In the famed tea gardens of West Bengal, an Adivasi community school is sparking a movement to conserve native languages and cultures.
Behind every cup of the world-famous Darjeeling tea is an industry with its roots in colonial history and exploitative labour. After independence, the ownership of most gardens eventually transferred to Indian hands, but the exploitative labour continues, and in many cases, migrant communities are at the receiving end of it. The tea gardens have some of the lowest wages and worst malnutrition rates, what is worse is that many of them have shut down without rehabilitating their workers.
Madhu Tea Garden is one such defunct tea garden in the Duars region of West Bengal’s Alipurduar district. But the workers here are not only fighting for alternative sources of livelihood but also fighting to conserve their language and identity, which is distinct from most of West Bengal.
The workers in the Duars region mostly belong to Adivasi communities like the Oraon community. They speak Sadri and Kurukh, their native languages, but the medium of instruction in the schools in these tea gardens is Bengali, the official language of the state. Moreover, in at least 42 tea estates in West Bengal, there are no schools at all.
Faced with the closure of the tea garden and the lack of schools where their children could learn in their own language and from their own culture, the workers of Madhu Tea Garden started a community school. The community school is non-conventional in more ways than one, and the basic principle is that learning does not only come through books. Before being exposed to books, the children are exposed to concepts and phenomena through a range of activities, and all of this is taught to them in Sadri, their own language.
“Children grasp things easily when taught in their own language, because they think in those languages,” says Binay Kerketta, who is associated with the school.
Rita Oraon, who also works at the school, adds that it’s a safe space for the children, and that unlike other schools, they are taught by Adivasi teachers here.
At a time when English-medium schools that impart what is popularly understood as formal education are seen as the ladder to success, alternative models of education have emerged and are proving to be sustainable as well. The Imlee Mahua School in Chhattisgarh, for instance, focuses on what and how a child wants to learn and not on what a standardised system of education wants a child to learn. The Narmada Jeevanshalas, the ‘schools of life’ established by those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project, also looks at education as something that tells future generations of the importance of their identity and their struggles.
Mainstream education, which comes from a centralised notion of what education must constitute, does not allow for such spaces. Moreover, in today’s times, whatever little alternative narratives that exist in school textbooks, are also sought to be erased.
How do smaller cultures conserve their language and identity when their language is classified as a vernacular one, a term whose etymology suggests that it was used to refer to the language of the ordinary people or even of slaves? It is, in essence, considered a secondary language, often an inferior one.
For the Adivasi community in Alipurduar, the first step is to advocate for the inclusion of Sadri in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, which lists languages recognised as official languages. On the ground, it means that government schools in West Bengal can impart education in Sadri, making it easier for children to learn and avoiding the imposition of another language. The community has approached the Tribal Advisory Council of the state with the matter.
Although the school is a blessing for the children living in the tea estates, not everyone is equally happy. Those who run the school have been accused of land encroachment by other residents of the area and also for polluting the culture of the place by cooking meat. It is not merely a question of another language but the tolerance and acceptance of another culture.
In India, the question of language has never just been about language; it has always been closely connected to identity and culture. Language is the main criterion based on which communities can fight for statehood. And that is exactly what is happening in West Bengal, where the Gorkha community of the Darjeeling Hills has been fighting for a separate state (which would include the Duars region) for decades. While the former and the present Bengali-dominated state governments have resisted the movement, the Adivasis living in Duars have also resisted it fearing the imposition of yet another culture on them and their future generations. Schools like the community school in the Madhu Tea Garden might be the first step towards conserving one’s identity in times of political and cultural turmoil.
Support the community’s demand by calling the Chairperson of the Tribal Advisory Council, Alipurduar, Brisha Tirkey at +91-9830081902, and requesting him to provide government aid to the community school.
Video by Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbansi
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team