Sikhs of Lakhimpur-Kheri: How India has to discover itself everyday because of its education system

The elevation of Charanjit Channi to chief ministership and the tragic deaths of Sikh farmers in Lakhimpur-Kheri show us just what exactly is wrong in how Indian children are educated

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 06 October 2021
A family member mourns near the body of a dead farmer in Lakhimpur-Kheri. Photo: @alim_jafri / Twitter
A family member mourns near the body of a dead farmer in Lakhimpur-Kheri. Photo: @alim_jafri / Twitter A family member mourns near the body of a dead farmer in Lakhimpur-Kheri. Photo: @alim_jafri / Twitter

At the outset, let me add a disclaimer here. I am no expert on the education system in India. I am writing this piece with the hindsight gained ever since I left school and college. My main aide here is lived experience.

Well, to come to the topic at hand, many across the length and breadth of India, especially those on social (and sometimes, even mainstream media) have expressed surprise over two events that have taken place recently in our country.

The common thread among them is that both concern the Sikh community. The first is of course the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi as the chief minister of Punjab and the first Dalit Sikh to hold the position.

By now, many of you may have come to know of the reactions on social media to the word ‘Dalit Sikh’. 

Of course, many of those who stated that ‘Dalit Sikh’ was an oxymoron were mostly followers of the ruling dispensation. Obviously, some of them, after the initial surprise, went into conspiracy theories: Channi was not a Sikh. Rather, he was a ‘rice bag’ convert to Christianity.

The second incident has, of course, been the deaths of Sikh farmers in Lakhimpur-Kheri in Uttar Pradesh as a part of the ongoing farmer protests. Here, again the followers of a certain ideology led the charge, first of surprise and then, of anger.

What were Sikhs doing in Lakhimpur? Was it not strange that farmers protesting in the heart of the Hindi heartland were ‘Punjabis’, they said.

Others were in awe. You get to learn something new about India all the time, they said.

Yes, India gets to know about India every single day. And leaves a trail of surprise, awe and in these two cases, anger and deluded thinking. However, why should India get to know about itself like this?

After all, the current state of Punjab came into being in 1966, when Haryana was separated from it. Its status as the state with the highest proportion of Dalits in its population has been a reality for quite sometime. Why haven’t Indian schools taught this to children?

Also, Sikhism has a history in the region consisting of Lakhimpur-Kheri since its founding. The founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, travelled through the area during his first udasi (journey) towards Bengal and Assam. The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, also travelled east. His son, Gobind Rai, the future Guru Gobind Singh, was born in Patna and spent part of his childhood there. 

But much of the Sikh population in the Terai today dates back to 1947. Their families settled there in 1947 after the subcontinent’s tragic partition in which their homeland was eviscerated.

They cleared the tiger- and leopard-inhabited jungles of the Terai at the foothills of the Himalayas and made the region prosperous. According to the 2011 Census, some 2.63 per cent of Lakhimpur-Kheri’s population were adherents of Sikhism. But after this incident, they are being labelled as interlopers and outsiders.

Why was this fact about the Sikhs of the Terai not taught to those mouthing conspiracy theories on Twitter? 

Of what use are our schools then? Well, let me illustrate this with my own personal example.

Siddis in Africa

I was born and brought up in the current prime minister’s home state. I belong to an upper caste (I say this only because the Channi development has led to realisation that Punjabi society is not a monolith of turbans and tractors) Arora-Khatri Punjabi Hindu family.

I still remember that whenever I told anybody during my childhood that I was a Punjabi, the instant retort was, “Where is your pinda?”. It so happened that the locals had heard the word Pind (village in Punjabi) through Bollywood movies (where else?).

They distorted it and used it as a slang for the guth, the top knot that young Sikh boys roll their unshorn hair into. And voila, pinda! But it becomes curiouser. I used to reply, “I am Punjabi Hindu, not a Sikh”. Confused glances. And then: “But are Sikhs not Hindus?” And I was left flummoxed.

If this is not enough, then here is another example, straight from the horse’s mouth. My school curriculum was decided by the Gujarat State Education Board. Sample this line from a social studies textbook (I do not remember the grade now. It is all hazy):

The Siddis and the Maasai of Sudan are known as lion hunters

Siddi? But is that tribe not found in India? I, as a member of Down To Earth (DTE), have written about them (click here). I have also interviewed an expert on the subject:

But at that young age, I was forced to study inaccurate information given in my own school textbook. Not just me, this particular line was taught as fact to thousands of young minds across the state.

Moulding the future

The two examples that I have written above from my own life, as well as the two news developments, are but a small snapshot of all that is wrong in our country’s  education system.

In our hierarchical, stratified and highly unequal society, education is not available to all. It never was, it is not at the moment and it perhaps never will be. 

Even among those who are able to access education, is the goal behind getting educated really acheived? In my school and college years, all my peers were either themselves into only the sciences or were forced into them. I too was. 

The goal of most middle class families is to make their wards doctors or engineers and then send them to the West. But how many of them are conversant in disciplines that are not pure sciences? Literature, scociology, political science, philiosophy ... what about all these?

Of course, those who leave India’s shores cause brain drain and all that blah ... But what about those that are left behind? Most of them, if not all, are poor, marginalised and cannot afford a decent education.

Those who can and choose to stay in India do not know about Dalit Sikhs and Sikhs of the Terai. They do not know the eight states of the North East or the five states of the south.

They learn about these places through Bollywood and increasingly, social media. Their ignorance, coupled with the internalisation of harmful tropes, perpetuates hatreds in society, often leading to tragedy.

To add to all these problems, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, just might have set back education by several years in India.

We have all read how the digital divide made things worse for education at the height of COVID-19. Those not having digital connectivity were not able to study. So many students dropped out. Many are being trafficked. Child marriages are on the rise again.

And then, there is the NEP 2020. Veteran activist and linguist, Ganesh Devy told DTE in an interview last year that “The cluster system that is being promoted under the new policy will lead to a large-scale shrinkage of the school system in India.”

India did not know much about itself earlier too. But we functioned. Only just. A prominent journalist once labelled the country as a ‘functioning anarchy’.

However, today, in the era of fake news, dog whistling and gas lighting, ignorance and a lack of education is not a laughing matter. What kind of India develops in the future, with so many illiterate as well as uneducated children remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I end with these words of George Bernard Shaw: 

“Every serious student of the subject knows that the stability of a civilisation depends finally on the wisdom with which it distributes its wealth and allots its burdens of labour, and on the veracity of the instruction it provides for its children.” 

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