Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Illiterate, not uneducated

by Haridas Mukherjee

Like the versatility of his genius, the social vision of Prof Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887- 1949) was all-embracing and creative. The study of man and his reactions to Nature and society was the principal theme of Sarkar's life-long investigations.

An important aspect of Sarkar’s social thought was his eloquent advocacy of the rights of the illiterate or unlettered whom he did not consider in any way inferior to the literate or the elite in common sense, intelligence and morality.

On the contrary, his social thought treated the illiterate as “educated persons”. He maintains that the cultivators, mistris (artisans), and other manual workers, though by and large illiterate, are not less intelligent in understanding “the problems of their daily life, their family requirements, their village surroundings” than the socalled educated persons, that is, school masters, lawyers, professors, doctors, engineers and magistrates.

He argues further that “a schoolmaster, a lawyer or a doctor is after all an expert in one, two or three things of life. These alleged ‘educated’ persons can claim proficiency only in a limited sphere of interests. The doctor is not an authority in problems connected with engineering, the engineer in questions involving a knowledge of botany, the chemist in questions, of astronomy, and so on ... The men and women, therefore, who are experts in agriculture, that is, the illiterate cultivators, deserve the same consideration from the other members of the community as a lawyer does from the engineer and an astronomer from the chemist. Professions are to be respected as profession”.

Sarkar’s social thought went a step further and asserted on the strength of his objective findings that as a “moral person”, the doctor or the professor “is not necessarily superior to the chashi (cultivator), coolie (labourer), majur (worker), mistri (artisan) and all other manual workers”. “Our observations”, wrote Prof Sarkar, “entitle us to the creed that political suffrage should have nothing to do with literacy”. Long before the promulgation of the Constitution in 1950 (mainly the handiwork of Dr Ambedkar), Sarkar advocated the rights of the illiterate, including, of course, their right to political suffrage.

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