To sir with love A girls' college in Punjab where there are no teachers and where the students pay no tuition fees and are taught to abhor cheating in exams
"It will cost Rs 4,000 a year, Gurkirat Singh had just been told. He dug into his briefcase, pulled out his cheque book and wrote "Rupees fourteen thousand only".
He had not made a mistake. He had consciously added ten thousand rupees to the hostel fee for his daughter; his contribution for the construction work of a unique college. "The buildings will come up. Not with your money, but with the help of your daughter's toiling hands. She will make it,"thundered Swaran Singh Virk, the tall and burly 'principal sir' of Baba Aya Singh Riarkee College. Located in Tuggalwala village of Punjab's Gurdaspur district, the 21-year-old college is the youngest member of an educational endeavour that began 72 years ago.
The campus, on over 30 acres, is not short of buildings, but new buildings keep coming up whenever there is not enough space for the students. "We hate to send back those who come to us with their children,"said Swaran Singh. He had started the college wing, which is now the model for low-cost education and perhaps the only centre in Punjab where there is no copying in the examinations. Incidentally, the colleges in Gurdaspur district are infamous for the high level of copying by the students.
Years ago, young Swaran Singh had been a student of the Baba Aya Singh Riarkee public school and later, a teacher at the school. When a lectureship at the DAV College in Hargobindpur came his way, he could not resist the temptation to move on to that well-known institution. But Baba Aya Singh, who had founded the school, would not relieve his favourite pupil-turned-teacher. Swaran Singh left, but did not take any salary from the DAV since he continued to remain on the rolls of the school.
To earn his livelihood, he taught students preparing for the Giani exams (the equivalent of the Prabhakar exam in Hindi) in the verandahs of his old school. That was when he, along with many small farmers of the area, was drawn into the zamindar movement and jailed during the Emergency. "That left a deep impression on me,"he said. "I felt that our moral fibre was weakening and I decided that only through education we could do something about it."
Weeks after Swaran Singh was released, he went back to his old school with the idea of adding a girls' college to it. The reaction of an official of the higher education department was: "Yes, it will be one more centre of cheating and you'll mint money."Swaran Singh's enthusiasm got a wee bit dampened, but the 20-odd girls who were to be his first batch cheered him up. Very emotionally, they promised not to cheat. He announced that he would not take a penny from them.
So it was that in 1976 the first 'free' college in the region came into being. Swaran Singh decided against employing teachers. When the college, with only one teacher, could not get affiliation, his students took the university exams as private candidates, under a facility provided exclusively for women. When his first batch of students showed excellent results, Swaran Singh's detractors were quick to pick holes. "He has no teachers and charges no fees. So he must be admitting only first divisioners,"went the criticism. In a reaction characteristic of the man, Swaran Singh decided to admit only third divisioners.
"Everyone around knew that I was turning down those with high marks and everyone was waiting to see my results the following year],"said Swaran Singh. "Of the 38 students, 14 got first division and the remaining second. True to their word, none had cheated,"recalled the principal. There was no looking back since. Today the campus has a co-ed public school, the girls' college and a hostel for girls, apart from a government-aided section that was started more to contribute to the state's effort than to benefit from it.
This section has the stipulated number of teachers, charges the usual fees and students sport the uniform prescribed by the education department. It is believed to be better than its counterparts, but does not come anywhere near the school, college and hostel of which Swaran Singh or rather his students are all-in-all. Most of the 38 employees on the rolls (including Swaran Singh) are for the government-aided school. The public school wing, with classes from six to ten, has a teacher for each class. For the college, there are neither teachers nor tuition fees.
Enter a classroom, and it is difficult to distinguish the teacher from the taught, all of them are in white salwar kameez with the dupattas flowing gracefully down their heads. In the BA final year class, the senior-most, one of the students, is conducting the class.
The junior classes have one of the senior students coming in to help out. "Teaching and cheating are both a sin and a crime. We believe that since a teacher has to learn, prepare and come to class, a student is as capable of lecturing,"explains Simrandeep Kaur, without letting her peach veil slide a millimetre down as she nods her head.
Simran is one of the six guides of the college. They help the students who are conducting classes, even while pursuing higher studies. The experiment, which began with the aim of cutting costs, has more than clicked. Each year 99 to 100 per cent of the students pass, between 80 to 90 per cent in first division. Impressed by the performance, a former Guru Nanak Dev University vice-chancellor, Dr Karam Singh Gill, sanctioned an examination centre in the college, even though it was not affiliated.
Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal is said to have urged the management to consider expanding so that the institute could become autonomous or a deemed university. But Swaran Singh is not inclined to accept the offer.
"That will be the beginning of our downfall. With money will come interference, and norms that will make education unaffordable,"he said.
A matter of great concern to him is that for an institution intended to be for the poor, almost half the girls are dropped there by parents driving their own cars. "I blame myself for it,"he said. "In the early years, I used to go around and encourage girls from poor families..., now the place has grown so huge, I don't have the time."Swaran Singh acknowledged that the well-to-do could be sending their wards because of the credibility of his system.
According to him, the fee for hostelites could be slashed by half if the buildings did not have to be made. But with 4,000 day-scholars and 1,000 boarders the need for class-rooms is acute.
If tuition fee became redundant, with students learning by themselves, three sumptuous meals and a glass of doodh mein patti (milk boiled with tea leaves) twice a day became affordable because the students did the bulk of the work outside the class-rooms too.
A part of the farm science club activities revolves around the girls growing vegetables on the college farmland. "Ninety per cent of our needs are met that way. The rest we buy from the Dinanagar mandi,"explained Simran. They even help out in the college dairy, with 15 heads of cattle, which is looked after by Swaran Singh's father Buta Singh. Swaran Singh's wife Jagdish Kaur, also in uniform, supervises the three domestic helps who make the rotis, lunch and tea. The girls, in rotation by class, decide the menu for lunch and dinner, chop the vegetables for lunch and make the dinner themselves.
Though eating and praying are in the gurdwara tradition, the Granth Sahib is read round the clock by girls in the assembly hall, the school is "98 per cent secular,"said Satpal Saini, a math lecturer in the State Council for Education, Research and Training (SCERT), Gurdaspur.
They are also taught other religions, and festivals and functions are observed in the traditional manner, along with class-room lectures and talks on their significance the same day, festivals are not holidays. They do not follow the government list of holidays. "We have no holidays except a week-long summer vacation in end-June,"said Paramjit Kaur, a student. "Sunday is like any other day, except that we don't wear white and go to the class-rooms."
The class-rooms have no furniture and the children sit cross-legged on dhurries. The walls are full of paintings, posters and charts, punctuated with slogans on what school, teacher, student and education are all about. Similar thoughts are painted on boards placed across the entrance and the verandahs. "The idea is that these become part of the students' lives,"said Simran.
Amid such spartan settings money does trickle in. And one of the contributors are the students themselves. The girls' choir of Gurbani, kirtans and bhajans so impressed people that it was not long before they were sought after at family and social functions in and around Gurdaspur.
The offerings of people, which would normally have gone to the ragis employed by the gurdwaras, went into running the institute. None grudged the college the money because it was instilling in students the teachings of all religions, even if the Sikh way. The morning and night prayer and the school and college prayer are common to all, but freshers are given instruction for an hour a day for three to four months, to make them hate even the thought of cheating or lying.
On the day THE WEEK visited the school about 400 girls were seated with their books in the assembly hall, and one student was reading from the Granth Sahib. "They are students of the eleventh class and have been here just for a month,"said Simran. She then asked all those who had cheated in the tenth class public exams to stand up. All of them, barring a handful, stood up. She asked them whether they would cheat hereafter. They shake their heads to say no. But Simran said it would be another three months before they actually gave up the idea of cheating.
"For a few years now we admit students to the plus ten class only, because it is easier to motivate those who have not been to any other college,"said Simran. This step followed the poor results in the BA part I and II and the realisation that the students used to cheat sometimes "despite our best efforts". They start the plus one students from the alphabet of the Gurmukhi script as well as English, "because many cannot even spell 'elephant' or 'aeroplane',"as Simran put it. And since they are there to study, they are allowed to do that for as long as they want: the hostels have no lights-out at night.
Simplicity is the hallmark of their living: hence the white uniform complete with full sleeves and covering of their heads. "If they are allowed to dress as they please, they will be wasting time deciding what to wear, then matching the bangles, 'parandis', bindis and sandals,"said the student-guide. "The motto here is, 'Student life is a 'tapasya'. It is precious time, don't waste a minute'."
According to Swaran Singh, this is merely an extension of the manner in which ancient Indian teachers taught: kings and princes had to leave their silks and jewellery miles before they reached the gurukul, where they dressed like any other student. "They don't have cable television, but the TV kept in the dining hall is on in the evenings and on Sundays, and the students can make their pick from Doordarshan's fare."
Swaran Singh does not expect them to become nuns and give up the world. He wants them to marry the men of their choice, and "serve the world the way Mother Teresa does". In fact, the Nobel laureate's name crops up more than once when the principal talks. Many of his students have been chosen by the DAV and government institutions "so that they are able to replicate this model in those colleges."
The spirit of daring the system surfaces when he says, "I can turn out IAS officers, too, from among these girls if that becomes the measuring standard. But what we need is people who can serve society. We believe that it is not the standard of living that is important. The standard of life is."The school is in the heart of an area that was terrorist-infested. But it continued to be an oasis of peace and tranquillity. Many left their girls here to insulate them from the terrorists who were running amuck in the countryside.
Many girls were daughters of militants, their victims, policemen and their victims. "Such details are not noted, no one is told about the background of the other,"said Swaran Singh. "On their own the girls won't talk about such things."The institute has no printed prospectus, and inquiring parents are told whatever information they want, verbally.
Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee president G.S. Tohra recently asked Swaran Singh to open a similar institute for boys, who could do with such lessons. But the principal is hopeful that one of his girls will open a boys' college.He does not call his students by their names, not even beti (daughter). It is puttar (child) that he shouts across. His behaviour with them is not soft and gentle; he could very well have been a battalion commander, and the girls his jawans.
"Women's liberation and equality are very important,"he said. "When we make them work in the kitchen, it is not because they are women. They must be self-sufficient."The management does not use the words "sex education", but eminent gynaecologists periodically address the girls. Yes, they have been told about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in one of these classes.
Games time in the evening sees the girls divided into houses and the salwar-kameez-dupatta doesn't stand in the way of those enjoying the kho-kho, clearly the favourite event in this rural ambience. The students are not taken out of the campus for inter-college events, because they are not affiliated anyway. But college sports day is a big occasion, with some unusual country-style events, including the dying art of charka spinning.
The school has become a role model for NGOs hoping to make a dent in the education status of Gurdaspur. Freedom fighter Shiv Kumar Sharda, 80, looks at the children sitting under the trees in Taragarh, 50 kilometres away, and says: "One day this school, too, will be like the Tuggalwala school". The Sarvjeet Model High School, which has only up to class five, was set up by an award-winning teacher, Kansraj Dogra, in memory of left-oriented teacher leader Sarvjeet Singh who was gunned down by terrorists. Managed by the Swatantrata Sangrami Smarak Trust of which Sharda is the secretary, this school upholds patriotism and nationalism through educational and environmental activities. Many of the students are children of former criminal tribes. "We don't do our stock-taking with the help of results. If the children are improving, we are happy at the forward movement,"said the veteran freedom fighter. He lives with his freedom fighter wife, Uma, on the 1.5 acre premises, which is six kilometres short of the internat ional border at Khemkaran.
Schooling here is not free, but is a lot of fun, to learn to write the alphabet, the kids use kidney beans. To learn natural science they go to the kitchen garden, where in the course of their classes, they produce 25,000 saplings of neem, guava and papita, a year. They even supply to other institutions, on behalf of the district authorities.
This tiny school is now the location of the environment protection society of Gurdaspur district. Each child is given vegetable saplings to grow in his own patch of the kitchen garden at home, to educate the child and help the basically poor parents. In the last two years, they have even grown mushrooms. Without exception the children look cheerful as they sit under shady trees they have planted.
Sharda gets annoyed when he hears cynical "those days were better"dialogues. "I say, then you go and bring the British back. They were most uncivilised in dealing with the injured and the weak".
The pride of this school is the library, named after Chabeel Das who was the principal of the National College, Lahore, where Bhagat Singh and Rajguru were students. A passionate lover of books, Sharda goes out of his way to stock the library and encourage the reading habit. In this back of the beyond, a conference of book lovers is organised every year, and later this year it is to play host to a book festival, which will also be held in seven other places in Gurdaspur.
"We hold declamation and essay writing competitions on the theme of importance of books, and the prizes are always coupons to be exchanged for books, so that they can build their home libraries,"says Sharda.
As at Tuggalwala, the kids are told not to cheat. But here the experience has been different. Just a few months before the examinations, a good number of parents pull their children out, to admit them in schools where cheating is encouraged.
"But we shall overcome,"says Sharda, who untiringly moves around the district, coordinating with others who are committed to education the way those at Tuggalwala are. Some of the people he is networking with are teachers and principals of government schools. "They have done excellent work despite their limitations,"he said, hoping to rope them in some productive educational venture once they retire.
Professional educationists invited to Tuggalwala are both inspired and impressed. But none of them dares to look at it as something that can be replicated easily, particularly outside the framework of religion. Said one senior teacher: "That school is based on the Sikh tenet that education is a service and should not be treated otherwise. No sentiment is more powerful than religion."Even so, he admitted that "Tuggalwala represents the highest form of community life. Everyone does whatever he can. That is how they are able to work on less than a shoestring budget."
But these schools have not yet made a dent in the low literacy rate, high dropout rate and the poor quality of education in these parts, according to SCERT lecturer Satpal Saini. "We have teachers, who are posted in schools across the Ravi river, who go only to draw their salary of over Rs 5,000. For the remaining days, the 'teacher' is anyone who will take Rs 500 and be willing to go cross the river to reach the school,"he explained.
According to him, the Tuggalwala school has created one imbalance: there are so many graduate girls in the region that parents are not able to find suitably educated boys for them!