Eklavya learnt archery by himself. He looked like he could become the greatest archer in the land. Then Drona took his right thumb.
Not much is known of the life of Eklavya after he gave his right thumb to Drona as guru dakshina. But I am confident, in most earthly and non-earthly terms he must have grown to be a successful man. He knew “how to learn” and had the tenacity to pursue his ideas. What else do you need?
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Learning how to learn is perhaps the essence of good education. Tautologically, good education is that which facilitates the growth of an individual’s ability to learn.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that when a group of committed and capable people set up a non-governmental organization in 1982, with the dream of transforming Indian education, they called it Eklavya. Inspired by the idealism and practice of what most of them had experienced in the 1970s at the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme and Kishore Bharati in Bankhedi, fired by individual passions and a collective spirit, this bunch of men and women, who left the best of academic and other careers, started what over the past 30 years has remained a beacon and fountainhead for good education in India.
Eklavya and its people did many things. They virtually ran the academic part of the government school education system of two districts in Madhya Pradesh for years. They devised curriculum and methods to develop curriculum. They wrote books for children, and published magazines for them. They trained teachers and principals. They did a zillion other things for good education across the state. But above all this, they lit fires of inspiration across the country. They did this by demonstrating that good work was possible in the heartbreak of average India, which is inspiration enough for many.
Then, after almost two decades, the government of Madhya Pradesh decided to stop their programmes. There were multiple reasons—e.g., after two decades of good work, the “system” had absorbed part of their work, “the masses” didn’t want to continue their programme, etc.
These 30 years deserve an epic, not a newspaper column. Nothing else can adequately describe the 30 years of good work and hard struggle in Hoshangabad, Harda and other places. Nothing else can do justice to the narrative of how a small organization based in Bhopal has influenced the quest for good education all over this country. Nothing else can bring to life the human drama of 30 years of hope and reality.
Through this long journey some of them have stayed, some have parted company, some with affection intact, and some bitterly. But wherever they are and whoever they are, the spirit of Eklavya lights them in some way, at least unknowingly.
This is an unabashed (and inadequate) tribute from a person who knows Eklavya just about enough to write a trenchant critique of their failings and limitations. But I choose not to. Because in balance, in the final scorecard, all those are just petty problems. Does anyone remember all the small problems and limitations of Nalanda and Takshashila?
Eklavya is not alone. There are other such organizations (and people)—committed, capable and tenacious. However, the phenomenon of widespread influence, as in the case of Eklavya, is rare. Most often the good work of good people remains within the narrow bounds of their area of work. Perhaps it has been because of the syncretism of their work. Perhaps it’s because of the long-sustained period of their work. Perhaps it is because they have acted like a “school” themselves, people have come, worked, learnt and gone elsewhere. Perhaps they have never limited themselves to their problems on hand, but have gone about trying to help all. Perhaps it’s a combination of all this and other things.
Whatever be that combination, we need more Eklavyas. In a nation as diverse as ours, as big as ours and as far away from good education as ours, the government cannot do all the work. It also cannot be helped by profit-seeking enterprises, more than marginally. Good education for the millions, including for those who do not even have enough to eat, will never be a “profit generating” enterprise; so it’s between the government and the Eklavyas. Which is why we need to understand and know Eklavya.
The story of why Eklavya is called Eklavya is incomplete if left with only the notion of the historical/mythical Eklavya’s extraordinary self-learning ability. There is another equally compelling dimension to this story. For 30 years, Eklavya (the organization) has also stood for an education that may help us all (and our children) become the “un-Eklavya”.
The “un-Eklavya” being a single act of denial—of refusing to give to Drona his right thumb. One single act of denial— but a starkly defining action for standing up for one’s rights, of questioning an unjust social order and of trying to change the world. Good education is that which facilitates the growth of an individual’s ability to learn, and which helps build a humane and equitable society, and a good world.
Eklavya has stood its ground for Eklavya and the un-Eklavya together, all these years. India needs more of us to stand the same ground.
Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He will write every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at email@example.com