Amartya Sen in his preface to The Idea of Justice, quotes Pip, the chief protagonist of Great Expectations: “In the little world in which children have their existence,” says Pip, “there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt, as injustice.” Generations of teachers and parents will doubtless agree with Pip.
One could, perhaps, safely assume that if children with their acute sense of justice were to be nurtured correctly, society would be in the hands of adults finely attuned to what is just and unjust. Why then is Indian society today so riven with injustice at every level? Has the nurturing process gone wrong or are there other factors?
Many, however, see a ray of hope in what they see as a genuine ‘youth movement’ taking shape with the aim of cleaning India. This view is strengthened by what we saw in the wake of the ‘Anna phenomenon’ and earlier in the Jessica Lall case. Are these real ‘movements’ that have come to stay, or are they ‘knee-jerk’ reactions, fuelled particularly by the media? The difference between the two lies in the strength of the roots of the phenomenon. How deep and well-embedded are the roots? For unless they are, no movement can grow or sustain itself.
What are the roots of what is happening in India? To answer this question, we must look at the way in which we see our children through from childhood to adulthood and how much of a premium, for instance, is put on honesty? A simple act — telling the child to answer the phone and say that “Papa is not at home” —lays a foundation for an upbringing that has scant regard for honesty.
Does the situation improve when we send our children to a good school? It would, provided we gave the schools a chance. The moment, for instance, the school makes a rule that causes discomfort, parents oppose it vociferously.
Schools themselves have their ‘inner contradictions’ to deal with: there are few teachers who will ‘walk the talk’. Teachers themselves are under phenomenal pressure to produce results. Turning a blind eye to cheating, for instance, is often a quick-fix response.
It is not only honesty and integrity that are compromised in these years. During admission, parents agree to follow the secular ideals of the school. But later they find it difficult to live up to such promises. One of the dilemmas I faced as a head of a boarding school was when the Board (and rightly so), ruled that since the school was secular, no student will be allowed to spend the night out. This led to a furore. Yet, no such protests occurred during Eid, Easter or Guru Nanak’s birthday.
School to university is the next big leap. Leaving aside other issues, let us just focus for a moment on what nation-building virtues we foster among youth at universities. Anyone even fleetingly acquainted with the nature of university politics knows what a hotbed of dishonesty and power politics that is.
So, the fact is that what we have seen so far in India are not ‘movements’. They lack the roots. But there is nothing to stop us from nurturing our youth in such a manner that they become the flag-bearers of change. They have all that it takes.
One of the most indelible memories of my association with children was when students of my school were involved with the children of a local municipal school in producing a play. The main actor happened to be the son of a vegetable-seller who had to ply his vegetable cart in the evenings. While the rehearsals could be held in the afternoons to accommodate him, the final performance perforce could not. The boy’s father flatly refused permission. My boys then hit upon a simple expedient; they pooled in their pocket money and bought out the entire cart which then found its way to the school kitchen! Problem solved. All we adults need to do is to set the right example from the beginning. We will then start to build the nation we dream of.
Dev Lahiri is a retired school principal. The views expressed by the author are personal