Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Opinion | A story of hope built on the ideals of Devanampriya Ashoka

A visit to a wonderful school in a violence-scarred village evokes the message of the great emperor

The rock stands erect amid the rubble around. I can’t read the Brahmi on it, but I have read a translation. A part of the edict says, “Devanampriya does not value either gifts or honours so highly as this, that a promotion of the essentials of all sects should take place. This promotion of the essentials (is possible) in many ways. But its root is this, guarding one’s speech, neither praising one’s own sect nor blaming other sects should take place on improper occasions, and that it should be moderate in every case. But other sects ought to be honoured in every way." He speaks to us directly in his own voice, across 2,300 years. The voice is not that of the all-conquering emperor he was, but of meditative wisdom. Which is why we listen.

After this communion with Ashoka, I went to a village not far away, to visit its government elementary school. The smooth metalled road ended at the village, whose narrow lanes had broken mud tracks. On both sides were open shallow drains, overflowing in all directions. Refuse from a temple was mixed with that from toilets in front of rows of shanties. Mounds of degraded plastic blocked the drains at regular intervals, forcing slush onto the lane.

Seven murders have marked six years in the village. The two dominant and warring clans of the village have been relentless in their pursuit of vengeance. Each killing has escalated the brutality of retribution. The rest of the village lives with this terror and with chronic poverty. Most residents are landless agricultural labourers.

Now, along with some henchmen, the lone surviving chieftain is in jail. That has paused the killings. But he still runs the village from within his penal abode. Even the School Management Committee cannot take any decision without his blessings; important bodies like the panchayat are tightly controlled. The school fits in this wilderness of decay. The walls are crumbling, half-loose rough tiles make for floors, and its small quadrangle has mounds of garbage.

Class IV has 90 students. On an average day, attendance is about 70; others are out working in the fields. The kids cram into one classroom. The teacher teaches them all the four subjects—maths, environmental studies (EVS), and two languages. Given the precarity of life in the village, I will neither name the teacher nor the village.

The ambience of the class has no semblance to the village. The kids talk confidently, smile and laugh easily, and remain focused on their work. With 70 kids to handle, the teacher has divided them into many groups. And then further into groups of threes. Each group has children with varying abilities, to help each other. He moves from group to group. He forms and reforms these groups through the year. At the beginning of the year, he focuses on those who have not learnt to read and write in the earlier three classes. He ensures that in a month or so, they learn the basics so that they can subsequently reach roughly the same academic level as the other students. The syllabus does not force his pace. He could spend 10 days on a lesson, which has two days scheduled, so that the children truly learn. And at the end of the year, he is ahead of the syllabus.

Stories are the foundation of his teaching. The children tell each other stories, create their own stories, hunt for stories in their homes and narrate them in the class, complete each other’s stories, read stories aloud and in silence, and convert pictures to stories and stories to pictures. The small classroom has six taut strings tied at a height of about six feet, and clipped to these are books, which the kids borrow. This is their hanging library. He ensures that the writing keeps pace with reading. Stories remain the cornerstone of his teaching of EVS and maths, and he connects these subjects to the world around the child, instead of being bound by dry abstractions. He has meticulously collected portfolios of the work of each child, which reflect their remarkable progress, not only on the subjects taught, but also in their thinking, imagination and perspectives.

His completely grey, trimmed hair, and unbroken serenity, make him appear older than he is. He was appointed a Block Resource Person, a position of some power in the local education system, but he preferred to teach in this school. That role would have also eliminated his daily 40km commute to this village from his home. When asked why he did that, his precise response is, “There is nothing more fulfilling than these children learning and being happy." And then he adds, “especially here". He refuses praise, denies that he is doing anything special, and asserts with the same precise simplicity that this is his duty.

The village is the debris of the ideals of Ashoka and the wreckage of our Constitution. Is there redemption? Can the rubble that we see ever be an edifice for equity, justice and peace?

We have no choice but to believe. If this frail, tranquil man can embrace these ruins, and build bit by bit from there, we have no choice but to keep the faith.

He stands upholding the possibility of a better world, as have the rocks for two and a half millennia, bearing the voice of Devanampriya Ashoka.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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