Marginalized Ecologies and Education: An Ethnographic snapshot from the Chars of Assam

Marginalized Ecologies and Education: An Ethnographic snapshot from the Chars of Assam

By Bhargabi Das

The strikes in UK by teachers made me think of the precarious life-world of teachers in a different context, somewhere more closer to home. In 2011, the Assam government introduced the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) scheme through which eligible teachers after passing the Test are appointed by it in various government schools in Assam. In December 2019, when I was in the middle of my two-year long ethnographic fieldwork in the chars of western Assam, India, I met Pankaj da (name changed) who was a TET appointed teacher in a government Lower-Primary (LP) school in one of the chars where my fieldwork was based. We were both waiting for the ferry to go back when we started talking. I got to know that he stays in the chapori (river-bank) across the river in a rented tin house and spends nearly five-hundred rupees (6.54 USD) everyday to travel to the char. Several questions crossed my mind then: How much does he save monthly, after rent, boat fare, etc.? What incentive does he have in continuing to teaching in some of the most remote ecologies like chars?

Chars are river-islands that are extremely unstable and can sub-merge during heavy floods and through continuous erosion and re-emerge post-recession of floods, often after several years. Chars in western Assam are mostly inhabited by Bengali Muslims who have historically faced marginalization and harassment by the upper-caste Assamese Hindu state and society alike. These char-dwellers’ ancestry in pre-independent India’s East Bengal (now Bangladesh) continues to haunt them as caste Hindu Assamese society and state still continue to see them with ‘suspicion’ and ‘hatred’ of being ‘illegal immigrants’.

Image 1: Char (my field). Courtesy: Author.

With TET, several young Assamese caste Hindu men and women are now populating the chars as newly appointed teachers in government schools, just like Pankaj da. Chars have always been neglected in terms of developing health, education, and communication facilities by the state but with a scheme like TET, the question is, is the situation in education changing? I want to understand this through the experiences, challenges and prejudices of TET teachers in char areas. This essay draws from my two-year long ethnographic fieldwork in the chars of Barpeta district of Assam, India. The question is also reflected through my observations and conversations with non-TET, local Muslim teachers.

Education in char areas face unique issues that the state policies are not capable or willing to address. One of it is the problem with ‘sarkarikaran’ or governmentalization of schools in char areas. For a school to be declared a ‘government’ school, it requires to show ‘myadi patta’ (permanent land ownership) documents, the availability of a concrete structure and a fixed number of regular students, among other things. However, during my fieldwork, I have seen concrete school houses being destroyed by repeated floods and erosion. Besides, most char-dwellers have myaddi patta land under water and school structures, including people’s living houses, are on ‘khas’ (government-owned) land. Student numbers keep fluctuating yearly, because people continue to migrate to nearby villages or districts once their lands and houses are devoured by the river. In such conditions, most schools in char areas are ‘venture schools’, meaning recognized by government of their existence and functioning but not owned or funded by the state. In the char where my fieldwork was based there was only one government LP School and was already destroyed in last year’s floods. It was operating from the courtyard of the venture Middle English (ME) school with a tin-roof and walls. In such a situation and condition, what changes and challenges do the TET teachers bring and face?

Image 2: A broken concrete LP school in the char. Courtesy: Author

For TET teachers like Pankaj da, communication was a major issue. Though someone like Pankaj da first stayed in the char itself, many TET teachers who are largely caste-Hindu, due to religious differences with Bengali Muslim char-dwellers (particularly dietary intake of beef by Muslims, an act that is impure for Hindus) instead stay in places away from the chars, rent out houses and spend a lot on communication. During floods, it becomes particularly difficult and dangerous to travel. “We used to cycle a few kilometers and then walk. The water levels are so high, we had to walk completely by ‘andaaz’ (estimate) and find our way.” They lose out often on students who migrate to new chars. TET teachers on contract also had to navigate through char politics. Documents that dictate contract TET teachers such as salary slips, reports, etc. were to be counter-signed by the Head-Master. In the char under study, the school was controlled by the Village Headman and often during floods, if his family shifted, the school shifted along with it. Thus, the Head-Master was controlled by the Village Headman too. In such situations, contract TET teachers had to be in the ‘good books’ of both the Village Headman and the Head-Master.

Image 3: The temporary school house now. Courtesy: Author

TET teachers like Pankaj da said that TET teachers have brought in culture of discipline, hygiene, and knowledge of language to the char children. “In my early years, they were sent without taking a shower and they could hardly speak in Assamese,” was what was revealed by Pankaj da. But local Muslim non-TET teachers in venture schools of the char said how even today TET teachers arrive at their own sweet time to the schools and leave early. It was this practice that made the culture of ‘proxy teacher’ in chars so popular. ‘Proxy teacher’ was a local who the regularized TET teacher would informally appoint to teach in place of him and would pay some percentage of his salary. It is not uncommon even today for regularized teachers to come less than two days in chars. Non-TET Muslim local teachers were of the opinion that to appoint local educated char-dwellers as teachers as part of TET scheme should be the way forward. In fact, they believed that the number of graduates in the char under-study in the last ten years have decreased as compared to in the years before that (1990-2010).

Image 4: An over-loaded motorized boat carrying passengers between chars. Courtesy: Author

Nonetheless, perspectives of caste Hindu Assamese men and women have changed when it comes to chars and the people. “TET taught me that the chars are more than just sand and dacoits. I had never seen a char before, what could I have imagined? In fact, children in chars are more talented. They have more life-experiences. Most students in my class single-handedly cultivated acres of land. They know more about agriculture or even voting than me.” admitted Pankaj da. The fact that char-dwellers live under extreme pauperization, instability, and lack of facilities is the root cause of their ’backwardness’. “Many say in chars people open up ‘fake’ venture schools. Well, why will they not? If the state has not helped them, they have to survive somehow. They have lost all their lands to the river. In this char, after school was destroyed, these teachers who are non-TET spent money from their own pockets to buy temporary land and build another structure. Who will compensate them for this? Venture school teachers’ salaries are not even regularized by the state. They go months without salary. And floods and erosion are a yearly thing here.” Hearing him talk, I was remembering what Akhil Gupta talked about ‘governmentality of concern’. That schemes of the state are changed by re-imagining and re-workings of them by the interactions between the subjects (Bengali Muslim char-dwellers) and agents of state (caste-Hindu Assamese TET teachers). That, it is in this interaction where truly one can locate the state’s concern and politics of care.

Image 5: A TET teacher busy teaching children in a char-land school. Courtesy: Author.

I could not conclude what educational difference in tangible terms have TET brought in the chars but it has been a step in breaking age-old stereotypes and hateful imaginations of Bengali Muslim char-dwellers by numbered caste-Hindu Assamese society, even though that was definitely not the intention of the state behind the scheme. This is particularly hopeful at a time when the right-wing state and its propagandists have shown the chars as ‘unsafe’ for female TET teachers. The TET scheme can be a beginning of rhizomatic discourse of understanding identity in Assam – wherein the dominant group finally faces, sees and interacts with the life-world of the dominated. And, in the process, challenge mainstream narratives of what a char is and who are the char-dwellers.

“All children are the same. They loved me so much. They wanted to come with me, whenever I had to visit home. I learnt from them and they from me, particularly language. Even though I was Hindu, they did not think that. Now I understand that even the syllabus is not made for char children – people in AC rooms in state capitals who have never visited chars, I guess can never capture the imagination of a child in char. So, they taught me, beyond books.” And it is for this I cannot agree that TET as a scheme has been a failure or the appointment of only local Muslim teachers in chars is the way forward. For this life-world based on love and understanding of otherwise ‘opposing’ people, communities would not have been possible.

Bhargabi Das: I like to call myself a raging potato, a part-time anthropologist and a poet. Currently a PhD Candidate of Anthropology at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, my doctoral research is based on the riverine ecologies called chars in Assam, India. This ethnographic study looks at char-dwellers’ experiences with the state. I am largely interested in the politics and poetics of water, citizenship, state, bureaucracy, infrastructure and nationalism. My doctoral research is funded by the Irish Research Council, Government of Ireland and Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Editors Note: This is the first in a series of three posts by Bhargabi Das.