Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 5: Students subjected to rampant political interference

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the concluding part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

It is 5 pm. The final bell goes off. The last lecture has concluded. Students gather their notebooks, pen and bags. Teachers head out of the classroom. Students change their uniforms and put on regular clothes. But just when an outsider would think the students are done for the day, another bell goes off. Boys and girls head out of the rooms in different directions within the school premise. Out on the ground, under the open sky, boys form queues and stand beside each other keeping exact distance from one another, as if getting ready for a PT class. Except it is not a PT class, but an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. Soon, a stick is placed in front of the stationary group and a saffron flag is meticulously unfolded and placed on the mounted stick.

The scene is from a state-aided tribal residential school with over 1,300 students in the Dadade village of Palghar’s Vikramgad taluka. Tribal welfare minister Vishnu Savara’s Arvind Smriti Sanstha runs the school, where the shakha is an integral part of the school curriculum.

Every evening, students at this school – boys and girls at separate venues of the school premises – pray in front of the saffron flag. Hands on their chest, two 16- year-old boys lead the prayers. A staff member of the school joins in. The two boys fluently recite the prayers in Sanskrit. Others follow their lead. It goes on for good five minutes or so, and concludes with the chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

“From where did you learn this prayer?” I ask the two boys. “Our RSS holds a shakha, which is attended by kids from Vikramgad taluka once in a while,” says Dhiraj Bhadange, 16, hair neatly combed, shirt tucked in. “We try to pass on whatever we learn at the shakha to our juniors at this school.”

Dhiraj is proud that he is passing on “wisdom” to his younger schoolmates. Upon asked the meaning of the prayer, Dhiraj says he does not know the entire translation as it is in Sanskrit but understands the crux of it. “What is the crux?” I ask him. “It is a prayer for the Hindu Rashtra,” he promptly says. “We pay our respects to the saffron flag. We pledge to take the Hindu Rashtra to utmost heights.”

The shakha concludes immediately after the prayers. “Exams are going on,” explains a staff member. “Otherwise, we follow up the prayer with games and physical exercises. Kids need to get back to their studies. But it would not be prudent to skip the shakha altogether.”

Another staff member at the school, requesting anonymity, says the government subsidy is merely Rs 900 per month behind every student, in which it is impossible to cover the cost of their meals, breakfast, medicines, blankets and stationery. “We get a fair amount of donation through the RSS,” he says. “Those donations have played a huge role in the development of the school. And attending shakha cannot hurt the students. They are learning the importance of discipline.”

There are 1,109 tribal residential schools across 16 tribal concentrated districts of Maharashtra – half of the schools are aided by the state, which are run by various NGOs. Most of the NGOs either belong to a politician or someone close to a politician, thereby tribal schools are often subjected to political interference which cuts across political parties.

Senior educationist Herambh Kulkarni points out that the interference of Congress and NCP has been more prolonged and acute over the years. “The ashram schools run by Congress and NCP members are used to conceal their corruption,” he said. “If an officer notices any wrongdoing, he is reluctant to act against the school because of the political might. Many of their schools show more number of students than what actually exists, enabling them to get more donations.”

In September last year, a Rs 67-crore scam had inadvertently come to light, when over 8,000 tribal students in the region of Jalgaon appeared to be non-existent during a drive to promote Aadhaar. Activists believe the phenomena is statewide and around 30 percent of the entries out of the 2.4 lakh students enrolled in the state-aided ashram schools could be fake. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

The politicians and headmasters understandably deny political interference, and teachers refuse to speak about it, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Former MLA Vivek Pandit says the term political interference does not convey the gravity of the practice. “It is political control,” he says.

Bandu Sane, an activist who has been working with tribals in Vidarbha for the longest time, says the placements at ashram schools often go to the relatives or friends of the politician whose NGO is running the school. “Tribal schools get a lot of donation, and it is hardly monitored. Precisely why most of the tribal politicians own one,” he says. “I have seen teachers and non-teaching staff campaign for political leaders who employ them. They cannot say no even when they are used like donkeys.”

A teacher, requesting anonymity, says as the elections approach, workload increases, as he has to double up as a teacher as well as a cadre. “We are asked to campaign, distribute money, maintain accounts, prepare posters and everything that is done ahead of the elections,” he says. “It is a given that we have to work during the elections. It is an unsaid rule that we cannot question.”

While no political ideology or stream is immune to it, the indoctrination of tribal students at the Arvind Smriti Ashram School is quite
blatant. Tribals have traditionally not had a religion, and this appears to be a drive to bring them into the Hindu fold.

Dhiraj teaches his younger colleagues to maneuver lathi and martial arts, or Niyuddhi, as he likes to call it. “We need to be equipped enough to protect the Hindu Rashtra from any danger,” he says. Danger from whom? He smiles unsurely and says, “Outsiders.” Upon probed further, he seems clueless.

On special occasions, the RSS ideologues from the nearby shakha visit the school, says Dhiraj, and address the students. “We are taught the importance of our festivals,” he says. “We pay our respects to Shivaji on Shivjayanti, we salute the saffron flag on Gurupurnima, we also celebrate Dr. Hegdewar’s birth anniversary.”

On Raksha Bandhan, students of the school travel to various villages in their locality and tie a rakhi to an elder member of every house they visit, Dhiraj says. “It is a token gesture and a reminder of our pledge to protect the Hindu Rashtra,” he says, at which point the headmaster comes and stands beside him, encumbering his flow. He is suddenly reluctant to speak. I thank him for his time. The headmaster shakes my hand and leaves, and I go after Dhiraj again. “Are you not taught about Christmas or Eid?” I ask him.

“No,” he gives me a sarcastic smile. “They are not our festivals. Not in Hindu Rashtra.”

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