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Parents' Protests Against Fee Hikes Are Completely Missing The Larger Problem

The inequality that forms the very bedrock of education in private schools in India remains unaddressed.

05/05/2017 9:10 AM IST | Updated 05/05/2017 3:11 PM IST
Arko Datta / Reuters

The recent protests by parents against fee hikes by private schools is being widely covered in the national media. There is solidarity with the issues the parents are voicing: uncapped school fees, exorbitant charges on the uniforms and books, a lack of transparency. There is a sense among the parents of being exploited, economically as well as psychically.

However, in this uproar, there is yet in sight a parent or parents' association who is arguing for true fairness i.e. equal access to education for all students, irrespective of class, caste, and regional divide. The inequality that forms the very bedrock of education in private schools in India remains unaddressed. This elitism in private schools—an admixture of class and caste adaptabilities in the spaces of learning— is what I am calling "schoolism."

A uniform education policy for students across India—with boarding, quality food and lodging arrangements—need to be offered. Whatever became of the constitutional guarantee to equal education?

It is about time that we collectively acknowledge that our education system is contributing to unequal forces. The phenomena of competition, ranking, grading, merit are some of the overpowering divisions existing within the ecologies of schooling. Social class segregation in school campuses creates caste antagonism and perpetuates the modern-urban and backward-rural divide. We need a society where education is uniform, and that sustains the ethos of education—which is the cultivation of mind and principles rather than jealousy and hatred towards each other.

If we need to be materially strong, our spiritual and moral desires need to be secularised. A uniform education policy for students across India—with boarding, quality food and lodging arrangements—need to be offered. Whatever became of the constitutional guarantee to equal education?

We are a country that relentlessly brags about the great monastic models of Buddhist universities that gave access to everyone by breaking the Brahmin dominance of the gurukuls model. This form of education was essentially aimed at preserving caste hegemony. If one goes to the reported histories of institutes of learning—Nalanda, Vikramshila, Takshashila, Jagaddala, and Odantapuri etc.—it is easy to find that formalised education was offered to debate, discuss and promote a stream of knowledge that was globally adaptable. It made students global denizens.

Acknowledging the importance of education and institutionalised training, Ambedkar, who had trained in two prominent regions of thinking, the US and the UK, focused on forming independent schools and colleges that would become centres of learning and thought. Ambedkar had emphasised this in his 18th March 1956 speech in Agra wherein he appealed to his followers to lead a struggle for the removal of "educational, economic and social inequality." For this purpose, added the doctor, "you should be ready for all kinds of sacrifice even to shed blood." Ambedkar prioritised educational inequality before economic and social.

This protest would be a welcome step only if they acknowledge their own privilege and also fight for the rights of the children of their drivers, maids and cleaners...

Therefore, this primetime-friendly rush of parents to protest against unequal treatment by private schools would be a welcome step only if they begin with acknowledging their own privileges

Ambedkar's educational institute People's Education Society founded in 1945 was modelled on the aforementioned Buddhist institutions. It aimed to promote science, Buddhist values, and comparative studies of religion. Ambedkar was primarily a teacher who spent a considerable amount of his time teaching in his early days after his return to India. He was appointed as the last principal of the respected Government Law College, Mumbai. Education was sacrosanct for Ambedkar. He believed that it had the power to challenge the social inequities which eventually decided a person's character.

Given the current sad state of education in India, only people with privileged access tend to form public opinion—people with privileges of caste, class, gender, sexuality, locality, family, and religion. We do not have subaltern masses equally visible in the popular genres of the cultural stream—media, academia, music, literature.

Therefore, this primetime-friendly protest of parents against private schools would be a welcome step only if they acknowledge their own privilege and start also fighting for the rights of the children of their drivers, maids and cleaners to have access to the same kind of education that their progeny get.

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