TomJoad: The stupidity of Sri Ravi Shankar

Indian spiritual guru and Art of Living Foundation leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar advocated privatizing India's government-run schools this week, claiming that their poor quality is responsible for the country's simmering Maoist insurrection.



Sri Ravi Shankar is better known for his supposed wisdom than his stupidity. But his recent statements implying that India privatize its government-run schools because they are breeding Maoists should prompt a few followers to take a second look at some of the Art of Living* founder's other banalities.

There are plenty of reasons to deplore India's government schools, as pointed out in today's post on the failings of the scheme to implement the three-year-old law mandating free and compulsory education for all children 6-14 years of age. And there are some good reasons to argue in favor of some kind of privatization, as I wrote some time ago in a Newsweek feature on the success of low-cost private schools in India's slums.

But holding these miserable schools responsible for the growth of the Maoist insurgency that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly called India's gravest security threat is more than absurd. It is stupid. Correlation does not equal causality, despite the pseudo-evidence presented by reports claiming "fat friends make you fat" and the like. 

"The government should not run any school. It is often found that boys studied in government schools go into Naxalism and violence," the guru told a gathering in Hindi at a function at a school in Jaipur, Rajasthan, on Tuesday, according to India's Outlook magazine. (Naxalism is another term used to describe the Maoist movement in India). "I feel that all the schools and colleges should be privatised and handed over to some other Sanstha (organisation). Such things are not in the boys of private schools and they (from private schools) move ahead with an ideal and teachers are responsible for it," the magazine quoted Shankar as saying.

Immediately afterward, members of the All India Parents Association (AIPA) in Delhi demanded a public apology, education minister Kapil Sibal hammered the guru for the ludicrous statement, and Shankar gave a partial retraction. “I did not say all government schools should be privatized," the Deccan Herald quotes Shankar as saying. "I only meant that all government schools in Naxal-affected area should be privatized.” (Naxal or Naxalite are other terms used for India's Maoist rebels).

Yes, it is probably rare for students educated in India's elite (and costly) schools to join the Maoists, though I sincerely doubt the guru has any statistics at hand. I am also relatively sure there are few card-carrying members who have returned from attending Yale or Stanford, and I doubt too many of the rebels gave up lucrative jobs with Procter & Gamble or the World Bank -- though that's to say nothing for or against those organizations. But one might also take a look at the numbers -- would they existed! -- on how many Maoists went to school at all, and for how many years. Perhaps we'd find that even miserable government school makes one less likely to join up.

Neither the occasional boneheaded remark nor Shankar's guru status precludes him from making pronouncements on whatever topic he chooses, of course. Or from trotting off to Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or the epicenter of India's civil war with the Maoists, to try to get everybody to get along.

But maybe it does mean he should think about sticking to breathing exercises.

(* The Art of Living is a non-governmental organization rooted in the principles of yoga with centers in more than 150 countries. According to its founder, its purpose is to create a stress-free, violence-free society. But one of its other attractions is that Shankar's teachings reconcile traditional Indian spirituality with India's new emphasis on getting ahead.)

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