Morning Children Flashback

Election time is a good time for talkative (if not argumentative) Indians to wax eloquent on the state of affairs in the country.
Morning Children Flashback

Shantanu Thakur


Election time is a good time for talkative (if not argumentative) Indians to wax eloquent on the state of affairs in the country.  Midnight gives way to dawn; a nation begins to have its Morning Children; a Rushdie would perhaps not disagree. And when these children enter their twilight years, they begin to look back. Those of us born in independent India in the fifties might as well call ourselves its ‘Morning Children’, basking as we did in the sunlight of a morning of hope and aspirations. Today, as we turn septuagenarians, we can afford to look back at the journey made hand in hand with the new-born nation. Seventy-seven years in the life of a nation may be like the first few toddler steps, but for a septuagenarian citizen, this could justifiably be a good moment to reminisce—before memory fades. Many things have changed for the better, but some perhaps not quite so.

The generation that preceded us, such as our parents, were the ‘midnight children’ – they awaited the birth of a free India, and once that became a reality, they endeavoured to give us children a supportive environment to let us find our feet and grow our wings. For many simple Indian souls, it was like, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” Infrastructure may not have been what it is today, but commitment and will were resolute and strong. So was the love for one’s nation. “Indians first, and Indians last!”—school principals never forgot to remind. Some memories are worth recalling.

We were exposed to nationalistic and universal values—almost all of us. One cannot vouch for the entire nation with empirical evidence, but what was happening in this remote state couldn’t have been very different from the larger picture. A good foundation was being laid in school education. Vernacular government schools were the mainstay; English-medium institutions in the private sector were rare exceptions. Familiarity with English was important, but the regional languages were not ignored. What was interesting to note was that even the so-called under-matric pass-outs from schools in the rural hinterland had enough hold over English to see them through most situations in life. Articulation was understandably awkward, but that simply added flavour; these people could communicate well enough to carry on. The point one is trying to make is that the village school masters did their jobs rather well, perhaps better than what the current set may have to show. The totality of foundational education to turn out students with rudimentary learning skills was not lost.

But it was the government schools at the secondary and higher secondary levels that stole the show. Most of the brilliant individuals who made their mark in different walks of life in the forties and seventies were products of government schools. They were good in most subjects, both in the in the humanities and in the science streams. Teachers could provide all-round education, often beyond their assigned subjects. Sometimes, the math teacher also had to take a language class, which was done surprisingly well. Most of the students who cleared the demanding UPSC exams were also products of government schools. Dr.DuvvuriSubbarao (former Governor of the RBI), during one of his visits to Assam as the Chairman of the Finance Commission, touched upon this very aspect in an interaction with the senior bureaucrats of the state. Most of the Secretaries to the Government of India of his time, he said, had passed out of government schools; they had had their health care also in government hospitals, and so did their children, till the seventies. Was the scenario the same today? he wondered. State-of-the-art hospitals and schools can’t be bad and are welcome, but should that have necessitated a fall in standards in government institutions? he had asked aloud. Upscale hospitals and educational institutions are very visible today, but one simultaneously also hears disturbing accounts of a slump in learning outcomes and of indifferent patient care in elitist hospitals—not just stray information but reports from fairly well-informed sources.

The morning generation has genuine cause for concern and worry. In those days, government institutions took good care of the majority. Elitist English-medium schools were just a handful, catering to a select few. Apart from the missionary-run schools in Shillong, there were few similar schools in the rest of the state. In the districts, the Collector’s son attended the same school attended by the son of the village school teacher; played in the same playground; drank from the same hygienic water supply taps in the school; went to the same town hall theatre; and shopped in the same bazaar. Private tuition was almost unheard of; lessons were learned inside classrooms. This uniformity had helped not only in learning but also in building camaraderie and character. Down the years, perhaps because of complacency or callous neglect, a mismatch in the growth story is visible, which needs to be corrected. More than rival political bickering and pointless mud-slinging, one would like to hear more about pragmatic action plans for the youth and how their futures are being projected. Yesteryear’s morning children are now in the evening of life, but there’s a new generation of them coming up every decade. They must have world-class education, amenities, and infrastructure, as well as a scientific temper, to engage in healthy debates over relevant issues.

Another factor that was noticeably absent those days was the absence of bitterness as parties fought the battle of the ballots. Tales of good friendship and healthy, clean fights among rivals still do the rounds around election time, but that is all in the past. The game has changed for the worse. It’s free for all now; no holds barred; no depths too low to stoop to. There were times when speeches of stalwart leaders (both inside and outside Parliament) were the stuff and material for books. What we are offered today is unpalatable. A country aspiring to rise to its best in AmritKaal must begin to open up brave new frontiers of thought and move ahead; not wallow in wasteful spite. The brave new promising frontiers of AmritKaalare for the generation that is growing up, not for the geriatric generation that has not learnt to shake off the clumsy baggage of the past.

Nevertheless, we did have our time in the sun. It’s our duty now to give the new generation space and air for their own bright morning. It has been said time and again by experts that unless timely methods are not taken to reap the demographic dividend, the entire horizon of promise and expectations may turn bleak and counterproductive. Policy-making at the top should include what the bright youngsters think and how they foresee the future. Many of them are restless and resent that their insights are not being taken into account. Much time, they think, is being wasted over archaic non-issues. Paul Edward Farmer, Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School, wrote that a hopeful future is a more inclusive and dignified country (anywhere in the world), one that embraces its diversity and in which we can dissent with civility and fearlessly. Doesn’t this remind us of what Kabiguru Tagore so passionately dreamt of years ago: to let our country awake to that heaven of freedom where the mind is free and the head is held high? The new generation has a fundamental right to have that bequeathed to them. This is the right time for a spring clean.

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