Hushed giggles and curious eyes will be a good way to describe my first visit to the Harijan Mohilla Night School in Bhadun village, Ajmer. The children jumped to their feet up, formed a circle and got me to join their singsong session. This exciting session concluded with the famous Coca-Cola Hindi advertisement song “Ummedon vali dhoop, Sunshine vali asha” (The sunshine of hope, the hope of sunshine). A beautiful evening spent with these energetic children urged me to come again and understand why this night school-an alternative form of schooling becomes the “sunshine of hope” for them. This also provoked me to question why these children never went to state run schools when the Right to Education (RTE) is a fundamental right in India (1).
It is believed that around 32 million children (aged between 6-13 years) especially from marginalized and minority communities have never attended any education institution (Kurien, 2015). This made it impossible for India to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015. One of the main reasons for this has been the deep-rooted caste system that dominates local governance and practices leading to discrimination and marginalization of the lower castes like Daliths and harijans. The children at the night school belong to the Harijan community. This community has historically been considered as untouchables thus leaving no room for social, cultural, economic or political participation. But it baffles me firstly as to what extent the practice of untouchability is still practiced considering it is banned by the Indian constitution (2) and secondly how it impacts current development practices.
While interacting with different stakeholders of the Manthan night school in order to gain some insights on my questions, I came across two divergent perspectives. One is the “process of normalization” (the internal perspective) and two is the “process of change” (external perspective). The process of normalization stems from the historical discrimination faced by this community over centuries. This has resulted in a “state of normalcy” where as a society both the community affected and the community that inflicts the discrimination considers this practice as normal. Society becomes indifferent to their existence as a result of this normalcy. This discrimination has resulted in issues of “access” especially to resources and institutions like education and religion. This is the same case in the village of Bhadun. The Harijans have lived here for over 750 years and have faced various forms of discrimination. They still continue their traditional work of manual scavenging. In this particular community, local government bodies have also denied access to “information” on different government schemes. The community has no knowledge of “reservations” (3). Due to this historical discrimination and denial of access to resources and state facilities, the community has been socio-economically deprived leading to marginalization. They sustain on barely Rs. 1500/- a month earned through menial labor works.
Thus this process of normalization has invited the process of change. The external perspective large seen through the lens of an “outsider” to the caste system is largely born out of an egalitarian thought process to attain a justice and equal society. This process of change started in village Bhadun when the Pravah International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteers discovered this community in October 2015. Realizing the need for upliftment of the community, the volunteers and Manthan constantly interacted with the community initially to build a relationship of trust and later on to initiate the process of change. They came to realize that access to knowledge and information was the most basic need for upliftment. The community also expressed desires to start a separate school as the children feared going to the state schools due to large levels of discrimination. Thus Manthan started a night school in April 2016. The school currently has 22 children and is run by two women from the village. These women are trained to teach the children in the most creative and innovative ways using local communication techniques and skills. The concept of the night school is to enable and prepare first generation learners to enter mainstream education at a later stage. Mathan believes that the night school is not only a “literacy room” but also a space to share different forms of knowledge and information that is essential for awareness, empowerment and holistic development. This is one of the initial and essential steps to attain a better standard of living. The long-term objective of these schools is to prepare the children for mainstream education while enabling larger society to accept them and change their views about these communities. Since the school has just started it is difficult to actually measure this long-term objective, but the short-term impacts have been impressive.
The night school has given the children the space to come and express themselves freely while also picking up essential literacy skills. It has helped them to communicate in a refined manner unlike their previous abusive styles of addressing elders and community members. Interactions with international and national volunteers at the night school have enabled them to learn more about the outside world. The story of Simran is truly impressive in this case. Simran studied in an English medium school in Mumbai. But when she came back to the village she never went back to school due to financial constraints and discriminations at the state school. It was only when she interacted with Atul Khera, a Pravah ICS volunteer who convinced her about the importance of education, inspiring her go back to school. Despite the existing caste barriers she encounters at school, Simran attends the state school during the daytime and also facilitates some of the activity sessions at the night school. She believes that this will enable her to share the acquired knowledge with her peers at the night school and her community.
The children in-turn have been able to teach their parents to use a mobile, to sign on important documents and pass on valuable information. The parents believe that even these little initiatives are important to improve their lives and enable their children to get small jobs and move away from manual scavenging. Through the night school, the Harijan community members meet every month and discuss relevant development issues. They have also started coming to the Ambedkar Sathsang Sabha meetings organised by Manthan that is an important space for information on government schemes. Thus these night schools for such marginalised and excluded communities becomes a healthy space not only for the children to attain knowledge but also for the community to rebuild their broken walls and climb the empowerment ladder.
Inequality determines the roots of development leading to questions on who gains access to increased growth of the state economy (Ray, 2008). Caste is one of those of factors that facilitates inequality. According to Ambedkar (2008), “Caste is a state of mind. It is a disease of the mind”. This diseases defines the process of normalization. It is only through the process of change especially in thought and perspective that we can achieve some form of societal development. Thus it becomes necessary for the state, development practitioners, funding agencies and grass roots organizations to address this issue while designing development programmes. To address any development issue is to understand the heterogeneous layers in which society is hidden. Homogenous ideas with a top down approach to implementation will not be the best way to address grass-root challenges to development in India. Though it becomes difficult to navigate through the process of normalization, it is small initiatives like the Manthan night school can definitely be game changers.
When I think of the process of change now and especially when I view inequality and development, the words of young Simran “we are also human and we also bathe daily, so why does society have to discriminate,” will be etched in my memory forever. More than anything else, for her development is about being “human” again. Manthan has been such an organisation working to restore “humanness”, “dignity” and “respect” for communities that have been marginalized and excluded due to the caste system. It aims to break caste barriers and change people’s views on how they view human beings. The night school is the “ummed” and “asha” and a bridge to change especially for the children. Thus the “process to change” is when the state and society views development from a more comprehensive approach that addresses the existing maladies facing Indian society. This is one of the steps essential for India to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
1. Ambedkar, B.R., 2008, “Riddles in Hinduism”, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi.
2. Kurien, O.C., 2015, “Still Too Many Children out of School”, Business Line. Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/still-too-many-children-out-of-school/article7814794.ece
3. Ray, S., 2008, “Is Rajasthan Heading towards Caste War?” Economic and Political Weekly.
(2) Untouchability Offenses Act 1955
(3) Since this community comes under the Scheduled caste category they are entitled to reservation in different schemes and programmes for their upliftment