Streets To Schools: How Education In India Can Reach Everyone

Absent in India's schools, which help reinforce power imbalances, is any real acknowledgement of street-level efforts to push back.

A schoolgirl in Chennai
A schoolgirl in Chennai
Yuvraj Singh


NEW DELHI — At the beginning of 2020, I was living near Hauz Rani Gandhi Park, one of the sites of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the National Population Register (NPR). One night, when I was out to buy daily groceries, I saw a group of children running down the narrow streets of Hauz Rani holding a portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar and chanting the slogans of Azadi. Soon these sightings became commonplace.

On my way to buy milk and bread, I would often notice children, mixed in among adult protesters, chanting "azaadi" slogans and waving tricolor national flags. Sometimes they were not actively participating but just accompanying their mothers to the protest site, sleeping in their arms, seeking the warmth and comfort of their bodies in the cold of the night. In any case, this protest, it appeared to me, had become a significant part of their lives.

During this time, as a student of the sociology of education, I was visiting a school in the same area on a weekly basis. I would observe the practices in the classrooms and talk to teachers and students on various aspects of curriculum and pedagogy. And what struck me most during these visits was that the protests did not figure as a subject matter in the classroom.

This ongoing protest that was visibly touching the lives of so many students so deeply was completely absent from their classrooms. It is this dissonance between "the street" and "the school" that I want to use as an entry point to reflect on the nature of schooling in India.

Formal schooling, given the fact that it is by and large organized and regulated by the government, is a political process and therefore closely related to power. The relationship between schooling and power is a crucial one. Michel Foucault located "the school" in the same category as "the clinic" and "the prison" — as an institution of control and surveillance. Several scholars have accentuated the key role that schools, as part of state apparatus, play in reproducing the existing inequalities and furthering the socio-economic interests of the dominant strata.

In order to understand schooling as a mechanism of social control, it is important to examine the outer and inner contours of educational inequalities in the Indian context. Let me first take the case of the "exteriority" of educational inequality. The Indian school system, like the caste system, is structurally hierarchal. The quality of education one gets is a function of one's milieu, which means that the children belonging to marginalized castes receive the poorest quality education. In substance, the system favors the advantaged and disfavors the disadvantaged.

Formal schooling is organized and regulated by the government — Photo: Sumit Saraswat/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire

Then there is the issue of the "interiority" of educational inequality. The punitive and violent pedagogy that Bahujan students face inside the schools is no secret. India Exclusion Report 2013-14 categorically mentions corporal punishment, verbal abuse, humiliation, and segregation as forms of overt discrimination against children from oppressed communities.
The upshot of this pedagogy of repression is that those who are at the margins, those whose inheritance is collective trauma and loss, are forced to leave. It is unsurprising, then, that the school dropout rate is highest among students from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

There is also a less conspicuous way in which the repressive pedagogy operates inside classrooms, which brings us onto the terrain of the politics of institutional knowledge. Schools preserve and propagate the form and content of the culture and knowledge of powerful groups, defining it as legitimate knowledge.

Behind the veil of neutrality, schools act as catalysts in the social reproduction of power and privilege.

In his seminal work Why I am not a Hindu, Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, using experience as a framework, elaborates on how school curriculum invalidates the lives of the marginalized: "Dalitbhaujan life figured nowhere in the curriculum." Reflecting on the school-textbook content, Ilaiah writes, "The language of the textbooks was not the one that our communities spoke... The textbook morality was different from our living morality."

Although India did proclaim a legal commitment towards children's education through the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009, it has failed to build the equitable institutions through which the commitment might be realized.

Behind the veil of neutrality, schools act as catalysts in the social reproduction of power and privilege. Certain forms of knowledge are not allowed to become part of school knowledge, because they threaten the existing power relations. The impossibility of discourse on protest is precisely what the pedagogy of repression engenders, for protest is the language of discontent, the instrument to challenge the status quo.

Could the boundary separating the school premises from the streets, fade away? — Photo: Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

This stands at variance with critical pedagogy, which, in the words of Henry Giroux, educates students "to become critical agents who actively question and negotiate the relationships between theory and practice, critical analysis and common sense, and learning and social change." It allows educational institutions to listen to what is being discussed in the streets while designing pedagogical practices.

Paulo Freire, the pioneer of critical pedagogy, imagined education as a political and moral transformative practice. For him, it enabled the student to self-reflect, explore what it means to be a critical citizen, and meaningfully participate in a democracy. Dr. Ambedkar too saw education as a liberating force, one that is capable of kindling the transformation within. The "Agitate" part in his famous slogan "Educate, Agitate, Organize" signifies the transformative character of education.

It troubles me to think of the recent developments in the education landscape. But there is no surprise. After the Delhi police stormed Jamia Milia Islamia's library, tear-gassed the space, and lathi-charged the students, I stopped feeling surprised. It doesn't shock me anymore that privatization and philanthrocapitalism in education are being legitimized, that learning is being reduced to learning outcomes, that schoolification of pre-primary education is being promoted, that exclusion of Bhaujans from education is being mandated, and that scholars and student activists are being incarcerated.

Is it hopelessness? Perhaps not. But it is certainly something close. Now the rare moments when I encounter hope are when I think of the Fatima Sheikh-Savitribai Phule Library at the Shaheen Bagh protest site, when I think of so many brilliant and passionate teachers, educators, students and activists that I have come across.

And if I think of them long enough, I begin to imagine the school boundary — separating the school premises from the streets — fading away. I think of the school moving to the street and the street to the school. Sometimes, for a brief moment, I even allow myself to go as far as to imagine schools and universities redefining education as a practice of freedom, reclaiming what has been lost, embodying a pedagogy of Azadi.

*Yuvraj Singh holds a master's in education, with a speciality on the interface between education policy and power

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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