Every child in the world has a right to education, guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Rights of the UN as well as different Constitutional Rights in many countries. I am even willing to bet that theocratic states too, guarantee this right even if in spirit rather than in letter. A child’s right to the blackboard, the whiteboard or the technically advanced smart board began the day a Paleolithic man or woman turned to the cave wall and used her or his fingers to explain something to the children in front of them using the grounded clay as chalk.
The stark image of a painted wall with black under a metro bridge in the capital of New Delhi, where nearby children are taught by various volunteers stands sharply in my mind as a living testament to this right of the child to the blackboard. India currently is a country of teachers, whether employed by the state, or private funded institutions, or the increasingly mushrooming coaching and tuition centres cropping up in every corner of the country. India can boast of an ‘Each one Teach one’ phenomenon as every older cousin, neighbour or uncle/aunt automatically assumes the role of a teacher to a struggling child anywhere.
I remember my father narrating this heart-warming but proud tale of how a Kashmiri Pandit ‘Masterji’ (a respected epithet for anyone learned) had taken him to his home in the winter of 1965-66 because Baba had to undertake his matriculation examinations. His own father (my grandfather, was in and out of jail in the aftermath of the Kashmir Conspiracy trial) and the household suffered a lot of financial constraints. Such were the strains that my grandmother, Baba’s mother, had to sell ducks’ eggs in the market to keep things going and even pawned her gold earrings (duorr) and family heirlooms in order to pay for Baba’s expenses that year.
Baba never forgot the kindness and steadfastness of ‘Masterji’, and it shaped the attitude towards Kashmiri Pandits in the house that I was born in, which further promoted a lifelong respect for the learned Kashmiri Pandit community, less due to my father’s experiences and more to do with my own interactions and observations. That a man had recognised a child’s right to a decent education and a sound start in life, is a much cherished story I pass onto my own son in the wake of his education at a prestigious and expensive school.
As for me, I am ecstatic to be in a classroom where I see India’s democracy and secularism at work everyday, where General category students sit shoulder to shoulder with Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes category children, where I am proud to boast of the Principal’s daughter, his peon’s daughter, his orderly’s daughter and his Personal Assistant’s son are in the same class under my tutelage. I have never been more proud of the Constitutional Right of every Child to a Blackboard that this country guarantees but I am not blind to the fact that there are millions who do not yet have access to books or will never set foot in a classroom.
Universal Primary Education was the second goal of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal by 2015, wherein it would be ensured that children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. Despite the significance of investing in education, the recent report “Fixing the Broken Promise of Education for All: Findings from the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children” produced by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and UNICEF found that the world has missed this 2015 target of universal primary education, and there are currently 58 million children, of primary age, out of school worldwide.
The way I see it, we are still in the Paleolithic Age regarding education where the simplest tool can be used to turn to a child and start explaining concepts. Despite all the debates and contrarians views coming up about ‘Deschooling’, and ‘Alternative Education’ and even ‘No Books’, the schools have not stopped becoming the refuge that most children need from their troubling existence at home. From the mid-day meals, to that ever patient adult who will listen to the abuse suffered at the hands of parents to the serious cases of incest, molestation and suicidal urges that teachers / counselors sometimes have to handle, the schools continue to be the sanctuaries from the mean and beastly world for many, if not all.
When Srinagar City got its first privately funded CBSE school in 2003, it opened a whole new world to the hapless besieged population tired of the turmoil in a conflict zone, and with limited and inaccessible options of the various Army Public Schools, Jawahar Navodya Vidyalayas and Kendriya Vidyalayas which in any case were off limits to civilians (they still are). It was the start of a child-oriented place, the likes of which the residents of Srinagar city had never seen before. The striving for excellence and complete commitment to upholding the rights of a child was a shock to most families who were used to corporal punishment and silencing the dissenting voices of children in any institution. That the Constitution guaranteed child rights and that there was legal redress if those rights were violated came as a cultural shock to even the teachers trained to teach in a Central Board school in the first few years.
I saw children thrive in the safe environment created there, free from bigotry and misogyny. Of course, it didn’t stay safe for long – bigotry has a way of inserting itself in every space, especially when the conflict is between Islamist and secular forces, but the initial years of that institution proved that such an experiment in upholding the rights of the child is feasible if administered with an iron will (referring to the iron hand of the first Head Teacher posted there to educate us backward people about the Child rights, and the fact that some of her administrative decisions were reminiscent of Kemal Ataturk, but these showed results and were welcomed in hindsight).
Let us therefore ensure that we all uphold the Constitutional Right of Every Child to a Blackboard. Now, and forever.