Chacha Modi should abolish Teachers’ Day

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For on 3 September 2014

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan became India’s second President in May 1962. Some months later, some of his friends, admirers and sycophants told him that they would like to celebrate his birthday, which fell on September 5. That was when the scholar-president said that he’d prefer if it were instead celebrated as Teachers’ Day. After all, Radhakrishnan had blazed a path as a respected teacher, holding positions in several prestigious institutions, including Madras Presidency College, the University of Calcutta, Oxford and Benaras Hindu University.

It takes quite some vanity for the president of a republic to decide that his birthday be celebrated as Teachers’ Day. It is thus in the fitness of things that Narendra Modi should appropriate a former president’s birthday and make it about himself.

That is not the only legacy that the prime minister wants to appropriate. He also wants to talk to India’s children. The last prime minister who lavished affection on children was Jawaharlal Nehru, who came be known as Chacha, uncle. Chacha Modi wants to create a new India, a Modivian India, erasing all memory of Nehruvian India. Towards this end, self-mythologising Modi needs to target children so that he is part of their nostalgic memories one day. From Leh to Port Blair, bureaucrats and principals of public and private schools alike are running helter-skelter, making sure every school is ready to show a live telecast of a speech Modi has planned on Teacher’s Day on Friday. A projector, TV, laptop or at least the radio must be made available to watch or listen to the prime minister’s address.

While the circulars from the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Central Board for Secondary Education do not say that keeping children in school from 3 pm to 4.45 pm for Modi’s address  is compulsory, they do say that schools must report back (through a Google form) on the arrangements made, and then again how the show went once it’s over.

Stern letters

However, other authorities have issued stern letters to schools that the attendance of children and teachers is compulsory. “Any laxity in the arrangements shall be viewed seriously,” says the note issued to schools in Delhi, a semi-state ruled by a Lieutenant Governor whose new middle name is “Gujarat model”. While states that aren’t ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to play spoilsport, even in Congress-ruled Maharashtra the event is being made compulsory.

“If necessary, we will take students to gram panchayat offices or community halls where TV sets are in place,” said the Karnataka head of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Indian government’s flagship campaign to achieve 100% literacy. In some districts of Karnataka, annual events to give awards to good teachers are being postponed since they are clashing with Modi’s live telecast.

In Uttarakhand, the bureaucrats say they will have to exempt schools in the upper hills, because it gets dark very early, and students’ safety need to be kept in mind. Prime Minister Modi’s memory of school must be hazy, because he clearly didn’t realise that 3 pm-5 pm is too late for students. He’ll learn by Children’s Day, 14 November, Chacha Nehru’s birthday.

Across India, the eve of Teachers’ Day is marked by students pestering their parents to buy cards and gifts for all their teachers. In a country where parents struggle to pay school tuition fees, students compete with each other on spending money to buy fancy cards, flowers, gifts. They spend the morning of September 5 listening to a lot of sanctimonious sermons about teachers, the teaching profession, and so on.

We have all been influenced by a teacher or three who shaped our lives. We have all been loved by one teacher if hated by another. That is not the point. The problem with Teachers’ Day is that it puts teachers on a pedestal. We’re told teachers are demigods, avatars of the goddess Saraswati. This culture of worship comes in the way of seeing teachers as professionals who should be judged and evaluated as professionals.

Quality of education

Look at the quality of education in this country. Half of grade four students can’t tell what 70 minus 43 works out to. They should have been able to answer that correctly in grade two. While living on the campus of a college in Delhi, I agreed to help the college electrician’s son with maths. The electrician was spending a large part of his meager salary to send his son to a private school. I discovered that the little boy had no mathematical ability at all because his teacher in school was writing down the maths sums, fully solved, on the blackboard, and asking the children to learn them by heart, step by step. In the tests, she would ask them to solve the same sums. They would do it step by step, without understanding how one step led to another.

I gave up explaining to his father there’s nothing I could teach when the system the child was in did not require him to learn. The electrician didn’t want to me to go to the school to make a fuss. His son would become an electrician anyway.

There’s rampant cheating in India’s examination halls. Exam papers are leaked by teachers for a price, exam scripts can be changed while being evaluated, and school teachers are happy to give better grades to the students who join their evening coaching class for a monthly fee. Earlier this year, students at the Lokmanya Tilak High School in Mumbai were permitted to bring in chits and copy from them. The invigilator reprimanded them only when they made a noise. ‘Copy karo lekin shor mat karo. Copy but don’t make noise.’

Don’t discount that as anecdotal evidence. The Annual Status of Education Report for 2013, published by the non-profit Pratham, found that since 2005 the quality of education in our schools has actuallyworsened. After India stood second last in a global survey of the reading, maths and science knowledge of 15 year olds, India dropped out of the survey. That is how good our teachers are, and that is how we look away from the problem, telling them they are god’s gift to humanity.

Another study estimated that India loses $1.5 billion a year because of teacher absenteeism – government-appointed teachers just don’t turn up to teach. What this estimate does not take into account is how much more money India would lose if the teachers actually turned up and taught students to mug up math sums. How much would students have to suffer in unlearning, in knowing that math sums are not learnt by heart, in struggling with the sense of failure such education instills. The failure of a student is also the failure of a teacher.

Rape, murder, teach

That many of our teachers don’t justify their jobs but want to be respected is not the worst problem. Teachers can be murderers and rapists – of the children they are meant to prepare for the world. If you type “India teacher rape”or “India teacher murder” on a web search engine you will find a lot of entry, recent ones. Many studies have pointed out that one reason why girls drop out of school in India is the fear of sexual assault, and this often comes from male teachers.

There were protests in Bangalore recently when a teacher was found to have raped a six-year-old girl student. In Chattisgarh in January, “Four school girls raped by teacher, watchman.” In Ludhianaa few days ago, “Class 10 student raped by tuition teacher in Ludhiana.”

Despite being outlawed by the Right to Education Act in 2009, corporal punishment continues unabated in India’s schools. Just some headlines from the last few weeks. Jharkhand: “Teacher beats 8 year old to death.” Ghaziabad: 6-Year-Old Allegedly Beaten by Teacher For Not Doing Homework.Howrah: “Class Eight Student Allegedly Beaten with Iron Chains by Teacher.” One teacher inKakinada did not even spare visually challenged students, beating them mercilessly.

This is not to say that all teachers are rapists and murderers, but all teachers aren’t demigods either. However, what can be said with certainty about most of India’s schools is that they are nurseries of violence. In India’s schools, its children are taught that all human beings were not born equal. Some have power over others, and such power may not even respect the bodily integrity of the powerless. The power equation between teacher and student is enforced through violence. Discipline! Respect! Prayer! Fall in line! Indian students don’t ask questions because they are taught not to ask them. Questioning is indiscipline.

Teachers’ Day is a ritual that institutionalises this power equation. That is why it is important for India’s education to reform to begin by abolishing Teachers’ Day. Doing so would be the beginning of asking some tough questions of our teachers.

Of course, Chacha Modi will do no such thing. He’s the super teacher of the country where power and violence are the guiding principles of life and politics. The teacher will speak, the student is captive audience. Exercising choice and asserting individuality is indiscipline. The powerful give orders, the powerless obey, and risk the wrath of the powerful if they defy. That is the main teaching of the Indian education system. It is in keeping with this teaching that Mahaguru Narendra Modi must be listened to this September 5, from 3pm to 4.45 pm, live. It is apt that the circular to this effect is called “Message to the Schools”.

As you watch the tragedy of Radhakrishnan’s birthday turn into Modi’s farce, read this manufactured anecdote about Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in a book made available in the libraries of government schools in Gujarat. It has, not surprisingly, been written by Dinanth Batra, who earlier this year pressured Penguin to pulp a book by American scholar Wendy Doniger.

Once Dr Radhakrishnan went for a dinner. There was a Briton at the event who said, “We are very dear to God.” Radhakrishnan laughed and told the gathering, “Friends, one day God felt like making rotis. When he was cooking the rotis, the first one was cooked less and the English were born. The second one stayed longer on the fire and the Negroes were born. Alert after His first two mistakes, when God went on to cook the third roti, it came out just right and as a result Indians were born.” — Page 8, “Prernadeep -3.”

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