In his book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says that the hereditary principle may have been questioned and even discredited in politics, but it is treated as unquestionable in matters of property. So, we may question the legitimacy of someone who inherits a political title or office (do we really do that in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh?), but it does not even occur to us to ask if someone has the right to inherit his parents' property or wealth.
This principle becomes all the more tricky in societies where wealth is newly acquired - for instance, India, where large numbers of families have emerged from poverty only in the last few decades and today count themselves among the superbly emerging middle and upper-middle classes.
Suddenly, these middle classes, and the nouveau riche, who are enjoying privileges recently acquired, including the privilege of sending their children to top-notch educational institutions, have been told to make a serious adjustment in the cause of educational democracy in the form of the Right to Education Act.
How will they respond?
In the answer to this lies the fate of the Act. For, it is not the schools or teachers who will determine the success of this legislation, but the parents of children.
The RTE has raised many questions. What will poor students do after Class 8? How will they get textbooks and other school materials, especially expensive ones recommended/used by elite institutions? How much of a fare hike will be justified to accommodate the expenditure on such students, given that the money given by the state will not match the amount spent by a school on the poor?
But it is not these questions of logistics that will hold up the Act; answers to them can be found, after consultation with all groups involved (Mumbai, in fact, has an excellent model of egalitarian education in the form of many Jesuit institutions). It is the attitudinal approach that's the key to ensuring integration, and this approach begins, develops and ends at home.
Young parents have been brought up in an environment in which the idea is to compete stiffly, get ahead of others and emphasise the distance travelled from others in terms of social, educational and economic status to the extent possible. Having itself exploited the benefits of free, state-sponsored education, this class abuses Nehruvian socialism which, in the first place, gave their families a toehold in society and helped them create the groundwork for all the success ahead. Will this class, which gives its children iPads and all the new toys to hit the market, also tell them that those who do not have iPads are equals and must be treated as equals? Will parents tell their kids that we ourselves, too, were, not too long ago, in the same situation that the poor are in today? Will Mumbai's even older privileged classes, who are loath to share their elite clubs and gymkhanas with the rest of society, not resist this invasion of their world? And will we, having moved as a society from the deification of poverty to the other extreme of vilification, not commit the crime of patronising the kids who will come to our schools in an attempt to show ourselves as civilised?
Worrying as the prospect is, here is also an opportunity for a genuine social revolution. What we could do not do in the 65 years since Independence, we could do in just a few years if parents approach this revolution in schooling correctly. We could take a leap from feudalism to democracy, from an essentially unequal society to a genuinely transformative one, and we can bridge the gap between Bharat and India Shining. Such an opportunity to wipe out inequality, at least to some extent, does not present itself to all generations.