This last week has been riddled with erratic holidays, some that were expected and some that came as a surprise. While many celebrate this break to get away from the city and spend time with family, it is a worrying factor for educators such as me. The last couple of years have been disastrous for education. We are still trying to recover from the loss of learning when the schools were closed for nearly eight months because of Covid-19. The children are estimated to be behind by about three years from their expected learning levels. To deal with the problem, many governments actively managing education have reduced the syllabus so that the children can progress. It is also expected that the curtailing of learning concepts in schools will seriously impact higher education standards. With this as a backdrop, when learning hours of children get further shortened because of strikes and bandhs in states and then the statutory festival holidays, one really wonders what kind of knowledge our children will acquire this year.
Sometimes, the calling of bandhs and protests is totally legitimate. It is said that unless such protests take place that affect the general public, serious attention is not given to a particular issue. While bandhs can be a powerful tool to mobilise public opinion and bring awareness to important policy issues, one also needs to evaluate its long-term impact on general life. One only talks about how bandhs disrupt economic activities and harm businesses, which can negatively affect the overall economy. Has anyone thought about what bandhs and strikes do to education?
Today, we are celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. He was the one who had popularised the call of bandhs and protests to bring in the awareness that our country was ready to be independent. His approach to these forms of protest was rooted in his philosophy of non-violent resistance, also known as Satyagraha. Gandhi believed in the power of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience as a means to address social and political issues. However, he also emphasised the importance of discipline, moral integrity, and the context in which these actions were undertaken. As a nation, we must reflect on the general public’s sincerity in the recent bandhs. How many really studied the issues that seem to be of political interest? How much research is done on the history of the problem? How many have tried to find solutions independently instead of leaving everything to our politicians? How many have even participated in the bandh in its true spirit rather than just taking a holiday?
While Gandhi popularised bandhs he also believed in what he called a “constructive program.” This meant that individuals should not just protest against something but also work towards constructive solutions to the problems they were protesting for. As an educator, I believe that schools should be kept open when protests happen because children are safe there. This would be a great opportunity for the students to debate the issue of the protest and become more informed and knowledgeable about civic issues and policies. We tend to dismiss children’s opinions by regarding them as just children. If we begin to acknowledge them as future citizens, it is important to get them engaged in matters of the state very early in their age-appropriate way. And that is very much possible through school assemblies, competitions, quizzes, book reading, watching documentaries, and even playing games. Once children get the information, they can study further to acquire knowledge about issues and then debate and reflect to gain wisdom. This process is critical to developing a new generation of analysers, thinkers and executors that will be the future policymakers. We will also breed a generation of well-informed and discerning electorate that our country dearly needs. Instead, the first thing that we do is to close schools and educational institutions in the name of safety. I would recommend letting the protest continue the way it has to, for whatever cause, but do not close down the schools and colleges. Can today’s policymakers think a little creatively and find ways to keep the roads safe for the children and teachers to travel to schools? Can education be considered an essential service and be allowed to lead a normal life even in cases of emergencies? Of course, at all times, the safety of the children is vital, and energies must be directed to create safe options rather than taking the easy way out. This easy way can become very expensive in the long run.
My submission is to recognise schools and colleges as essential services because they are as critical for society’s functioning and well-being as medical and food services. Education is the fundamental right of all citizens, and therefore, access to uninterrupted education is also a fundamental right. So when there is restricted activity in the cities, it is important to consider options to keep the schools open and the children safe. Today, the first thing that the administrators plan to close are schools, whether the ruling political party or the opposition calls the bandh. This way, the learning gap is also widening with the number of holidays that seem to be increasing in our academic calendar. We need to do something about this urgently, and we can do that if the learning hours are not impacted.
Gandhi, who initiated the culture of strikes and protest as a method of getting heard by the British in a non-violent way, did not ever imagine that his style of protest would be used to register issues in an independent India. Neither would he approve of the violence that suddenly erupts during these protests. I believe that Gandhiji would say that as a part of a constructive solution, he always recommended no schools should be closed even during his birth anniversary. He was a proponent of hard work and discipline, and he would, therefore, have informed the authorities that having educational institutions closed for his birthday was unnecessary. He would have preferred having children discuss his education and life philosophy in the classes rather than playing mindless games outside the schools.
It is about time we think of responsible ways of getting ourselves heard and honouring the past.