Utpal Borpujari

April 19, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: Freedom of expression, anyone?

By Utpal Borpujari

This is the Rongali Bihu season, and the whole of Assam is under the spell of a joyous mood. It is also the time when everyone would be proudly wearing his or her Assameseness / ethnicity on his/her sleeve. Intellectuals and cultural personalities, inaugurating Bihu-related events, would be proudly – and rightly – be proclaiming how colourful and diverse our culture is. And, of course, everyone would be posting Bihu-related photos on their Facebook page. But no one would remember that less than three weeks before the Assamese New Year celebrations, a shameful chapter was written in Assam’s cultural history – and more shamefully, the state government played a co-conspirator’s role in it.

Yes, I am referring to the forced cancellation of the staging of the comedy play “Mahabharator Bhool” (The Mahabharat’s Mistake), written by Tarun Saikia, in what is probably the first-ever example of moral policing in the cultural arena of the state by a bunch of self-styled protectors of religion and culture who are unlikely to have any idea about the content of the play. Of course, the issue is not about the content of the play, but about freedom of artistic expression and also of the administration’s duty to safeguard that right. Unfortunately, the administration itself played a partner in this crime by promptly withdrawing permission to stage the play by the Rongmahal theatre group from Nagaon.

The sequence of events went like this roughly – Rongmahal was scheduled to stage the play at Guwahati’s Rabindra Bhavan, the state cultural affairs department-owned auditorium, on March 31. But the ‘guardian’ of Hinduism, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) whose only calling card in last so many years has been moral policing, objected to the name of the play, saying it was against the dignity of the great epic. The department, according to news reports, facilitated a meeting between the playwright/director of the play and VHP representatives, following which the name of the play was changed to “Bholanathar Sapon” (Bholanath’s Dream). This too was objected by another group of VHP activists and the Sattra Mahasabha. And the department withdrew the permission to stage the play, citing possible law and order problems.

Now, organisations like VHP exist across religions and they, in the name of protecting their respective religions, indulge in such cheap publicity-seeking activities. Such groups, claiming to represent the respective religions whose values they claim to protect from any dilution or pollution, playact the role of moral guardians of the society mostly to get publicity in media that are over-eager to give space to them for the sensationalistic value that coverage of such events have. I am sure those who raised the protests are not even aware of the content of the play and decided to criticise it simply because the title of play implied that there was a ‘mistake’ in Mahabharat. These are the organisations that would force an artist like M F Hussain to leave the country or an author like Salman Rushdie to call off his participation in a literary festival or a filmmaker to delete scenes that, according to them, might offend sensibilities. It is their way of existing in public consciousness. Therefore, the issue is not about VHP or any other group indulging in activities like the one related to “Mahabharatar Bhool”. Incidentally, it is also curious that the objections came only when the play was to be staged in Guwahati, while it has been staged earlier in places like Tezpur and Nagaon. Perhaps, the fact that various TV channels and newspapers of the state are headquartered in Guwahati was a factor here.

The issue is more about the state government’s complicity in this assault of freedom of cultural expression. Just at the whiff of a threat, that too from an organisation that has mostly noise value, the cultural affairs department became so worried about the possibility of law and order situations that it cancelled the permission for the staging of the play. And it is the same state government that would bring out all security paraphernalia if an organisation like the ULFA calls for a ‘bandh’ against say the Prime Minister’s visit to the state but would still go ahead with the official programmes scheduled for him. Now, of course, it would be too much to expect any government to give the same level of importance to the Prime Minister’s visit and the mere staging of a play by an amateur theatre group. But the fact of the matter is that it is the government’s duty to protect the right to freedom of expression of every individual, big or small. Cultural affairs director Madhurima Barua has been quoted saying that the permission to stage the play had been cancelled because of the possibility of potential law and order situation.

“We received complaints regarding the play that it might hurt sentiments of Hindu religion. We work for healthy culture and the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium is for meaningful theatre. We cannot allow staging of something that might lead to controversy at the venue,” she said. Now the question is, was there any input from security agencies if there could actually be a law and order situation, beyond maybe a few slogan-shouting gatecrashers who could easily have been kept at bay keeping in view the cultural centre’s secured entry-exit points? Or, was it that the department chose to just take the easy way out, thus giving legitimacy to a fringe group’s demands? Was there any independent assessment that the play “might” hurt Hindu sentiments? If Hindu sentiments had been hurt, there would have been definite objections raised during or after the earlier stagings of the play, common sense says. The director also very interestingly has been quoted as saying that Rabindra Bhavan is meant for “meaningful theatre”. Did the department find out that the said play was not meaningful only after VHP and the Satra Mahasabha raised objections? If it was not meaningful theatre, why the department had given the permission in the first place? The play’s director Pabitra Pran Sarma has been quoted saying that the name of the play had been changed “acting upon VHP’s complaint and cultural affairs’ insistence”, following which “we had in fact changed the name of the play to Bholanathor Hapon under protest”.

Going by it, it seems the department was more eager to please VHP than protect the rights of a theatre group of the state. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered. Come to think of it, we have a government of the Congress party that is ideologically opposed to the philosophy propagated by organisations like VHP. But then, the Congress, while parroting the cause of secularity ad nauseum at every possible platform, is also known for not taking any strong measures against such religious rabble-rouser lest it upsets what it perceives as its vote banks. As a reporter covering the All India Congress Committee (AICC) for several years spanning the NDA and UPA governments, this writer was witness to Congress spokespersons during the NDA regime demanding a ban on VHP for exactly this kind of activities. I particularly remember how once the then AICC spokesman, and now union commerce minister, Anand Sharma had displayed at the regular media briefing what he claimed were sharp weapons being distributed by VHP to its workers in some parts of the country, and demanded an immediate ban on the Sangh Parivar organisation. Like any other such demands that parties raise for the sake of attacking those with differing political views, that demand was promptly forgotten once the NDA paved the way for the UPA at the Centre in 2004.

The point actually is also not about the Congress being in power – for any political party, protecting cultural freedom comes as a last priority unless they see some political mileage about it (note the absolute silence from all political parties in Assam about this case of moral policing). But strangely, apart from individual cultural personalities and amateur theatre groups, there has not been a murmur of protest against this first-time extra-constitutional censorship in Assam even by organisations like the Assam Sahitya Sabha or popular, mass-based Bhramyoman theatre groups, or by the ‘Jatiya Sangathans’ like the All Assam Students’ Union or the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, even though this is a clear attack on Assamese culture. By not taking a stand against this incident and thus failing to create an effective mass movement against such intolerance, all of them have lost an opportunity to once again highlight the spirit of tolerance that Srimanta Sankardev had so thoughtfully propagated while culturally uniting all the ethnic communities of the state. Probably, we are better off being only ‘Bihu Boliyas’ – people who go crazy, even if metaphorically, during the spring festival – without actually respecting our own culture. And don’t be surprised if this is taken as an example by other such fringe groups to become selfstyled moral police of the society, every time in indirect connivance of a pliable government.

(Published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 18-04-2012)



April 3, 2012

NEthing NEwhere: We don’t need no education?

By Utpal Borpujari

When The Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar recently remarked at a function in Jaipur that “Government ko koi school nahi chalana chahiye. Aksar paya jata hai ki government school se padhe hue bacche hi is tarha naxalvad me hinsa ke marg me chale jate hai (Government should not run any school. It is often found that boys studied in government schools go into Naxalism and violence)”, the asinine comment rightly drew strong rebuff from almost all quarters. Even the silky-voiced godman’s ardent followers found it hard to defend it. The self-styled spiritual leader, who has been trying to play the peacemaker in Afghanistan as well as with the Naxalites, had further said, “I feel that all the schools and colleges should be privatised and handed over to some other Sanstha (organisation). Such things are not in the boys of private schools and they move ahead with an ideal and teachers are responsible for it.” He had further said that “private school students have a very progressive and spiritual attitude towards life. They are nurtured with values, principles and dedication required for an ideal citizen.”

Of course, as reactions came in hard and fast, the guru retracted. “I did not say that all the government school breed Naxalism. Great talents have been emerged from these schools and I would never generalise. I specifically referred to sick government schools in Naxal-affected areas. Many who have turned to Naxalism have come from these schools,” he said.

The comments by the spiritual healer for mainly the well-to-do needed retelling because while what he had originally said was absolute nonsense, a large number of government-run schools all over the country, including Assam, are in such a state that he might not be far off the mark in his comments in terms of quality of students and teachers. The fact is, the condition of some of the government schools is so bad that they would be hard put to churn out real, ideology-driven insurgents or ultra-Left wing activists like the Naxalites are, because the quality of education they impart would not equip them with the wherewithal to gain all the propagandist-plus-ideological knowledge. Of course, they would be able to produce a lot of half-educated, semi-literate youngsters who, because of their inability to actually go for any higher education, would be the right candidates for recruitment to various organisations whose cadre base do not have a clue to what they are fighting for but are still fighting because that ensures that they have a regular income through extortions.

Sri Sri’s argument would have held water if he had come down on the general quality of education provided at government schools these days – and their condition (anyone passing by the Cotton Collegiate Higher Secondary School in Guwahati, where I had studied, would not fail to notice the run-down look of this glorious institution that is over 175 years old, for example, and it is in the heart of Guwahati, not in some back-of-the-beyond village) – rather than calling them an extremist-breeding ground. But while jet-setting spiritual gurus often goof up while speaking on issues beyond their usual domain, more so because they are accustomed to getting away with anything during their sermons to blind followers, recent facts and figures do point to the lack of quality education and infrastructure in government schools in the states, including Assam, even though on paper the government has been spending quite a lot of money on particularly primary and tertiary education.

Take for example the latest Planning Allocations Institutions Studies and Accountability (PAISA) report on rural schools. An eye-opener on how the government’s efforts are actually not bearing fruit, obviously because of lack of proper implementation mechanism on the ground, the report, a collaborative effort of the Accountability Initiative of the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research and ASER Centre, says that while the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) infrastructure budget increased by 137 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12, almost three years after the Right to Education (RTE) Act came into effect, the RTE indicators have largely remained unchanged.

The report says that 60 per cent schools in Odisha, Karnataka and Jharkhand do not have a functional toilet, and 48 per cent primary schools have a pupil-teacher ratio greater than the mandated 30:1. “Proportion of schools with shortfall in teachers, classrooms, drinking water facilities, kitchen/shed, playground, complete boundary wall, separate room for headmaster has remained more or less unchanged between 2010 and 2011,” the report says. Incidentally, the SSA budget increased from Rs 26,169 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 42,926 crore in 2010-11 and to Rs 55,746 crore in 2011-12, which means that the per-child allocation in these years went up from Rs 2,004 to Rs 3,287 to Rs 4,269.

The survey, carried out in 14,283 rural schools across the country, has indeed indicated a negative learning graph despite increased outlays in elementary education. In 2009, 79 per cent of students in Standard I & II were able to read letters, words and recognise number 1 to 9, but in 2011, the figure dropped to 72%. While 56% of students in Standard III & IV students could do subtraction in 2009, the figure fell to just 47% in 2011. In other words, 28% of Standard I & II students were NOT able to read letters, words and recognise number 1 to 9, and 53% of Standard III & IV students COULD NOT do subtraction in 2011. In 2009, 64% students of Standards III to V were able to read Standard I text, but the figure declined to 58% in 2011.
These figures make one thing clear – that while the governments at both the Centre and the states are spending money and are increasing the enrolment figures, the quality of education being imparted in government schools in actually going from bad to worse. No wonder, the survey also found out that ‘children’ and ‘quality’ were the least prioritised areas when it came to spending of the grants under the SSA scheme – ‘children’ (textbooks, uniforms, transport provision, remedial teaching) received just 10 per cent in 2011 (down by four per cent from that of 2010) and ‘quality’ (innovation and learning enhancement programme) received a laughable four per cent in 2011. On the other hand, ‘teachers’ (salaries, training, learning material and school development grant) continued to receive the largest share of SSA resources at 44% in 2011, followed by ‘schools’ (civil works, maintenance). The government spent just 70% of the funds allocated for SSA and Right to Education in 2010-11 as against 78% the year before that.

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal says that the actual impact of the spending on SSA would be visible in five years, but the figures do not instil any sense of confidence on the minister’s views, especially when the quality of education is compared with the ministry’s figures that say that enrolment at elementary level has increased to 192.8 million in 2010-11 from 179 million in 2006-07, and that the number of teachers in government schools has increased to 4.19 million in 2010-11 from 3.6 million in 2006-07.

When one looks the scenario in North-East India, it’s a fact that private educational institutions, especially those run by various Christian Missionary organisations, have traditionally offered quality education up to the high school level. Unfortunately, a large number of government schools in states like Assam, which have had a glorious history of quality education, are now but pitiable shadows of themselves. That space has been taken up by the mushrooming private schools in cities like Guwahati and elsewhere, who lure students with catchy ad campaigns but many of which have doubtful – and more importantly unverified – quality credentials. But parents of young children are obviously choosing these schools to send their children to because the condition of neighbourhood government schools is there for everyone to see.

The PAISA study makes some telling comments on the condition of rural schools in Assam too, and the figures make the story quite stark. The SSA allocation for Assam went up from Rs 594 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 1539 crore in 2011-12 (it was Rs 1134 crore in 2010-11). In 2009-10, Assam spent 86% of its total allocation. In 2010-11, it could spend just 78% (the figures for 2011-12 will be known after this fiscal comes to an end). School infrastructure received the largest share of SSA Resources between 2009-10 and 2011-12, while entitlements such as textbooks, uniforms and transport provisions, along with mainstreaming out-of-school children, remedial teaching, etc., got the next most important attention. But the actual story is – while student and teachers’ attendance hovered between 69-71% and 85-93% respectively in 2011, the quality of education being imparted is actually pathetic if one goes by the figures. Just to give one example, in 2011, 50% children in standard III-V COULD NOT read Class I text and a humongous 74% of students of the same levels COULD NOT do even basic arithmetic.

If that surely reflects on the teaching capabilities of the teachers, the fact is also that there is still a huge gap in the student-teacher ratio, with 62% and 53% shortfall in categories where there should be one teacher per 30 students and 35 students respectively as in 2011. Alarming facts, for sure.

(Published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 02-04-2012)


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