I had the opportunity to attend yet another delightful event at my local library, Easy Library, last evening! The event was an author talk with Amandeep Sandhu, author of Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour. With him in conversation was Dr. Shekar Sheshadri, Professor at Child and Adolescent Services, NIMHANS.
The event started with Prof. Sheshadri reading out some disturbing statistics on the state of education in general in India, and the steps being proposed by not just the UGC, but other bodies as well, to bring about some much-needed reform in our system. For instance, he revealed that almost 60% of school children show an intolerance towards immigrants from other states. Even more shocking is the appalling attitude towards the differently abled people of our country - 70-80% of those surveyed believe that the differently abled are "burdensome" and "unhappy"...If figures like these weren't enough, Prof. Sheshadri also stated that 48% feel household finances dictate whether girls should be educated, as often household expenses are considered more important than the education of girls in the family!
Given that such are the prominently-held views of society and students today, it is indeed not surprising that efforts to stop ragging, or "ragra"as it is called in Amandeep's work, have been in vain. The book incorporates several layers in that it not only depicts life in a residential school, but that of a boys' residential school, and a military one at that. In addition, it was also based in Punjab and in Punjab of the mid-1980s, which adds an altogether interesting perspective to the narrative. Prof. Seshadri then put forth a series of questions to the author about the nature of the book in question, Roll of Honour. Amandeep's response to them was affirmative - Yes, the book is a Rite of Passage book; Yes, it is a book about Identity Formation; Yes, it explores violence in our educational system...
As the author explained, ragging or bullying is prominent in residential schools, especially in boys' residential schools. The world itself is rift in violence and this is naturally reflected in various microcosms too, including schools. Bullying was very much seen as the "right" of senior students, who would revolt if prevented from bullying the newcomers. Sodomy was often the preferred means of bullying in residential schools. Residential schools in India were modelled on Eton and other public schools of England, which took in only the upper classes. However, the military residential schools were different in that pedagogy tried to invert the social classes! And herein lay the root of much malaise...
Amandeep has used India of 1984 as the background to tackle this rather difficult subject at hand. As he explained, "Orwell's 1984 really came true in India." That was the year a lot of major issues came to a head in this country - it was the year Operation Blue Star was ordered and begun, the year the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the year of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy...among other significant events. Amandeep believes that "Operation Blue Star was an act of sodomy on the nation. The Indian Army attacked the Sikh community at a place where they could not defend themselves." The 1980s was when we lost a centre as a nation, and if we took that decade as ending in 1992, the demolition of Babri Masjid concluded possibly the most violent decade in Indian history...and this in an age of rising literacy!
Amandeep also alluded to John Hopkins Professor, Veena Das' work on the Delhi riots and explained that while such anthropological works have been carried out in the context of the events of 1984, not many have looked into its consequences at the microcosmic level. It must be acknowledged that students have faced and continue to face a lot of violence in their worlds today. As Prof. Sheshadri explained, Lifeskills Education does give prominence to Decision making too. But, is this enough to combat the violence they face,sometimes on a daily basis?
To wind up a rather thought-provoking session, Amandeep revealed that it took him 7 years to write the book as personally, the book was an investigation of his own fears. He also drew on the significance of a work like this on contemporary life. While the book itself is set in 1984, the parallels can be drawn in everyday student-centred violence even today...being cocooned in gated communities is not going to protect today's students/children. Its time parents, the community and the country itself took measures to change the lives of students.
I belive that this is a book that needs to be read and digested by every parent in India today...Its time to act, not just sit back and watch in horror!