Haplessly Embedded: A View on Alternative Education in India

Lina Khan, AIF Clinton Fellow 2017-18

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*

For me, monitoring & evaluation is a push and pull between being social—getting to know the program team whose work I’m studying; and remaining solitary—reading, analyzing, writing. I’m fairly comfortable with the solitary side thanks to years of practice keeping my distance when evaluating organizations, and being introverted anyway. But this is my first time studying a social justice program (Bhasha’s Vasantshala, an alternative education program to address gaps for out-of-school children from tribal families) while living and working closely with the people who carry it out. On the one hand, the closer a relationship there is, the better you can understand the staff’s process and identify challenges and changes that make sense. On the other hand, building relationships takes a lot of time and is hard to ‘schedule,’ and being embedded makes me feel like I’m making trade-offs between doing objective research and feeling like a part of a team. I also find that the closer I get to the program, the more I question my research questions.

Let me back up a bit. My project is with Bhasha, known in Gujarat as Bhasha Sansodhan Prakashan Kendra (Language Research and Publication Center). Bhasha works with tribal and adivasi (indigenous communities) in India. There are about 104 million adivasis across the country, and about 60 million Indians fall under what is called nomadic or “denotified” Tribe – meaning they were at one time officially designated as criminal gangs by the British and often subjected to forced labor and migration (Devy, 2013). Although the designation has been dropped in the Indian constitution, the denial of tribal communities’ civil rights and stigmas against their cultures have persisted. My goal during the AIF fellowship is to learn from tribal communities about their worldview, and their local approaches to solve problems.

Bhasha works to help tribal communities accomplish their goals, as well as educate the public – Indians and non-Indians, tribals and non-tribals, about tribal culture. Bhasha staff research and conduct advocacy about social, religious, and agricultural practices of tribal communities and are documenting tribal and Indian languages. Beyond its thought leadership, Bhasha also manages an alternative education program (Vasantshala), a local health clinic, a library and a museum. Vasantshala educates children from tribal families who have dropped out of the government school system or have gaps in their education. While government school teachers generally teach in Gujarati state languages (Gujarati and Hindi) at school, some of Vasantshala’s students may not speak either at home or are only familiar with the language of their tribe. The Vasantshala teachers are mostly from tribal communities themselves and incorporate tribal languages and traditions familiar to the students.

Gopsing Rathva teaching history to his students at the Vasantshala school, Bhasha Adivasi Academy campus in Tejgadh, Gujarat. (Photo: Lina Khan)

My project is to study the extent that this model can help prepare out-of-school tribal children to return to school and continue successfully. My project is to study the extent that Vasantshala prepares its students to transition to government schools, and that such schools make use of Bhasha’s tribal language materials. My usual route has been to spend hours in the overflow library room that is my part-time workspace, get a grasp on education theories and promising practices in India, and compile data on past Vasantshala students, which is tedious but necessary. I can also observe the teachers’ classes and gain insight into how they and students interact, but there are language barriers. But recently, ‘work’ has shifted to playing games with the kids, lending my phone so they can take pictures, opening a blank document on my laptop so they can type their names. I can venture through the campus’ open spaces, interact informally with the teachers, and perhaps very slowly crack open our language and cultural divides. Maybe in this way I can better understand what the teachers value about their work, and what motivates or really enables kids from tribal families to stay in school.

I know time spent on research will bring tangible benefits. So will interacting with the teachers and staff, but sometimes the benefits are harder to see. The time passes so quickly! How do you fit research between the spaces of roaming and relationship-building? Then again, there is a limit to how many inquiries about their processes I can make in a day. I can feel a quiet but perceptible drawbridge rise after a certain number of questions. I find myself wondering, how much is this due to their unwillingness to cooperate, or to me stumbling to build trust without speaking the same language?

Feeling thwarted in my attempts to get answers to my questions reminds me of a scene from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Rowling, 2005). In it, Harry takes a ‘luck’ potion that lasts for one night. In his quest to master a difficult task, which is also to get information from someone, he takes fortuitous detours, such as attending a social gathering. I have also found that turning my feet to walk through shared spaces on campus has led to experiences I couldn’t have predicted, though the outcomes are not yet known to me.

On one Saturday, a workday at Bhasha, I sat down on a bench in a patch of sun in the courtyard. After a few minutes, a few of the students told me they were going to a local temple (mandir) near Koraj Hill and asked the teachers if I could come. It was much more tempting than shutting myself in the library overflow room, so I left my backpack behind and came along. The teachers and students led me to new experiences: I tried to crack a coconut on a rock to give my offering to the temple, pushed my hands into birds’ nests woven as tightly as sweaters, spied two enormous bee hives hanging from one tree branch, and used a kickball to play volleyball. I also learned where the teachers pursued their post-graduate work. Nothing except the last part seemed relevant to my project. But, perhaps, something in that experience is shaping our trust for each other, or will manifest itself somehow in my work.

The empty birds’ nests the kids found become decorations on campus. (Photo: Lina Khan)

Another challenge (for me) is the manifold approach of Vasantshala. Vasantshala is an alternative, remedial and multilingual education program specifically for children at risk of remaining at the margins of society. In the 1920s, the Bengali writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore started an alternative education program of his own, called Siksha Satra. In Tagore’s words: “Here an attempt is being made to give an all-round education to village children and provide them with training which will not only enable them to earn a decent livelihood but also to equip them with the necessary training and creative imagination with which they help to improve the rural life of Bengal in all its aspects” (Kupfer, 2015, “Siksa-Satra”). The setting of his idea was on the opposite coast of India, but his note of idealism felt very familiar to me in Bhasha’s work. I recently visited Siksha Satra in Sriniketan, West Bengal to learn about the school’s approach currently. While a well-rounded curriculum continues to be valued, it no longer primarily serves children from families who are marginalized or face economic disadvantages. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other alternative education programs comparable to Vasantshala out there. But I’m having trouble drawing patterns from Vasantshala’s multi-faceted model.

I also want to focus on my research questions but understand the context as fully as possible. For example, I want to better understand how Vasantshala’s unique, yet complex, teaching approach prepares students to transition to an appropriate grade level at a government school. But there’s a broader context of not so great learning outcomes for the average student in a rural school in India, regardless of whether she is from a tribal family or has gaps in her schooling. Is it fair to expect Vasantshala students to excel academically beyond their peers? Also, from talking to friends who are teachers back home, teaching is hard. Teachers are asked to shape children and young people into ethical, hard working and critically thinking individuals. Maybe it’s too much to ask, and some teachers don’t try. In my experience, the Vasantshala teachers do try. Beyond academic outcomes, they want their students to be able to think for themselves. In monitoring and evaluation, sometimes the objectives get repeated so many times that you start to forget the people behind them. This is the first time that I’m having the opposite problem.

Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy campus is located in the village of Tejgadh, Gujarat. The green and fuzzy giant in the background is Koraj Hill. (Photo: Lina Khan)


Devy, Ganesh N. “Culture and Development, an Experiment with Empowerment.” Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 7: 2013, Livelihoods. <https://factsreports.revues.org/2404> Accessed 22 October 2017.

Kupfer, Christine. 2015. “Rabindranath Tagore’s Educational Ideas and Experiments.” The Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies. Retrieved January 24, 2018 from http://www.scots-tagore.org/education.

Rowling, J.K. 2005. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic.

About the Author
Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Lina assessed U.S. federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC, and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

*A previous version of this article was originally published on 02/03/2018 at American India Foundation.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.



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