Where the Mind is Without Fear: Education and Human Rights in India

This speech was delivered at the annual dinner held by the India Literacy Project in October 2015, celebrating the organisation’s 25th anniversary. 

When I think about what education means to me, and what it needs from all of us, I think – perhaps surprisingly – about a harsh, dry, arid day in north Karnataka, in Raichur district, when I was about five or six years old.

At this point, I should quickly explain my somewhat complex antecedents: my father is Bengali, born in Assam, studied in Meghalaya, and went to university in Delhi. My mother is a Tamilian from Kerala, who grew up in Kolkata and Delhi, but met my father at that self-same university in Delhi. My father then – being a child of freedom like my mother, they were both born in 1948 – became a public servant with the Indian Administrative Service and joined the Karnataka cadre of the IAS. My mother is a writer and educator, who has written for children of all ages, and taught from kindergarten to university. So home for me – khichudi/pachadi mixture that I am – is really Karnataka, and education to me, is more than just a degree.

So back to that dry, arid day in Raichur, about 35 years ago. My father was inaugurating a water tank, and in that desert that is the north Deccan plateau – I remember the sunlight as it glinted off the water in the full tank and how it reflected on the faces of all the villagers standing around, waiting patiently for the speeches to end, and the ribbons to be cut. But most poignantly, what I remember best is the sunlight mirroring the joy on their faces – their sense of marvel, almost of magic – that in a dry, difficult land, the tank held the promise, the possibility of water. Water that would transform their individual lives, the lives of their families, and certainly, the lives of their communities. And to me, that is the extraordinary power of education: that like water, it is often taken for granted, and yet, it holds within it, so much magic, so much promise.

It is such a pleasure and such a privilege to be here with all of you, to have listened to all the inspiring stories of this evening. Most of all, to be celebrating together India Literacy Project’s 25 years of working towards not simply literacy, but holistic education, in India. I have known of ILP for many years – in fact, one of ILP’s most passionate volunteers – Suchitra Rao – is a close friend with whom I’ve worked on issues of children’s and women’s rights in Karnataka since the early 2000s. So being here today is like the best of being with friends: good food, new and old connections, and always, inspiration for future action. Even more impressive, is the fact that we are friends connected by the red blood of volunteerism: whether you are a donor of money or of time, your shared passion, your shared belief in being in service to others, makes you a community of solidarity, and a community to celebrate. I thank you all – volunteers of both time and money – for your passion, your commitment, and your service. Every dollar, every rupee, every moment, every kshana… they count, they matter.

I’d like to ask you three questions now… Please raise your hand if your answer to the question is a yes. I’ll take ‘maybes’ with a little wave of your hand.

1. How many of you believe that true holistic education takes not just an individual, but a family, a village, a community well beyond the village?

2. How many of you believe that you could not be in this room today without the opportunities and the resources it took for your own education?

3. How many of you believe that education offers us empowerment that is beyond the tangible: that being educated is not just a number in a government census, or a count of the number of classrooms, but truly, a state of mind?

Fantastic. Since more than half of this room believes with me, I think my work here is done, and we can all go home.

Seriously, though, I’ve been given another 10 minutes to tell you exactly why I think the answers to all those three questions are a resounding yes, and why they are so critical to the ways in which we need to think about education. Equally critically, why they are core to the reasons that ILP has been deeply successful in its work for 25 years, and – I hope – will continue to be for many years to come.

Education does not exist in a vacuum. Education takes not only a village; it takes infrastructure, people, and the right attitudes, well beyond the village to provide the fabric, the backbone, of education. Not just for an individual life, but for families, for villages, for communities across space and time.

Think of it this way. India’s adult literacy rate currently is 62.8%. Many of us in this room know that this is sadly no more than the matter of being able to sign your name, it is not the true education rate. In addition, the adult literacy rate for females is 67.6% that of males. And yet, the primary enrollment rate for girls is 99.9%. Hidden amongst these seemingly simple, stark, statistics, are the countless stories of human beings, of human lives, of girls, for instance, who if they are offered the opportunity to be born at all – the child sex ratio in India currently means that for every 1000 boys, there are at least 76 girls who are denied life – so if these girls are born, if they have a primary school in their village, if they enrolled in the school, they still can be denied the right to walk down the road to this school every day, because they are the ones taking care of their younger sisters and brothers.

Or, if they manage to make it through primary school, they can’t go to the secondary school that is 20km away, because the bus comes through their village only once a day, and they’re not allowed to hitch a ride with the trucks on the highway, like their brothers do. And if they do manage to persuade their parents, and hitch that ride with the boys from their village, and if they manage to survive the every day nudging, and whistling, and harassment that is euphemistically called ‘eve teasing’ – or, often worse, violence on both body and soul – and if they are lucky enough to have teachers in this school, with the attitude to teach, and if they are Dalit or Muslim, they are not asked to sit outside the classroom, rather than inside it, and – if, if, if, if…

Education is not a destination for most people in the world – it is a series of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’ on a journey of hope that is often, tragically, cut short by a series of ‘nos’, ‘not possible’, ‘you cannot’. Education does not exist in a vacuum, it is made possible by a series of structural conditions – attitudes, resources, and values – that allow a child to counter the ‘no, you cannot’, navigate past the ‘if perhaps’, and finally, excitedly, get to the ‘yes, I can’. Very few children in the world have those structural conditions neatly laid out for them. We, in this room, are part of a very thin proportion of the lucky ones who have made it through.

Ismat Chughtai was an extraordinary writer from Uttar Pradesh, who has been one of my feminist inspirations, amongst many that range from Akka Mahadevi the bhakti poet of the 12th century to every young girl of the 21st century. Perhaps I feel an affinity for her because she too, was the daughter of a civil servant, and because she fought, always, for the idea of a rich, textured, India in which all people – especially women – were free to be themselves. In fact, she called her own family a ‘bhelpuri’ of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsees. There are many stories to tell about Ismat – and Naseeruddin Shah does an amazing job in his theatrical performance Ismat Apa Ke Naam. But the story that stays with me is the story she relates, about fighting to go to school. In her autobiography, she remembers the conversation she had with her father.

“”Women cook food Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

“What do you want to do then?” he asked.

“All my brothers study. I will study too,” I said.

My uncle was assigned the job of teaching me. After a month of extensive study, day and night, I was accepted into the fourth grade at a local school. After that I got a double promotion and was promoted to grade six. I wanted to be free – and without an education, a woman cannot have freedom. [1920s] When an uneducated woman gets married, her husband addresses her as “stupid” or “illiterate”. When he leaves for work, she sits at home and waits for him to come back. I thought that no matter what happens, I would never be intimidated by anyone. I would learn as quickly as I could.”

Ismat Chughtai went on to write countless short stories and books, and inspire brilliant and beloved Hindi movies like Garam Hawa. None of those may have been possible without her opportunity, her fight, to go to school. And in complex societies like ours, I submit to you that our best litmus test for education, is when previously disadvantaged, marginalised communities – like the women in India, the 47% of the population who should be 51% – get both opportunity and support to access the same resources that the more privileged amongst us do. It is not enough to look at the lucky lineage of those of us who have at least three generations of university degrees in our families (though I know we are all grateful); we need to look for, support, and celebrate those for whom going to school may be a first generational effort.

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. Do you know who said this? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Another inspiration of mine, Papamma, comes from a small village in Kolar district of Karnataka. Papamma is now part of a remarkable federation of rural women farmers who are fighting for women’s rights to land, to representation, and to a life of dignity and confidence. For Papamma – who never went to school – education has been a long hard journey of wisdom learnt through both deprivation and abuse, but also through solidarity and support. I asked Papamma once, how she knew that she and her fellow women, had finally gained power.

She said to me: ‘Empowerment is not a moment. It comes to you over time, with so much effort. I knew we were finally empowered, when I went from standing at the gates of the District Commissioner’s office, not being allowed in to see him, to being allowed to stand outside his door and speak to him, to being allowed to step inside the office, to finally, being given a seat and offered a coffee. Aa jatre, bhala varsha thogoliththu. That journey took many, many years’. Papamma was the first Dalit woman to ever be given the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship award.

And for me, that is the true value and measure of education: it is not only about how many textbooks, blackboards, classrooms, or schools there are – the 1200 villages, the 2800 schools that ILP has worked with – though these are important, transactional, metrics. Education is about the way it makes you feel about yourself, about who you are in the world, what you offer to others, and what others offer to you in return. It is about how each of the 300,000 people touched by ILP’s work participates in the fullness of their daily lives, both at home and in public. That is a scaling of outcomes that is not easily measured, it is not quantifiable, but it is the kind of scaling of outcomes that I know all of us here in this room believes is critical, that all of us here desire, that ILP strives to achieve. Every story you have heard from them today is about success in both transactional and transformational terms: both what we need to achieve true holistic education, and how it makes the educated child feel and be.

So as we leave this evening, I hope you will remember – and perhaps agree with me – my responses to the three questions I asked you at the beginning of my talk.

1. First, education does not exist in a vacuum. Getting a child to school is neither the beginning of the journey, nor is it the end. It really is only a resting place in the middle, if we are lucky. It takes infrastructure, people, and supportive attitudes, well beyond the individual child, or the individual family. It takes access to multiple opportunities: the opportunities to learn while not having to worry about food, shelter, health or transport. The opportunity to learn without being discriminated against, or being abused. The opportunity to learn while speaking up with freedom and confidence.

2. So secondly, education is about human rights, and it is about more than simply opportunities. In order for opportunity to turn into outcome, it must involve both freedoms and responsibilities from and for all of us. The litmus test for education – and really, our systems of society in general – is when the most disadvantaged of us have at least a few similar outcomes in life, as the most privileged of us. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – the architect of the Indian Constitution – once said, about Dalit self-determination: “We may forego material benefits, we may forego material benefits of civilization, but we cannot forego our right and opportunities to reap the benefit of the highest education to the fullest extent.”

3. Finally, thirdly, education is about scaling these outcomes: not just about scaling homogenous, tangible units of textbooks and classrooms, but about scaling the intangible, about scaling those deeply powerful outcomes, of dignity and self-confidence.

As we do this scaling – both of effort and outcomes – together, I wish ILP – and all of you, the ILP community, the very best. I think Rabindranath Tagore will forgive me the slight paraphrasing of his words at the end of this conversation with you, because I can imagine no better way to express gratitude and hope for the past histories and experiences we have brought with us into this room, and what we are all here in this room to do together, for the future of our communities back home in India.

Chitto jetha bhuyshunyo…
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom (that promise of education, my friends), let our country awake.