On Friday, Class 12 students from Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV) across the country tweeted video messages thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for cancelling this year’s board examinations in light of the ongoing pandemic. The decision, for which students from across the country had been petitioning the government for many months, was announced by the PM himself via his Twitter handle.
Government of India has decided to cancel the Class XII CBSE Board Exams. After extensive consultations, we have taken a decision that is student-friendly, one that safeguards the health as well as future of our youth. https://t.co/vzl6ahY1O2
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 1, 2021
Although the messages were worded differently, the videos looked scripted as the expressions of students are either blank or exaggerated. As the messages started to gain traction on social media, some speculated that this was not a voluntary exercise. A few of the videos were also shared by the education minister from his official Twitter account and hashtag #thankyouPM was trending for a few hours.
Soon after, a screenshot of a WhatsApp message started doing the rounds on Twitter which read:
“All principal (sic) Bangalore region. Please send at least 5 videos of hashtag/retweet by your students ‘Thank You Modi Sir’ by 4pm today (Thursday) for onward transmission to…hq. Please share among teachers/students, if not shared immediately, and get at least 5 videos.”
The Telegraph then reported that Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) had asked their schools, in at least two regions, to share these video messages on social media.
KVS is a system of central government schools in India instituted under the aegis of the ministry of education. It governs over 1,200 KV schools in the country and three abroad.
Although the WhatsApp screenshots came in only from Bangalore and Kerala, the videos weren’t limited to schools in these two regions. More such videos were uploaded from Delhi, Kashmir, Aizawl, Maharashtra and other parts of the country.
Follow the line
As I was watching the videos, it reminded me of how in my school (another KV), we were asked to memorise speeches, poems and the ‘thought of the day’ without questioning the intent behind what the message conveyed. The way the students spoke in those videos was very similar to how I and other students in my batch would speak on the mic in the morning assembly. In primary classes, sometimes the teacher herself/himself would write or dictate the messages.
The overall environment was such – and I can speak for other KVs too – that students didn’t think of questioning what they were being instructed to do and say. One time, a student was called on stage during assembly because his shoes were not white enough. He had used chalk to clean the dirty edges. The sports incharge asked everyone to look at his shoes and some of us, who luckily weren’t caught, squirmed while standing at our spots. A few teachers would also keep an eye on what students did outside the school premises, and would regularly single out and scold students for simply hanging out after school.
Another time, our school principal continued giving his morning speech on ‘patience, hard work and perseverance’ even while some students fainted because of the scorching heat. When others started clapping – an indirect request to ask him to stop – the principal started lecturing us on how we should learn to beat the heat because the life ahead of us would be even tougher.
I remember nodding my head in agreement.
I graduated in 2013, but the scenario, as present-day students told me, hasn’t changed much. The school continues to teach students to toe the line and not question the authorities. In some schools, farewell parties and Teachers’ Day – the days when Class 12 students come to school wearing clothes of their choice – celebrations have now been discontinued on the grounds that students create ruckus in the campus. In others, like my former school, havans are organised on the farewell day where students are asked to pray for their better future.
In this context, it was not surprising when I saw the deluge of video messages on Twitter where students almost spoke like they were reciting a ‘special item’ (a segment in the morning assembly where students recite a poem, a song or anything that the teacher-in-charge approves of). I could imagine how teachers would have phoned a few students to make a video and how promptly they would have said, ‘Yes teacher, will do’.
While the serious issue at hand is how the Centre appears to be using school students to earn back people’s trust – which has taken a beating over its wanting response to the second wave of COVID-19 – the current trend also reflects the authoritarian system under which government schools like KV operate in the country.
Not the first time
As I was talking to a student, she said that since it is a government school, they would of course make the students praise the government’. The government, over the years, has also roped in KV schools to push its programmes.
According to the Telegraph report, a KV principal in Bangalore said that KVS had been sending them instructions to make students participate in Swachh Bharat programmes for the past few years.
In 2019, Class 8 students of a KV in Hyderabad were forced to clean toilets with their bare hands in the name of Swachh Bharat. According to a report by Deccan Chronicle, the said act was also part of punishing the students – which earlier, as a student in the report said, used to be cleaning the school ground.
In our school too, we were asked to clean the school ground, sometimes even in the afternoon, as part of disciplinary action. The idea was to prepare students for the inspection day when officials from outside would come to school to check whether the system is well in place. In the preceding weeks, we were put through a gruelling schedule of preparing chart-papers, decorating class boards (often by staying back after school hours), finishing all the class work and home work, and sometimes even cleaning the desks – all to maintain the reputation of the school. And in case the inspector caught a student with incomplete class work, he/she/they would face the wrath of the class teacher or the head mistress post the inspection.
On other days too, teachers never encouraged us to look beyond the books prescribed in our syllabus. Sure, reading multiple perspectives at a time without learning the basics can cause confusion, but instilling the idea that N.C.E.R.T. textbooks are sacrosanct is also wrong. It is almost akin to religious indoctrination where it is blasphemous to read anything beyond one set of books or theories. While I don’t remember questioning any of what was taught, there were some students who did and they were mostly reprimanded for wasting everyone’s time in class.
Even in library period, we were either asked to self-study or were given half-torn quiz magazines which had logical reasoning questions for competitive examinations. I would often doodle in those magazines, giving the librarian an impression that I was quietly solving questions. It is not that the library didn’t have books – it did, and there were many. As far as I remember, there were biographies of political leaders like Indira Gandhi, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru etc and encyclopedias stacked in a separate corner. I don’t remember seeing anything other than these even if there were. But I do remember that we weren’t allowed to just walk up to any bookshelf and skim through the books to see what we wanted to read.
There were also no avenues for registering complaints in school apart from a complaint box, which too was placed in the area frequented by teachers and staff. Students, therefore, would try to resolve the matter among themselves in their own, often unethical, ways. This is perhaps one of the reasons why KVs are infamous for its ‘rowdy’ crowd.
But it is unfair to blame the students when it is the system which is at fault. What would you expect from students who were (are) not allowed to express themselves? Hence, students would find their own ways to rebel, which included breaking CCTV cameras, bursting crackers in the bathroom during Diwali, shouting in the corridor, flashing laser lights on the teacher’s face during class, skipping the assembly, lying about fever/stomach aches and sometimes even locking teachers inside bathrooms.
But such rebellious students were fewer in numbers and others, just like me, had understood that going by the book was the only way to success.
Perhaps the students who made the videos thanking the PM believe the same, and despite having easy access to internet, they couldn’t even bother verifying whether it was justifiable to the thank the PM for such a delayed situation that has already caused much damage and stress for students.
The practice of forcefully asking students to publicly appreciate the government’s decisions isn’t limited to KVs and other government schools. In August 2019, when the Centre revoked Article 370, arrested political leaders and snapped all communication in Jammu and Kashmir, various schools in Ahmedabad received a circular which asked students to debate and discuss Article 370 and Article 35A on the occasion of PM’s birthday. The circular, however, didn’t quite encourage a debate. It read: “Under Article 370 and 35A the Indian parliament has taken an appreciative and people-oriented step that has received a lot of appreciation from the entire country.”
Similarly, a week before this circular, a school in Panchkula (Chandigarh) asked its Class 6 students to write appreciative letters to the PM thanking him for the decision on J&K.
Recently, after the PM announced that the expenses of children who lost their parents due to COVID-19 would be covered under the ‘PM Cares for Children’ scheme, two teenagers from Kanpur were seen thanking the PM in a video shot by ANI. The reporter pointedly ask the recently orphaned teenagers if they were aware of the PM’s scheme. The first responded saying, “Ye pata hai ki government hum log ko support kar rahi hai. (We only know that the government is supporting us).” When the reporter pressed the second teenager to send a message to the PM about how the scheme would be helpful for her ‘bhavishya (future)’, she muttered a quick ‘thank you’.
Letters of dissent
Amidst such video messages and thank you notes, there are also letters that ask questions. There are instances where students voluntarily write to the PM without anyone’s insistence. But such letters either go unnoticed or the writers have to face consequences, as is evident with the following two instances.
In 2019, over 73 students at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, wrote postcards to the PM asking him to lift the communication ban in Kashmir post the revocation of Article 370, as many of them were not able to connect with their family members in the Valley.
The students pasted the postcards on their black kurtas and stood outside the college’s cafeteria to draw everyone’s attention to their appeal. Although the postcards were only a symbolic form of protest against the government’s decision and therefore weren’t sent, the act was widely reported in the media. However, the students didn’t hear even a word from either the PM or anyone from the government.
In another instance, students actually had to face backlash for writing letters to the prime minister. In October 2019, five students and an alumni of Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha received a letter of suspension for allegedly organising Dalit leader Kanshi Ram’s death anniversary and writing letters to the PM.
Students had asked the administration to organise the death anniversary and to write letters to the PM, but the administration denied the same. When the students went ahead with the event and wrote the letters, saying that it was their right to do assert their identity, six of the organisers (all Bahujans) were suspended.
Over 100 students gathered to write to the PM addressing issues such as mob lynching, increasing cases of sexual harassment in the country, the lockdown in Kashmir, privatisation of lawyers, and sedition charges against intellectuals and activists. Post the event, the letters could be seen (as shown by the students) lying unattended on ground as student organisers were sent suspension orders. In this case too, students didn’t hear anything from the PM.
If I were a KV student today, I would have outrightly rejected the claims made by the students in these letters if my teacher had told me so. I would have also made a video thanking the PM, and perhaps would have encouraged my friends to do the same.
Interestingly, if I were a KV student today and was reading this piece, I would even have written a scathing critique calling it false and absurd in my own broken English.
Thankfully, I am no longer in school.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty