Education for peace

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Education for peace and Good Citizenship: the SNEHA School, Arunachal Pradesh

Devika Talukdar must be over seventy years now. Her modest but spartan mud-and-tin roof house at Jashnapur village in Arunachal Pradesh stands witness to all her four daughters getting married and settling elsewhere, in Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and even Delhi. Devika is happy for her daughters. After all, it is much better to live far off than stay in Arunachal and face continuous political, social and psychological alienation just because they are “Chakmas’.

Life for the Chakma tribe in Arunachal Pradesh has never been easy. Today their population in the state stands approximately a little over 60,000. In the year 1964, Devika and many like her had to migrate from Bangladesh (Chittagong) Hill tracts when construction of Kaptai dam had submerged their villages completely. India, at that time, had opened her gates and for three months, the Chakma people, kept coming to India, in batches of about a thousand people daily. Many of them made stopovers at Mizoram and Tripura, two other states in Northeast India and eventually made their permanent dwellings in these states. The remaining of the people made Arunachal their new home.

While Mizoram and Tripura accommodated and integrated chakmas within their societal fold, Arunachali natives refused to do so. Popular and mass movements started building against Chakmas and these in-migrants could never become a part of the broader social, economic and political system of Arunachal. As pressure mounted, Chakmas were relegated in most difficult and harsh terrains of the state. With their sheer hard work they cleared thick jungles and started farming. Thus farm crops became the only means of livelihood but education, heath and other physical infrastructure for development remained a distant dream. Even today, many villages like Abhyapur of Diyun circle wheremajority of Arunachal’s Chakma tribe lives, remain in dark with no facilities of electricity. The roads too are in a horrible condition. “The village that you see today is a lot more habitable. Even ten years back, these were dark jungles and you could see elephants and tigers; there were leeches all around and life was extremely difficult”, mentions Devika.

There are far too few government schools and they too run without teachers and least infrastructure. There is also no provision for higher education in the area. Those who can afford, send their children to colleges in nearby towns of Assam like Digboi and Dibrugarh; those further well off to Delhi and Kolkata . Chakmas do not go seeking admission to colleges in other parts of Arunachal. They know they will not be accepted thanks to a widespread public process of complete social exclusion of Chakmas. They have often sighed that their children are not treated well in schools in other areas of Arunachal where native and dominant tribes send their children.

So deep is this social and political alienation that last year, in 2004, when there was elections everywhere in the state for statutory governance bodies (called panchayats) this process was not performed in Diyun circle. Perhaps, the state government felt that holding elections in a ‘Chakma area’ would pave the way for Chakma’s entering formal institutions of local and self- governance. Holding electionswould be like recognizing the presence of Chakmas and acknowledging their identity. This, unfortunately, is the ground reality despite a High Court ruling in 2000 that all Chakmas born in India before 1986 should be considered as bonafide citizens of the country.

Amidst this apathy for democracy and governance by state political system that is manifested through an organized and systematic process of exclusion of victims, the chakmas themselves are doing their bit by using the civil society space. Few years back, Chakma Students Union (CSU) spearheaded a movement demanding social and political rights, particularly citizenship, for Chakmas in Arunachal. After some time, the Students who had been part of the movement started thinking deeper. Some of them felt the need for making a transition from activism to more rooted constructive work if at all their community’s marginalization has to be attenuated. Thus, was born SNEHA, a not for profit, philanthropic organization by young, chakma lawyers and teachers who were somewhat privileged to study in places like Delhi and Kolkata that perhaps exposed them to a bigger world and subsequently deeper thinking. After seeing themselves through their formal years of education, they resolved to return back and do something for their community. SNEHA opened a primary school at remote Dumpani area in Diyun of Arunachal Pradesh. Within years of beginning in 2003, this venture school, funded by the National Foundation for India today caters to some 500 children who are getting formal education. A team of around 20 teachers, all graduate, young men, strongly feel that only education would help their community to come out of abject poverty and isolation when their children go out and gain dignified employment. “Chakma children can compete with outside world only when they are equipped or armed with quality education”, feels Arindam Dewan, the highly motivated headmaster of SNEHA School. These children are first generation learners whose parents are illiterate , work as landless laborers and live in extreme poverty. Villagers have a great sense of ownership for the school. They have contributed by way of donating land, labour and local building materials. There are even instances of students from faraway villages staying at homes of teachers in the absence of any boarding facilities in SNEHA.

After facing immense hardships and challenges, SNEHA is now receiving slow recognition of its good quality of school that has grades till class X now. State officials too are now visiting SNEHA school. In so doing, they are giving social legitimacy to the school and community and it is hoped that this would soon pave the way for legal legitimacy by allowing for registering the school with the government. Taking note of the good quality of education, parents from non-chakma background too have started sending their children to SNEHA’s school. This is the biggest achievement for a community that had only seen hatred and prejudice in the eyes of other people for them. By having children from diverse communities in an area not known for its plurality, the school has now become practically the first site for harboring togetherness and each one attempting to understand the ‘other’. By assimilating diversity in the school, it is also giving chakma children an opportunity to shed the tendency of looking upon themselves as perpetual victims and subsequently harbor a feeling of same hatred towards communities who ‘othered’ them. Thus, the school is not only an effort by youth of chakma community to overcome the challenge of illiteracy among the community’s children but more importantly a constructive engagement to reverse the effect of deep seated prejudice against the chakmas in the state and create a platform for peace and harmony. The first batch of grade X appeared for their matriculation last year and came out with exceptional results. ( a 10 minutes film clip is available with NFI…a short documentary made by Pankaj Butalia for PSBT was broadcasted by Doordarshan too).

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