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Silenced and Marginalised

Voices from a Sarkari-aided School of Delhi

An attempt has been made to demonstrate the linkages between the socio-economic-cultural marginalisation of children and their educational marginalisation. This is achieved through a thick description of the living and working conditions of the children, and the interplay between the factory, residence, school, market, family and other support systems, in order to gauge the social reality of these children.

This article draws upon a talk I gave at Azim Premji University in 2013 and a series of 19 articles I did for the journal Shiksha Vimarsh. The series was entitled “Ek School Manager Ki Diary Ke Kuchh Panney” and was published between 2012 and 2016.


I write here about a government-aided school situated in the walled city of Delhi where I worked as manager from 2009 to 2014. More than 95% of the children in this school are from Muslim minority backgrounds and are either child labourers or children of labourers. This article looks at the interplay between factory, residence, school, the vicissitudes of the market, the nature of the family and other support systems in order to gauge the social reality of these children. Through these glimpses of school and classroom engagements, I seek to show how inadequate these are in raising the consciousness of the children towards their multiple identities and their status vis-à-vis larger society.

The mohallas (neighbourhoods) that are the subject of this article include Bara Hindu Rao, Ahata Kidara, Chimney Mill, Katra Aatma Raam, Nai Basti, Gali Ishwari Prasad, Qasabpura, Idgah, Nabi Karim and other mohallas around these. My visits to the area—alone and at times with a colleague-cum-(local)-resident-cum-alumna of the school—have resulted in both painful and enlivening experiences. Enlivening because I was able to meet many people and understand the area better; painful because it helped me grasp how generations of people in the area have been languishing and have gone through cycles of impoverishment. The chances of children escaping a maze of deprivation and seeking upward socio-economic mobility (vis-à-vis their parents) struck me starkly.

Life and Work in the Mohallas

The area is a criss-cross web of narrow lanes with houses, karkhanas (small factories), and structures that double up as both karkhanas and living space. Many karkhanas house heavy machinery that produce instruments used in small machines for making plastic or metal items. These heavy machines are installed in spaces as small as 6×8 square feet (sq ft) to bigger halls measuring 20×20 sq ft. Some karkhanas have small interconnected rooms, at times with bunker roofs to create more space for loading raw material into machines, sorting and cutting out material, and packing for distribution. Six to eight people can be seen working in these karkhanas in temperatures much higher than those outside. In some factories, hazardous work involving glass cutting, nickel polishing, and working with acids also takes place. The effects of such work were visible in the injuries and maimed limbs of some workers.

Apart from karkhanas that manufacture heavy machines, there are others where diaries, clothes, leather bags, belts, artificial jewellery, bangles, jeans, etc, are made. Allow me to describe one karkhana with its narrow, dark and broken staircase, which was difficult to navigate. Two narrow rectangular rooms on the first and second floors were being used as work and living spaces. At 9 am, when we reached, the workers were sleeping, eight of them in a row, as work in these karkhanas lasts until 2–3 am. These workers were between the ages of 12 and 22. The room measuring 8×12 sq ft contained three sewing machines, a stack of raw material and finished diaries. The stench of the nearby toilet, with its open door, told its own tale of oppression. Most other karkhanas had similar living and working arrangements.

The owners of such factories also belong to the towns from where these workers have migrated. Migration from Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and other neighbouring places has a chain-like pattern. The impoverished relatives and friends of the workers tag along or follow suit. The owners procure cheap labour from poverty-ridden areas. Most workers and their families live in hardship given the paucity of space, sanitation and other civic amenities under the impression that they will not gain acceptance in or access to other localities, where Hindus, Sikhs or others may be in majority. Moreover, the interdependence in work and a give-and-take relationship between residents/workers further compels them to live and work in this area even as rents keep surging due to commercialisation. The apprehension that they will not be welcomed in areas where the majority community resides also shuts upon them chances of looking for better livelihood opportunities. According to the older brother of one of our students, Irshad, “The life of an outsider is one of great dependence; one has to depend on others for food, for water, for everything.” Many Muslims of UP and Bihar have traditionally been artisans but in recent times have been forced to work as mazdoors (labourers) due to the erosion of their traditional occupations, thus, losing what little control they had over their craft and living conditions earlier. Also, they have had to continuously deal with the uncertainties of demand and supply in the market, which periodically render them unemployed.

The Qasabpura and Eidgah areas, consisting of slaughterhouses until recently, are close by. They supplied lamb/sheep and buffalo meat to the whole of Delhi city and many people of the area were engaged in this traditional trade. In 2009, when I was appointed manager of the school, the slaughterhouses were shifted from this area to Ghazipur mandi (market), some 20–25 kilometres away, the result of a Supreme Court order, ostensibly emanating from the “neo-liberal praxis of aesthetics, safety, health and hygiene” (Ahmad 2013). The economic condition of more than 4,000 people was affected by this move. Many of these people continue to be stealthily involved in the meat business within the area itself while others have had to hire vans to reach their new place of work.

In the last two to three decades, many government and government-aided schools have come into existence in this area. The school of which I was the manager is one of the oldest educational institutions of the area. The dreams, aspirations, associated grievances and complaints of the local people are linked to the school. On our rounds of the area, my colleague would stop every few steps to introduce me to the workers and shopkeepers: “Meet bhai Saleem, he studied in our school till Class 8, his younger brother was my classmate, now his two children are in the primary school and his two daughters are in the morning shift.” Almost all the children, adults and elderly people—owners, proprietors, workers and shopkeepers—I met seemed to have generations-old relationships with the school. Notably, the school is responsible for giving the area its few teachers, a woman advocate, a doctor and engineers.


Many of the school’s students are compelled to shoulder the economic burden of their families, and labour in the karkhanas. Aijaz of Class 10 is a case in point. His father’s hand was crushed in a machine, after which he had to stop working. Aijaz took his place at the printing press. He reaches home from school at 1 pm and almost immediately leaves for work after having his lunch. He started work two years ago on a pittance of ₹500 per month, which has now increased to ₹4,000. Aijaz is forced to work in the night shift as well in order to make both ends meet. In his words, “Ma’am what to do, one has to put in these ‘nights’—at least then I am able to earn well.” He returns home at 2:30 am, sleeps for three to four hours and reports to school at 7 am the next morning. Likewise, Najeeb and his younger brother shoulder the entire economic burden of their family, through service at events or parties which fetch them between ₹400 and ₹800 per party. At times, he feels distressed that he lacks “finer (occupational) skills.”

Many other children help the adults of their family in the work they do. Sheikhur Rehman of Class 7 helps his father in the making and packing of bangles. Badre Alam of Class 6 helps his father make bags. Maaz’s father is a butcher and he has already learnt to cut meat pieces from him. His father does the more difficult work of slaughtering and skinning animals.

There are many children in the school who, when asked if they work or contribute towards the family income, answer in the negative. They do not do this out of any feeling of embarrassment, but because they and their family members do not realise that they do perform “work/labour” and that they are an important link in the whole system. When I saw a child of our school sitting in a mobile shop and another taking charge of a meat shop, I asked them if they helped out on a regular basis. The answer was, “No, not at all—father has gone for lunch and a nap, so I am looking after the shop for a few hours. Basically, it is father who works, not me.” On another occasion, I met a child who was overseeing tyres being loaded on to a handcart. On being questioned, he replied, “No, no, I don’t work. I am just getting the tyres loaded.” Dilnawaz studies in Class 2. His parents run a bag-making workshop from their one-room house. They claimed that their children are not involved in any income-generating activity and are given all the freedom to study. Just then, Dilnawaz entered the house with a large bag dangling from his shoulder, and informed his mother, “I have delivered the goods,” and handed over the money he had received. Many girls in the school, apart from helping in domestic chores since a very young age, assist in making clips, decorative items, and packing of various things. Nearly 65% of the children in this school like other schools in the neighbourhood, are also workers.

There are several children in the school whose fathers, uncles or elder brothers, had migrated to Delhi some years ago in search of work. With a view to providing them with better education, they also moved the children to Delhi. Many children, including girls, live only with their male relatives while their mothers and other female relatives continue to live in their hometown. Since female members of the family are not with them, they have to cook, wash, clean, etc. Many children, such as Irshad, are well aware of their uncertain future with regard to education. He says:

Didi, I am in Class 5 and I am already 14 (years old). I cannot say for how many years I may be able to continue study. I do not know for how long my brother can support me as a student.

His younger brother Dilshad, and he, live with their elder brother in Delhi who runs a small belt-making unit. Irshad prepares breakfast and lunch for his brothers and two other workers of the karkhana. He reaches school at 12:30 pm for the evening shift and on returning home devotes a few hours to making belts, cooks dinner, and tries to do his homework before going off to sleep. The brothers are not able to visit their mother in Bihar every year. The elder brother harbours dreams of their education and prosperity. He says,

Irshad and Dilshad should somehow get educated and bring fame to their father and grandfather’s name … since they know how to work with their hands, they will always be humble and will never regard such work as lowly and will respect workers who work with their hands.

Murtuza’s brother is a moazzin (person who calls Muslims to pray) and they live in a room in a nearby mosque. In comparison to many other children, Murtuza is better-off, as meals for him and his brother are sent by the people of the mohalla. This Class 8 boy proudly says, “I shoulder my own expenses.” On the way back from school, he visits two karkhanas where he recites the Quran, seeking god’s blessings for the trade. He is paid ₹500 per month by each karkhana and has also started tutoring a child in reading the Quran for which he gets paid. This takes care of his educational expenses.

Education vs Employment?

A close examination and understanding of the different forms of work/labour performed by the children is possible by assessing their social realities. While only a few children are engaged in hazardous work, a larger number shoulder a considerable part of their families’ economic burden. These children put in many hours of work, sometimes stretching into the wee hours of the morning. There is need for the state to intervene to keep them away from such work, not just by declaring it illegal in consonance with the Child Labour Act, 1986, which is an easy escape. Keeping in mind the socio-economic backgrounds of the children, the state needs to provide for them and their families economic protection so that the children do not have to work (ILO 2013).

There are other children learning a skill and earning an income in the process. Apart from craftsmanship, labour dynamics and social networks are also needed to be understood and developed for succeeding in the market. A considerable part of the children’s day is spent in honing such skills and knowledge. It gives them and their families confidence in the children’s capability to earn their bread through the skills gained, if not through education. But none of these crafts are such that they cannot be learnt in adulthood with a few months or years of labour (Weiner 1996). Even so, looking at the resources and quality of teaching–learning processes in the school, it is difficult to tell these children to engage solely in studies for improving their future prospects. The board examination results of the school permit only a few students to secure admission in regular colleges. Many children find their way forward through low-quality correspondence courses, which only take them as far as the call centres. In this case, the children lack adequate skills as well as degrees and at best, become slaves of multinational companies. The challenge of keeping up with changing technologies and skill requirements in these set-ups further jeopardises their futures. If the school and its counterparts in the area extend full support to their students, it will be appropriate to advise them to focus only on study. Ahmed Iqbal, who works in a karkhana, often shares how adult co-workers and neighbours tease him for his seriousness about studies, saying “Tell us what will you gain through studying?”

Support provided by the school (and others like it) should involve better educational facilities and special support for the “difficult” subjects, apart from improving the overall quality of education. There is the dire need to escape from the vicious cycle of intergenerational impoverishment comprising low-educational attainment, meagre wages and a return to child labour.

I met young adults who complain that school education did not enable them to pursue higher education. They further lament that while they remained glued to schooling, many people of their age created a niche for themselves in the social ecology of the market. Yet, in the same breath, they point out certain advantages of education. This involves the ability to plan life and work in a systematic manner, competence to fill tenders and navigate through paperwork, confidence in networking, etc. Examples of successful business ventures of our alumni in the neighbourhood also illustrate superior entrepreneurial capabilities of people who have had the opportunity to complete their schooling. An ex-student of the school is an exporter of leather goods, including jackets to West Asian countries.

It is clear from the descriptions of the homes-cum-karkhanas that most migrant families are engaged in the informal economy, where work happens on a piece rate basis. Entire families contribute labour to the household-run karkhanas. In the context of excessive supply of labour, piece rates are low in the value chain. The labour of the children involved in such household work—whether for a few hours or long stretches—remains invisible at times. Thus, Neera Burra (2005) argues that there exists a thin line between labour and working, and if we persist in keeping these lines intact we will be doing a great disservice to workers in household enterprises, particularly women and children. Biggeri et al (2009) point out that unless the returns from schooling are increased, the informal sector will continue to grow.

It is important to visiblise the invisible labour that children are engaged in and its adverse impact in hampering their educational growth. However, even if the children are not contributing much time and energy to the economic activity of the family, the children’s life worlds and the adults’ life worlds overlap intimately. Though Dilshad and Irshad or their respective families may not consider what they are doing as “work,” they nevertheless assist in small and big ways routinely. Their lives, which are informed by the interface of culture and household economics, have taught them to be fairly independent in terms of taking care of themselves, managing everyday affairs, and assuming responsibility. The descriptions of the settlements in the neighbourhoods allude to the impossibility of insulating children from “adult worlds” of work and hardships. Here, most families do not see childhood as a distinct and shielded phase of life (Aries 1962). The children, too, are aware that they do not have the leisure of carefree childhoods as their counterparts from well-off backgrounds do. Childhoods are inextricably linked to the socio-economic lives of the community and the family. Some have shared that parents start nagging them about employment beginning in high school, which attains a heightened pitch on reaching college.

Income shocks are prevalent and frequent due to market swings. The area, also, underwent drastic economic catastrophes during the sealing drive of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in 2006, resulting in closure of commercial ventures in residential areas and later, during the shifting of slaughterhouses to Ghazipur Mandi in 2009. In such cases, socio-economic security and credit availability can play a role in deciding the children’s continuation in school and their advance to higher education.

Relationships at Work and School

Apprenticeship with an ustaad (workplace trainer) has its bittersweet moments and experiences. The ustaad’s behaviour may often be empathetic. In contrast to schoolteachers, the ustaads understand the apprentice’s family circumstances of hardship and adversity. They look after the child’s dietary needs, show concern during illness in the family, and have the heart to forget and forgive when the child is unable to reach the workshop on time. On the other hand, they may make children toil hard, pay only minimal wages, and delay paying. Display of sympathy and compassion, apart from becoming the medium of exploitation, is also a means of extending help and patronage. This hierarchical relationship, thus, remains concealed, and decoding its nature becomes difficult for the child-worker. Even so, the children learn to negotiate their space in this informal relationship.

In contrast, there are only a few teachers in the school who have such insights into the children’s lives and understand their suffering and circumstances. Most carry out their responsibilities in a routine manner. The relationship between the children and teachers is impersonal and formal—despite their daily association. In the name of discipline, these children have to traverse a whole journey of formal rituals, routines and fixed timings. On two occasions, I have been surprised by the response of children, who on asking why they were happily loitering outside during class-hours, said, “Padhney ka bilkul dil nahin chah raha tha” (we were not at all in the mood to study). A colleague who visited the school also had a similar experience to narrate.

Work, interpersonal relations and the everyday culture in the karkhanas and markets are based on informal and personal ties. Work happens in consonance with the demands and needs of the market. At times, it may take the whole night to complete the order. There is no clear-cut time for waking or sleeping, eating or relaxing. Income is dependent on the whims of employers and vicissitudes of the market. Domestic routines are also tied to market schedules. The mohalla bazaars remain open till late at night. If you go out at even 1 or 2 am in the night, the streets are as alive as at 6 in the evening. People can be seen sitting around and chatting. Owners and workers share jokes and tea. Slander is accepted as a customary habit. At the same time, negotiation and manipulation are accepted as features of the market system. The local police and petty politicians are also roped into this. For instance, electricity is routinely stolen at the cost of small bribes to local government functionaries, else the cost of running the heavy machines all day would turn the petty entrepreneurs bankrupt. The life of the children is linked to the market and the market to politics; hence, they understand local politics well. Afzal of Class 9 laughs as he recounts, “At times, the karkhanas are raided. But nothing much happens. The policemen, who take weekly bribes, call up beforehand to inform. That day, we children don’t go to the karkhanas. If someone comes for investigating electricity–theft, we just disconnect the wire.” These children see the ugliness and the nastiness of the world from close quarters. At times, I ask myself, do they count the school as well among such institutions?

The rigid school calendar, discipline, and time table expect too much from the uncertain life circumstances, tentative schedules and chaotic lives of these children. For instance, the school insists on parents’ attendance at the parent–teacher meetings. It becomes difficult for the children whose parents are not in Delhi and their brothers or uncles do not have the time to visit the school. A few such children found a good solution to this problem. They would pay ₹50 to a burqa clad woman passing by the school to pose as their mother. “Lo, Ammi is here!” However, when the teachers uncovered the plot, the poor kids got a good thrashing.

Family Ties and Conflicts

Girls comprise not more than 8%–9% of the school’s students since parents prefer to send their daughters to the other all-girls’ schools in the area. Raheem studies in Class 12, his brother and sisters have also passed out from our school. His sisters were “good” at studies but one was married off after Class 12; and the other, after Class 10. His mother says, “Yes, both were good students. Their aunts took them away, now both are in their respective homes.” Both girls have been married to their paternal aunts’ sons. Raheem’s brother, Arham too got married after Class 12, although his wife has not moved in with her husband as yet.

The mother said,

My brother asked for him (Arham) saying you take my daughter, I could not have refused my brother. His Abbu wanted to let him study in peace. But I was adamant that my brother has diabetes and I want to fulfil my brother’s wish.

Arham is now in regular college, which very few of our students are able to accomplish. But, he is looking for a petty job so that he is able to bring his bride home. His mother asserts, “I will eat half a loaf (of bread) but will educate my children.” But her understanding of kinship rules and norms comes in the way of her children’s education. The use of phrases such as “took away” or “gave to” for referring to daughters reveals how girls are routinely robbed of agency. Their life revolves around possible betrothals and marriages. Boys have some say in this regard. But only till the time that the patriarch develops a longing for their wedding bells to toll.

Giving importance to kinship is not just customary but also entangled with market relations. In some cases, a brother may have invested in his sister’s husband’s trade. In others, cousins are found working for their male cousin and they are also each other’s in-laws. At times, rituals and customs are masked in religion. Some children, whose villages and families are just 50–100 kilometres away from Delhi, visit their hometowns frequently for festivals and other such occasions. The Shia children, for example, go to Shikarpur in UP for Muharram and spend at least 10–15 days, during this period, away from school.

A glimpse into the familial and kinship bonds of resident families reveals that life cycle rituals such as weddings, funerals and other ceremonies make huge demands on time, yet they are religiously pursued. However, a dearth of resources frequently results in conflicts and quarrels. Moreover, kinships are also entangled in give and take as well as credit and debt relationships. In some families, where the father is unemployed due to illness or market swings, the mother and children shoulder economic responsibilities. When they do this, they demand their share in decision-making. This results in a feeling of disempowerment amongst men who perceive this as an assault to their masculinity. The consequence is conflict-ridden, broken families. At times, it reaches a situation where the patriarch leaves the family and finds support elsewhere. The purpose of writing about these conflicts is not to stereotype the community or the working class, as conflicts are present in the lives of other groups too. Such conflicts may not be a feature of all families, but reveal how financial hardships combined with sociocultural norms and practices weave a web of suffering and come in the way of the children’s education.

Illnesses are common in this area. It is commonplace to hear the news of a ward’s father’s or mother’s demise at an early age. At the same time, there are some “privileged” families who have a house of their own. Modest houses, sometimes as small as 40 sq mt, offer proof of the occupants’ painstaking and scrupulous efforts in maintenance and aesthetics.

Thus, socio-economic and cultural structures hold these children back. In times when education has become so commercialised, our children lack the resources, time and family support to sustain themselves in the “race” for education and the fulfilment of their aspirations.

Social Distance

This section outlines the teachers’ understanding and interactions with children. Teachers’ statements about the children exhibit their prejudice and also reveal the social distance between the two groups. Some of the statements are as follows:

Nothing much grows on barren land.

These kids need reformatory schools; America has such schools where they keep such kids.

Their parents are not worried, they remain up until 2 am, and sleep during the day, and the children go hungry to school. This is a characteristic feature of old Delhi.

Abusive language and quarrels are common in their homes. These kids have grown up seeing all this.

They live in tiny rooms, the parents sleep there, and so do the kids. The children begin to understand everything from a young age.

They have been brought up on government largesse, yet they are so wicked.

Having peeped into the social reality of these children, you would be in a position to understand how unjust such statements are. They betray ignorance of the children’s deprivation and unjustly attribute their “low performance” to natural inadequacy. Moreover, the lack of routine in the life of these workers, governed by the market, has been overlooked to characterise parents as “disinterested” in educating their children. Several studies have forwarded the hypothesis that such prejudices and stereotyping adversely influence the teacher–pupil relationship, which, in turn, affects classroom interaction and pedagogy.

According to McLaren (2007: 187), “schools are not just instructional sites but are also cultural arenas where heterogeneity of ideological and social forms collides in an unremitting struggle for dominance.” It is, thus, important to understand what messages of approval and disapproval are received by these children in school. This would include communication related to their gender, religion and occupational identities. Consciousness of these identities and their relationship with larger sociopolitical structures can give them some insight to transform not just their life situation but structures of oppression and inequality. It is, therefore, important to survey schools and classrooms for assessing the discrepancy in the kind of support these children ideally deserve and actually receive to overcome their circumstances.

Since many teachers are unaware of the challenges that these children continually face, they consciously or unconsciously say things which are demeaning and convey to the children that their social reality is not worthy of cognisance, let alone reflection in the curriculum. Punctuality in coming to school is taken for granted and defaulters are punished, ignoring the daily routine that child workers need to adhere to. Some children say, “Even when we are not working, the television is played at such a volume that it is difficult to sleep.” Parent–teacher meetings are organised at ten o’clock in the morning, without paying heed to the schedule of parent workers. Moreover, indifferent utterances idolising middle class culture convey to the children that their hardships are their problem. Consider the following conversation that took place in a class:

Teacher: Did you read the newspaper at home? Did you try to read it? I had asked you to read about the Food Security Bill.

Students: (All remain quiet)

Teacher: You must be getting a newspaper at home.

Students: (All quiet)

Teacher: Does no one get a newspaper at home?

Students: (All raise hands [to indicate that they do not get newspapers at home])

Teacher: Your neighbours might buy one; you can borrow it from them. Does anyone’s neighbour get newspapers?

Students: (Two children raise hand)

Teacher: A newspaper costs only ₹2–3. You can buy one.

The angry outburst of a teacher may have no regard for the reality that they earn their meal the hard way.

Perception of Discrimination

The perception of discrimination related to their religious identity is evident in the responses of children and they have deep questions related to their position vis-à-vis other groups and larger society, but the quality of teaching–learning process does not help in clarifying their understanding. The following is an excerpt from a real classroom interaction that took place with children of Class 8. The discussion took place on the chapter “Marginalisation,” Social and Political Life, NCERT social science textbook for Class 8 (2008):

Teacher: We learnt about marginalisation of Adivasis. Are Muslims also constructed differently?

Shahbaaz: At times, Muslims are called terrorists.

Murtuza: Muslims are looked down upon.

Ahmed Iqbaal: The incident that happened in the Taj Hotel also involved Muslims.

Teacher: Do you recall anything else which you feel is connected with the marginalisation of Muslims?

Ahmed Iqbaal: If any illegal act happens at some place, Muslims are blamed for it. Only Muslims are suspected.

Adnan: When Muslims apply for a job they don’t get it, but if a Hindu goes for the same job, he gets it.

The comments made in other formal and informal situations show that the children have a deep sense of estrangement and alienation.

Apart from media images and other tacit messages that children receive in their day-to-day interaction, they also understand from other sources that they are vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination. A local politician was invited to the Independence Day function. An excerpt from his speech is given here: “If someone says to you that this country is not yours, then don’t get convinced. Our fathers’ and forefathers’ remains are buried here. They have sacrificed their lives for the country. This is our nation just as it is theirs.”

A number of research studies support the premise that children who perceive discrimination and bias may feel discouraged to strive and struggle for academic success as this contradicts the image of education as providing equality of opportunity (Ogbu 2003). This needs to be examined as one of the factors in the glaring dropout rates amongst Muslim children as observed by the Sachar Committee Report (2006). Moreover, the quality of the teaching–learning process does not help children much in understanding the status of their group vis-à-vis other groups in society, let alone thinking about structures that have oppressed them. The following interaction between a teacher and the children of the same school regarding the making of the Constitution is quite telling in this regard.

Teacher: They [the Constituent Assembly] kept writing it [the Constitution] for three years; they asked for and looked at, the constitutions of other countries. They stressed the need for a democracy, for secularism. The government will have no religion.

Student: What does secularism mean (secularism matlab)?

Teacher: Where it has no religion, where the government treats all equally.

Student: The Babri Masjid was pulled down in Banaras. First, the Hindus pulled down the mosque.

Teacher: That is why it was split in three parts. This was a constitutional decision.

Student: It was 500 years old.

Teacher: We will talk about this later. The preamble to the Constitution says, “We the people of India, there should be no religious laws”.

Student: Should it be communist?

(Teacher ignores the query).

Student: There was infighting near Pul Bangash, they put a Maulvi in jail.

Teacher: Leave that aside, have a look at this. This says everybody will be entitled to the right to life.

While the children are struggling to make sense of what secularism means in relation to their real-life situations, the above interaction only leads to further confusion. The authority of textbook information is used to assert equality in the eyes of the law and in asserting the relationship between various groups. The negation of children’s real-life experiences of discrimination, on account of their religious identity, can further alienate them.


It is evident from the above narratives that education may not give these children the wisdom to understand structures of oppression and enable them to transform their life situations. Moreover, given their circumstances, the sheer volume of content in the curriculum seems insurmountable. But, many other students from comfortable backgrounds, even without much understanding, march ahead through acquiring certificates and degrees, and laying claim to socio-economic capital. In order to understand and escape their collective fate, which lies in the reproduction of economic and class relations, a uniformly tailored education system needs to be abandoned. The controlling regimes of time, discipline, norms and standardised assessments, in this system, only legitimise the “social gifts” that a few are born into as natural facilities. Instead of enforcing uniform content, could a contextual inquiry related to the socio-economic structures that impede their progress provide an answer? “The local” can be explored in detail in the upper primary classes (Classes 7–8) and gradually its linkages with the regional and the global be made as the children move to higher classes.

For now, we have dumped our own failure upon them. Furthermore, we have constructed them as obscurantist and strange. Some children have internalised these perceptions and suggest, “Our teachers work very hard, it’s our fault we are not able to deliver.” It has also created in them a false illusion of dependence. They run after teachers for notes, though many of them write and express quite well in Hindustani. This I discovered when the History Club came into existence in the school. Many children were able to write their family history and the history of the area quite well. They were able to problematise their descriptions and frame arguments using evidence. But the school history curriculum as it is taught in the school never enthused the same children. The reasons are the illusion of dependence and the expectation of teachers for “model” answers.

There is an enormous yearning for education among the children and their families of the school and surrounding mohallas. We need to remember and plan for the children who leave the warmth of their native villages to live in Delhi for the sake of education. This includes girls from the community—frequently constructed as inward-looking. Hope lives on.


Ahmad, Zarin (2013): “Marginal Occupations and Modernising Cities: Muslim Butchers in Urban India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 122, pp 121–31.

Aries, P (1962): Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Biggeri, M, S Mehrotra and R M Sudarshan (2009): “Child Labour in Industrial Households in India, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 44, No 12, pp 47–56.

Burra, Neera (2005): “Crusading for Children in India’s Informal Economy,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 40, No 49, pp 5199–5208.

ILO (2013): World Report on Child Labour: Economic Vvulnerability, Social Protection and the Fight Against Child Labour, Geneva: International Labour Organization.

McLaren, P (2007): Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, Boston: Pearsons Education.

NCERT (2008): “Marginalisation,” Social and Political Life (social science textbook for Class 8), New Delhi: National Council of Educational Research and Training.

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Updated On : 12th Jun, 2020
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