In a country of countless cruel inequities, the vote was - thus far - the only truly egalitarian phenomenon we could be proud of. Otherwise, let's be honest - we had become the sort of people who were inured to the sight of a barely-clad shivering child, his tiny stomach ballooned into
hugeness by the absence of nutrition, as we indifferently drove past the sight of him huddling with his mother for warmth on a tiny patch of pavement every night.
At the traffic lights - where our cars came into enforced confrontation with poverty - and we saw a small hand stretched out for alms, or a disabled man trying to wave a red rose or a magazine at us, imploring us for help - we would barely look up from behind our over-sized designer sunglasses. We would, in fact, sink back into the plush leather of our seats and be extra determined that the story of India would no longer be told in picture-postcards of poverty. That's why our discomfort with movies like Slumdog Millionaire - and hence our embrace of the international chronicles of how many Indians are billionaires.
Over the many years that we - the upper middle class - have lived in aggressive denial of the inequalities in our social order, we have become more and more cocooned by our elitism. Ironically, the modern influences of education and urbanisation are slowly breaking down ancient barriers of caste prejudices while simultaneously deepening the biases of class differences.
That is why the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutional validity of the Right to Education law for all schools - even in unaided private schools - is such a potentially seminal moment for us as a people. And nowhere is our intuitive social snobbery more apparent than in our resistance to the idea of an economically and socially heterogeneous, inclusive classroom.
Sure, as a question of jurisprudence, an interesting set of dilemmas has been thrown up by the idea that the State can impose a policy on an institution that receives no funding (not even land at subsidised rates) from it. Legitimate concerns have been expressed about the possible infringement of autonomy and the monetary hit that several private schools may take, especially since state governments control how much schools can hike their fees by. Critics are also correct in arguing that the real thrust of the Right to Education law should be on improving the government schools that impact the lives of the majority of our students. After all, private schools make up between 10-15% of all schools in India. So there is some merit to the cynicism that the State has abdicated its accountability on improving the standards of education in these schools and transferred a disproportionate level of responsibility to the private sector.
Yet, if successive governments are guilty of outsourcing their duties, aren't we as a people guilty in equal measure of the same? India's much feted middle class has perfected the art of cribbing about how despicable our politicians are, how directionless our country is and how poorly wanting the leadership is. But how often do we see ourselves as active stakeholders in this process of change?
The court's insistence on viewing the debate through the point of view of the child as distinct from the perspective of the institution is hard to disagree with. The interpretation that the Right to Education is an obvious guarantee that comes with the constitutional promise of the Right to Life must be endorsed.
While not discounting some of the practical apprehensions raised by private schools (especially on the point of being paid the requisite reimbursement by the government for the extra costs of schooling disadvantaged children), some of the commentary around the issue has been alarmingly prejudiced. Several school principals have argued in favour of ghettoising poor students - unmindful of their own class bias when they preen about holding separate afternoon sessions for the children of their domestic help or drivers.
Others have cloaked their subliminal social biases in apprehensions of a so-called clash of cultures or possibilities of social maladjustment. Yes, as our schools get increasingly 'yuppified' - allowing mobile phones onto campus or permitting private car-drops to displace the levelling influence of a school bus - there may be questions around how economic differences could underline existing social insecurities. But surely then the solution is for our schools to go back to being ecosystems of equality rather than symbols of a flashy economic prosperity.
Once upon a time, good grooming was meant to be all about bringing up your children to be progressive liberals: the books on your shelf mattered more than the car your mother drove. If many of our richer schools are now rearing children to have an automatic sense of economic entitlement that may, in any case, be a fatal error. It can hardly become an excuse to shut out those born without the same advantages.
A friend in the newsroom remarked that the court verdict could mark the beginning of the universalisation of reservation. After all, he asked, what will stop the government or the judiciary from making affirmative action mandatory in private companies next? But as we watched the quota policy get horrendously trapped in competitive politics, didn't we say we would rather have an economic criterion for reservations than it being caste-driven? Well here, for the first time there is such a basis. And perhaps, in the long run, if we can iron out class-based discrimination, we would be more effective in challenging the prevailing problems with quota politics. Until then, to borrow from Mark Twain, let's not let our (elitist) schooling get in the way of a child's education.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.
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