Nikita Agarwal | Jeevanshala ki yahi baat: Ladaai Padhaai Saath Saath

By Nikita Agarwal


Jeevanshala ki yahi baat: Ladaai Padhaai Saath Saath

(Tr. : This is the thing with the school of life: struggle and study go together).

In 1991, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Valley) movement[1] piloted two community schools in Chimalkhedi and Nimgavhan for indigenous Adivasi[2] children in the hill areas of the Narmada River. Several more Jeevanshalas were instituted along villages distributed between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, dotting the Satpura Ranges[3]. Some remain in the brink of drowning and some have been annihilated by the large scale dam projects mooted by Indian Government in the 1980s. These dams, hailed as the ‘temples of modern India’ have been an eyewash to the People—the People who we remember in Coöperism 2/13 have been largely excluded from the State narrative and the law.

For the past 40 years the Narmada Valley has been in an active Gandhian resistant struggle against the large-scale State funded and corporote motivated dam projects which will displace 30,000 families and 3,000 villages[4]. These People, primarily belonging to the Bhil and Bhilala community, have much to lose through these dam projects—their way of life, their irrigable, cultivable and fertile land, their homes and their communities. So the People resist! They recognize the treacherous post-colonial specificities of the Indian colonial project and the continuum of the vulnerabilities that their children inherit. So they teach their children—their way of life, their culture and their modes of resistance. It is a coöperism we can only aspire to emulate and learn from.

The first time I went to the Jeevanshala in Bhadal, Madhya Pradesh I was struck by the morning prayers echoing in the valley resounding in resistance. Homage to the Narmada river, the land and the Peoples’ struggle formed a part of the early morning prayers. Immediately after, children get together and serve each other steaming hot food prepared in the school—I ate with them, for everyone eats together. Classes are divided in grades and while the younger children are given instructions in the local language, the older children received curriculum education certified by the State Board. All teachers are from the community, holding certified degrees as educators. There is always a tonne of extra-curricular activities, loud noises, shrieks, cries, laughter and general joviality that frame the experience of the children in the large mud hut that is the school. A large tarpaulin shed forms another classroom. Children move across spaces engaging and laughing, raising their fists high saying ‘Zindabaad’ (long live revolution) when they pass each other.

A community elected monitoring committee (Derekh) is set up in each school to ensure the smooth functioning of the school and to resolve administrative issues. Decisions are made through the committee. An annual ‘Balmela’ (children’s fest) is organized which hosts fun cultural activities for children across the existing  jeevanshalas to allow them to collectivize together. Most jeevanshalas are residential schools because the commute is long and arduous otherwise. Jeevanshalas are primary schools and provisions are made for children to further their education thereafter.

As they grow older, some children desirous of further education move to the town of Badwani, living in the movement office. They engage in political discourse and help around the office as they continue their studies. Several over the years have graduated. Several have gone back to their villages and are now working as full-time activists. Several have married and live their lives in their own extraordinary ways. All of them remain connected with their roots—their culture, the struggle and their People.

In another indigenous space of struggle in Bastar, indigenous Adivasis resist taking up arms to push back the encroachments of the state-corporate-nexus which eyes with greed their mineral rich land and exploits their labour. In India’s most militarized region where the State crushes the undefeatable resistance with an iron hand scaffolded under the law and order discourse, children of the Durwa and Maria Gond community go to state run public schools, most of them residential. These children come back during holidays refusing to speak their language choosing to converse in mainland Hindi, rejecting the food prepared at home, and speaking the language of the State. They are routinely bullied by their teachers and peers, isolated and told that their culture is ‘disgusting’ and that they are better off closeting their indigenous identities for the identity is abject and vulnerable.

Bastar and Bhadal are not very far geographically, in fact prior to the year 2000, they were both part of the same federal state[5] as well as in their legacy of resistance to displacement and exploitation. How does a vulnerability translate into a continued resistance in Bhadal, and a closeting in Bastar? How does education potentially become a tool of politicization in Bhadal, and of colonizing in Bastar? I suggest that the role of the State in its absence and presence and what we do of our experiences with the State thereof can direct the simmering ground of discontent directed outwards or inwards through education.

In Bhadal, the State never made pretenses to care about the children. The State has and continues to evade responsibilities that it holds fundamental to its grundnorm— the right to education is a fundamental right accorded to all children under 14 in India [6]. When there is a lack of in the face of a People’s movement, the movement steps into the remedy—and it does so in the most inspiring ways—by creating schools which dont just teach you how to study, but teach you a way of life.

In Bastar, the State is obsessed with educating! It has set up schools throughout the area. In the early 2000s when the State sponsored vigilantist of Salwa Judum occupied the schools bringing education to a standstill, the Indian Supreme Court expressed deep concern on the collapse of education in the area. The Supreme Court in its canonical judgment waxed eloquent on the ungovernable ‘illiterate or barely literate’ tribal indigenous Adivasi who could not understand command responsibility, conveniently missing out the fact that made of those armed by the state ‘illiterate or barely literate’ Adivasi were children. The State thereafter constructed Portable cabins as schools for children where mainland instruction in Hindi is doled out in a disturbingly colonized fashion—to enlighten, uplift and emancipate the indigenous children from the wretchedness of their culture.

Education has always been a playground of ideas where different subsets of people interact with their competing set of ideas. The project of education has been a complex one which is rooted within a colonial framework of the ‘civilizing mission’—one of ironing down instead of teasing out. As we hold ourselves in times of grave precarity and as educational institutions in the ivory towers continue to crush Pro-Palestinian student resistances mushrooming physically across America, we struggle to cohere to deadlines so as to graduate, I think about this tussle between the People’s idea of education and that of the State. At Columbia, we see a reclaiming of the University grounds as a Peoples’ University, one where we have teach-ins and solidarities, mutual aid, nourishment amidst famine, joy amidst repressions, and hope despite despair. At Columbia’s People’s University, I can hear a resounding spirit of Zindabaad that travels from India’s centre and moves along the middle-east, hugging the Palestinian people under seige, to this Western land stolen from the Leni-Lenappe people.

The Palestinian resistance struggle of 75 years continues unabated and is instilled in the core of the Palestinian community. Palestinians are committed to the project of educating their children—not to colonize but to empower. Palestinians across the world hold spaces in educations institutions, in courts, in government offices, hospitals, political spaces all while remaining connected their people, their land, their right to return. This is no ordinary feat—Palestinians are extraordinarily militant about educating their children and they do so not just by sending them to schools and encouraging them to go to colleges, but also by incorporating cultural values and the traditions of resistance through the keffiyah, their food, their chants, music, and history. Might we learn from them the ways of integrating political and cultural education not just as a careless entree to the main, but as integral to the traditional main forms of educating?

I believe that we can imagine a better way to educate our children—one which capacitates them as a People, all while it teaches them the ways of crunching numbers. They must learn to read and write and count, but what if they read the ways and stories of our ancestors as well, write songs and poems of resistance, count and hold to count the injustices of the world, all while writing their own history. We have inherited a violent past, live on occupied lands, and have blood in our hands that no matter how often we wash off, we cant seem to get rid off! But we have also inherited the legacy of resistance—of that in Berkeley and Cornell for an African Studies and Latin American Studies Department, of the Hamilton Hall Occupation at Columbia of 1968, against the occupation of Morningside Park at Columbia, of Black Lives Matter, and StopCop City. How do we then move towards a better future—we inherit and accept the good and bad—the resistance and the violence and refuse to be complicit.

Mondragon University, the Jeevanshalas, the student encampments reclaiming their universities re-emphasizes the power of the collective in education—the collective is here at People’s University at Columbia and speaks loud enough for all to hear—that students will write their history and their own future. Their history is will be one of political struggle, one that will usher in a future filled with hope and solidarity and mitigating levels of climate change—one that will transverse borders and enfold the whole world into its warm embrace—one that will be astounding, and sustained in its coöperism.


[1] 1985: Narmada Bachao Andolan, Frontline, Aug 15, 2022:, last accessed on 25 April 2024.

[2] The term ‘Adivasi’ is formed by two words—adi and vasi. Adi in Hindi means from “First, primary, primitive”, or “the first one” and vasi in Hindi means dweller. Adivasis are the first, primary, primitive dwellers of the land they inhabit, preserve, protect and live from. Colonial terminology of that of the ‘tribe’ and the ‘tribal’. The government of India uses the term “Scheduled Tribes” (ST) in official documents. The Indian Supreme Court of India recognises adivasis as Scheduled Tribes owing to their specific historical, cultural and socio-economic factors, with special provisions for the protection of their rights, identity and livelihoods, but the adivasis call themselves adivasis. Hence, we will call them Adivasis.

[3] A detailed description of the politics and practice of the Jeevanshalas is available at the Narmada Nav Nirman website:

[4] Nikita Agarwal, Despite SC Intervention, Those Displaced By Sardar Sarovar Dam Project Struggle With Uncertainty, The Wire, 15 July 2017:, last accessed on 25 April 2024.

[5] Madhya Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2000: The state of Chhattisgarh was carved out from Madhya Pradesh, located in the central part of India in the year 2001 to cut open, excavate, mine and destroy. The new state boasted of bountiful natural resources, large swathes of forestland, rivers and is inhabited by nearly 10 percent of India’s indigenous populations. Catering to the nexus of state sanctioned-corporate extraction, since its formation Chhattisgarh has been a site of constant struggle—the state and corporates want to mine, the Chhattisgarh inhabitants whose right to forestland is legally recognised want to preserve and live on in their forest land.

[6] Article 21-A, Constitution of India.