The Story Teller

Imagine the hostile lands around the Silk Route, a road that connected many countries. There was work to be obtained along that route, because the route sustained trade, which made money. There were caravan makers, and camel traders, and silk merchants of course, but also cooks, and washermen and clothiers. There were bandits and protectors who worked the long caravans that traveled together for safety. The terrain was often harsh, icy deserts, sharp climbs and immense flat sands, the only consolation coming in the cities that were far flung. Villages could feed but a part of the caravan, the steppes were good for hunting sometimes but not always.

The people of the silk road were often hungry and very tired. There was fortune to be made on the road, both good and bad. Some days were good, and workers got paid their wages, and traders sold their wares. Other days were bad, if the wind swept away your cargo, or it fell down a hill side. A desert storm could destroy much, as could the robbers – there was plenty of the bad as well as the good. There were days of hunger and becalm.

But in the middle of it all, was the relief of the story teller. The story teller turned up uninvited, for who would not want to hear a story. A small coin from each and some food and drink, the storyteller was always welcome.

He would tell tales of great kings, and their brave deeds. Of princesses and their beauty. Of ministers and their magic. Of traders and their adventures. He soared above what was real, and his audience soared with him. The aches and pains of the journey, the sorrows of loss melted away in the hearing, the joy of gains was raised manifold. The night passed in ease, with the comfort of the fire and the company, the storyteller lulling us all to dream of a better time and place.

When the fires dimmed, and the embers remained, the story teller was satisfied. He was paid, and fed. He had enough drink to warm his belly. He had spread some joy, eased some pain and helped them all to another day.

The storyteller was always welcome, as he went on his way.

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Teacher’s Day Salaams

“It’s not about my, or my passion for education”, I blushed. “It’s about the students, the teachers, who are on the frontline of this battle day in and day out.”

I sounded like the cliche our education system had become. I used to write essays like this at school. And then helped my son and my nephews with those. Great King? Write about his land reforms, he built roads, dug wells and did great things to get justice for the poor. Climate Change? Write about land erosion, tree roots, ecosystem, microclimates, ozone layer and extremes of temperature. We knew our ‘seven points for five marks’ formulae. Everything was a formula. Running a classroom session? There’s a standard method to that. Teacher’s Day? Write an essay.

So I did. To reflect.

There is no one standard formula for quality education at scale for a nation as large as India. And as each year, September 5, Teacher’s Day comes as a day of celebration, and of reflection. The road ahead is long and troubled, true. But the road traversed was no mean feat indeed. India, today, stands at the brink of success. We can do it, in one great push, all together. It is time for India’s Educational Dunkirk.

The good news first? We have so many metaphorical boats ready to reach out in the education sector. Today, on teacher’s day, I want to salute these navigators, who kept themselves afloat and reached out to do so much good in the land of teaching and learning.

I salute those teachers who landed up at school everyday, professional and perfect, holding fort and ensuring that nothing stops the journey of education. They too must have had tough days, but they did not give up. Some commute for hours to get to school, some fight battles at home to get to the classrooms, and some fight inner demons to control themselves to stand and deliver in the classroom. My first salaam to them.

I salute those school heads who hold things steady so that teachers can build real learning for their students. Those who lead from the front and take the risk of saying, “Let’s try this”, and when it works, celebrate the moment of happiness with their schools. To these great leaders goes my second salaam.

Then, I salute those who work in education for less pay than they would get in the world outside – the volunteers, the NGOs, the interns, the researchers and so many more who dig deep into their well of resources to give to every learner they meet on the road to good. Some are teachers who are not rich, but will buy school books for their students, some are people who will go deep into the jungles and set up village schools, some are professionals who set up help centres to encourage more to follow in their footsteps, and some are students themselves who reach out to other students. Each giving a part of themselves, for we are in it together. We raise the tide for us all. My third salaam goes to them.

But more than these, I salute the silent warriors of education. The people who quietly teach one or two students each year in their neighbourhood and charge nothing. The ones who quietly create class notes and put them online for all to share. The ones who stop on the way, even when their lives are so rushed, and share a bit of their learning with those who need it. And do it for no credit and for no money. These quiet soldiers are the ones who create magic – and my deepest salaam is theirs.

They are the ones who build the fabric of the future. When times are tough, I think of them and I am inspired again. When stories of cheating in exams, of plagiarism in reports, of teachers that beat students, of sexual assault in schools, of university shut downs and falling standards hits the stands, then I think of these – the recipients of the four salaams – and I know, it will be fine. For every corrupt soul who lets greed and laziness create ignorance and stupidity in the country, there is another who is lighting the lamp of critical thinking, of debate, of curiosity and of personal growth.

This is why my last salaam today goes to teachers who are learners, and to learners who are teachers. Not just within the classroom but to each one of us who converts a moment into a learning moment. To the everyday people who devote time to tutor a needy learner around them. To the quiet free tuition classes, reading rooms and libraries for the neighbour hood.

But equally, to to the everyday inquisitiveness of the aunty who wants to know your salary, and the uncle who wants to know how much rent you pay, to the random person who knows where you are going on a train or a bus – and to all of them who join in to tell you of a better way. To all the teachers within them, a salaam. A salaam to those who will join in the public debate on which route is better, whether it is about getting to a place or a career. And one to those who will walk on past their destination, because they are curious to see what is next. Another to those who will jugaaad their way to the goal, regardless of the means, and then to their neighbour who will tell him how useless his quest is – competing quietly and so encouraging each other to do better. To each of us who learns, so that we can tell each other how much better we are than them, another salaam.

Our quirks make us who we are, and who we are at our core is a nation of teachers, (Let me tell you what to do…) in one way or another. Here’s to the learners within the teachers, who learn indefatigably, so that we can all tell each other how it should be done. And so we all learn and grow together, in our own Indian way.

Assessment, Moderation and Boards

Part 1: Fundamental Fix

“To have one examination determine a future pathway for a generation of youth is folly akin to forcing them to put all their eggs in one basket”

The Class 12 Examination of the various boards are one such hurdle. They have been since living memory, and thus, it seems they will continue. Each student is bound to a particular board by the school they sign up to – and there is no other way. One could of course step out of the schooling system and go the NIOS way, but then, very few in India take the results of that board seriously. Already, even before we have begun talking about these – we are hit by the fact that all boards are not created equal.

Nor do they need to be. But they do need to be able to calibrate on equivalent examinations.

For a student, there is no greater prison than to be beholden to one exam, one board, and one set of criteria for success.

My appeal is to the Universities to expand their range of requirements, my appeal to the MHRD is to allow students to take multiple exams across boards, and/or, start a series of professional exams at the level of Class 12 that are voluntary, inexpensive and accessible nationally such as the SATs and other certification exams. Each subject could be a separate specialist examination board, or each industry… these are discussions going forward. These break the monopoly of specific exams, and are more inclusive – lifelong learners can join in anytime and upgrade their basic qualifications. Let each student have more chances at success.

The current situation must never be repeated – and from this should emerge some policy level changes. (1) One needs a national level examination designed professionally to be able to calibrate the various papers and examinations. At this time there is no data that allows the standard statistical tools of adjustment across various boards to be applied. The statistics and the tools exist, and are relatively easy. The data is not there. (2) All Senior Secondary Boards must be asked to declare their methodology for aligning the level of questions, their marking schemes and their moderation policies. Most boards globally do this so that there is informed participation in an examination. (3) The various boards need to build transparency in their goals, and in their redressal mechanisms. Finally (4) Build a free flow of information and learning in assessment sciences – the current education boards have some excellent faculty and knowledge in the area that is not visible to the direct consumers of their work. This is unfair to both sides and must be fixed.

There are other suggestions that will improve the Senior Secondary Exams, but these are basic – and we must make a start.

Part II:

Assessment and Moderation

(i) Tweet collation
(ii) Principles of Assessment
(iii) Principles of moderation
(iv) Governance

Part III:

Policy Reform Opportunity

Five Principles to Keep Children Safe at School

(First Published: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/five-principles-to-keep-children-safe-in-schools/)

Five principles to keep children safe in schools
May 5, 2014, 12:11 PM IST Meeta Sengupta in EduCable | India, Lifestyle | TOI
Whether you see it as childcare, or a place to learn, or about meeting friends – the entire premise of schools revolves around safety. We send our children to school to learn all this because we know they will be safe there.
Sadly, we know that this has not always been so – children have been hurt and abused at school. Whether it was an explicit MMS sent out by school bullies or a child being abused by the caretaker and bus attendant. These were sexual – there are other kinds of abuse that our children face from classmates, teachers and even school heads. Often we forget that our harsh behaviour can have serious consequences for young minds – take the example of the poor young girls who committed suicide in Bangalore after they were punished for playing Holi. They clearly felt unable to deal with the consequences of the humiliation meted out to them and the school failed in providing them a safe place to learn from incidents. The school failed them thrice – once in not providing them a safe place for self expression, two -in giving them disproportionate punishment, thus becoming an aggressor (even if they thought it was okay, and had precedence), and three, in not providing them a safe place to deal with their feelings.
There have been multiple incidents since then. Some sexual in nature, some due to negligence and others due to willful harm inflicted on our children. Are our children safe at school? Will the rules help keep them safe? They may, but safety is an attitude. A safe school builds a culture of safety where there is both awareness and alertness with sensitivity. This is signaled in many ways, not just in watching out for sexual abuse. It is the task of a school to provide a safe, caring, nurturing atmosphere.
It is not easy at all. Especially for large schools the challenges are immense. There are distant nooks and crannies in large schools where anything can happen. There are times when all children cannot be supervised – for example – as they go from a specialised classroom to another, or from a sports complex to, say, the library. Children have always found ways of bunking out of school. Unless one establishes a police state within the school there is only a limited degree of control that a school can have over every moment for every child.
Some places have resorted to that. There are metal detectors outside some schools in the UK. Some schools have cameras everywhere. Other schools insist on specific routines to be maintained that restrict the freedom of students.
They are not wrong in setting up routines. It is these routines that will ensure that the school becomes a safer, more caring place. Here are some things schools do to ensure that schools are safer places:
Ensure that every part of the school is supervised by a teacher especially during break and sports. Corridor, Break and Sports grounds duties to be assigned separate from teaching duties (a teacher cannot be in a classroom and be teaching at the same time)
Create a buddy system where children are paired up, or are in groups of three. They are responsible for knowing where their buddies are at any point of time, and preferably staying with them. Another version of the buddy system that has seen a reduction in school bullying is assigning an older child to look out for a younger child in the playground. If the younger child feels any danger they have a person to approach who is responsible for helping them. The choice of the system and the specific design depends upon the needs and circumstances of the school, and the details must be designed with care. The idea is to create a watchful, caring safety net for children.
Awareness. Educate children and make them aware of their own rights over their bodies. Nobody can command them to do what is not right. (It often bothers me that when we train our children in unquestioning obedience we put them at risk. Anyone in a position of authority then must be obeyed, regardless of what they ask children to do.) Teach children about good touch and bad touch. Tell them that they have the right to say no. Teach them that their ‘no’ must be respected. Show them what to say and do to save themselves.
Include parents in the safety community. Share their tools of keeping children safe. Help them understand that often sexual abuse comes from known people. Share the statistics and the stories. Engage experts to run the communication and workshops with parents – because these are issues that are about fears, vulnerability and hurdles – and must be handled with sensitivity.
Create an atmosphere of open communication within the school. Let children chatter freely with teachers, with head teachers and each other, sharing their fears and hopes. This is no guarantee that there will be no abuse in the school but healthy and open conversations can often identify potential flash points and early action can be taken to save children from harm.
There are more lists available for school leaders that will help them keep their school safe. Even with the best of care, and the best of intentions there is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. Even so, with care, with vigilance and with supervision the school can be made a safe space. It takes effort, and this effort must be put in by the schools. At the end of the day, for a school leader – there is no substitute to management by walking around.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Five Tasks for a School Safety Committee

(This was first published: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/5-tasks-for-a-school-safety-commitee/)

5 tasks for a school safety commitee
July 21, 2014, 10:13 AM IST Meeta Sengupta in EduCable | Bangalore, India | TOI
“But how could it happen?”
The school in question this time denies responsibility. Then accepts it. More reports are printed – of there being a dark room for punishments in the school. Of painkiller injections being given to children without parental consent. A girl was raped in school by staff. The horror and disgust – and disbelief is overpowering. What is worse is that it could happen anywhere. Unless we step up.
Parents now reveal that at the time of admission they sign on a document that absolves schools of responsibility for the safety and security of a child.
How can this be legal?
Schools are first places of safe learning before being anything else – certification agencies or funnels to higher education or anything. They are safe places. They exist to provide safe environments to children to explore, be curious, to learn, to be taught. This is why schools have walls, fences and gates – to keep their wards safe. This is why access to schools is restricted – only people who have been authorised to work with children, having been tested for their competence and abilities are allowed into the fenced area where children play freely.
Schools cannot run away from their responsibilities. They cannot simply shrug and walk away.
Enough lazy governance, schools. It is time you step up and did the job you were hired to do. Simple. Safe Learning Spaces. This is your business.
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The current case has occurred in a private school in Bangalore, there have been others previously in government and private schools too. Our children’s safety does not seem to have become part of the daily concerns of either schools or parents. How many of you as parents accept the fact that you have to jump over an open ditch or walk over half made steps to get your child into the school? How many of you have checked the police verification certificate of the transport operator that takes the child to school? As teachers – do you react in shock that children are not supervised often on the school premises?
Granted, accidents happen and mistakes get made – there is no system that is 100% foolproof. But the lack of a safety system for school age children is an abdication of responsibility. Building the conversation and seeking action on school governance is a mission – this is the only way such episodes can be minimised.
There is much parental anger and disgust now because of the horrible incident that has occurred. This needs to translate to better parental engagement in schools – and please – not just the mothers. The best schools are able to engage parents in school processes in meaningful ways. Some have a parent escort in school buses, where parents take turns. Some have parent reading programs, parents help with changing for swimming, with supporting remedial sessions, some play sessions, school book fairs, fund raising activities and more.
The engagement of parents in school boards is vital – if the school does not have a formal mechanism for parents to be part of their management committee or board, then parents could make a start by creating a parental advisory board that engages with the school. No, this is not like a trade union of yore where you go and fight for your rights – this is about creating constructive engagement with the school to improve the safety and learning that will help our children. All children.
The RTE act mandates a school management committee – and this should be taken up by all schools, not just the ones that have been forced to by regulation. The composition and powers of the school management committee are crucial – the SMC must have community engagement. Parents, teachers, senior local community members, staff from peer schools and subject matter experts based on the needs of the school. The SMC sits above the school management and has the power to advise and instruct the school leadership.
Start small – start with a School Safety Committee if the SMC and the school governance structure seems too tough to do (it is easy, really)
And what should this school safety committee do?
1. Assess the risks that are facing the school. (For example physical risks to children, non availability of good teachers which will hurt learning.. etc.)
2. Ask the school high they mitigate those risks. (Do they have a school safety plan? Are drains and ditches being covered? Is the canteen checked for hygiene regularly/ Is the food from the canteen and water in the tap tested for safety? Are teachers and workers police verified? Is there a safety training system to make sure that at least one person per floor is trained in first aid, fire safety etc.?Are school toilets cleaned regularly so that they don’t spread disease? Are they inspected to ensure that unsavoury activities are not going on in closed spaces? Are there fire extinguishers in every zone, sand buckets easily accessible? Are wires all taped up? Are electrical inspections done regularly? Is the school building safe? Does the school guard check entry authorisation? And so on. (Comprehensive list available))
3. Ask and verify how the school safety checks are documented and reported by the school. Every school is responsible to a number of people for doing the job it promised to do – and therefore must have proof of having done so. This responsibility – indeed – liability- cannot be wished or delegated away.
4. Create a system for inspecting the school in a friendly, informal and comprehensive manner to verify the truth of the reports, and to report anything untoward. Parents can report to each other informally and document whatever they find at the school and have a civilised conversation with the school to agree a plan to resolve the issue. Good schools will always agree to make things better and will appreciate well mannered support from the parents. Bad schools may not like it and will call it ‘interference’ – and then a parent knows that they have to make tough choices about feeding a monster or finding alternatives.
5. Ensure that the school environment is open and transparent. Let there be lots of dialogue between schools and parents, let everyone in the school know that they are watched all the time. Ensure that supervisory rosters are visible, and that parents, students and school managements can check on them every time.
Is this creating a police state inside the school? No – this is creating an atmosphere where we look out for each other and create a chain of care. If one person – say the poor girl who was hurt and abused at her school – is missing, then her buddy, their chain buddy, their teacher, their supervisor, the visiting parent – all must create an instant alert. Some one in the system will care enough to make the right thing happen. Someone must care to keep our schools safe.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Five Principles to Keep Children Safe at School

(This was first published here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/five-principles-to-keep-children-safe-in-schools/)

Five principles to keep children safe in schools
May 5, 2014, 12:11 PM IST Meeta Sengupta in EduCable | India, Lifestyle | TOI
Whether you see it as childcare, or a place to learn, or about meeting friends – the entire premise of schools revolves around safety. We send our children to school to learn all this because we know they will be safe there.
Sadly, we know that this has not always been so – children have been hurt and abused at school. Whether it was an explicit MMS sent out by school bullies or a child being abused by the caretaker and bus attendant. These were sexual – there are other kinds of abuse that our children face from classmates, teachers and even school heads. Often we forget that our harsh behaviour can have serious consequences for young minds – take the example of the poor young girls who committed suicide in Bangalore after they were punished for playing Holi. They clearly felt unable to deal with the consequences of the humiliation meted out to them and the school failed in providing them a safe place to learn from incidents. The school failed them thrice – once in not providing them a safe place for self expression, two -in giving them disproportionate punishment, thus becoming an aggressor (even if they thought it was okay, and had precedence), and three, in not providing them a safe place to deal with their feelings.
There have been multiple incidents since then. Some sexual in nature, some due to negligence and others due to willful harm inflicted on our children. Are our children safe at school? Will the rules help keep them safe? They may, but safety is an attitude. A safe school builds a culture of safety where there is both awareness and alertness with sensitivity. This is signaled in many ways, not just in watching out for sexual abuse. It is the task of a school to provide a safe, caring, nurturing atmosphere.
It is not easy at all. Especially for large schools the challenges are immense. There are distant nooks and crannies in large schools where anything can happen. There are times when all children cannot be supervised – for example – as they go from a specialised classroom to another, or from a sports complex to, say, the library. Children have always found ways of bunking out of school. Unless one establishes a police state within the school there is only a limited degree of control that a school can have over every moment for every child.
Some places have resorted to that. There are metal detectors outside some schools in the UK. Some schools have cameras everywhere. Other schools insist on specific routines to be maintained that restrict the freedom of students.
They are not wrong in setting up routines. It is these routines that will ensure that the school becomes a safer, more caring place. Here are some things schools do to ensure that schools are safer places:
Ensure that every part of the school is supervised by a teacher especially during break and sports. Corridor, Break and Sports grounds duties to be assigned separate from teaching duties (a teacher cannot be in a classroom and be teaching at the same time)
Create a buddy system where children are paired up, or are in groups of three. They are responsible for knowing where their buddies are at any point of time, and preferably staying with them. Another version of the buddy system that has seen a reduction in school bullying is assigning an older child to look out for a younger child in the playground. If the younger child feels any danger they have a person to approach who is responsible for helping them. The choice of the system and the specific design depends upon the needs and circumstances of the school, and the details must be designed with care. The idea is to create a watchful, caring safety net for children.
Awareness. Educate children and make them aware of their own rights over their bodies. Nobody can command them to do what is not right. (It often bothers me that when we train our children in unquestioning obedience we put them at risk. Anyone in a position of authority then must be obeyed, regardless of what they ask children to do.) Teach children about good touch and bad touch. Tell them that they have the right to say no. Teach them that their ‘no’ must be respected. Show them what to say and do to save themselves.
Include parents in the safety community. Share their tools of keeping children safe. Help them understand that often sexual abuse comes from known people. Share the statistics and the stories. Engage experts to run the communication and workshops with parents – because these are issues that are about fears, vulnerability and hurdles – and must be handled with sensitivity.
Create an atmosphere of open communication within the school. Let children chatter freely with teachers, with head teachers and each other, sharing their fears and hopes. This is no guarantee that there will be no abuse in the school but healthy and open conversations can often identify potential flash points and early action can be taken to save children from harm.
There are more lists available for school leaders that will help them keep their school safe. Even with the best of care, and the best of intentions there is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. Even so, with care, with vigilance and with supervision the school can be made a safe space. It takes effort, and this effort must be put in by the schools. At the end of the day, for a school leader – there is no substitute to management by walking around.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Words Waylaid

It is natural for language to evolve, indeed that is what makes it robust. English, the language that seeks to retain its pristine identity that never was, is probably the most mauled of them all. This of course is its strength. It’s very malleability makes it relevant, even localised. But whether by design or serendipity, the words in the language have broadly meant the same all over the world. The words have traveled, and with them their meanings. Many of them have been new words, as witnessed by additions to the dictionaries each year, a few radically redefined. But times like now have been rare, when one looks aghast at one’s interlocutor (how could I resist that word!) and wonders what they even mean when they use some words. Often, I do ask, and I have to admit, I am guilty of the accusation thrown at me – I do use the dictionary meaning of words. Apparently, these days, it is not enough.

Growing up in India, and then learning how to grow up in England, I was one of those ‘convent educated’ cocky management graduates who actually learnt the language well enough to be able to use it to establish entry credentials into most places. In England, I (as many others were too), was patronisingly praised for speaking English well. Duh, a bit oblivious of history, are you, to play that note? I’d normally respond by admitting, in the very English self deprecating manner I had learnt to adopt – “My English is not as good as it used to be in India, living in England has made it less accurate’. The reaction was always priceless, a quick pursed lip and a forced smile, as I smiled to myself in a certain satisfaction that we used to call ‘cheap thrills’ back in India. Each time I silently thanked that red grammar book, the Wren and Martin, ubiquitous in our school years across states in every convent school. I will freely admit, I never learnt the grammar of the language as I should have, but read voraciously, and so, survived. Grammar Nazis may well find faults even in this piece, go ahead, do, but what I am going to talk about is far worse, so hold your horses. (Wait, when did pedants earn the title ‘Nazi? Bit extreme, innit?)

I noticed it first with the word ‘communal’. In India, communal was an adjective used for the inevitable riots that broke out in my town at certain parts of the year. Communal was a word to be feared, for were communities not always in opposition to each other, ready to battle at the drop of some carrion or the raising of a flag? In England, in my peaceful corner, communal was the village green. The one with the cricket pavilion at one end, and the coffee shop at the other, where we mums would push our strollers, pause, roll out our blankets and picnic with our toddlers. The fire, blood and terror of the word ‘communal’ took years to melt away, to be replaced with a sense of shared rights, of civil exchange and giving way so that there is enough for all.

But what is happening today to words is worse, so bad that it is beyond scary. There are words that used to represent a certain meaning that are now distorted beyond recognition in the way that they are used. It used to be a a good, kind, if slightly woolly headed, well meaning person who was accepting of other people’s ways of living who would comfortably don the title of a liberal. Liberalism, even in casual conversation was broadly a good thing, a harmless and certainly a tolerant view of life that came with a certain superiority because it was an exercise in self control too. Even if i don’t like it, I’m respectful of others views, and in that I have used various good muscles. This good was recognised by others, and societies knew that they represented good and orderly ways of living, indeed, civilised ways of being because they were liberal. For the better read, liberalism (and the oft confused libertarian thought) came with its own literature and history. They used the term with greater precision, knowing that the very idea of a liberal embedded a paradox – for a liberal would never be able to take a strong stand for liberalism, they could only allow it to be, along with other liberals. To be bigoted about liberalism, or even to take a firm stand for it would be to destroy the very idea – and academic critics were quick to pounce on it. True liberals knew that they were validated in accepting and even upholding the paradox. To live it was to defend it with the utmost civility. Yet today, the word liberal is splashed about as an accusation. Young folk on the west coast of the US have not helped the word by their strong protests. Liberals, you live the paradox, you uphold civilisation by your acts of self control. You do not impose – and that is the obligation the title imposes upon you. For the word liberal to be used as a strong accusation in light of recent events may be fair, but it is not the word that has fallen off it’s meaning, it is the people who have fallen off the word. The word does not change its meaning just because some people who used it as a cover have now discarded it. The word ‘liberal’ still stands for what it always did. Liberals all over the world are still there, quietly bemused, holding on to their paradox, for they know that in a world where even paradoxes are allowed to have their place, we can all thrive.

Another such word is ‘secular’. With much history and baggage, much intrigue and manipulation, it was a word that even the founding fathers of the Indian constitution found tough to handle in their sensitive times. Yet, India grew to learn of its diversity and value it, even if for many it was a tolerance only for display, their insecurities growing like worms nesting in rotten cupboards. India’s Idea, they said was to foster diversity, for in diversity, as every portfolio manager knows, lies a certain management of risk. And yet we know of fallible men, and women, who seek to retain power, and for that they mangle all that is good, in service to their venal needs. The Idea of India is mocked now, and so too is the word ‘secular’. An ideal that we knew would be difficult, for again, it entails self control (by all), it calls upon one’s better self to consciously design a future that gives room to all to all to grow, it asks each of us to shift a bit and make room for others so that there is enough for all. And yet, when it was misused and manipulated for appeasement and electoral gain, it was not the word ‘secular’ that should have lost its meaning. It was the people who used it incorrectly who should have been knocked off their secular pedestals, for they did not deserve the goodness of the word anymore. The word remains as it was, a distant dream, a work in progress, a hope of a civilisation where we can share and grow. The shadows of greedy people that have fallen on it does not change the word, then why does it bear the blame? To shame the victim, to cast it aside is not an act of valour. It is the weak who abuse the word, and today, the word ‘secular’ too needs rescue to return to itself.

There is another word that is in danger, being pulled away from its original meaning and it is happening now, as we watch. This is the word ‘populist’. With the alt-right gaining ground, something gave way. The word alt-right is a neologism, a euphemism even, for what festered and grew out of the vestiges of the Nazi Fascist years in the twentieth century. When times were difficult, jobs and wages suffered, many people yearned for something better, something to hold on to, something to change. Anything. The hunger and the need did what it always does, allows our baser instincts to rise regardless of our better selves. Who can deny it, that the better self can survive only on a full belly and a safe neighbourhood. The higher self rises above it all, too distant when times are tough, and it is in these tough times that our lower instincts, common to us all, multiply. Become popular. The venal appeal to this, multiply our fears and thus become ‘populist’. The word then gets taken over to mean much more than it should. It is not the ‘populist’ approach to hurt others, it is something worse. Populism is about the many, and when people misuse populism to serve the few, then again, it is the word that is the victim. It is the word that is losing its identity and meaning in this game of distorted mirrors. A word that stood for light movies, pleasing songs and slightly risqué dances that expressed freedom is now seen to represent the voice of some other thing – it is a word that needs a rescue too. Before it is normalised, and the new normal becomes the face of the world we never wanted to create or become.

For surely we are better than a warp in the waylaid word.

Delhi Summer

As the Delhi summer rides in, it scatters us, the weak, right back into our little caves. We prepare for the summer as if for a siege. I personally start with a prayer, for I know that there are forces beyond hope and good planning that will be needed to keep the electricity and water running through the searing months in this rough town.

Rooms are prepared for the coming months. Bedsheets and bedcovers are cool, old and soft. A splash of bright colour, often in defiance to the brilliance outside. Soft pillow covers, in what used to be pristine white, but now a faded ivory that holds the stories of years of restless midnight punches and shuffles, as one hunts for that elusive cool spot. Curtains are thick and drawn, rooms darkened. We hide behind more than one, the outermost part of most houses are sheeted in green netting that protects our gardens and potted plants from the scorch that allows nothing to survive. Then, come the traditional bamboo chiks – large sheets of stiff curtain that are rolled up only when the evening breeze stirs. We stay still, quiet, indoors, till the sun has had its way and gone. The sound of the air-condtioner and the fan, our constant companion, nay, protector, in summer’s face have replaced the soft, insistent clack-clack of grandmother’s rotating hand fan.

Our clothes are soft, light, bright – in appeasement and defiance – in alternate measure. Our food stores full of dry goods, thankfully it is too hot for the basics to go bad as they do in the monsoon. It is too hot for mosquitoes, they are driven away out of existence by the excessive heat. Nothing weak lives, only a few can survive this. Our water drums are filled, and preparations made for scarcity. Few of us, with memories of tougher times, fill them for fear of water supplies drying up. Rations, after all, were not so long ago. Even now, the news brings stories of some areas not getting water for a week, for two, for half. We prepare. But even the young, the secure with their own gated colonies and ‘guaranteed’ water supplies that drain the water table for the entire city know this – the only cool water for the bath is going to be what you store. Taps are connected to overhead water storage tanks that bear the full brunt of the sun, the water as hot, or hotter than one can bear on ordinary skin. We plan for the seige of the sun, and the battle lines are drawn.

Till we begin to wonder at ourselves. Delhi is a land of fighters, and we are not used to being nobbled in this manner. To be cowardly just to be cool, feels a bit uncool. We are the land of the flexed muscle, the brief battle, the quick win and the celebration after. We live for our laughter, and quiet dark rooms are certainly not our thing. We look at the workers, their routines remain unchanged, even as they vary their timings. And we decide, we will not be beat. Delhi was often looted, but never won or lost. Delhi always rose again, and with it rose the sounds and smells of laugher and good food. Out come the crisp cottons, the dhakai sarees, the swaying kurtis, the silver jhumkis, the black as thunder kajal outlining defiant eyes as they stepped out dazzling in the bright sunshine. The men too, for nothing can be allowed to wilt when it comes to us versus the sun. We stand as tall and strong as any other. The watering holes buzz, as they never have before. We hold up standards, and summer fashions match the best in the world. Sarojini buzzes, but now there is more, as e-commerce brings us the perfect handbag, and dress right to our doorstep, just in time for the party at the farmhouse, or that shared workspace now a bar. Walkers claim the morning cool. Ice-creams and gol-gappas break through the heat of the evening. On the hottest days, even marked by tradition, thousands are served free cold lassi to beat the killer heat. We even wed each other in this weather, for when ‘arrangements’ have been made, even the primal gods are but participants.

Through all this, it is the tall triumvirate that holds my spirits up. The bougainvillea, the gulmohar and the amaltaas. The delicate leaved bougainvillea that pretends to be so weak, that it cannot stand on it’s own slender stem survives it all, blushing and blooming in heady defiance as it climbs onwards, as far as it can. The red and orange Gulmohar tree, it’s crown rising far above the sultry town, claiming the right to hold its own regardless of the odds. And the amaltaas, it’s flowers dripping gold off bright yellow chandeliered flowers, as if nothing can stop the goodness. They lay down a carpet of pink, red, orange, yellow and gold for me to walk on. With these flowers as canopy, and as carpet, one knows, that there is no siege but in the mind. It is ours to walk on and win.

RTE Act: A Review for LiveMint Sunday

http://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/qHoFCwxUpOdaEesYFA2h2K/Its-time-to-reform-the-RTE-Act.html

Livemint
27 April 2017 | E-Paper

It’s time to reform the RTE Act
Photo: Mint
While there is much to applaud in the RTE Act, its flaws, and the flaws in the education system itself, are deep-seated and numerous

Meeta Sengupta
First Published: Sat, Apr 22 2017. 11 21 PM IST
The story goes that some educators were in a car, driving through the hinterland of India. One of them asked for the car to stop. As the dust settled, they emerged from the car, walked to the local school of a little village in the middle of nowhere.
“Is this what you want every school to be like?” yelled one to the other. “Do you want students to sit on the floor, with walls that are cracking and roofs that have a direct view of the heavens?”
The other joined in the battle, and we are told that the scholars shouted at each other almost till sundown, when it was time to drive off again.
For those who came in late, this has been the story of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Where each clause was hard fought, and even then it was never done. Maybe it is the fate of this Act to never be perfectly done. Maybe it will continually have to strive to keep up with reality. For now, it is far behind, and must catch up and reform.
It was a simple idea, that all children had a right to be educated in good schools. And that this right must be consecrated in law. Decades of debates over drafting led to a document that could be passed in 2009. The scars of the debates were clear even as the document made its way through Parliament, but the consensus was hard won, and the momentum could not be lost. And in doing so, the RTE Act was born, each patch-over carrying the seeds of the troubles it would create in implementation.
So much was left to chance, so much left for others to discover and negotiate, and so much left to inevitable confusion. The excuse offered up for this was the fact that education is a concurrent subject, both the realm of the central and the state governments. The RTE Act, of course, came from the centre, and mandated certain actions that were an imposition on state governments, and on the private sector. And in that too, it was selective.
It is not as if the RTE Act does not have its supporters. There is much to be applauded in the Act. But even within the good parts lie some practical pitfalls because of which protests against the RTE Act have simmered for years. The intent of the Act and its impact diverged, causing much upheaval in the school sector in India.
For example, the excellent push towards school management committees that were to support governance at the school level suffered on the ground since they had no powers, no funds and, worse still, no support to train their members in governance.
It was an excellent idea to include local parents to watch over the schools their children attended, but parents, especially if less educated than teachers, are often patronised or find it difficult to be heard. Without this support, the school management structures were doomed to oblivion. It then rests upon civil society to fill the gap left between legislation and execution. This type of gap, or indeed, chain of gaps makes for a rocky road for the RTE Act.
There are broadly three categories of problems with the RTE Act.
One, the act does not apply to all schools
The Act claims to stand for all children but does not actually apply to all. And this glitch comes into play because of something outside the RTE Act. The Constitution’s Articles 29 and 30, which give minorities rights to provide education for their own, have been amended to become a noose around the RTE Act. The intent of the Act may have been to acknowledge this principle by excluding madrasas, Vedic pathshalas and educational institutions providing primarily religious instruction. In practice, it has given a window of opportunity to all minority institutions to exempt themselves from the diktats of the act.
This led to an almost comical rush among schools to declare themselves minority under one pretext or another. Courts too discovered more work when asked to adjudicate on matters minority—they have just declared that linguistic minority schools are not exempt from the Act. These schools now look for other crevices in which to hide from the act. The implications are serious—the Act is now seen to shield minorities and put the entire burden on the majority religion. This is seen as anti-Hindu by many, and thus sectarian.
The subtle difference that the sectarian impetus comes from outside the Act and not within is often lost in the loud—and binary—calls to repeal the Act. It does not serve the majoritarians to dissolve a derivative of the problem and not solve their real problem. But the point remains. While about 5,000 schools were shut down (and another 8,000 closure notices served) for not being recognized under the Act, both minority and government schools got away without having to conform to the same rules for recognition. (See the data here.)
In fact, only 6.4% of government schools conform to the RTE norms according to a parliamentary reply. Had they been majoritarian-owned private schools, they would have spent the past few years running from pillar to post, trying not to be shut down by the upstart Act that spoke not of learning but only of infrastructure. Minority schools, in the meantime, could continue working on improving learning without having to worry about survival.
The worst hit were the budget private schools, small schools started in cramped areas, which had neither the land nor the funds to meet the new criteria for square footage, playgrounds and libraries. These, if minority, could survive. But if not, they were in trouble.
A rational response to such a situation would have been to create a fund to support upgrading such schools. But the Act clearly says that this must be done at the school’s expense. The cost was dear indeed: not only did school capacity suffer due to shutdowns, but also school choice since parents were now forced to send their children to schools they had rejected previously. We do not even begin to discuss the impact of the mid-cycle closure on the small philanthropists who started up some of these schools, for they are collectively placed with the “privateers” and “profiteers” in education. No wonder the minority pathway seemed to be an excellent escape route.
Another issue, one that lies outside the Act, but which the RTE Act bears the burden of being the messenger for, is the conflict of interest in the sector. The role of the government as a majority operator, an administrator and regulator in this sector represents a severe conflict of interest so huge, and so pervasive, that it should be shocking.
Yet, either because it is traditional, or because the powers are genuinely so skewed that they cannot be questioned, this conflict has rarely been raised as an issue in public discourse. The fact remains that the largest operator in education is the one that makes the rules.
Two, the costs of the RTE Act were neither articulated, nor allocated
The sheer chutzpah of the Act has never been fully appreciated. In one fell sweep, it nationalized a quarter of private-aided majoritarian schools, and simultaneously asked the state governments to pick up the bill. The last time something like this happened was in the 1960s when banks were nationalized, to great economic debate. This time, it was a silent takeover.
In education, it was rather remarkable for the public system to admit to its own failures in building quality capacity by simply laying claim to private provision. Of course, this had costs—firstly, compensation for fees, and then the other costs of building new admissions protocols and its subsequent legislation and legitimacy.
The text of the Act at that time spoke little about the fees, costs and expenses apart from saying “it” would be reimbursed. This was at a time when neither states nor the private sector publicized their per child cost of schooling. The methodologies for such calculations were not available publicly, nor was there a standard that marked out the differences between the costs incurred by the school (covered by the fees) and all the extra costs that parents incurred for stationery, trips, internet, uniforms, costumes for events and myriad other expenses.
The government sector had schools on prime, land but with indifferent or crumbling buildings. Some states included these in the total cost per child, others did not. To cost these into per child cost or not was a massive accounting exercise not considered essential to the education discourse for the past 70 years—and still was not directly relevant to any actual learning outcome.
Suddenly, these numbers became of prime importance, since the Act said that the state would compensate the school according to how much it spent. The compensation was to be the lesser of the state cost or fees charged by the school. The public and private school systems were so different that building equivalence was a tough challenge. It took almost three years for most states to submit their numbers, and these are none too certain.
Also, operationally, very few people in the states and schools believed that this reimbursement process would operate smoothly. Many state governments themselves were reported to have delayed implementing the RTE Act till the compensation issue was clarified. Schools, too, refused to join in till their fees were assured.
Many have suffered delays in receiving revenues due despite complying fully with the act. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on Haryana noted that there was a “substantial delay in release of funds by the Government of India (27 to 307 days) and the state government (59 to 237 days) which hampered the implementation of the Act”.
Schools that found themselves “enabled” under the Act have reportedly stopped plans for expansion, since they may not be able to cover the costs if a quarter of their revenues are uncertain and delayed. This is particularly harmful when the core issue that needs to be addressed is capacity—the quality provision of education.
These schools are clearly in demand as quality providers. The fact that the public education system is trying to grab a quarter of its capacity is a testament to the fact that these very private schools are a key part of the solution. But if they do not invest in new capacity, then that becomes an additional cost for the state.
Then, of course, comes the question of all those costs that were not included in school fees. For the 25% of seats reserved for EWS (economically weaker section), even if the state paid for the tuition, who would pay for the rest? The uniform, the socks from that one shop in town, the books, the extra reading material, the dress for the annual day dance, the tiffin box, the shoes, transport and so much more.
These are not included in the fee structure, but are costs shared by the parents. Without these, 25% of the students would not be able to join private school life and there was certainly no way for these costs to be covered. Even if schools tried to fund it, and cross-subsidize by raising fees for other students, they would fall foul of fee regulations and parent protests.
There was a whole other layer of hidden costs too—the cost of administering the admissions process for the EWS category. It has taken years of stampedes, fights and even court cases to establish that this would be a separate lottery from the regular admissions procedure for schools. Even so, cases of fraud eligibility certificates being presented to schools and protests of malpractice continue. All for the lack of quality capacity and the jugaad of misusing the RTE Act to create a notion of some action. The rush of schools to somehow declare themselves a minority in order to escape being “RTE Enabled” seems perfectly rational in the face of both uncertain revenues and certain costs.
Three, the provisions of the Act intervene in schools in ways that are not necessarily beneficial to learning
Now, finally, we come to the problems within the Act. There was very little about learning, pedagogy, quality or even the process of education in the law. The term education has never been explained, without using the very same term in the definition—so at its very core it breeds confusion.
For example, the purpose of the act. Are we speaking of bringing all children to school? If yes, then it is a right to schooling act, not education. Here, too, where is the right to home schooling, or the freedom to opt for alternatives? The Act is silent on so many things that one wonders if the omissions were deliberate.
There is much about inclusion for the disabled, but nothing for those whose schedules and abilities do not match with a traditional school timing regime—schools for children of construction workers that were run on-site were made illegal by this legislation. As were many slum schools for the poor. A joke doing the rounds was that this was not meant to be a Right to Education Act, it was a Right to Infrastructure Act with so much attention paid to input criteria and almost none to outcomes such as learning.
Then, with every good intention, the Act insisted that all children must progress with their age cohort, and implied two things. One, that testing was not of value, and two, that learning mattered less than age. Neither of which made sense to schools, for without the consequences of testing, they found it difficult to manage learning cycles. Many schools stopped examinations, others carried on. Many knew that the learning gap between students’ actual abilities and those expected was increasing, but they had no way of addressing the increased gaps.
The whole pretence of progress would come crashing down after age 14, when the protections of the Act ended and students actually had to deliver performance in Class IX (or age 15) but would be unable to do so. This has been debated for eight years and now the “detention” decision has been delegated to state governments.
The internal economics of the Act, too, was rather troublesome. All teachers were expected to be paid at the Sixth Pay Commission rates, at par with government teachers. This was a significant multiple of the market rates and completely unaffordable for budget private schools whose total revenues per class barely would meet the new mandated pay. This was unimplementable—either schools would subvert the law or have to shut down just because the law did not understand markets.
There were other costs built into the Act as mandated input requirements, but we had no clear evidence within India that greater floor space leads to better education, or higher teacher pay leads to higher learning outputs. In fact, to the contrary, K. Muralitharan’s six-year randomized control trial in Andhra schools proved that private schools were able to deliver slightly higher learning outcomes at one-third the cost of government schools. The RTE Act had no reason to push up costs for schools or threaten them with closure for non-delivery of inputs.
We have much to be grateful for too. The RTE Act was the first major piece of legislation in education in India. The Act, with all its flaws, has the dubious distinction of furthering the education conversation by creating a series of pain points for students, teachers, heads and analysts. It is only because of the Act does one discover that successive national education policies and curriculum frameworks have never yet been parsed into simple learning outcomes for students at different levels.
For decades, teaching and assessment have progressed without any formal discourse or even proper data on basics such as the difference between educational achievement and attainment, between outputs and outcomes and more. The conversation on education costs would never have reached current levels without the provocation of this Act, and without it the conversation on education financing had been lying unattended for decades.
The Act itself is not all bad—it does practically do away with redundancies such as the TC, or transfer certificate, which is a document required to allow a student to shift schools. This was often misused in the past to hold on to and harass students. The birth certificate too is not mandatory to enter into education, thus easing access. Student welfare has been put first in the Act with the duties of the state, school, teachers and parents laid out. Of course the Act often goes overboard in asking for things that cannot be enforced—such as barring teachers from private tuition—which is a serious issue that is often stated as the reason for teachers not teaching at school.
Almost all of the problems of the Act are fixable. The case for reform has been built substantially by schools, by legislative history and by civil society discourse. The third set of problems identified above all lie within the Act are the easiest to fix, and some of these reforms are already under way.
The ministry of human resource development has already worked on learning outcomes and they will probably be a part of the Act soon. But learning outcomes in education are troublesome indicators in themselves—they assume uniform inputs and cannot account for the longer term. Which leads us in a circular argument right back to where the RTE protests started—against standardized input criteria.
At this stage, the best we can measure is student test achievement as a proxy for output and attainment for outcomes. It is a welcome intermediary reform, and must lead on to either a balanced scorecard approach to education, or to a value-add approach. This is substantial work and will entail improvements in assessment. The reform in the RTE Act has the ability to transform teaching and learning in the classroom.
Other parts of the RTE Act are already being modified. Student detention has been passed on to the states. Many of the input criteria have been negotiated in the rules set by the states to be much more reasonable—such as allowing slum schools to use nearby public parks for play. Teacher quality is a work in progress and will need more direct attention than the flexible approach used so far.
Fixing the second set of issues, those of costs, has become paramount now. This is the one leg that can bring the entire edifice down. Unless payment mechanisms are smooth and reliable, schools and states will be unwilling to participate. The very complex payment processes are the result of a single clause in the Act (12 (1) c), the very same one that nationalized 25% of select private school capacity.
At the very least, the first solution should be to allow schools to admit students if there are no applicants in the 25% EWS category. As it stands, schools are forced to keep the place vacant and lose both fee revenues and compensation if they cannot find a poor student in their area. The costs of the RTE Act just keep mounting.
With such a laudable piece of social engineering, it feels politically incorrect to ask for it to be re-evaluated. But this cause comes at a very heavy cost—and there have to be smarter ways to deliver better learning outcomes and social mobility to all.
Even improving public provision might be easier than this lumbering behemoth, or alternatively a simple school voucher that does not need a whole extra bureaucracy to manage the 25% category. This one section that has generated a whole range of costs and traumas must be revisited to ask the simple questions: Does it even come close to meeting its goals? Has the disruption been constructive? Can these goals be achieved with lower costs?
Resolving the first set of issues is probably the most complex—and it does not even lie within the Act. Yet it has deep implications both for the Act and for the future of education in India. To give minorities the right to teach their own way to their own is undeniably the responsibility of a state that serves diversity. At the same time, because the right to education is a fundamental right, the state has the responsibility to deliver education equally to each child that meets certain quality standards.
Both of these responsibilities are currently seen as conflicting, but this is not necessarily true. This is a knotty problem, but this is where Indians need to apply themselves—we are masters of the middle path. If Narasimha could kill the demon Hiranyakashipu while meeting seemingly impossible conditions, there surely is a path out of this tangle too.
One option, for example, is for us to understand and mark out the clear line between content and administration within education. The government has a responsibility to govern the administration of all schools to ensure quality education is being delivered to all. This does not need to impinge upon the content of teaching, while it does call to account the process of teaching and learning and its outcomes.
The line of separation between content and process is important, because this line defines the zones of autonomy and accountability for all schools, while sticking to the provisions made for minorities.
For example, schools need to have a standard process for collection and reimbursements of fees. This has nothing to do with any faith—all money matters must be transparent and audit-ready regardless of the type of school. Similarly, all schools need to ensure basic safety, access to clean water, teacher support systems and feedback to parents—regardless of “status”. These processes are the business of running an education institution and are completely agnostic.
In all of these, the RTE Act, and indeed any educational Act, can be uniformly applied. The issues of content, such as the curriculum, the pedagogy and the content of the assessments remain autonomous. This too can be uniformly applied and still remain within the laws. It does need careful crafting and design by legal experts, but there is a clear path that serves all the stakeholders.
The RTE Act is a mixed bag, but it is the only thing that puts the child student at the centre. In just that it demonstrates its value. It does need fixing as much now, as in 2009, when its design was doomed to create confusion and trouble. Now that we have evidence of the kind of problems it can create, and of the good it can do, it is time to reform it in line with the key goal of a quality education for each and every child.
Meeta Sengupta writes on education, policy and strategy, and designs interventions to improve outcomes.
Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

When Both Sides are our Own

Growing up with nationalistic songs playing on the rickety rectangular cassette player, Kashmir was not just the crown of India, it was where the head of Mother India was sat, she, resplendent and glowing in Raja Ravi Varma-esque beauty. For us Kashmir was beauty, it was bounty, it was the fount of our very Indian-ness. Because remember, the Aryan inflow was what we believed at that time – and it still may be true. It was the land of the Rishis, our thinkers and intellectuals who traveled back and forth across the nation and then to the Himalayas. We even suspect, our gods loved the cool climes of the peaks and lived amongst them. There was nothing more Indian than Kashmir, to us from the north. Raja Ranjit Singh – and the ever valorous Hari Singh Nalwa were our heroes. And their stories straddled the terrain. Their stories I say? Our stories, for we were to grow up to be as wise and brave as the best who came before us.

Even everyday life was inclusive of so many things that were so seeped in tradition that it did not matter whether they originally came from Srinagar or Amritsar, they were both equally a part of us. Our Kahwa in winters, or indeed the badaam (almonds) that are thrust by parents into the pockets of children even now to make them study better are a nod to how integrated we all still are and will remain. Just look at your shawl collection – it is incomplete without Kashmir.

I am unashamedly a child of integrated India, even as I have drifted far away. I retain the right to my emotions, I do not claim the right to judge. But I do not recuse myself from the matter at hand. No onea who cares for humanity can do so, for Kashmir has been both a deeply fortunate and unfortunate land. It lies on new terrain, unstable, as the young Himalayas shift ever so slowly and firmly. That too is the tale of Kashmir, but much more immediate and visible. To repeat it’s history is futile, to remind oneself of it’s geographical position facile. To speak of past privileges evoked and revoked puerile. To go back to a single watershed moment linked to the formation of India – fissile. There-in lies the root of the problem. We are not dealing with reason here, we are dealing with emotions. This sadly does not preclude rationality – for the venal politics that has beset the state is purely rational and has worked to the self interest of those who sought and got power. Myopic rationality, a.ka. greed has worn the state dry of much that was good, and now all that is left is empty but vicious anger. Irrational anger. Misdirected, it aims at anything it sees pointed against it. And today it can see a gun, and that gun is carried by a child of India. Can irrational anger ever see beyond the moment and reason why? We are in a land beyond reason now, and till reason returns to Kashmir, there can be no resolution.

As I call for peace, I hear my voice echo in the abyss. And the voices that are returned to me are those who deny my call. I know, I know, I tell them. You are too far gone and will not even remember what it means to have prosperity and calm in all that beauty. But it exists. The ad-hominems begin, for to call for peace is to be accused of forgiving those who hurt us. It is to be accused of being kind to those who strayed – and attacked our own. But this is the truth – that any one who is hurt in Kashmir, be it soldier or the one on the street was the hurt of an Indian mother. How can one feel the pain of one Indian mother and not the pain of the other? If both are equally Indian, you, the nationalist, must feel both equally. If you don’t, then you are the one who has pushed the ‘separatist’ into the category of the ‘other’. So much has gone wrong in our land, let us not add this ‘othering’ to our mistakes.

No one can deny that there have been mistakes made. Horrible ones. Which sensible person can condone or even accept the terrors of this beautiful land. Read what was written, the accounts of survivors. What led normal people into that frenzy of madness – we know, and we hurt with all those hurts. The lashes and the wounds are not only the ones visible and counted, the true lashes have been the smoke and mirrors games played with the ordinary people. The misdirection leaves the vulnerable even more so, while the venal play their own games. This is what hurts. When one’s own are suckers and walk away from their own prosperity and good.

You are special, because you are our own. You are not special, and suffer like all of us ordinary folk in other states, because you, like the rest of us, are our own. Your struggles are not unique, even if you want to believe so – we are all struggling to make things better. We succeed, then we fail. And when we do, we too blame the government, often rightly so, but that is the nature of nationhood. In that we all struggle at the same time, and keep trying. This is not about being ‘owned’, for nobody can own a people that vote for their own representatives. In free and fair elections. We are our own rulers if we vote and maintain law and order. This is the way we are always free, by creating safe conditions for each of us to be free to live, work and prosper. The fight for freedom belongs to each Indian, and we fight for our freedom by proving that we can handle it – and can create a peaceable local community. The fight for freedom is the fight for equity, the fight for honest hard work, the fight for knowledge not hearsay – and none of these should need guns or stones.

What does one say to a brother and sister who is crying out in pain, whether in uniform or on the streets? What does one say to one’s own – when they should know that we all hurt together. How does one send that light, that healing that can help see the truth. And the truth here is bitter, no one will want to hear it. But every injured person knows this truth – that the journey to recovery will be painful, but it can be done. At the end of the recovery, one may not be the same person one has been – but it is time to look to the future. The past has nothing to offer but painful memories. And when one has decided to recover and rebuild what is good, this is when one knows who one’s true friends are – those who reach out to take, or those who reach out to give. And today, I reach out to give the only thing I have – my sisterhood.

Pretentious, Unending Gab