Prof VK Tripathi and the fight for Schools in Juhapura: Zahir Janmohamed
Guest post by ZAHIR JANMOHAMED
On Tuesday, February 19, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation ratified its budget and elected to build the first municipal school in Juhapura, the largest ghetto of Muslims in Ahmedabad. Juhapura was incorporated into the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation five years ago and many residents wondered why the AMC took so long to build a school to serve Juhapura’s 350,000 residents. At the forefront of this struggle is IIT Delhi physics professor VK Tripathi. It was during a chance meeting with a sandwich shop owner in Washington DC that Professor Tripathi first learned about Juhapura.
Professor Tripathi, a long time Gandhian whose family was a part of Gandhi’s struggle for independence, was shocked to see the lack of adequate schools in Juhapura. Since his first visit to Juhapura in 2007, he has funded his own trips to Juhapura every two months to work for better schooling and for the Gujarat government to release minority scholarship funds.
Six years later, Professor Tripathi’s work—along with many others—is proving successful. According to the Business Standard, the Gujarat High Court in a majority decision this past week ruled that the “Union government’s scheme of pre-matriculation scholarship for students of five minorities does not violate the Constitution of India and directed the Narendra Modi government to implement it in the state.”
I caught up with Professor Tripathi at the New Age High School in Juhapura a few weeks ago where we discussed his visits to the relief camps after the 2002 riots, his struggle with the Gujarat government to release minority scholarships, and what it means to be a Gandhian in today’s India.
Shortly after the train coach was burnt on February 27, 2002, you visited the Gujarat town of Godhra where the incident happened. What was your impression?
It was terrible. Dr. A.K. Sharma who went with me from Delhi and I decided to look at the train coach that was burnt. We went to see the site where the coach was burnt and then to the yard where the burnt compartment was standing. The newspapers said it was a mob that attacked the train compartment but there was no trace of it. The grass near the train track (at the site of coach burning) was still green. If there were fire then how could the grass be green (just adjacent to the train)?
I said this to the police officer standing near by. If a mob had thrown fire on the train, then the exterior of the compartment below the bars on the window would at least have some patches of fire but there was none. Thus there was no symptom that a mob did this. It was terrifying to imagine the kind of mischievous propaganda Gujarat state carried against the Muslims.
Can you describe the work that you started doing in Gujarat after the riots?
We two came to Gujarat for the first time on March 15, 2002. In Godhra, we met the district magistrate. She invited us to a meeting of the peace committee formed to address post-Godhra concerns. As I began to speak of reconciliation, I was bombarded with aggressive questions. A vast majority of the 80-85 people present reflected VHP line.
In April 2002 I visited Panderwada (Panchmahals district) where 157 homes had been burnt and 27 people killed. However, there was hardly any remorse. A person even said, “The Muslims are strongly kattar (hard headed): when they were being burnt and were asked to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ they said, ‘Jai Pakistan.’”
I told them, “I have seen many Muslims and Hindus dying. When a person dies he remembers only God or his parents. Hindu, Muslim, Pakistan or India are the labels attached only to this body, when the body dies none of these identities survive. If you see some one’s bad things, see his/ her pain too.” It was astonishing to learn that the killings were done by tolas (mobs of five thousand people each) from other places.
In Kalol relief camp I was struck with the truthfulness of the violence victims. They told me that in Boru village 150 homes were burnt and one person was killed. I walked 8 kilometers to reach this village as autos were not ready to go. I met the Hindu neighbors and they gave me the same numbers. Usually when people suffer like this they make exaggerations. But I did not find this here. There was remarkable honesty.
In the next eight months I visited various relief camps, violence affected villages and the villages from where rioters were alleged to have come. I also met officials and looked for people, whom we could trust, and for organizations that we could work with. Anandi was one of the organizations doing good work. I raised some funds but it was very small amount—150,000 rupees.
In our previous meetings, you have said that the 2002 violence was unique.
For the first time the state played an obvious role. The Gujarat chief minister called it a reaction to an action. It only emboldened the rioters, like never before. It was most depressing.
When I worked in the relief camps in 2002, I heard rumors circulating among middle class Hindus that Hindu relief camp volunteers would be attacked for helping Muslims. What was your experience working as a Hindu in the relief camps after the 2002 Gujarat riots?
I also heard such things but I never met any harassment. Middle classes looked sectarian, some of them felt elated that these riots happened. But this anti-Muslim sentiment was not there in the masses. There might have been some criminal elements who participated in the riots but largely the Hindu masses were not appreciative of violence.
The Muslims opened their hearts to me. Whether it was a relief camp or a village, they could trust me. This struck me very deeply. Once, several months after the violence when people were building their homes, I spent a night with them in Boru. They poured their love. I sang a few ghazals. They also sang. I saw people had lost everything but not their human touch.
Were you in Delhi in 1984? What were the similarities between 1984 and 2002?
At that time I was not politically conscious. But the 1984 anti-Sikh riots were also very serious. These appeared to be organized as 3,000 people were killed. However, I don’t think the 1984 riots were instigated by the government as was done by Gujarat government. In Gujarat there was not even a shadow of violence that was there in Punjab.
At one point during your visits to Gujarat did you start to focus on the educational challenges that Muslims in Gujarat?
Eight after the Gujarat riots, I began to worry about children’s education. I went to Godhra schools and I talked to students. I realized that they required assistance in mathematics. I spoke with Dr. Shujat Wali and we organized a two day workshop for 1,000 students—half Muslims, half Hindus. We had twenty four teachers from both the communities. The students were very receptive. They were touched by our social concerns too.
What made you want to shift your focus to Juhapura?
I met Shaikh Salim sahib in Washington DC. He suggested that I should visit Juhapura which was a neglected area. When I first came to Juhapura, I visited four government schools and I was very disappointed. There was no mat on the floor for students to sit. It was rainy season and the floor was wet. Children had to sit on the wet floor. In the biggest primary school of Gyaspur Bhatha, two classes were held in one room at the same time. There were eight 800 children, 16 teachers and just four classrooms. Classes were running in two shifts.
I wanted to see some statistics on schools in Juhapura but I could not find any so I decided to do my own data collection.
What did you observe?
Primary Education: The number of children crossing 6 years of age every year in Juhapura, at an average annual birth rate of 2.5%, would be 6000 plus. Only 2800 children are admitted to class I, of which only 360 (13%) in four government primary schools. This is far below the national average. The teacher to student ratio in government schools is dismal, poorer than 1:50. The non-grant schools (all Gujarati medium except three which were English medium) admit around 2400 students at class one level. The tuition fee varies in the range Rs. 100 to 250 per month. This was unaffordable for poor parents, when coupled with the cost of books, dress, etc. However, on such a tuition fees schools can’t pay more than Rs. 1000-2500 per month to their teachers. This is gross under payment. I met a girl who did 12th commerce with 83% marks from The New Age High School and completed teachers training. She was teaching in a school at a meager sum.
High School Education: the four in-grant high schools (F. D., The New Age, Shanti Niketan and N.K.) have a total intake of 900 at class 8 level. Since these schools have their own primary wings (non-grant) they can admit less than 200 students from others schools. Six non-grant high schools (that run up to class tenth) have a total class eight enrolment of about 200. Parents can not afford to pay the tuition fees, hence only few students go there.
Thus only 1100 (18% of relevant age group) children of Juhapura can continue education beyond seventh grade which is less than half of the national average.
Why do you think there are so few schools in Juhapura?
I am not sure of the situation before 2002 but since 2002 this area has been gravely ignored. Since the 2002 violence many people have been shifting to Juhapura the government should have increased the facilities for education but they started listening only recently.
You have been active for years in pressing the Gujarat government to release its minority scholarship funds. Can you give us some background on this and explain the status of these funds today?
The government of India started two schemes: The post-matric minority scholarship scheme in November 2007 and Pre-Matric minority scholarship scheme in April 2008. The first scheme has 100% funds from the central government and it has been implemented from all the states including Gujarat. The second scheme, has 75% from the central government and 25% from each state government. This is the one the Gujarat government refuses to implement.
We tried to argue this case with the Joint Secretary, Social Justice and Empowerment, Gandhinagar. He said that his Chief Minister (Narendra Modi) had already told the Central leaders that (Gujarat) can’t implement this scheme because it was discriminatory. I asked what was the discrimination? He said that the value of minority scholarship was more than that of the SC/ ST scholarship. I said that the SC/ OBC scholarships were given by the state government and they can raise it to any level as Tamilnadu has done. In our next meeting he said that the CM felt that the scheme was discriminating on the basis of religion. I said, “SC/ ST/ OBC categories cover nearly seventy five percent Hindu population while Muslims have no representation in SC/ ST category, and only 30 % are covered in OBC category. The scholarship scheme is an effort to end this discrimination.” But we could not move far.
What can be done to improve schools in Juhapura?
1. In order to provide free education to every child up to the upper primary level (as a constitutional fundamental right) the intake at class one level in government schools must be raised at least 4 fold (from the current level of 600).
2. In-grant status be awarded to low tuition non-grant schools that have been providing better education than the government schools for more than 10 years. Since 1998, Gujarat Government has put a ban giving grant-in status to new schools. This policy must change to ensure good quality free education to poor children. And teachers should be given a salary at which they could survive. This is a very serious problem all over the state cutting across religious lines.
3. The teacher to pupil ratio in government primary schools must improve to 1:35 and teaching must be properly monitored.
4. Free books, dress, mid-day meals, scholarship and computer fees should be provided by the state to all the children in non-grant schools charging low tuition fee, where poor children study.
5. Intake at the 9th grade level must be doubled with full assistance. The grant-in aid high schools showing good 10th and 12th results must be provided aid to increase the intake at 9th level or new schools should be opened with in-grant status.
6. Intake for 11 science must be raised several fold, especially with computer as a subject.
As a life long Gandhian, what is your assessment about the direction Gujarat is heading in?
Gandhiji preached that a nation belongs to its people, especially the masses who earn their living through hard work. Workers and farmers are the backbone of the nation. And they have full right to live with dignity and freedom. And they have the right to get proper price for their produce and proper wages. All these things have been denied in Gujarat.
Gujarat is advancing in a direction in which workers are marginalized, farmers are marginalized. Traders are given upper hand. They are dictating terms to politicians. I think this is a grave situation. It is anti-Gandhian.
What I want to do here is to inculcate some self confidence in the people. So they can stand on their own and demand their rights. Their educational, economic and political empowerment is mandatory. There are 8 or 10 percent Muslims in Gujarat but if you look at their percentage in traders or government jobs, it is much lower. In the entire assembly of 182 seats there are only two Muslims.
Unless we fight the prejudice against under privileged minority, we would be doing great disservice to the nation. I think Gujarat under Modi has moved backward. It has hardened prejudices and people are unwilling to take a look into their own minds and hearts.
Are people in Juhapura fighting back? I notice that many people are afraid here.
They are afraid but there are times when they come on the streets. When we organised scholarship campaigns in July 2010, December 2011 and July 2012, a lot of people came–a lot of girls came. It was pouring rain with knee deep water on the roads in July 2010 still 175 women and about 25 men came for the march and dharna. I think people are mustering courage.
Do you think the spirit of Gandhi is still alive? And if so, where do you find the spirit of Gandhi in India?
Oh unfortunately it is getting more and more invisible. Middle classes have very little care for Gandhiji or Gandhian values. They have disrespect for the father of the nation. I think this is because of two reasons: there economic self interest has made them blind. Second, religious prejudices have gone deeper in the psyche. I think this has to be fought.
You mentioned a deeper focus on religion. I have noticed in Juhapura that people are more religious. There are more madrasas. There are more masjids, many paid for money from abroad. Do you worry that increased religious education in Juhapura is shifting the focus away from secular education?
That may be true to a minor extent. I am not worried about it because I know class is more dominant a factor in one’s behavior than religion is. The temperament of a working class Muslim is very close to the temperament of a working class Hindu. They understand each other’s grievances and each other’s problems.
And they also understand to an extent who is their friend and who is their enemy. I think a poor Hindu will understand that his enemy is not poor Muslim but his class interests are being crippled by the elite whether it is a politician or a businessman or corporate sector or whatever.
Juhapura’s religious education also does not bother me much because majority of the students are going to regular schools—either Gujarati medium or English medium.
That brings me a lot of hope. Children are very enlightened.
So you are feeling very hopeful?
I am very hopeful.
One of my fondest memories of seeing you, Professor Tripathi Sahib, is listening to your poetry. Would you mind sharing a poem please?
Sure. I would love to. This is one I just wrote: