I am going to commit an academically unethical act in this essay. I write about two people by revealing their names but without getting their consent. I have interacted with a set of interesting people after joining Azim Premji Foundation in 2011. This essay is about two of them.

Anant Gangola is from a well-educated family. He was groomed to be a professional like an engineer or a scientist but circumstances led him to do an MPhil in social sciences. That took him to a tribal village in Madhya Pradesh for data collection. But that visit has changed the path of his life and career. He decided to start a (single-teacher) school there with the very modest material, but immense moral, support from the community.

This phase of Anant’s life reminds me `Ravi’ – the character of the well-known Malayalam novel titled `Khasakkinte Ithihasm’ (The Legends of Khasak). The latter left his research in Delhi and decided to be the lone teacher in the school in a remote hamlet in Kerala. The social circumstances of Malayalees made Ravi a marker of post-modern alienation. However Anant started a non-imposing process of empowerment of the tribal community in the village where he opted to live in.

Though this phase has lasted for a couple of years and that has taken him to the Total Literacy Campaign and then to Azim Premji Foundation, he continues to be the friend and mentor of the boys and girls of this community. (I don’t want to write more about it, since he has started penning this experience. I sincerely hope that he would complete this write up soon, and it would become one of the inspirational stories in Indian education).

Umashankar Periodi came from a family with very modest material and educational endowments but with a hard-working mother who saw the importance of the education of her son. His post-graduate education in social work and the experience in working with non-governmental initiatives among the tribal and other marginalised people in parts of Karnataka facilitated the transition to the Total Literacy Campaign and then to Azim Premji Foundation.

Anant and Peri have made substantial contribution towards the field-level activities of Azim Premji Foundation. The foundation has a notable presence in both Karnataka and Uttarakhand and the contribution of these two individuals in this regard is undisputable. The way they built local social capital and teams, and worked with teachers and other education functionaries in the districts of these states was remarkable.

They would resent if I call them good managers of people. They are at their best while being with people by encouraging and supporting them to function. Periodi stood with those employees of the foundation who came in with limited educational qualifications and facilitated the building of their capacities and their transition to longer-term employment within the organisation. Though Anant has moved towards a position in Azim Premji University, his colleagues in Uttarakhand yearn for his presence there.

Periodi and his team have encouraged 15 young girls to work towards reducing (school) dropout rate in their villages. He took all the trouble to see that these girls get some financial assistance until they complete their graduation. With the support of his team, five of them got admitted to a post-graduate program in social work. He and Vani welcomed these girls wholeheartedly to stay in their house, when there was an uncertainty in getting financial assistance for their study.

I have a collegial, friendly and academic relationship with these two people. Peri facilitated my `internship’ – to have the first-hand knowledge on the issues of schooling of under-privileged groups in relatively under-developed parts of India. We have been working together to develop academically generalizable insights from their field practice.

It is not that these two people are always in agreement with me – an arrogant chap with opinions on every matter under the sun. Anant will hold on to his view even if I disagree with and dislike it. Periodi has a remarkable way to communicate his disagreement by saying `yes’. He has the unusual ability to accommodate a higher level of irritating behaviour towards him and respond calmly and friendly. His life circumstances may have enhanced his tolerance to `poison’ and `misbehaviour’. There is no dearth of such bad behaviour in one’s professional encounters in India.

My psyche is such that I have to limit myself to dealing with issues, and avoid `getting into’ the personal. When a student meets me for advice, it is important for me to have some `distance’ from the person. I am unable to handle the situation when a boy cites financial difficulties or problems at home affecting his studies, or when a girl complains about getting a harsher punishment for smoking in a public place. It is a great relief for me that I can direct these students to Anant. Even a telephonic conversation with him can convince the student to deal with the situation in a calmer manner even if there is no change in the objective circumstance.

I am sure that many students – both boys and girls – in our campus see Anant as an elder friend and mentor to talk to, or get a hug from, when they are in need. This is somewhat `natural’ to him, though that is an ideal quality for the person in charge of student affairs in a university. I have to `think’ a couple of times to ensure nicer behaviour on my part. On the other hand, benevolence and goodness flow out of these two people as an emotion.

It is not that they are faultless people. Both of them take a long time to read a book or an article which is academic in nature. Anant has developed some sort of a philosophical position justifying his reluctance to read more. We need to persuade them a lot to write a few pages. But when they write, their hearts and souls are in it. Anant writes in poetic Hindi.

The `efficient, rational and analytical’ in me may have to nudge them to see the value of a reasoning based on empirical evidence and system-wide connections. I may become doubtful once in a while about the effectiveness of their care for those people whom they know, in terms of a social change that may include everyone – including those unknowns.

Academics tend to develop a feeling of superiority since they are relatively free to criticise anyone. We are happy to criticise everyone starting from the Prime Minister. Moreover, my impression is that public discourses in India get dominated by the opinions of academics, intellectuals, and journalists. This is a Brahmanism of a new kind. The struggle of those people who take great efforts to make changes in society (however small these are) may not be that visible. They are not that free to criticise everybody or they may not think that such a criticism is the most important aspect of their public action.

There are others in Azim Premji Foundation who are comparable to these two people in terms of experience and commitment to social change. Humanity needs millions of Anant Gangolas and Umashankar Periodies. This is especially so for a country like India. The real challenges that India faces are not unknown or waiting to be discovered, but these persist due to the inaction over a long period of time. There is no dearth of intellectual jugglery here.

Endnote: The partnership between academics and practitioners

Practitioners have useful tacit knowledge on the challenges involved in social change. However they may not have the time or frame of mind to reflect on, and document their efforts to address, these challenges. Hence it is useful to have a partnership between academics and practitioners to generate academically generalizable insights from practice. Such insights are important if the purpose of higher education is to create reflective practitioners, as in the case of Azim Premji University.

The success of such a partnership between an academic like me and agents of social change such as Anant and Periodi depends on our collective ability to cross a number of barriers. The starting and sustenance of this relationship require mutual trust. Academics write books and articles on the basis of information which is provided by practitioners and others, and the latter may not get anything in return. This tendency is to be replaced by newer modes of recognising the contribution of practitioners to the generation of academic insights emerging out of practice.  Ego barriers may work against horizontal communication. Artificial politeness or diplomatic behaviour or ego-soothing strategies may work in the short-run but these may not help sustaining partnership in the long-run. It requires a deeper understanding of the different capabilities which these two sets of people can bring to the partnership and their collective efforts. It may also require the development of a level of comfort in personal relationship that is conducive for a freer expression of what one feels about the other.