The author teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is currently a fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
Among a number of important issues that the Pratichi Report on primary education has raised, perhaps the most alarming was its observation that class bias does not only persist in West Bengal’s rural schools, but has also actually intensified. Against the backdrop of land reforms and the panchayats, in both of which the state has set some examples for others, such criticisms, based on substantial empirical research, demand special consideration.
In fact, both land reforms and the panchayats, since the late Seventies, marked significant departures from the erstwhile productive and administrative practices in rural West Bengal and, arguably, carried even some radical potential. This could be achieved mainly because of the region’s history of a sustained peasant movement for land, wages and tenancy rights and, of course, a good deal of political will in the Left Front in power. Nobody expected such political and administrative measures to eradicate class domination in rural society. Yet, sceptics routinely aired doubts about the extent and depth to which the mainstream left allowed the process of reforms to be pushed.
Despite such doubts, there is no denying that these reforms created conditions for a sustained electoral support for the left-wing political parties in the state. Rather than merely supplying moralistic rhetoric dipped in the syrup of socialistic pledges, the Left Front, in reality, institutionalized substantive changes in the use and ownership of productive assets and in the mechanism for key decision-making in the village localities. To put the record straight, while these reforms have, indeed, effected shifts in the class balance of rural West Bengal, broadly undermining the supremacy of the big landowners and rich peasants, a decisive role is yet to be played by the agricultural workers and the poor peasants in economic and administrative matters.
Not that the Left Front is unaware of this problem. For some time now, the ruling coal- ition has acknowledged that the poor has continued to display an indifferent attitude to formal meetings on local development, which defeats the very purpose of administrative decentralization and participatory democracy. I was privy to a recent meeting in a village in North 24 Parganas where the panchayat leaders candidly revealed their inability to attract villagers to village council meetings. This was no exception. Though such meetings have been a formal requirement for quite some time, the ruling coalition has now realized that without an immediate activation of a vigorous machinery for local planning, the adverse impact of external (global) forces cannot be contested.
In Bijitpur, the village I visited recently, a nongovernmental organization is trying, with the cooperation of all political parties, to induce the participation of the poorer sections for planning local development. One of the initial steps identified here is to institute a process of information-sharing between the villagers from different neighbourhoods (para) on a regular basis. This is likely to enhance the villagers’ understanding of the effects of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and water they use, and help them create a pool of knowledge from individual experiences.
Two central issues came up in the course of interaction. First, an independent space is now required for discussing public (sans political) issues which the political party, the peasant organization or the panchayat (which has now become coterminous with the party) cannot do. Second, a fresh campaign is needed, so that the everyday experience of the villager can get integrated with the decision-making process for a more effective utilization of external and internal resources.
There are various reasons why the villagers are indifferent to local planning. Among others, perhaps the most important is the prevailing condition of social distance between those who plan and those for whom this planning is done. The institutional workings of either land reforms or the panchayats have failed to mitigate this distance. Such social distance — causing profound cleavages in the organizational parameter of the village — is not just economic, although unequal distribution of wealth is the key determinant in most cases. There are more than one differential involved here, such as the distance between dominant and marginal castes, the bhadra- and the chhotolok, the men and the women, the old and the young, the educated and the uneducated, the politically active and the inactive, and so on. Social distance, as elsewhere, is made of caste, status, gender, age, education, political affiliation and other such variables which the left in the state scarcely bothered to problematize seriously.
This lack of attention is not confined to the rural areas, although it is most acute there. I saw in Purulia, a few years ago, how a left-led village panchayat remained passive when a young widow was socially ostracized for being a “witch”. The hapless woman found refuge not in any party office, but in a Gandhian ashram run by veterans of the Lok Sevak Sangh, people who devoted themselves to social work after shunning electoral politics in the early Seventies. Few from the so-called “unclean” castes actually feature in the leadership of the leftwing parties. Brinda Karat’s protest against the left’s insensitivity on the issue of women’s representation within its own ranks drew attention because it was not only courageous, but also an isolated incident. At a time when left teachers and student organizations in the city can even think of imposing dress and behavioural codes on women, the need for a radical departure in the social thinking of our left cannot be overemphasized.
This also calls for a rethinking of the political strategies of the left in the country. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the left could make little inroads in regions where solidarities along caste, religious or ethnic lines are strong. In West Bengal as well, where the left has made its most formidable base, these identities by no means disappeared; rather for various reasons — from historical to sociological — they remained largely dormant and outside the fold of contestationary politics. But times do change. Unless a concerted churning takes place in the social and cultural politics of the left — through a continuous process of criticism and interrogation, which destabilizes some of its old certainties and inhibitions — the future of the left in the country, West Bengal included, is doubtful.
Surely, a system that delivers quality primary education cannot be based solely on good administrative intentions or even a robust political will. It has to be harnessed by a moment of social reform that draws inspiration from below. In Kerala, for example, where the roots of both school education and basic health have gone deeper than anywhere else, the demand for such public provisions was raised as a matter of right and entitlement in the course of caste mobility. Attainment of literacy or healthcare was considered a move in the direction of a more equal society. In other words, drawing the poor within the ambit of schooling requires a mode of mutual recognition in which education is genuinely valued by a community not only for its intrinsic, but also for its instrumental, attributes.
An important way of making our rural schools better is by getting the teachers, students and parents closer to each other. This should not be particularly difficult, given that a large number of primary teachers in rural Bengal are from proximate areas. On account of their education in a vastly uneducated condition, the teachers often bridge the gulf between the world of the villagers and that of the administrative and legal officials. It is also common for teachers to act as adjudicators in local and family disputes. This provides the primary schoolteacher with both a distinctive location in the rural society and knowledge of the locality itself, indispensable as they are for establishing durable solidarities with the students and their parents.
Indeed, different political parties made good use of the social weight of the local schoolteacher to spread their respective bases. Of them, those on the left — especially, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — have succeeded much more than others in winning them over on its side. Such close ties between the teachers and the political establishments, however, have generated new problems. Some teachers became more active outside the school, in the panchayat or elsewhere. In addition to their partisanship, their relatively high salary in a vastly impoverished surrounding sets the teachers up as a class apart, especially since many of them were not chary of investing their savings in land and credit markets. Money cannot buy everything, least of all true loyalty. Alarmed by the adversarial fallout of all this, the CPI(M) issued orders, in the late Nineties, which made it particularly difficult for teachers to run on its ticket in the panchayat polls.
Such a fall of many teacher-activists from being political assets to being liabilities is instructive. It illustrates what happens when a segment with considerable social capital is employed as an instrument for purely partisan gains. It also demonstrates that a skin-deep project of egalitarian reforms leaves some defining social dimensions entirely untouched.
Writing from behind the bars of one of the most brutal regimes, a Marxist once reminded us why left-wing politics, confined only to economism or statolatry, is of little relevance. Indeed, it has always been difficult to politicize society without simultaneously “societalizing” politics. If this politics chooses to judge its achievement only by the yardstick of electoral mandate — Pratichi’s or others’ evaluations notwithstanding — it may become difficult to find anything left, or upfront, in the Left Front anymore.