Magazine

When the girls came marching in

On Teachers’ Day (September 5), the Prime Minister of India decided to be the ‘teacher of teachers’ and addressed students across the country. On Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), he repackaged the legacy of and invoked ‘The father of the nation’. Netas and babus across the country suddenly became conscious of the need for swachhata (hygiene) and started sweeping streets; with each stroke of the broom choreographed for cameras and reporters. School children were brought out in rallies, parroting slogans they hardly comprehended.

So when on October 2, the residents and shopkeepers in Bhim, Rajasthan, heard schoolgirls shouting slogans, they paid little attention. They thought it was another swachhata rally. But, as the words became clearer and the rally was sighted, people were drawn out of their homes and shops by the palpable difference: this was a real protest march.

About 500 girls, in neat uniforms, marched down the street, holding a banner and placards, enthusiastically shouting slogans. They were not instigated by any political leader or group, and their demand was simple and straightforward: to appoint teachers in their school as per government norms. By the time they went through the town, they had gained people’s sympathy and support; an unusual and important form of civil disobedience had begun.

Raajakiya Balika Ucha Madhyamik Vidhyalay (Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Bhim) is located in the heart of Bhim, a small dusty town in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan. About 700 girls, from Std. IX to XII study there, but the number of teaching staff is just three. The Principal’s post has been vacant for eight years and one teacher is the acting Principal. There is no teacher for basic subjects like Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Hindi and Sanskrit. The 11 first grade teacher posts have been vacant since the school was upgraded around 10 years ago. Repeated petitions to authorities have gone unanswered though the school is just a stone’s throw away from the Block Development Office (BDO).

Since the children of most public officials study in private schools, the government schools’ poor condition and the future of their students does not affect the officials personally. Many of the government school students come from very poor families. They travel around 15-20 km to school and spend around Rs.20 on daily transport.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, a few students sought the help of Shankar Singh, a senior activist of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Bhim. He tried to persuade them to get their parents to petition the government authorities and begin a dialogue. But the students knew that since most of their parents were daily wage workers, they would not be able to leave their work and begin a dialogue with a set of intimidating officials — the results of which they were sceptical about in any case. So, the students successfully convinced Shankar Singh and the MKSS to provide guidance and moral support.

They planned to organise a peaceful rally the next day and submit a memorandum to the Block Development Officer demanding immediate action to appoint teachers.

On October 2, around 450 girls locked the school gate and put up a banner — ‘700 students, 3 teachers; fill up the vacancies now’ — across it. A memorandum was prepared and signatures of all the students obtained. Before beginning the rally, the students gathered at the school gate and raised slogans: ‘ Shiksha hamara adhikar, adhyapak do sarkar’ (Education is our right! Oh government appoint the teachers for us), ‘ Padhne wale 700 hain, padhanewale 3 hain” (We are 700 but only three to teach us), and ‘S hiksha ka adhikar diya padhane wale koi nahin’ (You gave us the right to education but no one to teach us).

The slogans were innovative and striking, the girls disciplined and determined. The authorities tried to dissuade them. The police told them that they would ruin their padhai (education). The girls retorted, “What padhai is there to be ruined?

The rally route was chosen to reach out to the residents. The students marched on the busy market streets shouting slogans as they went along ‘ Hindi wala koi nahi, Itihas wala koi nahi, Ganith wala koi nahi’ (No one to teach Hindi/History/Maths…). They did not obstruct traffic as they marched in two lines holding the banner in the front. After covering the market, they entered the national highway (NH 8, Delhi–Mumbai). Once the police saw the rally’s peaceful nature, they did not try to stop it but concentrated on managing the traffic.

The rally reached the Block Development Officer’s office around 11.30 a.m. The BDO was not there, and the tehsildar and other functionaries came out of their office. They were surprised by the girls’ numbers, confidence and discipline. The students sat on dharna on the road in front of the office, braving the blistering sun. Three girls spoke on behalf of the others and explicitly and fearlessly articulated their problems in the presence of government officials, their three teachers, the media, and the general public. They demanded the government respond immediately by appointing teachers; at least one each for every main subject. Asserting that they would not be content with ‘empty promises’, they insisted on a time frame. A large and increasingly sympathetic crowd had gathered outside the Block Office. The government could not afford to ignore them anymore.

Officials spoke to the students, trying to soothe their nerves. The tehsildar said that he sincerely empathised with them and would do everything possible to find an immediate solution. But the students interrupted by asking him to announce the dates by which teachers would be appointed. Meanwhile, the officer ‘in charge of education’, spoke to the District Collector and promised that a Geography teacher would be appointed immediately. His excuse of an acute shortage of qualified teaching staff in the state was met with an angry outburst: “There are enough teaching staff at every boys’ school, but the government is ignoring our voice since we are girls.” Realising that the girls would not relent, the officer promised that Mathematics and Hindi teachers would be appointed within a week. The students made it clear that if teachers were not appointed by October 7, they would again lock the school gate, and flock to the BDO’s office.

By October 7, no teachers were appointed. On October 8, the girls locked the school gate and sat outside in the sun refusing to accept assurances and open the gates. When accused of disrupting classes, they set up a tent to hold special classes every day outside the school, in full sight of all the offices. At lunch time, some shopkeepers brought them biscuits and snacks, and the pressure on the administration and the education department grew. Messages were sent to the Collector, the State Government, and even the Chief Minister’s office.

As school hours drew to a close, the girls told the BDO that they would conduct classes outside the gate until the promised teachers were appointed. The administration informed them that the orders had been issued and that before the girls came the next morning, four new teachers would report to school. The next morning, the girls saw seven teachers in their assembly.

One week after October 2, disciplined civil disobedience had produced amazing results. More importantly, there are reports of similar protests in the neighbouring blocks of Dewair, Amet and Todgarh. The girls have said they are determined to make this a turning point and make their school stand out as an example of student and citizen action for the right to schooling. They know that they want to learn, but cannot do it on their own.

What will we, the privileged people, do to help make the right to education a reality for all girls and boys in India? The girls in Bhim would be delighted to know.

The authors work with the MKSS in rural Rajasthan.

mkssrajasthan@gmail.com

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 12:45:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/when-the-girls-came-marching-in/article6552415.ece

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