EDUCATION and its sociology is a relatively under-explored theme in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, there is a considerable deficit of studies on histories of educational institutions also.
This book is an attempt at filling up some of these gaps “in order to provide an understanding of how education and society connect in diverse ways”. The author, Nirmali Goswami, makes her objectives clear at the outset, by explaining that this is “a study of the practice and social consequences of standard language-learning” to unravel the axes of language and power-relations. This is her doctoral study, which seems to have been revised very well before being published. Her literature review is brilliant, crisp and concise.
Methodologically this work is very sound; the author’s hard work, tenacity, analytical abilities, deep insights and sharp observations are well testified in this work. Clarity of purpose is articulated not only about the theme but also about the choice of the city of Banaras.
“The city of Banaras is selected for fieldwork because of its historic association with the Hindi Nationalist Movement which was instrumental in defining the standard form of Hindi. The field material is drawn primarily from a private school and its community located in Banaras, [where]… English and standard Hindi are used by high status groups cutting across class, community and ethnicity backgrounds… [besides] Sanskrit, Bengali and Urdu.”
In Banaras, Hindi is the dominant language in terms of its numeric strength in Census results, as well as in its political recognition. Besides the standard languages of English, Urdu and Sanskrit, there are popular languages like Bhojpuri and Banarsi. Nirmali Goswami’s attempt is to show “how people construct their and others’ identities vis a vis the popular languages (or dialects) practised commonly on everyday basis but not recognised at official level”.
She unravels for us “the world of vernacular medium education”, making us comprehend the “power dynamics which operate at local level and how they connect with national discourses of modernity and progress through education”. The book shows how the dialects spoken at home present a challenge in school where pupils encounter standardised Hindi. This homogenising project of the nation state has its own repercussions. The author finds that “Hindi in spite of gaining the official status has not been particularly successful in establishing its claims at national level, and to project itself as a vehicle of social mobility and one that belongs to everyone”. The book also examines how the norm of standardised Hindi is constructed and legitimised against the local influences of Banarsi/Bhojpuri. It also examines how “Urdu has a special significance for the school population and yet occupies a marginal space in discourse of the modern school, whereas English is widely perceived to be a language of progress and modernity”.
The historical context of the evolution of the schooling system in Banaras and the conflict between colonial and indigenous forms of knowledge and education have been discussed quite comprehensively. The discussion also touches on the demographic details of the city and its relations with the state. Interesting micro details of a particular school, the class- and identity-based clientele, its enrolment, teachers and management personnel—everything has been probed deeply.
The writer finds that while the upper-middle-class families maintain their class position through school choice, the lower middle classes make their school choice for upward socio-economic mobility.
Out of the urban space, another significant study around this broader theme, but substantially different in specificities, is by Md. Sanjeer Alam, Religion, Community and Education: The Case of Rural Bihar (Oxford University Press, New Delhi). It studies the educational disparity between Hindus and Muslims of Patna and Purnea districts. While Nirmali Goswami takes the linguistic diversities of Banaras into account, Alam focusses on the two major religious communities.
Nirmali Goswami’s field trips to diverse schools in Banaras bring out the sad state of affairs in school education. Government schools are shown up as “dying institutions” running with grossly underpaid Shiksha Mitras (contractual teachers) in the absence of recruitments over long periods. The underprivileged children catered to by these schools mostly end up dropping out after standard VIII. The practice of engaging teachers in all kinds of government work such as election duties, the Census exercise and polio vaccination drives inflicts a further blow to the overall work culture and results in low esteem, disappointment and despair (pages 64-65). This should sound a note of caution for the state and society.
However, though Nirmali Goswami has also looked into a Shishu Mandir chain of schools and its insistence on Hindi and Hindu culture, she has not been frank enough to describe them as spreading and inculcating the exclusionary cultural notions envisioned by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
Tanika Sarkar (“Educating the Children of the Hindu Rashtra: Notes on RSS Schools”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 14, No.2, August 1994, pages 10-15) and Nandini Sundar (“Teaching to Hate: RSS Pedagogical Programme”, Economic & Political Weekly, Volume 39, No. 16, January 2004, pages 1605-1612) and a few other scholars have worked on some of these themes.
Nirmali Goswami’s study does not examine the growth and expansion of these schools, which is also partly a result of decaying and “dying” government schools. In fact, such an exploration would possibly reveal how majoritarian communalisation has been growing since the 1990s across rural and urban Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the rest of the Hindi belt.
Such a probing would also throw light on how sociopolitical spaces were getting communalised during the regimes of social justice that claimed to be committed to secularism. This is a significant aspect missed by both Nirmali Goswami and Alam.
Another limitation of this otherwise extremely useful study is that it does not look into the communities speaking south Indian languages in Banaras.
Language and respectability
Its overall conclusion that schools are the major sites of learning about cultural resources can hardly be contradicted. However, the higher social prestige associated with the standardised language also “conceals the violence implicit in the process where only certain forms of identities are legitimised at the expense of others”. Denial, shame and inferiorisation are therefore attached with the dialects (such as Banarsi-Bhojpuri) spoken at home/mohalla as against the respectability that is attached to Hindi, English and Urdu standardised by the schools.
This work has taken note of the status of Urdu in the city: “The learning of Urdu in the school continues only in a token form by continuing to enrol students from a particular community while failing to provide the adequate support-base for learning it” (page 185). It has also looked into some of the “Muslim”-managed schools and a madrasa called Dar-ul-Ulum (pages 72-75). This madrasa, Nirmali Goswami tells us, can be compared with any other school in Banaras as it teaches all subjects. The only difference is it trains students in diniyat (religiosity; a more correct translation would however be theology) and the medium of education is Urdu. It is surprising that Nirmali Goswami’s attention was not drawn to a much better known madrasa of Banaras, Jamia Salafia, founded in 1963, a premier madrasa of the Ahl-e-Hadis sub-sect of Sunni Muslims.
The fact that Urdu newspaper reading is increasingly getting confined to madrasa-educated communities is something Nirmali Goswami has missed. She also misses the point that newspapers help in propagating and perpetuating standardised forms of languages against the “informal languages” or dialects spoken in families and mohallas.
Notwithstanding such minor limitations, Nirmali Goswami has been successful in exploring a challenging subject and she has been helped by certain advantages. An Assamese, she did her schooling from a Hindi-medium school in Banaras.
The book is useful for policymakers, besides academics concerned with the subject. The chapters are organised with a logical interconnectedness with many subheadings, which makes the book reader-friendly. Along with the author, the Sage Series Editor should also be appreciated for making this book (on a relatively difficult theme) a lucid read. One eagerly waits for other volumes in the series, which will hopefully be quite interesting and stimulating.
Mohammad Sajjad is Professor, Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.