The story of education in Ladakh is intimately tied to the story of its people’s introduction to Western concepts of progress and to the global marketplace. Prior to the 1970s, education in Ladakh largely took place in the village, in the fields, and by the family hearth. The work of the farm was traditionally shared by the entire family and by the village as a whole, with intricate customs of labor-sharing designed to lighten everyone’s work on a rotating basis. Children learned, by watching and working alongside their parents and neighbors, when and how to plough, sow, irrigate, and harvest the food that sustained them, and when to lead their yaks and other animals to pasture in the summer. The songs and stories of Ladakh’s past tales about life in the mountains—would often be passed down orally while this work was being done. Each child would grow to become competent enough to build and maintain his or her own house, manage the farm or herd, and meet the family’s needs.
More specialized education took place as well: amchis, practitioners of traditional Tibetan medicine, would undergo rigorous training for years under an older teacher in the complex techniques of diagnosis and preparation of herbal medicines. Many Buddhist families would send at least one son to the local gonpa, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where he would receive extensive instruction in the Mahayana tradition’s scriptures, and practice debate in topics ranging from metaphysics to meditation to medicine. But for most children, experience and community were their greatest teachers, and the purpose of education—though it was not formally labeled as such—was the preparation of youth for lives of meaningful work and the transmission of Ladakh’s unique cultural values. This education allowed stable, prosperous communities to continue meeting their own needs.
In 1974 Ladakh was officially opened to tourism, and western-style development initiatives were implemented in earnest. Taken together, the steadily increasing numbers of foreign visitors, the ubiquitous military presence, and the conventional development policies enthusiastically pushed by administrators of the region have contributed to a number of rapid changes in the social and economic fabric of the region. The burgeoning cash economy, with its epicenter in Leh, the region’s capital, has fostered the growth of a new class of Ladakhis dependent on salaries, living in urban housing or barracks, and divorced from their land to an extent that would have been inconceivable 40 years ago.
For the past 54 years, the average pass percentage in the all-important matriculation exam in the 300-odd schools has oscillated between 0 and 5 percent. This didn’t matter before as standardised education was seen as irrelevant. Today, however, with the lure of tourist dollars and government money being poured into the sensitive border region, these scores determine the chances of the youth to avail jobs as trekking guides and drivers, laborers, soldiers, or, for a select and highly educated few, civil servants.
Sonam Wangchuk witnessed this first hand when he was conducting coaching classes at Leh for the Ladakhi school students. Being himself homeschooled until the age of 8, he was pained to see native ladakhi wasn’t part of the curriculum at all. Moreover, there was an abrupt change in the medium of instruction from one non-Ladakhi language (Urdu), till class eight, to another (English), in class ninth. The “enviro-culturally” irrelevant curriculum was the next stumbling block. How was a child—with a life spent entirely in 11,000-foot high arid mountains, among apricots and yaks—to conceive of rain-drenched forests and coconut groves? The alienation was made worse by improperly trained teachers, mostly non-Ladakhis, who only added to the children’s woes by castigating them for their inability—being a part of a “primitive tribe”—to comprehend the teachings of an “advanced society”.
SECMOL grew out of the need to involve local communities in educating their children according to their own language and way of life. True to its spirit, the movement kicked off through funds garnered through a series of cultural Ladakhi performances. Sonam and his friends organised citizens across the region to monitor and participate in school activities. His approach to educational reform was gradual and non-confrontational. Rather than beginning with an assertion of cultural rights, which can create a deep divide between local people and the authorities, SECMOL mobilised citizens to monitor schools, train teachers, and develop an educational system appropriate to their own language and culture.
In 1991, it started a training program for teachers at the Government High School in Saspol, a tiny village on the Leh-Srinagar highway. The program was kept under wraps and it was only when the results started coming in that the authorities took notice. By then volunteers had succeeded in organising a sizeable number of villages to take over their respective schools through Village Education Committees. A silent pedagogic revolution had begun.
In creating Village Education Committees, providing teacher training, and introducing language and cultural reforms, SECMOL built an educational model called Operation New Hope (ONH) to improve schools in Ladakh. ONH became so popular that it was adopted by the Ladakh Hill Council as its official policy in 1996. SECMOL’s ONH, for all its success still was operating within the bounds of a system which brands students as failures. Apart from drugs and alcohol even suicides are on the rise among the failures this system ejects. If ONH was an attempt to prevent the system from drowning the students, SECMOL Alternative School was the lifeboat on which they reached the shores.