Symbol, action and meaning

It’s not very often that you read  something positive about politicians.  And by ‘positive’ I mean ‘doing things they’re elected to do’. (Isn’t that sad? That we only get to read that they’re doing their job, not that  they’re doing much more?)

So when I read this news item in The Hindu today I was happy.  I’ve been following the  Lok Satta’s  survey of government schools, wondering if it would be just another report that tells us what we all know anyway.  And I was pleasantly surprised to read that they’ve transformed a government school in Kukatpally (the constituency that JP represents), giving it amenities like drinking water, toilets, and a clean, white-washed building.  At a cost of Rs. 60,000,  over a period of a fortnight, through donations collected by the party. Which makes you wonder: sixty grand plus two weeks  per government school.  Is this too much to ask of the government? Isn’t this the kind of thing one wants to see done with tax-payer money?

But of course the government has other priorities — like sponsoring Varuna Yagams to propitiate the rain-god.   (In the process, the TTD not only gets free publicity, it also gets paid!) And once the rains do come down, thanks to the monsoon, the government will of course claim credit and tell us: “See! We will bring the heavens down for you!”

What’s a government school by comparison? Pshaw! Insignificant stuff.

But I’m being foolish. Is education even on the agenda for the government? If it were, Kapil Sibal would be tackling the real problems plaguing education, like the  wildly diverging standards of schools  even within a single state,  not just across the country, and the commercialization of (and thereby restricted access to) education. Problems which can only be exacerbated by making school-leaving examinations optional and FDI the focus of reforms.

Education is all set to become THE  cash cow for  the next five years. Cui bono? one asks (not) in utter despair.

Tokenism. We’ve become so accustomed to it, that  we’ve come to expect it as the norm.  Not just tokenism, but symbolism as well.   Like Mayawati’s statue-unveiling spree? So much is being made out of it — that it’s  a symbolic act of claiming public space for the unrepresented, that its purpose is not self-glorification, but self-respect for Dalits.

And people actually buy this. That self-respect comes not from having decent education, healthcare, sanitation, and employment, but from statues! That all of these can be deferred, achieved at a later date once self-respect has been achieved.

Yes, Mayawati is an awe-inspiring  phenomenon; a Dalit woman serving as Chief Minister of the country’s most populous state for four terms is nothing short of a miracle. And yes, the media and opposition parties’ criticism is unfair, given the legacy of the upper caste parties as far as statues and memorials go.  So Mayawati’s statues become  symbolic  attacks on this upper caste legacy.

Again, cui bono?  The people whom  upper caste parties represent have the means, the resources, the abilities to  run their lives without government help. The people whom Mayawati represents do not.  Give them self-respect? Give them (her famed birthday) cake?

As S. Anand puts it in this wonderfully balanced piece on the issue:

“While symbolic politics have played a significant part in democratization, today this seems a convenient motive for the Dalit middle class leadership to sweep issues of class under the carpet and to talk exclusively of issues of dignity.”

Education is the only thing that can dignify the lives of Dalits.  And to think that Mayawati had the opportunity given to her to make this change happen, not once but four times . . . tragic.



  1. I share your views on Kapil Sibal’s ‘tokenisms’, and have been surprised at the enthusiastic reception the proposal received. I suppose one can term as progress the fact that we are finally looking at school education rather than ‘higher education’, where most of our resources have traditionally been focused – to the exclusion of primary education. A strange lopsided structure that you have often written about, and that we have as often discussed.

    But there’s hope. Going by current trends, in another 60 years, the government should be ready to bestow its attention on the problems of the ‘middle’ schools, and in another 60 years after that, it will deign to examine the issues primary education faces. In the interim, let us celebrate the visionary scrapping of the SL Examination.

    On symbolism: unfortunately, we made too much of symbolism in the past, and not only has the politics of symbolism been overrated, the undeserved significance we attached to it has come back to bite us on our collective posterior. It is not just Mayawati; the politics of symbolism today IS the what the politics of India is all about. All other real issues – including school reforms – be damned.

    Indian academics, thinkers and intellectuals have always placed more emphasis on tokenisms and symbolism, and less on doing, on actual, tangible results. Why blame the politicians for latching on to a good thing?

    The fault, as always, lies within!


    Quirky Indian

  2. QI:
    Thanks for that added perspective.

    True, it’s a relief that reform is even being contemplated in school ed., but it doesn’t take long to see through the farce.

    “Indian academics, thinkers and intellectuals have always placed more emphasis on …”

    No, I wouldn’t make such a sweeping generalization, because no matter how much I read, the sample size will never be representative.

    Also, our politicians are yet to learn to respect academics and intellectuals, as Romila Thapar has often said. What they respect are mystics, shamans, pseudo-intellectuals, celebrities . . .

  3. Politicians have been thinking of educational reforms for over a decade now. India’s defense budget went up by 7% to $20 billion. India’s education budget (also went up) is just under $10 billion.

    Over two thirds of that allocation is for higher education. UPA government thinks that higher education is the bottleneck for the economy. IITs alone are getting more than 2000 crores. They want to be safe and make sure India produces some graduates in the short term. But how can one ignore the seeds and focus on fruits?

    I quote the example of Costa Rica. One of the most happiest nations in the world. They do not have a military. Yes. I understand India (with its neighbours in turmoil) can’t afford to abandon military at this point in time. Costa Rica has a literacy rate of 96%. The average life expectancy is 75 years. In the last election, they had 90% voter turnout. I didn’t know about it until recently. How can such an example go out of radar? Many around me argue that Costa Rica can do that because it is a small country.

    If education has to work in India, we need to stop depending on the government. Vigyan Ashram in a village near Nashik is one good example. Another experiement is the Digital StudyHall. Google it.

  4. Sanju:

    Frankly I dont know that politicians have any priorities that are not self-serving.

    Interesting example that – Costa Rica.

    “we need to stop depending on the government”
    I get the general drift – that we have to start doing something. But I believe that primary and secondary education IS the responsibility of the state. (That they abdicated this responsibility long ago is another story.) Leaving school education to non-state players (parents are equally guilty on this count) is largely responsible for the situation we see today: quality being directly proportional to cost. A huge proportion of the population is dependent on govt schools; take that away and … well… The govt has to be made to act.. School education should be made uniform, free, equivalent, and compulsory across the country. Unfortunately education is never an election issue. Has any govt lost because of failure to deliver on this front? It’s always caste, community, religion, welfarism, pseudo-secularism. . .

  5. Government can fund several small panels (mostly educators) doing independent study and recommending solutions. We need an intermediary setup, that solely focuses on curriculum, between the Government/Boards and children. Boards should only look at implementing them. Honestly, there are too many boards and no consistency. One board claims to be superior than another. We need one board that listens to the advice of intermediary panels.

    I agree that there are lot of individuals and organizations exploiting the current scenario of education. I also agree that education should be free and fair.

    Education will become an election issue only if anyone above the age of 15 years can vote. 40% of the Indian population is below 15 years of age.

  6. Some very interesting points raised here, which has got me thinking!

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