It is widely expected of a leftwing government to place priority on universal school education, which can greatly improve the material conditions of the poor and marginal sections of the population. A quick look at some of the key indicators reflecting more than three decades of left rule, however, tell us a different story. As a Planning Commission document noted in 2010, West Bengal in creating infrastructure for primary education ranked third from the bottom, only above Jharkhand and Bihar, among 16 major states in the country. In literacy, West Bengal ranked sixth, which did not change during the long rule of the left. More critically, Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the Muslims had lower literacy rates than the state's overall average, indicating the continuity of a systemic inequality and exclusion. The question is, why after three and half decades of left government West Bengal cut such a sorry figure in elementary education, and, more importantly, what does it say about the character of the government?
Teachers as leaders
West Bengal's poor, and exclusionary, record in elementary education is certainly not due to any lack of activism on the part of the state's large body of primary school teachers. In 2006–07, almost 78 per cent of the state's 155,000 primary teachers were members of the pro-CPI(M) All Bengal Primary Teachers' Association (ABPTA) (Sarkar and Rana, 2010, 4), a good number of whom were for quite some time ‘natural’ leaders of the left (Pratichi, 2002, 5). Primary teachers maintained a level of civic activism for decades, as one can trace ABPTA's lineage to the Nikhil Banga Prathamik Shikshak Samiti (henceforth, Samiti) founded in 1935. In its conference resolutions and petitions sent to the colonial government, the Samiti however placed more stress on the need for education as an abstract public good; there was scarcely any demand for raising the paltry salary that the primary teachers received, or any sharp criticism of the government on political grounds. The Samiti was also silent on issues of social exclusion, there was no strong demand to educate women or Muslim students, though access to education was severely constrained for both these groups (Nikhilbongo Prathamik Sikshak Samiti, 2007; Poshchimbongo Prathamik Sikshak Samiti, 2009; Sarkar and Rana, 2010, 5–13).