The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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We have learnt to understand poverty in abstract economic terms, by calorie-count and statistics, or else from photographs that arouse pity. A deeper understanding of the problem demands we look at it through the eyes of the poor, and shorn of the baggage of ideology or emotions.

The first question should be, what do under-privileged people in the villages expect from life, that is beyond the basic requirements of food, shelter and clothing' Having lived in close proximity to Santhal villagers for almost two decades, my experience is that their conscious demand from life does not extend beyond these three basic requirements. Most are content with what they have and what others have. A part of their condition of poverty is this near-total lack of a capacity to imagine anything beyond their present state. This mental state can be altered only by way of their exposure to the choices they have even in their under-privileged life, and through formal education.

Apart from the conscious requirement of food, clothing and shelter, there are, however, certain things the Santhals normally expect, the most important of which is a sound, healthy body and the strength to perform normal duties so that one does not become a mental and financial burden on the family or the village. Two, a harmonious family life and community life which support the individual and give a person his identity. A vital ingredient of this is the performance of ritual duties — to parents and elders, to the spirits and to the deity. Those who fail to perform these duties are looked down upon by the community.

Having understood the importance of ritual in their lives, I, despite being a European who is a confessed individualist, have never refused Santhals who have come to me for help to perform a puja, or to do the last rites of a close relative. Though it may seem that these people should get over their socio-ritual obligations which burden them disproportionately, given their income and social status, I have learnt that they prefer to wear their tattered clothes than give up the rituals that integrate them with the community.

Although the poor are taken to be an uninhibited lot, who do not go by the educated value-systems, I have found the opposite is true. The poor villagers are deeply conservative, especially since they inherit a certain value-system and cultural formation to which they are born. This is again a part of their mental state, whereby they are unable to imagine anything outside the given. It is a fundamentalism which comes from the simple fear that by non-adherence to the conservative norms, they may lose their identity within society and their feeling of worth and humanity. Only education gives one the ability to reject certain norms which are inessential.

The third basic need of the Santhals is a close relationship with nature and natural events like birth and death. From this union with nature and the community, life spontaneously comes to revolve around certain cultural activities. Most important are the festivities — dancing, singing, drinking and smoking. It is these cultural activities that add “quality” to their life.

Formal education is thought to be imperative to improve the quality of life. But through their dance and music, Santhals have internalized an important part of education. I am often astonished to see how expressive and articulate they become at these community gatherings. Mastering the complicated dance forms and their intricate rhythms is itself an education for them. Through dance and music Santhals relieve themselves of pent up emotions. No education can be more successful.

Yet a formal education could prove to be helpful to the community. For one, it will help them comprehend their own situation in an urbanized world. Although education will not be automatically followed by economic wealth, and may even lead to resentment and frustration, yet, it may help awaken unknown inner resources and ambitions and empower the people in their struggle to achieve economic prosperity and a better social status.

Education, as I see it being imparted in rural schools attended by the children of poor families, does not really fulfil the requirements of learning. Education should be an end in itself. It should unfold talents and latent dispositions and develop innate intelligence, apart from giving the keys to the treasures of knowledge. But education, as it is actually imparted, supplies knowledge packaged for achieving sufficiently high marks in examinations and ultimately a salaried job.

Education should teach these people certain skills that are needed in their daily life, like boarding the right train to get to a particular destination, not getting cheated in a shop or by an employer, or to be able to talk to the doctor coherently about an illness. But education does not take care of such rudimentary aims as yet. But with such knowledge, the poor could be relieved of their intense sense of insecurity in public life. If a child does imbibe such basic skills, it is rather an accidental product of education, not one of its targets.

Education could open up a variety of choices and influences to poor villagers. In its present form, education helps bring out more or less informed predilections, likings, aversions and desires of the subject. But these choices are often lived out to the fullest in an urban life. Which is why many educated villagers often give up living in rural areas, beginning to dislike the limited focus of a rural existence. Education thus, at times, destabilizes life as it veers the poor to the conventional choices of a city-based life, or sets off a counter-reaction by returning the educated to the semi-illiterate state. In other words, this means that education does not automatically improve the quality of life. All depends on what students make of the education imparted to them.

Santhal students have a particularly tricky predicament. Education to them means entering mainstream culture, which is Bengali, or even oriented to the Hindi hinterland. Embarrassment about their own cultural peculiarities as well as the urge to integrate into mainstream Indian culture for personal advancement make Santhal students neglect their own tribal culture, sometimes even disavow it. Education with all its benefits tends to make them rootless.

Very few Santhal students see the need or are able to nurture their culture and at the same time take themselves to a respectable position in society. Few men and women from the Santhal community or even non-Santhal communities who are aware of the need for such a healthy balance try to empower meritorious students to achieve it.

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