The best way to know when a country has grown up is when its revolution takes place in its classrooms. And with the Supreme Court upholding the Right to Education (RTE) Act this week, paving the way for schools across the country to admit students from economically and socially backward homes, India is about to witness one of its most important social experiments — nothing short of storming the bastions.
For too long a sense of privilege, entitlement and prejudice has been enshrined in the classrooms of India’s elite schools and this ruling, besides everything else it promises to do, will address this.
Ensuring that each classroom of the future will include 25 per cent of socially and economically backward children has set the stage for some serious change. Change that will finally come not from bloodshed and violence on the street, but from the cradle of India’s democracy: its schools.
I will never forget a photograph that I had published in my earlier avatar as editor of a daily supplement. Asked to cover a Mumbai convent school’s attempts at integration, the photographer — the very talented Sudharak Olwe — had lined the children who were in costume for a play against a wall and clicked them.
What I saw stayed with me forever. Regardless of all the well-meaning and righteous attempts at integration and level playing fields, the difference between the children of the rich and the children from the slum was startling and heartbreaking.
With their pitiful malnutritioned bodies, their unattended to teeth and skin, their severely oiled hair and their awkward and apologetic body language, the slum children stood apart from the pouty, slouchy, confident and entitled south Mumbai convent school brats like a neon sign.
There, for all the world to see, was the great divide of India. One India that would go on to higher studies and exciting careers and lives of pomp and privilege, and the other that would struggle to get a job incrementally better paid and better regarded than that of their parents.
And it is exactly this that the RTE seeks to change. Because rather than attempt to integrate children of the rich and poor when the divide is already too wide to bridge, the RTE requires children to be integrated as soon as they enter the education system in Class One itself — at a time when prejudice hasn’t set in and become institutionalised. And when the wide-eyed innocence of childhood still allows for friendship across social divides.
The earliest friend I had was the son of a carpenter in my neighbourhood and like all of childhood’s intrinsic wonders, it was impervious to class and custom. But of course, when the time to enter schooling came, our friendship was sacrificed at the altar of timeworn rules: I went to a precious convent school run by Irish nuns and my best friend was swallowed up in the great tumble of a municipal school. After that there was no hope, as try as we might, our lives took on separate trajectories.
Perhaps if we were entering school this year, things would have been different. Perhaps our friendship would have strengthened and grown if we’d been in the same classroom sharing daily experiences. And perhaps through friendships of this kind, a new India would emerge: stronger, more integrated and equal.
A John Lennon once said, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer email@example.com