News and Reviews
The Lepchas are confronting the authorities in India’s West Bengal state over their right to have their language taught in the local schools. The controversy, covered in the Indian news media over the past month, echoes the even more serious conflicts of two years ago when the Lepchas sought to dramatize the discrimination they suffered through nonviolent protests—much as they are doing now.
While the conflict this time does not threaten to spill over into violence, it does indicate the seriousness that the Lepchas attach to preserving their culture by including their language in the school curriculum. It also demonstrates the way they cherish the Gandhian approaches to dramatizing their position.
The current conflict began in June 2014 when the state notified officials in its Darjeeling District to begin the process of appointing 46 people to teach Lepcha in 46 different schools in the district. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous governmental body in Darjeeling that has some formal administrative responsibilities, decided, however, that it would not proceed in the matter.
The Gorkhas are more numerous—and more aggressive—than the Lepchas in the Darjeeling District. The GTA spokesperson, Roshan Giri, told the district magistrate to not go ahead with the notification process. The agency had decided that it alone had the right to interview and appoint teachers in Darjeeling.
The process continued, however, and by August last year the paraprofessional teachers had been appointed. The GTA filed a case in the state High Court on March 20, 2015, for a stay of the decision, but the court denied it. The matter was further intensified on April 1 when 33 out of the 46 teachers, who had received their appointment letters, were not allowed to enter the primary schools to which they had been assigned.
On April 20 (some sources say on April 17), all 46 teachers, 27 of whom are men and 19 women, launched a dharna, a term used in India for a general sit-down, protest strike. Also on April 20, the High Court further directed the state government to explain why it was having such frequent conflicts with the GTA over issues such as this.
The teachers began their sit-down protest in front of the office of the Sub-Inspector of Schools in Kalimpong, but on May 5 they shifted their action to the more public Triangular Park in the same town. They believed that the change in location would give them more exposure. Robert Lepcha, a leader of the protesters, explained the move by saying that because “the dharna has not been effective so far, we feel it is necessary that it gets [more] public attention.” The dharna had been conducted from dawn to dusk daily, but in its new location, the Lepchas vowed it would be maintained continuously.
Bimal Gurung, the GTA leader, suggested that paraprofessional teachers should be hired to teach the 11 other local languages spoken in the district. Robert Lepcha, asked about that proposal, said he thought it was a fine idea, and his group would support it.
On Monday last week, the Lepchas ratcheted up their pressure on the GTA to formally appoint the 46 people. If the appointments were not made by Thursday last week, they said, they would begin an indefinite hunger strike. Mr. Gurung replied by reiterating his position, that the act that established the GTA gave the power of appointing teachers only to his agency, despite what the High Court had ruled.
Robert Lepcha responded, “Why should anyone oppose us getting jobs? We are all unemployed…. However, our plight doesn't seem to make any sense to the [GTA] administration.”
It was clear from an earlier news report, in February 2014, that the Lepchas in Sikkim take education very seriously, and the stories over the past month suggest that the ones to the south, in West Bengal state, are similarly committed to having their children at least taught their own language.
The showdown began at 7:45 AM on Friday, November 19, 1965, when a school bus pulled out of Oelwein, a city in northeastern Iowa, headed for the Old Order Amish settlement a few miles away. The Amish had established two of their own schools, staffed by uncertified teachers, a violation of Iowa law at the time.
Amish parents were determined to prevent their children from being exposed to the values of the larger society in the new, consolidated schools. After extensive negotiations had failed, the district superintendent, Arthur Sensor, was determined to settle the matter once and for all by going out to get the kids in a school bus and take them to school himself.
The Amish knew the English were coming, and they were determined to use nonresistance to thwart any sneak attack. The Des Moines Register last week carefully reviewed the situation that developed that April day nearly 50 years ago at the Amish school, a crisis that precipitated headlines nationwide.
However, an even more detailed account was provided by Erickson (1969), though the facts provided in the two descriptions are essentially the same. The story is a good example of the ways the Amish practice nonresistance. The bus stopped at the much smaller city of Hazleton, just south of Oelwein, to pick up the principal of the Hazleton Elementary School, Owen Snively. Mr. Snively, who had just been appointed temporary truant officer, had built up a good rapport with the Amish people. He joined Sensor and a school nurse on the bus.
Their plan was to try and persuade the Amish children to ride the bus back to the Hazleton Elementary School. The bus stopped at one Amish farm after another, trying to find children. At each stop, Snively told the parents that he was acting under the authority of Iowa’s truancy statute and he was there to take their children to the Hazleton School. The parents denied that their kids were around, without admitting that they were either hiding in the woods or somewhere else on the farm. The bus driver reported he had seen Christ Raber’s children peeking through a doorway while Mr. Raber was denying that his kids were at home.
Finally, the driver turned the empty bus toward what was called the South School, where many of the Amish children had, in fact, already gone. When it pulled into the school yard, Mr. Sensor counted 17 carloads of sightseers and news reporters waiting for the drama to begin. Many Amish fathers and mothers were also there as well as Fred Beier, the county sheriff, plus the county attorney and the deputy sheriff.
They all entered the school and Snively told everyone why they were there. He asked the children to be good and assured them that he was their friend. He promised them they would all be warmly welcomed in Hazleton. He asked them to line up behind Sheriff Beier, who would lead them out to the bus. Most were outside the school in the line walking slowly toward the bus when someone—one of the mothers or perhaps the teacher—hollered “run” in German.
The kids all took off. They scrambled over, under and through a barbed wire fence at the back of the schoolyard, dashed out into a cornfield, and disappeared into a woods. One fat kid, 13 year old Emmanuel Borntreger, ran right into the arms of the deputy sheriff, who escorted his weeping prey to the bus. A little six year old, Sara Schmucker, got confused and dissolved in tears not too far into the cornfield. Superintendent Sensor caught her. He took her to one of the parked cars to try and calm her down.
Photographs of Amish children leaping the barbed wire fence made the national news that night. A photographer mentioned to Mr. Snively that some children were hiding in the classroom—he said he had seen them peering out the windows. He then snapped a picture of Snively standing on his tiptoes peering into the school. Other photos showed the county attorney stalking along the fence searching for his quarry, a girl looking back in terror as she ran, the captured fat kid being led by two husky men toward the bus, and the teacher wiping tears off her face as her pupils fled.
The men decided to return the two captives, Emmanuel and Sara, to the school and leave. They urged the adults to get the children back inside—it was a cold day—and they assured everyone they would not bother them anymore. They went back to the Hazleton School, waited until the noon hour, and returned to the two Amish schools. The parents and news media had all left by then and the children, of course, offered no resistance.
The officials, having learned their lesson, took the kids one by one out to the school bus and finally away to the Hazleton School for the afternoon. Everything went well. The school provided cookies and milk, the other children helped host the newcomers, and the teacher gave them books and materials. Some of the children were clearly shaken—they had been forced to disobey their parents—but others seemed to view it all as a big adventure. They joked and sang on the bus on the way home.
By Monday morning, the Amish were prepared for trouble—sort of. When the bus drove into the schoolyard of the North School, chaos broke out. Stern-faced Amish men stood around outside, women wept inside, and children screamed when the grim looking officials pushed their way into the schoolroom. The teacher led the children in half-hysterical choruses of “Jesus Loves Me.” Mothers protectively embraced their children, girls huddled in a corner and wept, and a schoolboy clung screaming to his desk when the truant officer attempted to pry him off.
The flashbulbs from the news photographers kept popping until the school officials finally gave up and retreated outside. Sensor, Beier, and the County Attorney all took a plane to the state capital, Des Moines, to discuss the situation with the governor.
Across the nation, public opinion condemned the Iowa school bus kidnappings. The issue of whether a minority group had the right to preserve its traditions by educating its children in its own way was not settled in the press, but almost everyone agreed that the kids were innocent. They should be left alone.
However, while their plight made an impact on the nation, local public opinion in Hazleton remained anti-Amish, according to Erickson (1969). Hostility there was stronger than in many other Iowa communities in the mid-1960s that had nearby Amish settlements. Several legionnaires in town resented the fact that the Amish had not fought in recent wars. A few people, who had lost family members in battle, seemed to blame the deaths on the Amish.
The Des Moines Register, in its story last week, interviewed former superintendent Arthur Sensor, who is now 94. He expressed deep regrets that he had followed the laws of the state of Iowa at the time. If he could do it all over again, he said, he would resign his position rather than attempt to compel the Amish kids to do what their parents did not want them to do. Amish people interviewed by the paper indicated that the incident is not discussed much in their community.
The drama those two days resulted in popular support for greater religious liberties, which produced exemptions to the Iowa school laws for the Amish that remain in effect to this day. But the events of November 1965 are more significant even than that.Fifty years ago, and to this day, the Amish would never compromise on the perpetuation of their religious and cultural values. They reacted to the oppressive attempts by the majority society to control their children with their own approaches to expressive nonresistance. They protested. They ran. They hid. They lied. They made lots of noise. But they didn’t give in. They did not just talk about nonresistance—they practiced it, actively, passionately, perhaps deceptively, and almost forcefully. They demonstrated that nonresistance, at least in their society, can be an active way of living rather than just a passive phenomenon.
News and reviews of publications relating to peaceful societies—and sometimes to related topics—are normally posted here on Thursday mornings (U.S. time) and are kept on this page for one week. Older news and reviews for 2015 are listed below, and ones from previous years are listed on the News and Reviews 2004-2005 page, the 2006 page, the 2007 page, the 2008 page, the 2009 page, the 2010 page, the 2011 page, the 2012 page the 2013 page, and the 2014 page. All stories are also included in the News and Reviews Subject Listing. They are listed at the bottom of each society entry in the Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies, after the heading: Updates: News and Reviews. News and reviews about peacefulness in general are referred to from the bottom of the Facts page, while news stories about this website are linked from the About This Website page. News and Reviews can also be found with the Google search bar.
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May 14, 2015. Overcoming Memories of Violence [journal article review]
May 7, 2015. Problem Drinking on Tristan da Cunha
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April 30, 2015. Ju/hoan Man Appointed to Government Position
April 30, 2015. Semai Women Making Progress
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April 23, 2015. The Popularity of Redshirts [journal article review]
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March 5, 2015. Unicorns, and the Mbuti, Are Troubled by Violence
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January 15, 2015. Update on a Birhor Tragedy
January 8, 2015. Review of the Tristan Year
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