Mr Principal seemed a noble man. He dressed nattily like a colonial lord, walked languidly like a film star, had windswept hair and a neat moustache, and was in love with his own voice. Almost every day, our morning assembly stretched on for at least 15 extra minutes as he addressed the entire school.
Subjects could range from the need for discipline to the value of punctuality, the need for the right haircut to the right cut for our blazers. The lessons were basic, rudimentary even, delivered from a pedestal. We used to clap in the middle of his speech to somehow get him to stop. But nothing helped, and the failed clap-trick usually earned us two slaps across the face after the morning assembly. As puny students used to being humiliated over incomplete homework, patronising was not yet a word in our dictionary. But it sure was boring, and quite pointless.
I was reminded of our old principal this Teachers’ Day. Not because he was a good teacher. In fact, for us he was just an administrator who rarely talked about studies as such. But his concoction of self-love and compulsive sermonising had somehow reached the Prime Minister’s office. Narendra Modi, the man who will rescue India from whatever and wherever it needs to be rescued, addressed students. The PM, of course, cast his net wider than one school. Teachers, whose day it was supposed to be, arranged TVs and cable connections so that the Leader could reach the youngest common denominator. Students had to stay back for two extra hours so that they could listen to several life lessons and a clearly rehearsed question-answer session. This included a boy strategically from the Northeast asking the PM a question about how he could be the PM one day. The answer was playful. Wait for 2024, Modi laughed. Civics was replaced by politics. Humility wasn’t on the syllabus.
As kids listened with rapt attention, allegedly, in some schools senior students were deployed to ensure no kids ran away and missed the speech. There were places where loud clapping followed every gem that emerged from Modi’s mouth. The interaction was convenient for everyone, and adult curiosity was kept at a safe distance. That is Modi’s style.
Hence, there were no questions about Dinanath Batra’s bunkum books being prescribed in schools, or about the basic methods and quality of education. Those questions are best left unanswered, unasked actually. As he lovingly recounted his childhood pranks and delivered life lessons in his trademark nasal twang, no one asked why he does not address his own classmates with such diligence when they twist history to muddle the present, reduce politics to brutal mathematical equations, turn social studies into religious fantasy, and spew venom about certain communities. As he talked of being a taskmaster, did he also explain the concept of “Love Jihad”? Or is that more suited to college students who already have a vote? The significance of the year 2002 was not part of the sermon.
Conveniently, this audience was mostly born after that seminal year when nothing worth mentioning happened. Modi said kids must think beyond degrees and acquire skills too. And that no dream is too big. Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and BS Yeddyurappa were not cited as shining examples. The agenda was different, non-political. First, the kids must listen and learn to obey.
Teachers must be wondering if they would be addressed on Children’s Day now. It remains to be seen when their issues would be addressed. Modi Sir’s extra period was held under trees at many places, and was interrupted by frequent power cuts, particularly in the northern states. Rain is unforgiving anyway. But no clarity came about on when the severe shortage of teachers would be taken care of, when the quality of infrastructure in schools be improved, or when these schools would be good enough for the children of Modi’s colleagues and even opposition leaders.
Given the extreme emotions Modi ignites, there was widespread praise and loud worries about his move. The praise is understandable. He is trying to mould himself into a statesman for long, and is succeeding. But should there be worries? Perhaps not. We have a cruel habit of underestimating kids. Billed as a huge PR stunt and criticised as an attempt to “brainwash” kids, it was just a speech at the end of the day. There were a lot of good things that Modi said. But kids are also the first ones to notice if you don’t walk the talk. What should worry the adults is the silence beyond this speech.