Updated: Nov 7, 2021
In this piece, Gautam Bisht discusses conflicting identities and aspirations among children within spaces of conflict through his experience of researching and living with children in one such space.
We called it the ‘Learning Group’. It was not a school. It was not an after school program. It was not a tuition centre. It was something of an in-between. I could not think of any other name because the space that we created had an identity crisis that touched upon almost anything about Chakai. Chakai is situated in Jamui district in Bihar, India. It has been declared as an ‘aspirational district’ by the Government of India. I assume that it means that the government desperately aspires for its development. But it is part of the aspirational districts precisely because it has one of the lowest developmental indicators in the country. Chakai is also part of what is called the red corridor, a term used to describe regions with active left wing extremism (Naxals).
Conflict here is multifaceted. And yet, this does not mean that oppositions are totally isolated or have no interconnections. Different ideological and power camps find various ways of working together and building a nexus. People who work in local NGOs, or hold key positions at the panchayat level, have their own siblings in the banned outfit. There is a whole organized, and yet illegal, business around ‘abrak’ (mica) that cannot run without the coordination of the Naxals, the local business class, villagers and the police. Corruption, especially in schemes like MGNREGA ( guarantees rural livelihood ), is so well organized and participatory, that it’s hard to distinguish between development and exploitation. The question, then, is what is to be in a region of such conflict? As a case in point, take my own identity in this space.
Since my entry into the village was through an NGO, and I came from Delhi, some villagers thought I could be of some use. They used to tell me about the only hand pump in the village that did not work. I would tell them that I was there for research, which was a signal that I couldn’t do much.They used to stare at me blankly when I said such things and thought their own thoughts. A few days later, I learned that the villagers were thinking of me as an engineer. The ‘paanwala', who was also my ganja buddy, told me that the Naxals in the region were enquiring about me. They had suspicions that I might be associated with the army. One day, the CRPF (army unit) came for their drill search to the village. They found me lying in a cot with Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit kept upside down. They looked at me with deep suspicion and I am glad that the term ‘urban-naxal’ was not quite popular then. The local NGO that hosted us felt that we were there to critique them through some high theory we read in Delhi. To avoid such confusing questions about who I was and what I was doing there, I decided to find a spot among the children. The fun part of being with children was that most of them could not understand my language (Hindi) and I could not understand theirs (Santhali). We also cared less to figure out each other and that called for less confusion and more joy. We called it the learning group.
The learning group included children from the age group of 4-16, both boys and girls, and we often engaged in broken conversations and gossip. The seniors in the group helped with the translation. They would help me understand local village dynamics like why the two hamlets conducted their rituals separately, why the local self help group became a bone of contention and which trees in the village were believed to have ghosts. One day in the learning group, out of sheer lack of creativity, I asked the children a fairly common question- “So what do you want to be?”. After two upcoming teachers came the the turn of Sudhir, who, in his usual serious demeanor, remarked-“ I want to be a Naxal”. Sudhir was 15 and I was a little taken aback by his answer. But not many children in the room gave me company in that emotion. Since his response was a little out of script, my immediate reaction was to change the subject. I asked him what his alternate plan was. After some thinking he said-“If not Naxal, then I want to be in the army”. I had a very hard time reconciling the two contrasting aspirations in my head. How could something so distinct to me be so similar to him? How could Sudhir just walk from one side to the other, in an instant?
Gradually, I learned about the multiple kinds of conflicts and boundaries that children in the region learned to navigate on a daily basis. A major boundary that they had to constantly switch back and forth was between being a child and an adult.The notion that childhood is a separate phase, away from community life and exclusively for school education, is a modern phenomenon (Philip Aries). Despite the fact that schools operate under this assumption of childhood, subsistence rural economies, like the village of Naiadih haven’t really adapted to this. In Delhi, I had seen ( and also lived) the phenomenon of ‘man-child’- the man who had the luxury to refuse growing up. Here I saw the ‘child-man’, a child forced to grow up too soon. Young children would often accompany their fathers to sell ‘mahua’ (local liquor) in the markets or would go for occasional labor jobs in the local brick kiln. Children negotiated with people who were three to four times their age. Such an exposure helped them develop a sense of the world. They not only learned their place in it, but often reminded me of mine. Binod, 11, during a discussion on ‘work’, said “Hum logo ko khatna padta hai, tum logo ka kya hai” ( Unlike you people, we have to do intense labor). Despite his sociological insights, Binod was still learning the official school language- Hindi. He was yet to pick up the different dimensions of respect the words “Tu'' and “Aap” held, when addressing others. One day in school, when he could not answer a question posed by his teacher, he replied- “ Tu bata” ( you tell). Some children in the class laughed and the inevitable happened. Indeed, Binod learned his lessons the hard way.
The community-school cultural gap and the double consciousness for indigenous children is so well documented, that it is now an academic cliche. To believe in ‘Bongas’ (spirits) that animate their world or to reasonably fend that off as a superstition is a difficult and constant switch that children have to adapt to. But, despite being enrolled, going to school is still an aberration for most children. In the learning group, children could not confidently tell me which class they were in. For instance, on some days Sudhir would say he was in 7th grade and other days he would say he was in 8th grade. If I confused him further, he would change his mind again. This only made sense when I went to the school. All children from grade 5-8 sit together in a single class. Sometimes the students don’t go to school and sometimes the teacher doesn't come. Sometimes when they all happen to be in the class, the teacher randomly decides which grade’s textbook to use. So students are unsure which grade they belong to. Due to the local interpretation of ‘No Detention Policy’, nobody learns and nobody fails, until eventually when exams, and puberty, hits them. Then, most boys leave their partial school to take full time work and most girls drop out and await their marriage.
Another layer of conflict pertains to their religious and cultural identity. Many Santhals in the region have converted to Christianity, many are going through a process of Hinduisation and are already default Hindus in state census. In response to these, there is a force of cultural revival and assertion that majorly comes from the neighboring state of Jharkhand. As opposed to Christianity and Hinduism, the cultural revivalists explain that Santhals actually belong to the ‘Sarna’ religion. There is constant push and pull between traditional social structures of Santhali life and modernizing aspects of material and popular culture. Children love independence day celebrations at schools. That is the day when most kinds turn up. The school may arrange for a loud music box and children get to dance. As much as children love participating in the culture of nationalism, they silently eavesdrop on hush hush adult discussions about how government structures work against them. In traditional Santhal festivals in the village, they participate in elaborate rituals based on animism. During Saraswati puja celebrations in school, they like to enact the pandit and chant the mantras. When young Santhals post their pictures celebrating mainstream festivals like Holi or doing idol worship, they get some backlash for becoming ‘Diku’ and forgetting their ‘identity’. Traditional heads in the village complain that the young have become disrespectful towards their customs. Participating in these diverse spheres, children develop a sense about which part of their identity to activate and which ones to repress. They learn to switch between the codes and play different games. And yet beyond all this flexibility and participation, they detect very early that they are ‘poor’ and also in some ways marginalized. A teacher in the region said it out loud in the presence of the children- “These students are backward. They take so much time to learn the simplest things. They are not like children of the cities”. Another teacher blamed their parents for being lazy and greedy. In one of our learning group meetings, 15 years old Sunita remarked that her ancestors were ‘budbak’(stupid) because they never took education seriously. Old people in the village, in their defense, told me that getting education was associated with evil spirits. One of the old men explained that many people in his generation that went to school died prematurely. As ludicrous it sounds, it was a real fear a generation ago. Today, death is merely metaphorical.
Unlike Binod, I learned sociology in comfortable urban universities. As per one sociological theory that I read, institutional spaces make men from marginalized societies feel emasculated. In schools, in banks, in block offices, Santhal men may feel tamed and timid. In such a scenario, young people develop underground subcultures where they can assert their adolescent energy. Thus, young Naxal leaders often have an evident appeal among the local boys. After all, these leaders could be seen riding bikes, sporting new shoes and conducting themselves in a way that is uninhibited. Young men in the region would often talk about the bravery of some of these leaders and yet most of them also saw the constant risk that such a life involved. The other, less risky domains for young males to vent their energy were football and alcoholism. More recently, platforms like Tiktok and social media are emerging as places to absorb their energy.
On that day in the learning group, after some time into that conversation with Sudhir, the researcher in me kicked in. All great books based on ethnography have those interesting moments. I thought that moment had arrived in my own research. I am not quite sure how I phrased it, but I asked him why he wants to be a ‘Naxal’ or in the army. I was rather underwhelmed by his answer. “They both have guns and people fear them”, he said. What he was referring to as ‘people fear them’ was an event in his own life when an army person scolded him. He felt terrified and ran away, but that experience remained a part of him. Probably from his broader perspective, without the baggage of values and ideologies, both his aspirations are phenomenologically the same. In hindsight, his years of switching between conflicts and moving across borders make his response sensible.
When my research ended and I was no longer living in that particular village, I noticed a sudden and unusually huge exodus of young people to cities. It so happened that the Naxal group had conducted a camp in their village. The camp lasted the whole night and was attended by young boys and men. The next day, the village adults conducted a meeting and realized the persuasiveness of the camp for young people. To avoid young people from joining the group, they decided to send them away for work. So, within one month, a whole group of men from 15-25 left the village. Sudhir also left and joined a garment factory in Gujarat, where he continues to work.
I have been conflicted in how to tell this story. One one hand, these children represent the schism and trauma of being divided, growing up in spaces of conflict. Looked at differently, they represent an enhanced cognitive ability to adapt and move between positions. Seen in whichever way, all kinds of conflicts in Chakai have many direct and indirect effects on children and young people- who they are and what they become. In retrospect, spending time in a place like Chakai was formative for me to work out my own conflicts and aspirations. I was working out a way to be able to move between the university (research) and the village (action), thinking and doing. Fortunately, six year later, we could still run a modified version of the learning group. This not only involves many more youth from other villages, but also across different Indian cities. We still try to work out the same old question - what do I want to be?. We still try to learn and unlearn a few things. And isn’t learning itself the quintessential border phenomenon? Used as a verb, in learning, one is between what one knows and what one does not know yet, what one is and what one is becoming. Can one be really interested in learning without embracing conflict and confusion?
Gautam Bisht is the founder of Sinchan Education and Rural Entrepreneurship Foundation. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. His interests are in designing English language methods that are culturally responsive, youth development and indigenous knowledge systems.