Reflections on Digantar’s Journey: Rohit Dhankar

Digantar, as a school, started in 1978 and was registered as an organization in 1989. So I cannot tell you everything that Digantar did or which we learnt, or what Digantar’s various kinds of activities were. I am going to deliberately select a few things which I believe might be useful to you. And therefore this wouldn’t be a very consistent presentation or story.

Digantar was not started as an organization to either change the society or to change the education system. It was always an ideal-driven organization. Always – from Day One. But the ideal in the beginning was not to change society. It was realizing the ideal of high quality education – and that too, not necessarily for common people. Actually, the motivation had nothing to do with poor people. The motivation was that there was a family – they had two children. They did not like any school in Jaipur; and therefore they wanted a school which they thought could provide ideal education. And so a school was started.

Now it so happened that the person who this family thought had a good understanding of education, was working for the most marginalized section of the society. His name was David Horsburgh. He was working in Neel Bagh, about three hours’ drive from Bangalore. And all the children in his school were from the scheduled castes.

But his idea was not to work for scheduled castes children. His idea was to work for an ideal education for human beings.

And that ideal education, at that time, involved freedom for the child, freedom from fear, no competition, learning with conceptual understanding, learning on one’s own effort and not focussing only on the books.

That does not mean that knowledge is not important. That means that there are other activities to do with art and craft – and getting involved in various kinds of other cooperative ventures – which are very educating. And the ideal of human beings in this effort, was an independent decision-making person who can take responsibility for his/her actions and can publicly talk about those decisions and the rationale behind them.

The people who were involved in this were a varied lot. Two people were very deeply influenced by spirituality. And they had some money and two children. The third person was David, who didn’t have much spirituality in him but was very deep in humanity – he believed a human being is a human being is a human being, and that’s all. This caste, religion etc. (doesn’t matter). The fourth person was an adult educator who was very deeply concerned about the society but had very nice and, I would say, soft ideas about society – that almost everything is absolutely correct and we should encourage everything. And the fifth person was me, who was doing research in Philosophy of Education and had studied Mathematics and was extremely dogmatic in several ways.

So this group started. And then David suggested to the family that with the kind of money you will spend for your two children, you can actually give very good education to twenty-five children. And this family, being very deeply involved in spirituality and the goodness of human beings, agreed. And we started the school in the backyard of their house. It was a big house because they were moneyed people. We even had a huge playground for the school at the back of it. And in this, very protected environment, we worked for about ten years. We had a sort of deep, liberal bias in education and were focussed on reason and humanity, conceptual understanding and freedom to children, etc.

During these years, two things happened. And now I will be talking about the organization. But this is also about the growth of people who are working in the organization – the growth of their own ideals.

In this phase of about ten years – two important things, if I look back now, happened. One was that the school – it was a very small school – but it started attracting the attention of many people in Jaipur who were deeply involved in education and understood about it. They started visiting the school, talking to the children, talking to me and another person who joined me – my wife as well as colleague from the very beginning. She joined one year after the school was started. And they started asking: okay, this is a nice school, but why are you doing this? And, coming from Mathematics, I thought that I had to answer these questions. I cannot be woolly. I cannot say yeah, this is nice, kids enjoy, I enjoy. That sounded very inadequate. This pushed me into understanding and reading a lot on, the Theory of Education, particularly the Philosophy of Education.

The second thing that happened was that during this time, we also interacted with Tilonia and participated in SWRCs (Social Work and Research Centre) and Eklavya, through Kishore Bharti. We didn’t go to Eklavya directly. We first went to Kishore Bharti and that first evening, we met some other people – a little trivial detail – and the next morning, around six o’clock, we met the august person Hardy, and established a certain kind of equation in the first meeting which still continues.

Due to these interactions with Kishore Bharti, Eklavya, Tilonia and several other NGOs and reading of Philosophy of Education, from an ideal-centric organization we also became a certain kind of ideologically committed organization.

The ideology was never child-centric. Some people think that Digantar arrived at a deeply and absolutely pucca democratic ideology where every human being is equal and has the potential to make his/her own decision and should realize that potential and use it. Some people think that this is extremely dictatorial and dogmatic.

I think both things are true. What we understand by democracy is not that if there are fifty people and they all say that the sun rises in the west, democratically, you should believe that the sun rises in the west. No. There are independent criteria to determine where the sun rises. And whatever you might think, the sun will rise there.

The second thing is that this led us to a certain kind of dialogue with the community. We were extremely sensitive to the ideas of community and never ignored a single complaint or a single idea that the community threw at us. We always engaged with them with respect but never bowed down to the community if we did not think it was right. And you can see here the streak of dictatorialness. If we did not think that it was correct, we never bowed down to that.

I will cite one or two instances. In one of our schools, the community was very angry that we had a single matka (water pot) for the scheduled castes and the Thakurs and Brahmins and they said we should have two matkas. After two days’ discussions with the community, we simply said that there would be only one matka in the school; whether you want to send your children to the school or not is your choice. The children started coming back after ten days. The matka remained one, and the issue never came up again.

The second thing was about whether the school could change timings because the children had to go to the madrassa. So we again had a discussion and gradually everything went on fine. Some people declared at one time that our girls cannot go on a stage and therefore, in our functions, we should not have singing and dancing by girls. By that time, the girls were 13-16 years old. We said that the girls would decide. The girls decided to go to the stage. They didn’t bother, and the community was quite happy seeing their singing and dancing.

So what I am trying to say is that there were some grounds which were to do with education, to do with the social vision, to do with values; and contemplating on those, we progressed.

From the very beginning, we didn’t have classes in the school. We didn’t have examinations. I don’t have the time to explain it fully but there are three terms which go on in India – multi-grade, multi-level and the third one, which is not so well-known – ungraded school. Digantar was not multi-grade, not multi-level, but simply ungraded. We did not grade children into levels of learning or into classes. And therefore we did not have examinations; and we did not know, if some parent asked, ‘which class is my child studying in?’

For the first three to four years, till the community understood this, we used to circulate a one-and-a-half-page note to the community that we don’t have classes, we don’t have examinations, we will never know which class your child is in. But we will ensure that in five years your child will appear for the Fifth Standard examination. At this moment, we don’t have the experience, but we believe that s/he will pass very well and will be able to go to the Upper Primary. If you ask us how much they have learnt, we can tell you in detail how much s/he knows; because our assessment system and recording systems were extremely rigorous. But if you ask us which class s//he is in, we will not be able to tell you. So we did not pander to the community’s idea that there should be a class, etc.

Later on, some people said that your children keep on playing with cards all the time and you don’t teach ka-kha-ga or have a pedagogy – you don’t teach the alphabet and so on. I was slightly perturbed by that. But then suddenly, in one of the community meetings, one parent said that yeh aap log parhaate-warhaate toh hain nahi. Lekin yeh jo lardka jaata hain aap ke school may, pichle lug-bhag saat-aath maheene se, yeh meray doosre betay ki doosre ki Hindi kitaab parh leta hain (you people don’t do any teaching or such. But this boy, who has been going to your school for the last seven-eight months, is now able to read my other son’s Second standard Hindi books).

That gave me a clue. I said ‘what do you want? Should we teach ka-kha-ga or should we teach reading?’ If you want that your children should learn to read, then we can ensure that; but if you want us to teach them ka-kha necessarily, we are not going to do that. A few children left. But I think we finally won the community over.

So what I am trying to say is that if you are working with a social vision and a certain kind of vision of education, you will put all your cards in front of the community and you will dialogue on that.

You will not entice the community by giving wrong information. That was Digantar’s ideology. We did not want to entice the community by promising them the moon and then talking of something else. If we had something very un-shiny – dull – to offer, we said this is what it is but it is very valuable. We argued on the point – that it was very valuable. If we could convince them, it was okay. If we couldn’t convince them, it was again fine.

This was the period when we actually started developing our theory and practice. We never made a sharp distinction between theory and practice. I am quite surprised, even now, that most of my writing – and some of my colleagues’ writing later on, when they started writing on these issues – people found them very conceptual and theoretical and devoid of practice. I can assure you that every single word I wrote, I wrote in response to some problem in practice.

We have a curriculum document which sounds extremely abstract to people. Actually, I wrote those pieces when we were struggling with how we should decide about the curriculum in our own school. What are the grounds on which we should organize and select knowledge? What are the grounds on which we can differ with the state and national curriculum? How much can we differ with the state and national curriculum? These were very, very practical questions – all of them.

Therefore I developed a belief – maybe because I am partly coming from Philosophy of Mathematics – that if you want general answers to any practical problem, it can come only in terms of concepts and it will always be abstract if it is going to be of any use generally. If you want to make one particular decision today, then it could be devoid of abstract theory. But then you will have no criteria to decide whether your decision is correct or not. All you will have in this context is: I have made this decision, I am happy about it and it worked. And I don’t think, in education, or in developing educational thought or practice, that is a great idea.

Now, during this stage, something else happened. Some people started coming to us – Can you train teachers for us? This came out of the blue. And the second thing that happened was that the family which was supporting this endeavour, both their children went to a private school in England, and they started feeling the burden.

By that time, the people who were involved as teachers had expanded their vision to this democratic ideology – that education is essential for democracy. And therefore we wanted to have a basis which was slightly different from one family; and wanted to really go to the downtrodden children in rural areas. All these things were happening simultaneously. We wrote a project to the MHRD and we got funding.

But before that, we registered as an organization. Until then, it was a private venture by one family and two teachers. And then we got it registered as a society. But by the time it was registered, it had a very clear social and educational vision, and theory and practice, and we knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to intervene in the public education. By public education, I don’t really mean the government directly at this time. Later on, we came to that. But we wanted to engage with education for the larger public and we wanted to open up other schools for that. Therefore we came out of the city and into a rural area and started working there.

At this moment, two things happened which I should have something to say about. One was that there were several organizations who approached us. This idea was not in our minds but then we came to an impractical idea and started implementing that. That impractical idea was – it might be practical but turned out to be impractical for us – that we will have a small school, we will have two residences for trainee teachers – this was the model when I was trained in Neel Bagh – and they will stay there maybe for one year and then they will go and start a school or will stay somewhere.

We came out of the city, made the building – not the teachers’ residences, but we made some other arrangements and started work. But the first NGO who came to us wanted a training for 18 people. And we were not prepared. So we wrote another project to the MHRD, and they agreed to give us Rs 50,000 for a hostel and one additional person for it. We constructed a building with borrowed money, together with this Rs 50,000, and started this training. Fifteen schools were started in the Thar and they were liked by the community. That gave us a certain kind of confidence, and we started venturing into, or trying to work on capacity-building and such things.

During this time, there was a very stiff debate. And that is another point which I believe could be useful to you people. There was a very stiff debate in the Digantar Executive Committee. There were some people who thought that small is beautiful and actually presented that book to me. When we went from 25 to 50 children, there was one discussion. And when we went from 50 to 250 children and also training 20 teachers, then there was very stiff resistance – we should not do that. Why? Because small is beautiful. Why? Because you are actually not yet capable. Why? Because this doesn’t seem to be driven by our ideas. It seems to be driven by some kind of personal prominence.

I am sharing these questions because they came in that list. And I had to defend it for several days. And you should understand this very clearly: the distinction between being driven by an ideal or ideology and personal gain and the relationship between the two. My President in the Executive Committee grilled me for one hour asking ‘what is there for you?’ He was a very nice, kind and tough man who, unfortunately, had studied Logic in Cambridge. ‘What is there for you in this?’ So I gave him a lecture on democracy and society, and how good education will help in that and all that. ‘This is about the society. What is there for Rohit Dhanker in it?’ he kept on at it. And I couldn’t come up with anything.

And finally, he suggested, ‘Is it because your salary is jumping from 600 to 1500 in the new project?’ I said that’s great – I like more money. And I have been doing lots of computer programming and rubbish to supplement my income. So that will give me more time to devote to education – yes. But that is not the reason. And they didn’t believe it.

But anyway, eventually, the Executive Committee came to accept the idea, and one person resigned for that. She said that she would be no more with this kind of expansion.

What I am trying to say is that this distinction between the personal and the ideological is quite tricky. And it is very, very easy to slip – or express it in the ideal and ideological ways and bring personal gain to the root of it. It seems to me that having a vision for oneself for a good life, there is nothing wrong in it. But it should be justified in its own terms and not in terms of the NGO. The idea that the NGO belongs to me is a bad idea. The idea that you belong to the NGO, to my mind, is the correct idea.

I will give you two examples from literature on this issue. If you have heard of Dostoyevsky, one of his novels has been translated into English by two different publications, by two different names – The Devils and The Possessed. In The Devils or The Possessed, whichever you wish to take, there is a character called Kirilov. Kirilov gets an idea in his head that the biggest fear for humanity is of death. And the difference between God and the humans is that God doesn’t have fear and humans have fear. So if humans – this is an illogical and stupid idea, but listen carefully – if humans can cross the boundary of being fearful, they become god. How do you prove that you have crossed the boundary? You commit suicide. So Kirilov started talking in his intellectual group that I am going to commit suicide. I am not preaching suicide.

Someone gave a statement that stuck to my mind at that age. I was in second year when I read this. That person said that you are swallowed by an idea.

And Kirilov’s answer was ‘I am happy that I am swallowed by an idea and I have not swallowed an idea’.

Do you see the difference?

I would suggest that good educational organizations are created when you are swallowed by an idea. And when you have swallowed an idea, sooner or later, apach ho jaayegi aur organization aage nahi barhega (you will suffer from indigestion and the organization will not move forward). An idea has the strength to digest you. Humans don’t have the strength to digest big ideas if they have swallowed them. If they have acquired them by chewing them well, that is a different issue.

The second point which comes to my mind is about the kind of capability that one requires. There is another small novel by Herman Hesse called Siddhartha. This Siddhartha fellow was first a Brahmin boy and then he was a sadhu for a very long time. And then he decided that he would go back to the world.

On his journey back, he came across a courtesan called Kamala. And he thought that he wanted to learn the art of love from Kamala. So he went to Kamala and said teach me the art of love. She said, ‘I am a courtesan; I don’t teach for free. Look at yourself. You have not taken a bath; your clothes are torn, your hair is matted and grown unkempt. Why should I teach you?’ So he went out, had a bath, shaved his long beard, got his hair combed and came back. And she said, ‘you must bring money and gifts’. So he asked her where and how he could find these things. ‘You must do what you have learned and ask for money in return. What might you be able to do?’

He thought for a long time and said I know three things – I can think, I can wait and I can fast.

So this fellow knew only three things. He could think, he could wait and he could fast. He became the biggest grain merchant of that city and he got Kamala on the basis of these three things. I believe what Herman Hesse is trying to say is that the basic way of looking at the world is through the capability to think, capability to work patiently for that and the capability to make sacrifices for that. That is the approach, if you want to do something.

Digantar did not grow very systematically or in a planned manner. We responded to the occasions which arose and where people either invited us or we met them and worked together. And therefore, we did capacity building from Lok Jumbish to alternative schools to DPEP and so on – that’s a long story. But the basic idea was to work towards the vision of a particular society and appropriate education for that society.

If you ask me whether Digantar contributed anything, I do not know. Other people can comment on that. I believe we drew people’s attention – whether that is a contribution or not – to two or three things.

One is that Philosophy of Education is an extremely important thing to pay attention to. I am saying this because I have an experience from 1989-1990 and 1991-1993. Whenever one raised a philosophical question in any seminar or workshop held by MHRD or whatever, the stock answer was ‘this is a good question but too fundamental. We will have another seminar for this’.

So if you asked why you had education – I would actually ask all of you, if I have time someday – why do you want your organization? Do you have an answer for it? It seems to me that this is extremely important. Because you do have a reason. But if that reason is not articulated in your mind, you are not going to realize it. If that reason cannot be publicly justified, you do not deserve public funding. Therefore, articulating it and publicly justifying it are extremely important. And this is an issue of philosophy.

The second thing I believe we brought to people’s focus was that looking at the nature of a school and knowledge was extremely important to arrive at any kind of curricular or pedagogical – and even policy – decisions. That part has not, to my mind, still been adequately discussed in the Indian educational discourse. People still think it is not necessary. I think this is a big mistake.

The third thing is that in all our capacity-building ventures – be it of five thousand teachers, together with Hardy and Vidya Bhavan and several other organizations in Baran, or our own teachers – we emphasized the idea of first understanding or having a perspective from the philosophical, sociological and psychological angle; and that without understanding the nature of knowledge and curriculum and pedagogy, venturing into education and making educational decisions is a dangerous proposition. Thus we brought in a certain kind of emphasis on theoretical grounding. In the end, I would say that this theory was extremely driven by practical considerations.

Question: Rohit-ji, what was the process of shifting of teachers, when they shifted from a city to a village – and that too, not necessarily their own village?

Rohit: This was very simple. At that time, there were only 25 children. We made arrangements for the children to reach the school, because this was only about 13 kilometres out of the city. And there were only two teachers – me and my wife. There was a small house next to the school and we shifted into that house. Our daughter cried for about two days because we left the earlier house. But that was all.

Comment: The thing you were saying about a person being swallowed by an idea and the idea being swallowed by a person – could you elaborate it.

Rohit: I always get into trouble whenever I use metaphors from literature. If I stick to my Mathematics and Philosophy, I am safe.

What I was trying to say is that sometimes we get infatuated, or we start liking an idea because it is in fashion or because some other people are doing things around that and they got prominence. And they have a certain kind of aura – a certain kind of personality or whatever – and they have a certain kind of visibility in the society. Therefore we jump on the bandwagon and we want do that too. This, to my mind, is swallowing an idea.

The alternative is that you have some basic values. You situate yourself in the society, you have a vision of the society, you have a vision for human beings, you have a vision of good human life and, on that basis you want to contribute. You want to do something. You develop an idea and you want to work on that idea. Here, the idea is not completely in your control.

Just to give a very quick example: Once you define a straight line, an angle and a triangle, then the properties of a triangle become fixed. You have the freedom to define an angle, you have the freedom to define a straight line and the freedom to define a triangle. But once you have defined these three things, you lose your freedom as far as the properties of the triangle are concerned.

So you have the freedom to define what kind of human life you want. You have the freedom to define or accept a theory of humanity – what is a human being? You have the freedom to actually decide what kind of society you want – whether you want to be the dictator of the society or not. That’s your choice. Whether you want to leave this society and go to the Himalayas is your choice. But once you have decided and taken a few assumptions on this, then there are logical conclusions. And you have to stick with them. If you don’t, then you are being inconsistent, irrational and irresponsible, to my mind.

That is what I call being swallowed by an idea; because you developed it and now this idea is beyond your control, and it is guiding you. I do not know whether I am clear. I don’t even know whether this is the right path. But I just wanted to make a point about the importance of it.

Comment: Thank you so much, Rohit, for sharing. It is always a pleasure. The challenge we face is that while we talk about child-friendly education and critical thinking and curiosity, at the end of the day, we want the children to join mainstream education and contribute to the ‘economic growth’ of the country. I see a paradox here.

Rohit: I don’t see a contradiction; because when we talk of good human life, the values, relationships with each other, the structure of the society, the power game in society, equality, justice – everything is important. But earning your livelihood, sustaining the society and the economic aims of education are equally important.

The real issue, I think, is not whether we prepare children for economic growth or not. The real issue is what kind of economic growth we prepare them for. Even in the NCF, contribution to economic activities in society is one of the important aims of education. The issue is what kind of economic growth we are promoting through education – whether that growth is consistent with justice and equality and freedom of human beings or whether that growth is bought on the price of justice, freedom and equality.

And that is why I gave Siddhartha’s example. That example may sound incredible to you. But I would suggest you read the book – it is not that incredible. This is about a certain characteristic of a human being and certain capabilities of a human being. And this novel systematically suggests why he could achieve what he wanted; because this man didn’t have much of an ego. He could think. When he went to buy grain, he was not driven by greed. He went there, he stayed with them, and he drank and danced with them and sang with them. They became his friends and therefore they started waiting for him – to sell grain to him – and saying no to other merchants. And this was driven by his idea of thinking about other people and what they are.

So what I am trying to say is that I cannot imagine a human being who can think, who can act and who can be responsible for his actions, going hungry even in an unjust social order. And I don’t see that human being not contributing to the economic growth of the society. So I don’t see any contradiction in that.

Comment: One question which has been boggling my mind is: how sustainable is rural alternate education in today’s scenario, where we are thinking of giving good quality education to all children, in a very reasonable price despite the associated costs? And as a person who is thinking of opening schools like Digantar, what is the way forward for us?

Rohit: This is a tricky question and I actually do not have an answer to the sustainability issue. But then, I look at sustainability and working in education from a slightly different angle. You can say that it is biased in my own favour, but the way I look at it is this: the issue is not whether every school becomes like Digantar because I don’t think Digantar is an ideal school. The issue is that there should be a thousand schools with very carefully thought-through educational vision and vision of society. And they may vary from each other. And every one of them cannot become mainstream and take all the children. That is not going to happen.

So what do these schools do? These schools generate ideas and insights. To my mind, the issue is never the replicability of the model. The issue is the usefulness of the ideas which are produced.

I do believe that the small school movement in South India and some schools like Digantar in the North have influenced our educational policy and curricula, and pedagogical vision.

So the contribution is not necessarily spreading or creating a saamraajya (empire) of that school. The contribution is growing ideas and seeing how they can modify or contribute to the betterment of the public education system.

Now, someone can say, ‘but the public education system is deteriorating day by day’. I would say that look, there are a thousand factors. Developing educational ideas is one of them. It is necessary but not sufficient. This is worth doing, this is a nice idea, this helps in generating debate and, therefore it should be contributing as a part.

The second point is that with some other colleagues and on our own also, we ran some programs in the government schools based on the ideas generated through these schools. They were greatly appreciated and improved the school to a certain extent; because how much time it takes to improve a government school or change a government school is still not very well understood. But we did see very clear signs of certain kinds of improvement in them. So that is another way. You may not always get such permissions, but if the system allows you to intervene and work with it, then you can contribute in that manner.

But then, we should always remember that something more is needed. I don’t know what that is; but working with the system can collapse any time. I think HSTP is the biggest example. It was successful, doing very well for 30 years, everyone recognized it, and it collapsed overnight. That is something Digantar could never answer. Digantar could never answer two things – how to get funds and how to work with the government, in a sustained manner.

We had a cranky philosophy in the beginning – if the society values our work, it will support us and if the society does not value our work, we will not be supported. And society at least supported us for 30 years. Now we are discovering that this philosophy is deficient and we are trying to find some better ways of looking at it. But those better ways I don’t know yet. We are discovering them.

Question: We had a similar kind of school started in 2010. Two issues which we are facing right now are: We can see that after the school, children are going back to their community and staying with their families. And the parents or the elders in the family were a part of the old education system. So many a times, they do not accept our way of education. More than community-level resistance, it is family-level resistance. How did you overcome that kind of thing? Secondly, how many students have come out of the Digantar School? Have they come back and supported the initiative? Was it part of the design, or has it happened by any chance?

Rohit: Someone asked David, the person who trained me as a teacher, ‘aren’t you creating misfits in the society?’

He said ‘education ought to be creating misfits in an unjust society. That is my job’. ‘Will that make children happy?’ ‘Well, education is not necessary for happiness. Happiness is great. If we can be happy, we should try that. But education is not necessarily for happiness. I don’t think Socrates was happy’.

So education is not necessarily for happiness. Education perhaps, in my mind at least, is for freedom, for justice and for equality of humanity. And if you get happiness along the way, it is a bargain. If you don’t, you don’t.

The second answer I would give is that I don’t think we, as teachers and schools, play god. We are doing our job, we are exposing children to a certain way of thinking and certain way of behaviour. They will make their own choices. They will craft their own ideals in their own minds and if we want them to exactly follow our ideas, we are not educating – we are indoctrinating. So we have to leave it open, and they will find their own solutions. So I don’t think we should try to play god. We should try to play helpers for them in becoming rational human beings. If they actually become so, they will face the music from the world. And I think that is okay.

How many students came back? Well, I don’t think our students so far have been in that position, apart from one or two. Many do come back and talk to us but whether they can contribute is another question. But there are many students by now who are teachers, and one or two are lawyers and in various other roles. Interestingly, students got together once or twice and they were very happy in the mela. But we didn’t ask for contributions and they didn’t offer.

Recently, some old workers of Digantar got it into their heads that they wanted to have a get-together. And I think about a hundred of them are getting together on the 24th of June. It looks like – I don’t have the exact figures – but they dug out the whole list and they sent emails to 300. And many of them responded. And I and Reena or people working in Digantar at this moment didn’t take any initiative on that. Two of the people got this into their heads. They are not students. We again are not expecting that they will contribute anything.

To me, it is sufficient that the people who have been fighting with me – who have been opposing every single decision of mine – till they were in Digantar for, say, five or seven years, come back after ten years to say that we want to get together and we want to have interactions. I think that’s great. I am quite happy with that.

Question: I wanted to ask about the language education that you have in your school. In National Policy of Education it’s mostly about three-language formula and mother-tongue education etc. How have you implemented language education?

Rohit: Our language policy – we did have a language policy from the very beginning – is not exactly on the lines of the NCF paper. The NCF paper is heavily influenced by a dear friend, Ramakant. He is a linguist who knows a thousand times more than me about language and language pedagogy. Being dogmatic, I have been fighting with him for the last 20 years – or maybe 25 – on some issues. On some other issues, we agree.

Our language policy is much simpler than suggested by the NCF paper. There is no time to describe that. There is a teachers’ book – Shikshak ki Pustak Bhaasha – a little pamphlet that gives in a nutshell what we believe in. And apart from one or two technical things, I would still stick my neck out and say this is a sound language policy.

But there are some fundamentals which we agree upon. For example, reading, to us, is not decoding. Reading, to us, is making meaning. But, at the same time, we never believed in whole language. We believed in working simultaneously at four levels. One is at the level of discourse – talking, reading stories. Another is at the level of sentence – recognizing the whole sentence – the word and the letter or sound. Simultaneously.

And we also gave double time to language. One was purely for story-reading, play-acting, twisting language in various ways – nothing written in that. And another was a very systematic rigorous reading and writing program. The second, some people thought, was very mechanical. And therefore they criticized us. We pointed out that the second comes later and first we do a lot of using language. I also think that language – whole of Digantar doesn’t believe in this; I am sharing my belief – is not a tool for communication. Yes, we communicate through language. But primarily, language is a way of making sense of the world and your experiences. And it is secondary that it is also a tool for communication. On this, Ramakant-ji squarely agrees with me.

I forgot to say one thing. And this is not in response to any question, but I think this is important. We had a particular way of looking at social reality and actually never took the social reality for granted. We thought that social reality was open for change. So when we went to the schools, the community’s stock response was ‘girls are not sent to the school in our community’ – humaare samaaj may lardkiyon ko nahi bhejtay. So we started asking woh samaaj kahaan rehta hain? Uske paas chalte hain (so where does this society/community live? Let’s go to them). And we discovered, in this process that it was because they had a particular vision of a school, a particular vision of the teacher and how the teacher behaves with girls. That’s why girls were not coming.

So if you change the vision of the school, the vision of the teacher and the behaviour of the teacher with the girls, then maybe their decision would change. I had two options. I could say mainey survey kar liya, log yeh kehte hain. Kya karein (I have done a survey and this is what people say. What do we do)? I could go into log yeh kehte hain (this is what people say) because 1-2-3-4. But could I change this 1-2-3-4 and then go back to the people? So we always took this approach with the community.

Note: This is an edited transcript of a talk given by Rohit Dhankar at Wipro Seeding Fellows’ Annual Meet in June, 2017 at Bangalore. To know more about Digantar, please visit  Photo Credit: Digantar

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