Ladakh has always held a unique place in India’s political landscape. Physically cut off from New Delhi by the Zanskar range, and administered from afar by the Jammu & Kashmir state government, Ladakh struggled for decades with the effects of unresponsive governance. Nowhere were those effects more visible than in the territory’s government schools. Students and their parents made do with absent teachers, inappropriate curricula and a matriculation percentage that sat firmly in the single digits.
In 1994, villagers, local education-department officials and civil-society organisations of Leh District came together, at the behest of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), to launch a movement dubbed Operation New Hope. The goal was to overhaul the territory’s schools, and the time proved ripe for just such a large-scale reform movement. Test scores improved, attendance went up and local communities gained a critical feeling of involvement in their school systems. Suddenly, however, within a period of just months, all of these gains have become endangered.
In the decades prior to 1994, Ladakh’s education system was plagued with problems at every level. Although government schools were scattered throughout the area, many were located in remote mountain villages, and teachers often faced immense difficulties simply in getting to their post. Once they did arrive, they found themselves without accommodation and with only limited supplies. As a result, teaching posts were frequently left unfilled for months at a time.
Even the most dedicated teachers were insufficiently trained, and saddled with curricula and teaching materials irrelevant to local contexts. Primary schools used the national Indian textbooks, and students, for instance, had to learn from language and science textbooks that used mangoes, coconuts and banyan trees as examples – all of them alien to Ladakh’s highland topography.
A more significant obstacle was the language of instruction itself. From the time they entered school, despite the fact that they spoke Ladakhi at home, students were expected to learn all of their lessons in Urdu, the J & K government in Srinagar having set the language as the medium of instruction across the state, which included Ladakh. When students entered ninth class, the medium of instruction switched suddenly to English, and in two years they were being asked to master all of their subjects in yet another foreign language in time for the crucial 10th-class exam. In the early 1990s, burdened by so many pressures in their young lives, less than five percent of Ladakhi students were passing this all-important test.
Many more were not even reaching the 10th standard. While more-affluent students were able to escape to private schools, most Ladakhis could only afford public education. With all education-related policy decisions being taken in Srinagar, the system was designed to alienate Ladakhi students from their very culture in the classroom. This fact, coupled with language frustrations, constant abuse by unsympathetic teachers, and a frequent absence of teachers, inevitably drove many out of school early, towards service jobs supporting the Indian military presence or the tourist industry.
New hope for education
For decades, Ladakh’s alienation from the rest of Jammu & Kashmir had been felt beyond just its education system; by the end of the 1980s, many Ladakhis were feeling increasingly resentful about discrimination by the state government. Tensions finally boiled over starting around 1989, when Ladakhi organisations demanded that Ladakh be separated from J & K and be given union territory status. To resolve the crisis, in 1993 the state and central governments agreed that both of Ladakh’s districts, Leh and Kargil, would have their own Autonomous Hill Councils, which would take responsibility for setting policy within their territories. A hill council was established immediately in Leh, although Kargil did not create its own until 2003.
Prior to this time, parents and other villagers were often either oblivious to what was going on in the local schools, or did not feel empowered enough to take a more active role. SECMOL, set up in 1988, began to document these problems, and also offered academic help to frustrated students. Nonetheless, there was little being done to change the school system itself. Sonam Wangchuk, one of SECMOL’s founders, soon came to the realisation that more radical and comprehensive reforms were needed, which would require the support of concerned government officials and the general public. When the structure of local governance changed in 1993, with the hill council’s establishment, the opportunity arose to set this vision in motion.
Indeed, the formation of the hill council provided the crucial opportunity to reform Leh District’s government schools, and council members quickly identified the overhaul of these as a top priority. But things were not going to change unless parents and villagers were able to evolve a sense of real ownership and involvement in the institutions. Sonam Wangchuk began researching existing laws pertaining to education, and discovered provisions for a little-known body: the village education committee (VEC).
India’s National Policy on Education of 1986, modified in 1992, stipulated that parents have a right to form village education committees, but this was unknown to most and never put into practice, in Ladakh at least. Under the provisions, villages are allowed to elect representatives to a VEC, which then works in conjunction with teachers to manage the local school and raise money for its upkeep. Upon discovering this fact, members of SECMOL went from village to village to educate the communities about VECs, and to encourage them to elect members. With the formation of VECs, parents were finally able to take an active role in managing their community’s schools.
Villagers, teachers and government officials working together under the Operation New Hope umbrella were able to address problems that had long burdened Leh’s schools. One of their most popular achievements was changing the medium of instruction in primary schools to English. While English was as foreign to Ladakhis as was Urdu, students would need to know it to pass their matriculation exams, and to go on to higher education outside Ladakh. SECMOL also worked with teachers and the government Education Department to develop textbooks written in clear, concise English, with stories and examples relevant to the Ladakhi landscape and culture (see pic).
In addition to language and textbook reform, SECMOL also started large-scale teacher training. Previously, teachers in Ladakh had received almost no training before being posted, forcing them to rely on rote memorisation and corporal punishment that they had experienced during their own student years. SECMOL initiated a series of intensive 10-day teacher-training workshops, placing an emphasis on creative, child-centred teaching techniques. The trainings were an opportunity for teachers and administrators to brainstorm new classroom strategies, while also reinforcing the teachers’ English-language skills.
Though many of these efforts were spearheaded by SECMOL and other NGOs, it was the involvement of Leh’s hill council and local education officials, together with the larger public, that allowed Operation New Hope to pick up speed. In 1995, the newly formed hill council even announced that it was officially adopting Operation New Hope (ONH) as its general education policy.
Because Operation New Hope was started by people from Leh, and due to the emphasis the movement placed on local ownership in the process of reform, most of the activities were focused on Buddhist-dominated Leh District, rather than the adjacent Kargil District. Especially given Kargil’s rural Shia Muslim demography, the preferred approach there was to encourage a local organisation to lead reforms in Kargil, rather than for ONH activists to involve themselves directly. SECMOL’s involvement in Kargil thus included providing the Kargil Development Project with teacher training and VEC training so as to start ONH-like reforms in about 20 pilot schools chosen from among the government schools there. (In 2005, Wangchuk received a formal letter from Haji Asghar Ali Karbalai, the chairman of Kargil’s hill council, asking for his and SECMOL’s advice on introducing reforms in Kargil’s schools of the sort that had seen success in Leh. In recent years, VECs were started in the Chiktan Block of Kargil District, but these faced a setback following communal disturbances in the area in 2006.)
Back in Leh, efforts over the past decade yielded results above and beyond initial expectations. The percentage of students passing their 10th-class exam in Ladakh has shot from five to 50 percent. More and more Ladakhi students are entering secondary schools and pursuing higher education. There are now at least 1000 Ladakhi students studying at colleges in Jammu alone. Perhaps more significant in the long term, the new textbooks – written in plain English and engaging Ladakhi culture – have led to manifold benefits for Ladakhi students’ self-esteem. Meanwhile, contempt from non-Ladakhi teachers from other parts of Jammu & Kashmir, who would berate students who could not master Urdu, was now a thing of the past. Following coursework became less of an exercise in futility.
As part of its campaign to promote VECs, SECMOL has trained 3700 villagers in Ladakh in the basics of school management, budgets and problem-solving. After Operation New Hope was adopted as official policy in Leh District, the VECs joined together into larger education committees, to increase and standardise oversight of the schools. With the public thus brought into the gambit of education management, Ladakh’s schools began functioning much better.
The schools admittedly still have a long way to go. Half of the area’s students still fail the 10th-class exam, outdated and culturally irrelevant textbooks still clutter school shelves, and many teachers still rely on the tried (and failed) methods of memorisation and punishment. However, the success Ladakh has seen in improving its schools shows what can be achieved when different sections of society join forces. Indeed, the types of reforms that took place in Ladakh soon surfaced in educational policies in J & K and at the national level. As part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All Campaign), all Indian states are now encouraged to make their own locally relevant textbooks; child-friendly teaching methods, comprehensive teacher training and the early introduction of English are also now state policies throughout Jammu & Kashmir.
Despite the significant achievements, Ladakh’s school-reform movement also gained enemies. Certain teachers and officials from the local Education Department, individuals who had been comfortable under the old system, seem to have been angered by the changes, particularly by the attempts to make the teacher-posting system transparent and fair. The actions of Leh’s new District Commissioner, M K Dwivedi, who took charge in March 2006, provided some of these officials with an excuse to act on their grudges. Dwivedi’s opposition to SECMOL is seen as part of his attack on NGOs throughout Ladakh. Even before he spoke up against SECMOL and Wangchuk, other NGOs had received letters from him stating that they were ‘blacklisted’ for alleged political activities.
Last April, SECMOL and other organisations then received letters from Dwivedi demanding details of their spending activities. The Ladakh Voluntary Network, an umbrella group of NGOs that includes SECMOL, protested, saying that the NGOs had always submitted financial details to the elected hill council, and that Dwivedi had made baseless accusations and backed them up with the threat of police raids. Shortly after Dwivedi’s letter was issued, however, they did submit complete reports. This, though, did not prevent the subsequent harassment they were to face. When a local official lodged a complaint with the hill council about the tone of the letter, Dwivedi responded by filing police charges against them. In March 2007, Dwivedi charged SECMOL’s Sonam Wangchuk with illegally occupying land, misusing funds and engaging in unspecified “anti-national activities”.
After SECMOL released a CD refuting the charges, Dwivedi invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. This order, normally reserved for communal riots, prevented SECMOL from distributing any written or recorded communication, and banned it from organising public gatherings. Protests by villagers supporting SECMOL were also suppressed by the police. After the order was promulgated, the Chief Education Officer of Leh issued a circular to all education officials, forbidding them from contact with SECMOL, and referring to the organisation’s “propaganda” against the Education Department. Thus far, all of SECMOL’s ONH activities had been undertaken with the full partnership of the hill council and the Education Department, so it came as a shock when the Education Department marched in lockstep with the district commissioner in forbidding any contact with SECMOL. After more than a decade of close collaboration, SECMOL realised that it was up against long-fermenting political vendettas, and decided to end its cooperation with the hill council and the Education Department.
Meanwhile, letters supporting SECMOL and protesting Dwivedi’s actions soon poured in from throughout mainland India and overseas. Eventually, possibly due to a pressure campaign that had gone right up to President Abdul Kalam, the J & K state government decided to transfer Dwivedi out of Leh District. But as of mid-July, the police case against Sonam Wangchuk remained in effect; more importantly, the involvement of Education Department officials in the crisis had poisoned the once fruitful relationship between SECMOL and the local government.
The ramifications of this soured relationship, coupled with the public criticism of SECMOL, now has the palpable possibility of destroying Ladakh’s unique and successful experiment in injecting quality into public schools. Hope is not necessarily lost for school reform in Ladakh, but its future is worryingly tenuous. While VECs still exist in most villages, it is doubtful that they will remain energetic if SECMOL’s mobilising campaigns do not resume quickly. Observers maintain that without SECMOL’s leadership, the education-reform movement has effectively ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, in villages throughout Ladakh, students continue to study and prepare for their final exams next April. Although they still struggle with substandard school conditions and significant language barriers, increasing numbers are remaining in school. The question now is whether government officials and the public will nurture this burgeoning talent, building on the successes of the past decade, or let it go to waste.