At the school for the country’s elite, a British headmaster strives to eliminate elitism
A near-perfect rendition of Schubert’s ‘Impromptus’ rings out of the music room’s colonial-era windows, the sound carrying all through the school’s pristine grounds. Even in India, a country famed for its sharp inequalities, there are few places where privilege is so obvious. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Doon School, a private boarding school for boys aged 12 to 18, is probably India’s most elite institution.
A short walk away from the school’s main gate, children live in slums plagued by dengue fever. But here you’ll find a campus which last year won a Unesco award for cultural heritage conservation, one equipped with its very own hospital. Although the school rejects the label, there’s a good reason that many describe it as the ‘Eton of India’. Here, heirs to business empires brush shoulders with the sons of India’s political elite. Their names are put down for the school as soon as they’re born, leading to admission tests which are held in seven cities.
Founded by an Indian lawyer in 1935, the Doon School’s mission is clear and unashamedly elitist. The words of the first headmaster, Arthur E. Foot — a former Eton ‘beak’ and a relative of former Labour party leader Michael Foot — are inscribed on the wall of the foyer. The school will create an ‘aristocracy of service’ to lead a free, democratic and secular India.
‘There are very few schools in the world that have set themselves that kind of mission and have actually achieved it’, says Matthew Raggett, the current headmaster and also a Briton.
From politics, industry and banking to journalism and the military, the school’s alumni have left their mark on modern India. In the 1990s the Economist reported that after Harvard Business School, the Doon School’s alumni network was the strongest in the world. The ‘Doscos’, as old boys are known, go on to dominate public life.
The Times of India, India Today, the Hindustan Times and key Indian news channels have all been led by Doscos. Two key figures of South Asian literature, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, were editors of the school paper, the Doon Weekly. Seven generals went to Doon, plus a handful of air marshals and admirals for good measure. The career of world-famous sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor, who designed the Orbit Tower at London’s Olympic Park, can be traced back to the school’s art department.
But the school’s most famous alumnus was former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. When he unexpectedly came to power in 1984, he rallied a group of his old school chums to lead the country. Together they became known as the ‘Doon Cabinet’.
Though they may go on to great things, during their time at the Doon, boys lead a spartan existence. ‘Back in the 1930s, a Maharaja’s son came to the school on an elephant with his whole royal entourage,’ says the deputy head master. ‘They had to tell him to leave everything behind. Equality is important here.’
The school ethos centres around four values: egalitarianism, secularism, service and democracy. In many ways, these values reflect the founding ideals of the Indian National Congress party, which at the school’s formation was the dominant political force in the country.
In the dying days of the British Raj it was thought that if India and the new Indian elite did not hold true to these ideals, the nation would disintegrate. So these values are hammered into the boys at every turn.
Each student gets one locker and a row of hooks. Clothing is all identical — right down to the football boots. At neighbouring schools it’s not unheard of for boys to bribe guards to bring in drugs and prostitutes. Doon, by contrast, is a completely cashless society.
On my tour, the teachers proudly point towards a large airless dorm room with 20 beds arranged in rows. Several boys lie across their mattresses, exhausted in the stifling midday humidity.
The deputy tells me: ‘Unlike other private boarding schools we don’t give our students a luxurious time… It’s character-building.’
Of the school’s ten headmasters, five have been British — a surprising statistic at a school which serves as a training ground for the post-colonial elite. Matthew Raggett was appointed last year and he has an ambitious agenda.
‘The irony of being the only British guy in the school presiding over the celebrations for Indian Independence Day was just hilarious,’ he says.
Silhouetted against the croquet lawn, the new headmaster serves Twinings tea and samosas. Though dressed for the weather in cargo shorts, he strikes an impressive figure as he sits on his veranda and talks candidly about the school’s past successes and current flaws.
‘It’s difficult to take the elitism out of the kids when some of them can go home to so much luxury,’ he says. ‘I think what they do appreciate is that an air of entitlement isn’t appealing.
‘There are things called “favours” here,’ he continues. ‘Older boys ask younger boys to collect a morning snack. Collect my football boots. Come and give me a massage during the swimming competition. I’ve seen it.’
‘There’s a notion here that as a prefect you get “favours” done for you, and you can administer punishments, without really understanding what that says about your leadership position. That needs to change.
‘It’s the abuse of power, and the imbalance of power that’s not right. And it’s understanding that. But again it’s difficult. Because we’re in a culture which is so servant-based.’
‘This is a school for the future leaders of India.’ Raggett gestures behind him. ‘Outside that wall, this is still a country that operates on power and prestige.’
Given the country’s huge population, India’s education system relies heavily on exam performance. With their futures hanging on as little as half a mark, many students will spend any free time they have cramming in tutoring centres.
The result, says Raggett, is a tendency for Indian students to be strong at rote learning and regurgitating information, but weak in many other respects. This, he believes, is a huge shame.
‘Being a new democracy there’s a culture of good argument here; students have an opinion or thought on just about everything. And in six years’ time, we’ll have a different curriculum which will lead to critical thinking… and a recognition that the world isn’t black and white. ’
Honoured to have my photo of a poor ragpicker girl in Delhi selected as one of Al Jazeera’a best photos of 2016.
Photo: William Brown for AJE ••• Every day Delhi produces around 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste – roughly the weight of the Eiffel Tower. Official estimates predict that in 5 years the waste produced by the city will almost double to 18,000 tonnes a day. Bhalswa landfill towers above its surroundings. At 50 metres high and 40 acres across, it is a flaming mountain of decomposing waste. Due to social stigma across India, rag pickers face terrible discrimination and communities are often blighted by alcoholism, literacy and drug abuse. Campaigners say many of the children working on the municipal sites in Delhi are orphans or separated and thus highly vulnerable to sexual abuse or being trafficked into sex slavery.
India’s rupee recall appears to have had “a massive impact” on the country’s human trafficking industry, according to advocacy and rescue groups, with some reporting reductions of up to 90% in the number of women and girls being admitted to their shelters.
But other activists said the illegal trade was already rebounding, and that the financial strain of demonetisation on poor communities was pushing new, younger girls into sex work, and forcing women already in the industry to work for credit or for free.
The Guardian contacted 10 human trafficking advocacy and rescue groups to assess the impact of the Indian government’s shock decision last month to scrap the country’s two most used bank notes.
Demonetisation complicated every point in the human trafficking supply chain, starting with a “drastic reduction in the number of sex buyers”, said Sunita Krishnan, the co-founder of Prajwala, a Hyderabad-based NGO that rescues victims of sex slavery.
The dearth of customers for sex workers meant “it obviously did not make any sense to induct any new girls in this period”, Krishnan said. “In my shelter home, on average every month 60 to 70 new, rescued victims are admitted. From 8 November [the day demonetisation was announced] in the last 40 days, only six new victims have been admitted.
“I have been on this mission for more than two decades, and this is the first time I’ve seen the entire flesh trade so badly affected.”
Ashok Rajgor, the chief investigation officer at the Rescue Foundation, said no formal surveys had been conducted, “but our operatives in the field have noticed a sharp change”.
Fewer customers for brothels meant that traffickers had less capital to buy and transport women and girls from states such as Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar, all hubs for the trade.
“The market is totally down,” he said. “When you buy a girl, it’s a huge amount of money, maybe 200,000 rupees. It’s really big money and nowadays it’s very difficult to get that kind of cash.”
But he added: “The traffickers will look for other options. It’s too early to say how, but they’ll manage.”
The introduction of a new 2,000-rupee note, while supplies of small change remained scarce, had distorted the market, making younger girls more vulnerable, said Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an NGO that works with women across Bihar and in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
“The demand for younger girls is going up,” Gupta said. “Now that [they] have only 2,000 rupee notes, clients don’t want older women, they want virgins and underage girls.”
She said the financial impact of demonetisation had left some women without enough money to buy food and their daughters at risk of being pushed into sex work.
Pimps, who in some red-light districts will take up to 70% of what a sex worker is paid, were beginning to force women to work for credit, she added.
“Women’s debt is increasing. Where we work in [the Delhi red light district] GB Road, I’m being told that brothel managers have started to keep log books, promising to pay the women later,” she said. “These women are being asked to work for free. They have to sleep with as many man as the pimps say just to have a bed and a meal.”
Other women were paid in old, invalid 500 rupee notes. “And the pimps are forcing them to take the money. [The women] have to stand at the bank for hours ever day [to exchange or deposit the notes]. Their income has been dramatically reduced,” she said.
Swati Maliwal, the head of the Delhi Commission for Women, which has been campaigning to have GB Road shut down and the women working there retrained, said her teams had observed similar phenomena. “The exploitation of women on GB Road has increased tremendously because men are coming and not paying them properly,” she said, adding that some women had started sleeping with up to 30 men each day to make ends meet.
Often, trafficked women lacked the identity papers required to set up a bank account to exchange void currency for new notes – meaning some had seen their cash savings wiped out, said Urmi Basu, head of the Kolkata-based New Light Foundation. “There are thousands of women who have no documentation, no bank accounts, apart from a few hundred rupees they tuck under their blouses,” she said.
A “very big slowdown” had been observed in the child labour trade, said Rakesh Singhal, from the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
He said his organisation – whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, won the Nobel peace prize in 2014 for his work – had commissioned a study of the impact of demonetisation on the industry.
“But we have observations that show a very big slowdown,” Singhal said. “Most of the placement agencies for children say there is no domestic child labour supply.
“The whole trafficking industry runs on liquid money, you’re paying the whole supply chain, including agents in village areas, who are paying between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees for each child.”
All agreed the decline in the trade was likely to be temporary. “Trafficking is an organised crime, and traffickers and people involved in this crime adapt to newer means whenever there is a change in situations and the external environment,” said Prabhat Kumar, the general manager of Save the Children, India.
With Michael Safi
Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters
It has been 200 years since Britain abolished the slave trade and sent the Royal Navy out to enforce the ban across the world. Times have changed. Yet slavery at home and abroad is booming like nothing else. Theresa May knows this. It’s no wonder that alongside the chaos of Brexit negotiations she has made it her mission to fight what she calls ‘the great human rights issue of our time’. As the longest-serving home secretary for decades, she understands the nature of this barbaric business.
Last week, the Prime Minister made her latest move to combat modern slavery. She convinced six Gulf countries to sign up to the WeProtect Global Alliance – a British-led international coalition dedicated to the eradication of online child sexual abuse and exploitation. Theresa May spoke of how the fight against global slavery could not be fought by countries operating in isolation. She then announced that the UK Border Force would start training staff from Gulf-based airlines to help them spot trafficking victims.
In many ways, Britain is leading the fight against modern slavery and sex trafficking. The introdution of the Modern Slavery Act last year and the appointment of the first independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner were revolutionary moves. Large companies must now show evidence of how they are combatting slavery in their supply chain, and in July, the government pledged £33 million a year from the aid budget to combat human trafficking rackets.
These are all strong moves on a long-neglected issue but far more needs to be done. International figures are almost incomprehensible. Recent estimates suggest that there are around 46 million people in some form of slavery around the world and that globally, forced labour generates around $150 billion a year.
Reporting from Delhi, I’ve seen a small slice of the horrors of slavery first hand. In the capital’s main red light district, several thousand women and children live in abominable conditions. Local volunteers working with the sex workers recently told me that around 90 percent of them had been trafficked in some way from poverty-stricken Indian states or across the border from post-earthquake Nepal. Some had been sold into sex work by their families, others had been told they were going to well-paid domestic work. Many were simply snatched off the street and locked up in isolation, before being raped until they complied.
India has around 40 percent – 18 million – of the world’s modern day slaves. Here, trafficking networks are sophisticated and brutal. They take advantage of mass poverty and a repressive caste system to make copious amounts of money; they bribe whole police stations if they need to and silence those who stand against them with impunity.
But this isn’t just the problem of a far-off land. Ministers estimate that there are currently 10,000 – 13,000 people enslaved in Britain. A close friend of mine worked for years trying to rehabilitate trafficked women in Northern Ireland. Most of the women she helped were from eastern Europe. They had been flown to Dublin with the promise of good work, then smuggled over the Irish border and kept in underground brothels as sex slaves. When they were freed, some of them couldn’t talk for days. The refuge they ended up in was underfunded and overstretched.
Theresa May’s commitment to combating modern slavery is significant. But the simple fact is that we as a country can do so much more. In both India and the UK, activists have told me that a key problem they face is awareness of slavery. Most of us don’t believe it’s happening around us. ‘Not in my town,’ we say. But up and down Britain, from Northumbrian fields and Mancunian brothels to middle-England suburbia, people are exploited on our doorsteps.
The government needs a high-profile public awareness campaign. A July review of the Modern Slavery Act found that the training of police officers and prosecutors was patchy and sometimes absent. So, the campaign would also need to include promoting more awareness within the criminal and legal system.
The days of British gunboat diplomacy are long gone, but Britain could make sure it’s not just paying lip service to the issue. As a country, we could triple our anti-slavery campaign’s £33 million funding at home and abroad without a bat of Philip Hammond’s eyelid.
Originally published on the 12th of Dec 2016
Mountains of waste are dumped in open spaces where children can often be seen picking through the sometimes toxic material.
With Delhi’s population more than doubling since 1990, the city’s waste management infrastructure has been stretched beyond its limit. Every day Delhi produces around 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste – roughly the weight of the Eiffel Tower. Official estimates predict that in five years the waste produced by the city will almost double to 18,000 tonnes a day.
Recently, India’s Supreme Court, angered by the apparent inaction on the issue, delivered a damning criticism of the city’s municipalities, saying that if Delhi’s waste was not managed properly the city faced an impending disaster.
Dozens of children, some as young as five, work alongside adults or in small groups with other children in northwest Delhi’s Bhalswa – one of three landfill sites in the city.
Although child labour is outlawed in India, UNICEF estimates that there are about 10.2 million children currently working in the country.
“On paper, these landfills are meant to be ‘sanitary’ landfills. But in reality, no precautions are taken. There’s no scientific process or segregation process. Almost 90 percent of the budget of the [Delhi] municipalities is spent on transporting waste, rather than managing waste,” said Vimlendu Jha, the executive director of Swechha, a Delhi-based NGO campaigning for social action on environmental issues.
“These are faceless, nameless individuals.”
The New Delhi Municipal Council, which manages Delhi’s waste, declined to comment on child labour at the landfill sites.
Legend has it that “he who rules Delhi, rules India.” Many have tried and failed to rule the city and reap the wealth of the northern plains. Between heaving crowds and manic traffic lie the centuries old remains of what historians call the “Seven Cities of Delhi”. But today the city isn’t just a graveyard of empires. Delhi is the nursery of the Indian Republic and the nerve centre of the new India.
William Dalrymple, one of the greatest travel writers of the last fifty years, first came to Delhi aged 18. He’s stayed longer than most travellers. Arrival in this city is a shock and what with the stifling heat, crowds, touts, and poverty, within a few days most flee north for the Himalayas, west to the grandeur of Rajasthan, or south to Goa’s idyllic beaches. Few have it in them to weather Delhi’s assault on the senses for long. But three decades on, aged 51, Dalrymple’s still wandering through Delhi’s streets.
Over the last thirty years, Delhi has exploded across its neighbouring states. In the nineteenth century, Europe was in awe of industrialising Manchester, as the population boomed to the dizzying heights of two million people and the city swallowed towns like Salford and Bolton whole. Today in Delhi, the story is much the same, but on an incomprehensible scale. Every day over half of Spain – 25 million people – jostle for work here.
Dalrymple rose to notoriety in 1989 when, at just 22, he published In Xanadu – a travelogue in which he retraces Marco Polo’s thirteenth century journey from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Kublai Khan’s Summer Palace in Shangdu, China.
After the tremendous success of In Xanadu, Dalrymple returned to Delhi, eking out an existence working as a freelance journalist for several years, before completing his second book, an award winning account of his love affair with the city – City of Djinns.
For Dalrymple, Delhi in the late 1980s “possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend.” Continually pillaged and fought over, the city seemed to him to be in a constant state of regeneration as it absorbed, tamed and outlasted those who sought to dominate it.
Over the four years it took him to write City of Djinns, he peeled back the layers of the ancient city, and explored Delhi’s seven “dead” cities, and showed that there was far more to the city than the obvious everyday squalor. According to Dalrymple, the city’s central paradox in the 1980s was that that even though it was one of the oldest towns in the world, what with the Partition, the evacuation of much of Delhi’s old Muslim population and the influx of refugees, Delhi “was inhabited by a population most of whose roots in the ancient city soil stretched back only forty years.” Despite this, “Somehow different areas of Delhi seemed to have preserved intact different centuries, even different millennia.”
After several years in Delhi, Dalrymple traded the hubbub for a quiet, spacious Mehrauli farm south of the city, where he hosts regular lavish parties for Delhi’s cultural elite. A prolific writer, hidden behind mountains of books and endless artefacts from his travels, with chickens and goats wandering by, he has gone on to publish eight more bestselling works.
Clad in simple Indian cotton and sporting a respectable beard, he is a warm and merry character, always willing to dish out the red wine and show you the steps to the Talking Heads.
But over the years Delhi’s caught up with him in this leafy retreat. Outside the collection of gated farms, he resides in, the city thunders on into Rajasthan, with five lane traffic and metro overpasses only a few minutes away.
“It’s strange being a middle-aged travel writer. My first three books read like history.”
“In Xanadu records an Asia where Syria and Pakistan were endlessly hospitable and the safest and kindest places to go. City of Djinns records a bucolic rural Delhi. And From the Holy Mountain records the extant Christian community of the Middle East.”
“These places don’t exist anymore. Who knows, maybe I’ll be quoted by historians in five hundred years.”
“City of Djinns is a record of a city that no longer exists. A city where there were no cars on the road, where everyone worked a government job, where everyone drove one model of car, the Ambassador. Delhi was a slightly dull Washington-like city unless you pottered around the old city where everything got more interesting.”
“None of that is the case anymore.”
Dalrymple’s brow furrows.
“There’s a huge stigma attached to the place, now. It’s now regarded as the rape capital of India. And as having the worst traffic jams in India, having the worst pollution in India and the worst corruption.”
In 2012, Delhi was thrown into the international spotlight when a 23-year-old student was gang-raped and tortured on a bus in the south of the city. She died of her injuries a few days later. Almost overnight the city became synonymous with rape and sexual harassment.
Reflecting on this, Dalrymple says, “For all that I love this city, it’s a place where I worry about my wife and daughter going out at night unescorted. The violence does exist. It is a violent city. It’s not an entirely new thing. It’s been a traumatised place. It’s one of these cities like Jerusalem where massacres have taken place throughout history – it’s a very masculinised society. This is different from Goa, Bombay, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where women are safer and have more rights.”
“But,” Dalrymple continues, “the question of women in Delhi is a very complicated one. Because in many ways at elite levels it’s a city run by women. There are more strong women in the city than there are in perhaps any other city.”
“They run a lot of the things that actually work well in the city. And often at parties I see this as a city of henpecked husbands. These amazing Indian women, beautiful, clever, well-educated. There’s a much higher priority in the Indian elite on really educating the women in the family. I’d say more so than there was in my generation of British women. The elite women here are really incredible.”
Turning back to the question of Delhi’s phenomenal expansion, Dalrymple says, “The city has really changed while I’ve been here. I mean, you still meet people, not very old people who can remember taking the bus out to Qutub Minar through fields of mustard.”
“A couple of months ago I went back to this beautiful old ruined Mughal garden called Shalimar Bagh. When I last saw it, it was surrounded by ruined houses, scruffy orchards and basically open land. And now it’s entirely hemmed in, in the midst of these enormous buildings and overpasses. It’s solid Delhi as far as you can see. It was a sunny afternoon and the park was packed with people doing exercises. It was quite sad, really.”
“But almost everything I really loved and wrote about Delhi in the City of Djjins is still there,” Dalrymple continues on a more upbeat note. “Yes, it’s more smoggy, more built-up. You just need to look harder for it now.”
“There are still old colonels walking around Lodi gardens with their swagger sticks. Nizamuddin is there and even more interesting and crowded with Sufis. There are still old gentleman calligraphers in frock coats in the old city, the sadhus at Nigambodh Ghats where they say the Puranas were washed ashore. There are still lustful Sikhs driving taxis.”
“All the central cultural moorings are still there, it’s just that now you can get feta cheese and watch the new Western movies.”
“I’ve never dreamed of living anywhere else.”
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Image credit: Bikramjit Bose / Platform Magazine
The Brexit generation must fight for a tolerant, open Britain.
Recently I was asked to judge at a prestigious private school debating competition in the wealthy suburbs of Delhi. The topic? The effects of Brexit on Europe and India. The school’s logic: this recently-graduated Brit working in India must know a thing or two.
With the typical panache of the Indian elite, sixth-formers lined up to argue the pros and cons of Brexit. One particularly erudite girl stood out. Acknowledging Brexit’s immediate negative economic impact, she argued forcibly that Britain had always been a global, cosmopolitan country, and that it always would be. For her, Brexit presented an opportunity for a golden era of cooperation between young Indians and Brits.
Like many of my generation I must confess that I felt a genuine sense of loss on the 24 of June. I felt that umpteen opportunities to live, work and study abroad had been stolen from me, that British cosmopolitanism had suffered a terrible blow. But somehow the optimism of a well-educated teenager on the far side of the world bolstered my spirits.
Of course, she was right. As a generation, we can’t afford to be shrill or hysterical. Young Brits’ potential for an international, cosmopolitan life did not die with the Brexit vote.
For those already living in Europe, the practical outcome of any negotiations, be they “hard” or “soft”, will most probably be a simple EU visa application. The vast majority of which will be accepted without the bat of a continental eyelid. Put simply, Europe cannot afford to expunge young Brits from the continent. There will be no iron curtain; it won’t suddenly become impossible to do a Masters in Amsterdam, live in Berlin and retire to Spain. There may be some punishment for Britain exiting the EU. But for all their hard talk, no one, least of all the French, can afford to use the guillotine.
Yes, young people will lose their automatic right to live and work in Europe. But the option will still be there for anyone with the drive and desire to do so – something which the UK government must work hard to ensure.
Meanwhile, there are many other countries we will be “forced” to consider once the comfort of absolute free movement around the EU is removed. Indeed, we must look forward. The world is on the move with or without us. Cities are booming with growth rates barely comprehensible to European minds so used to near-stagnation. Vast swathes of the world’s population are tumbling head over heel into a thriving global middle-class.
From Cape Town to Buenos Aires, from Mumbai to Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh, never before has the world been so rich and accessible. Never before have young Brits been so well placed to engage and learn from it.
A British passport will remain a powerful asset to any young person wishing to live and work abroad. With their natural fluency in the world’s international language, English, and a high degree of education and skills, young Brits will remain highly desirable for immigration departments everywhere.
Of course, in a time when we run the risk of closing ourselves off, the government must do everything in its power to prevent isolationism and give the youth international experience. More funding must be made available for international internships and for small businesses looking to expand overseas. Where possible, travel and working visa applications must be streamlined.
Organisations like the International Citizens’ Service and the British Council are more important now than ever before and must be strengthened. Erasmus – which gives UK students opportunities to study across Europe – must be safeguarded. These schemes are a drop in the ocean for the Treasury, but of immense cultural importance.
We must not fool ourselves. As a society there are some incredibly serious issues we need to face up to. The recent spate of xenophobic attacks represents the worst elements of British culture. It is right to be cautious. But the bile emitted in the face of several haggard-looking child refugees is poisonous at best; we cannot let our great culture of liberalism and tolerance be replaced by primitive atavism and ignorance.
Whether it be in online, on the bus, or down the pub, if we are to remain a free, liberal and open society these elements must be fought with every fibre of our being. We must open ourselves up to a brave new world.
Photo Credit: Matt Cardy/ 2016 Getty Images