In his 1976 classic on childhood, The Inner World, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar compared the advent of modernity to a shipwreck. He was using this metaphor to highlight the emotional uncertainty that people must face when their faith is questioned or ridiculed. People look for whatever raft they can find. Once they find one, they cling to it, negotiating the turbulent waters of everyday life. Kakar’s metaphor helps us understand why millions of people join cults and become followers of loquacious spiritual leaders. As followers, they start believing in their leader’s magical powers to cure difficult diseases and heal mental wounds. As the leader’s stature grows, so does his followers’ faith in him.
What happens when the leader is exposed, after getting caught up in serious legal problems? Over the last few months, two such cases have occurred. In each case, legal luminaries tried to protect the spiritual leader from conviction, but they failed. As a modern nation, India has witnessed several stories of this kind. Each story leaves a vast number of people without their raft, to use Sudhir Kakar’s metaphor. What happens to them, and how do they cope with the public disgrace faced by the object of their devotion? More worrisome is to ask what happens to the millions of children studying at schools started by such cult leaders.
Anyone can set up a school in India. So too can spiritual leaders or cult figures. The English press calls them “godmen”, inadvertently showing a certain degree of disdain for these cult figures, especially after they have been proved guilty of a serious crime like rape. Each time a godman loses a legal battle, urban elites sigh with relief. That the rule of law spares no one is always heartening news, especially when it concerns someone with millions of followers who took him to be a saint.
Having been consigned to prison, the disgraced preacher disappears from news, but the schools he had set up continue. In the latest case, the media mentioned them as “gurukuls” invoking the imagery of ancient ashrams in locations. The fact is that many of these so-called “gurukuls” are English-medium schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
If you visit their websites, you would find them functioning like any other school in the CBSE’s vast national network. The websites also show how busy these schools are, like any other CBSE school, with the rituals of a new academic session. The sites carry no sign indicating that the principal or teachers are concerned about the legal misfortune that has befallen their holy icon. His familiar, smiling face greets you, along with the school’s mission statement, as you click the home page. They flaunt a splendid isolation from the mundane reality inhabited by judges and journalists.
This is, of course, not unique. Even in the best of our institutions, education remains isolated from the world around it. Schools, colleges and universities inhabit a universe of their own, assiduously cut off from the news of whatever is happening outside, including news about the institution itself.
Over three decades ago, I personally witnessed a moment which explained to me why learning remains bereft of meaning in our system. After the 1984 riots in Delhi, schools were closed for several days. On the day they reopened and teaching started, I happened to be sitting in an English trainee’s class. The lesson included grammar and vocabulary drill. One of the words the teacher took up was “arrive”. She asked children to use it in their own sentences. A child stood up and read out the following sentence he had composed: “When a Sikh arrived in Delhi, he was killed by Hindus.” For the next few moments, the class was silent, and so was the teacher. She didn’t know what to do. Higher authorities had forbidden schools to discuss the riots. Many children had witnessed the riots in their own neighbourhoods. They had also seen riot scenes on television. The teacher could not say that the sentence was wrong, for it was grammatically correct. Nor could she say that the sentence was morally unacceptable. She was under orders not to mention the riots.
Perhaps many teachers and children are facing a comparable dilemma in the schools run by the two spiritual leaders who have recently been convicted for rape. The schools are named after them, and their preaching is part of the everyday collective listening ritual. As an affiliating body, the CBSE should guide these schools how to encourage and equip teachers to engage with the situation arising from their founders’ conduct and conviction. To expect that the CBSE might do such a thing is, of course, a fantasy. Its own institutional capacity faced testy waters when its routine responsibility to conduct an examination was subverted without much conspiratorial effort. Dealing with the complex pedagogic responsibility originating in a school-founder’s fall from grace is a lot tougher than stopping paper leaks.
It is highly unlikely that parents will do much either. Many of them are followers of the disgraced founder. Earlier episodes of a similar nature have shown that believers continue to deny the judicially declared truth. Some feel confused or depressed and turn silent, unable to face their own dilemmas. In the latest case, I am told that some mothers feel differently from fathers. Gender consciousness has apparently made an impact on women followers, and this might be true of their daughters as well. But the discomfort they might be feeling in the aftermath of the judicial verdict may have little practical consequence.
Enrolment in a CBSE school is a privilege which can be easily jeopardised by raising uncomfortable questions, even for the sake of learning how to inquire and analyse. For its examination ritual, the CBSE fondly classifies critical inquiry under “higher order thinking”. It is doubtful whether the Board can promote higher order thinking with any greater credibility than the convicted saint could, notwithstanding his exuberant communication skills.