Poverty, Crime, and the School Curriculum: The Poor in Reformatory Schools 


Arun Kumar

(Research Scholar, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Gottingen; TRG Fellow, German Historical Institute, London)


When writing histories of colonial education, the ‘poor’ are often absent in historian’s retelling of the past. To talk of the labouring and non-labouring poor classes in the colonial era is to assume them unlettered, analphabetic, and unschooled. As they did not leave their writings for posterity, our access to their world is limited and second-hand narratives are often at a distance from their experiences. But some did take up reading and writing when it was a matter of life and death for them and left their evidence, others conversed about schooling and its relevance to their lives. For the poor, schooling was more than about disciplining and controlling their bodies; for many, it was a gateway to heaven and for others it was an unnecessary extra burden on their family economy, hence- immaterial to their lives.

Translated excerpts from the letters of Indian soldiers who fought in the trenches during the First World War not only reveal about their feelings on war, life, and family, but also reflect their writing and reading skills. Similarly, released boys of reformatory and industrial schools often wrote back to their White Sahibs and friends wishing them a long life with a desire to keep their networks of patronage alive to be used in the times of needs and hardships. The father of Gurudas- who was a weaver from Pariah caste- wrote and read letters of village folks to supplement his family income. Sabuth Ali, a Muhammdan faqir from Lahore who lived on begging and wandering kept a diary written in Urdu dialects which revealed events and doings of his past life and happily gave anyone who wished to read it. Inspection reports of the Deputy Inspector of Schools sheds lights on miscellaneous performances of poor class boys in reading, writing, and arithmetic examinations of schools and their capability to learn what was being taught in classrooms. And lastly, the presence of a large network of schooling, i.e., industrial, reformatory, technical, carpentry, weaving, vernacular, leather, needle work, and agricultural schools- designed for the poor and pauper classes forces us to withdraw our long held assumptions. Underneath these bitty and patchy evidences dwell often silenced and buried histories of the poor and their dreams or indifference for schooling- waiting to be stitched and weaved together with analogous sources in historian’s workshop.

Schooling was not an experience of the majority of the poor in colonial India, but those who did, experienced it in various forms and ways. Poor and paupers were not taught to become literary class, but to be produced and reproduced as skilled artisans, trained worker, and well-versed peasants. How to account these experiences of poor and imprint of schooling on their lives is a tempting question and worthy of historical engagement.

This paper narrates a history of a particular type of schooled subjects- reformatory school boys who were exposed to the world of books, letters, and ideas of schooling not necessarily because they desired to be in this school but because they were ‘miscreants’ and required to be reformed. These ‘miscreants’- often announced as juvenile convicts, inmates, reformatory boys, juvenile delinquents, and juvenile offenders in colonial files were orphans, waifs, thieves, beggars, murderers, and uncontrolled children of families- who fell into the world of criminality for the want of proper parental control and pauperism. By the late nineteenth century, the colonial government in India laid a web of reformatory schools and juvenile jails to deal with the increasing problem of juvenile delinquency and juvenile offenders who were caught from streets, bazaars, melās (fairs), and houses, often stealing eatables and other articles. In the year 1876, colonial government passed the Reformatory Schools Act which ordered district magistrates to send juvenile offenders below the age of sixteen (and subsequently reduced to fifteen years in the Reformatory School Act of 1897) into a reformatory school for reformation which were to be established by the provincial governments. The act undermined the hitherto established practice of housing juvenile delinquents with adult prisoners in jails. Unlike prisons, reformatory schools were conceived as space of learning and moral reform. Here juvenile convicts were primarily schooled subjects detained to be taught formal didactics, obedience and order, lessons of honesty and civic life, and training of occupations and means of a hard worked livelihood. The paper looks into the specificities of efforts and organisation required on the part of colonial masters and their ‘native agents’ to maintain the ‘natural order of society’. It looks into the textbooks and moral stories taught to reform the ‘deviants’ to see how an unequal social order embedded in shifting social and economic hierarchies of the time had a safe place in the school curriculum.

The paper proposes the following questions and seeks to answer them by unravelling the knot of poverty and education through life histories of poor. Does doing a history of poor people and their lives tell us something of the workings of colonial rule, making and re-making of social inequalities and the way caste was lived in everyday lives in institutions like school? What does the behaviour and thought, success and failure, resistance and subordination, everyday activities and special events, day and night, clock time and occupational calendar, fortune and misfortune, time and timelessness, good and moral wrong, and lived and dreamed life, etc. of ordinary folk tell us about the shifts in the visions of colonial masters and their policies of colonisation? How was the past lived in between these binaries? In the latter half of the paper, an attempt is also made here to explore the imprints of schooling on the lives of poor and pauper classes by reading some of the letters left by them. The lead protagonists of my story are reformatory school boys of Bareilly (this reformatory was later shifted to the Chunar fort in Mirzapur district in 1902) in the United Provinces and Chingleput in the Madras Presidency. The two distantly located reformatories gather a narrative which provides a contrasting but connected picture of poor’s experience of schooling.