Patna: On 16 May, 12-year-old Sonu Kumar, a student of Class 5 at a government school in Bihar, suddenly found himself in the spotlight. When Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was visiting his home district of Nalanda, Sonu, waiting among a crowd, called out to him.
“Sun lijiye, sir (please listen, sir),” Sonu, who’s from Kalyan Bigha village in Nalanda, is heard saying in a viral video of the incident. As a stunned Nitish turns to the boy, he adds: “Humko IAS, IPS banana hai. Sarkari school mein padhai nahi hoti hai (I want to be an IAS, IPS officer, but there are no studies in government schools).”
Sonu further tells Nitish, whose government imposed prohibition in the state, that his father Ranvijay Yadav, a milk vendor, is an alcoholic who spends all the family’s money on drinks. His family can’t afford to send him to a private school, he tells the visibly embarrassed chief minister, who then asks the officials accompanying him to look into the complaint.
Sonu, who has since courted attention from different political leaders who have offered to fund his education, denies he was “tutored” for the interaction.
While leaders of Nitish’s party, the Janata Dal (United), have defended the chief minister against the allegations regarding the state of schools, political observers have described the incident as an “emperor has no clothes” moment.
“I remember that tale where only a young boy had the courage to tell the king he had no clothes on,” said D.M. Diwakar, former director of Patna’s A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies. “Sonu seems to be a very smart boy. But what he has really done is exposed how Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s liquor ban is a failure and how the state’s school education is crumbling.”
He was referring to Bihar’s liquor prohibition law, first passed by the state legislature in 2016. The law recommends imprisonment or a fine for liquor consumption in the state. Although it has been met with significant criticism — mainly that the law has failed its purpose and has added to the state judiciary’s burden — the state government maintains that it has the support of women.
The JD(U), however, said it was Nitish’s government that had helped improve the state of school education in Bihar.
“Remember the situation of schools before 2005. There were no buildings or teachers. It was CM Nitish Kumar who made buildings and brought in teachers,” JD(U) Member of Legislative Council Neerja Kumar told ThePrint.
Sonu studies in a government school at Kalyan Bigha — Nitish Kumar’s native village. Speaking to ThePrint, he said classes at the school are infrequent and the quality of education is poor.
“The teacher who teaches us English struggles to read the language,” he added.
Sonu also told ThePrint that he tutors 30 other children up to Class 5 at the local panchayat school.
“He must be the youngest teacher in Bihar,” S.K. Jha, who runs a coaching institute in Patna, told ThePrint. Jha has offered to finance Sonu’s education — one of the several offers that have come Sonu’s way since the video went viral.
Tej Pratap Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad’s oldest son, has offered to get Sonu admitted to a private school.
Former deputy chief minister and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi said he had visited Sonu and offered to get him admitted to Navodaya Vidyalaya, with a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000.
“I was impressed by his confidence and the manner he spoke out his mind before the CM,” Modi said. Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas are central schools for bright but disadvantaged students mainly from rural India.
Sonu has denied allegations that his interaction with the CM was tutored, saying that he only wanted to bring to his attention the state of education at government schools.
“I wanted to meet the CM and make an appeal. Nobody’s tutored me,” he told ThePrint.
Meanwhile, in light of the video, his father is learnt to be keeping out of the public eye, allegedly because he fears arrest under the state’s draconian prohibition law.
N.K. Choudhary, a former professor of economics, said Sonu’s video exposed a deeper problem: The crumbling state of government education.
“Modiji (Sushil Modi) is capable of getting Sonu admitted to Harvard University,” Choudhary said. “But that doesn’t solve the real problem. There are thousands of children talented like Sonu who deserve a better education than they get in government schools.”
Diwakar admitted that an estimated 35 lakh children were out of school when Nitish came to power in 2005. It was the Nitish Kumar government that began to bring children — especially girls — into the schooling system, he said.
“But when the government started recruiting teachers, they did away with the filtering process and introduced contract appointment of teachers for Rs 1,500 a month,” he added. “The government made the local mukhiya the appointing authority. There were massive irregularities as mukhiyas took bribes for appointments.”
This led to a general decline in the quality of education, he said.
“A lot of unemployed youngsters got jobs but most of them are incapable of imparting quality education,” he said. “That is why Sonu is complaining that his English teacher does not know the language. The government failed to understand that education is not a venue for employment. It is a mechanism for human resource development out of which employment emerges.”
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)