that conversation in Baytu did show the path towards resolution. A resolution framed almost in religious terms, which was odd in the context of constitutional values, but was effective nonetheless.
The framework was that of the school as a sacred space. A space where norms are derived from the Constitution—which is the source of the sacredness. So when we human beings, filled with our biases and prejudices, enter this sacred space as educators, we have to leave our imperfections outside. In this space, we have to believe only in the Constitution and act accordingly. We have no choice on this matter—by choosing to be an educator, we have accepted the virtues of this sacred space. And in this space, we have to do the Constitution’s work. This requires unrelenting effort of the heart and the mind. But then, who said being an educator was easy!
The framework assuaged the agony of the discussion. It used an idiom that was familiar to all. It released each individual from the burden of trying to be perfect, and limited the conflict of their beliefs with that of the Constitution to the sacred space, where they had no choice but to defer. The calmed, contemplative group dispersed. It wasn’t bad progress for a cold winter evening in the desert.
Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads the sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.