Of Angry Young Students and Education in India – A Response to Thane Richard: Aritra Chatterjee

This is a guest post by ARITRA CHATTERJEE: In his response to the article by some students of St. Stephen’s College, Thane Richard has raised a set of questions about the college, about the students participating in the present movement, about education in India and students’ voice in shaping education. He is critical about what he calls the lack of quality education, of a system where education is primarily about rote learning and conformity to structures of authority; in such a situation the promise of a good liberal arts education remains a mere promise and students migrate to the West in search of it. He also rues the lack of students’ voice in the education system, rhetorically asking, “Do students have any right?” He welcomes the students’ fight against the oppressive regime at St. Stephen’s College but views it as a movement that is too little too late and even that in “the wrong direction”. I shall respond to his views at two levels – at the level of education in the country as a whole, and that of the present movement at St. Stephen’s College. Not being a student of the college for some years now my access to information is limited to the articles that have been published in various newspapers and on facebook.

Thane has cautioned the readers about the pitfalls of a ‘nationalist’ reading of his views for it may lead us to be blind to our own problems. I too would caution the readers against interpreting my views as a nationalist defense of our system. I shall propose here a way of reading that would take our – Thane’s and mine – different socio-cultural locations into account but not reduce our views to them, i.e. a contextual but not determinist reading. Thane has compared his experience of the US education system, as witnessed in Brown University with that of St. Stephen’s College. I am writing in the light of my experience as a student of my school in the Jharkhand town of Giridih, at St. Stephen’s College, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and as a political activist exposed to different struggles in the field of education today. Educational experiences aside, we both belong to specific race/color/caste/class/gender locations which may also influence our views. So while Thane may find my view nationalistic, a Dalit may find both our views equally elitist and upper-caste like. Drawing upon Malay Firoz’s response to Thane, I would say that an American citizen of a non-English-speaking immigrant family may find the absence of any talk in his article about the English-speaking white uniformity of Brown University disturbing.  I would insist then that we take the complex enabling and disabling conditions of different socio-cultural locations into account, and through the articles put two different locations in dialogue with each other. It is imperative that we do so, for the meaning of education, of quality, is location-specific. Any attempt of a careless imposition of uniformity has violence embedded in it.

Let me begin with Thane’s major concern – that of rote learning and perpetuation of authority in our education system. I accept that rote learning continues to be a major problem in our system. It has a complex root in the encounter between colonial education and pre-colonial forms of memorized learning. In the postcolonial period, though major changes were brought about in the curriculum, the methodology of teaching and examination was not drastically altered in many of the educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities. In school education, it is with the coming of the National Curriculum Framework in 2005 that there was a significant move away from rote learning. The move, though initiated, has a long way to go before it bears fruit.

Despite the persistence of this problem, education has created the space for critical thinking – the standout example being the Dalit movement’s relationship to modern education. Modern education has enabled acquisition of skills that have brought Dalits out of traditional employment, while the social space of the educational institutions, alongside the intellectual space, have enabled the churning out of critiques of caste, class and gender that have had a seminal influence on Indian society. Many books have been written on this process, and I would advise Thane to read some of them before writing another article like the one he has written. It would be a grave mistake to see India’s education system as merely an institution of rote learning, not capable of generating new ideas.

One may ask the question – if critical thinking has indeed been allowed in our education system, then why has rote learning not been seriously questioned earlier? I am not sure if I have the answer. However, the politics of education cannot be reduced to a single issue – that of rote learning. I shall again take the example of Dalit movement and the powerful mobilization of students around the question of reservations. The issue in this case has not been teaching methods, but inclusion in education. The question of inclusion seems to overpower other issues precisely because of its value as an enabler of upward social and economic mobility, as I have pointed out earlier. Over the last two decades the increasing presence of Dalits and OBCs in the education system has also had an influence on the nature of knowledge that has been produced – the struggle against Brahminism within the process of knowledge production is an ongoing one. One can talk of a similar process of changes that are occurring within education under the pressure of feminist politics. Therefore it is important to have a nuanced view of the politics of education and not reduce it to a single issue. Inclusion in education has been an important issue in itself in the Civil Rights Movement in the USA too. Is Thane aware of the multi-dimensional meaning of education in the USA?

In India, the struggles of lower castes articulated the demand for affirmative action in education. What was the response of the opponents of the demand? It would compromise ‘merit’ and in turn compromise the ‘quality’ of academic output. The responses to that has been sharp and clear from the supporters of affirmative action – you cannot talk of ‘quality’ education unless it is an education that brings about social justice – not only for lower castes, but also for tribals, women and the lower classes of the country. Thus although the question of teaching practices has not been raised sharply enough, the meaning of quality education has been contested in various other ways in India. This redefinition is not hegemonic but it is a powerful idea in society today. Students and teachers involve themselves in the struggle for social justice in and through education on an everyday basis in India – for many it is not an option but a compulsion. Thane’s blanket dismissal of the students’ voice in Indian education is based on his ignorance of such debates.

It is precisely that note of social justice that the students of St. Stephen’s College have struck in their article. They have refused to accept a definition of academic excellence that carries blatant gender discrimination on campus as its underside. Let me quote a few lines from their article to reinforce the point.

“We believe that academics, and debates about ideas and theories cannot happen in abstraction from the society-at-large. Our classroom discussions, of patriarchy, equality, and democracy, stand in clear contradiction with the views expressed by the Principals and his supporters in the college administration.”

These lines come across to me as the carriers of the spirit of questioning that Thane would love to see among students in India. The above lines question what is taught within the classroom in the light of social currents outside those four walls; they reflect the spirit of non-conformity to that within the educational institution which is out of touch with contemporary progressive ideas. The past few months have witnessed intense debates in society around questions of gender equality following an unfortunate incident on 16th December 2012. The attitude of the students must be seen in the light of those developments. If this does not qualify as questioning of paradigms then what does? What is the “wrong direction” that Thane finds in this attitude of the students? It is “too little”, Thane claims. Which social change in world history has been made possible without a million “too little” incidents in course of it?

What I find most disturbing in Thane’s article is his valorization of St. Stephen’s College. He writes,

“The opposite side of this same coin, though, is the upside St. Stephen’s students could reap. St. Stephen’s students also have the most to gain from change. Because St. Stephen’s College is such a great school, it can attract great names and create a great curriculum.”

While critiquing the fact that even lower caste students coming into St. Stephen’s through affirmative action become part of the elite, Thane is reinforcing that very elitism in the above statement. Why should students of St Stephen’s College, in raising any issue regarding education, think of benefits that they may get out of it? The reassuring feature of that article by the students is that they are thinking beyond their own college. They are thinking of gender justice and the meaning of academic excellence in society at large – in their own college but not only there.

Even when Thane appreciates the efforts of the students, he is dissatisfied with their plan of action as he feels they are only “awaiting a rescue”. The article written by the students did not come across to me as one that pleads the government, parents or the characters in Rang de Basanti to be their rescuers. That phrase was a mere play on language. Thane has so little respect for student activists here that he could not think that the phrase could be a rhetorical call that the students were making to themselves, and to others to stand in solidarity and not act as rescuers.

Let me return to the issue with which I began– that of rote learning. I have already stated that I agree with Thane that this is a problem. I am worried however by the veiled upholding of Brown University, or the other US universities that he rightly says many Indians love to migrate to, as a parameter. It is precisely this attitude among many Indians that is leading to some dangerous changes in higher education policy in India today. Of course the best teaching practices have to be learned from different parts of the globe to improve our education system, but what is happening right now is a blind mimicry of the First World. I shall end this my article with a brief discussion of this dangerous move.

The recent higher education policy of the Government of India has outlined the up-gradation of Indian education to global standards as one of the goals. Advocates for education reforms across the globe, from the World Bank statements on education to the Bologna process, have been pushing hard for greater standardization of syllabi, teaching and evaluation methods across countries and continents. A key emphasis has been on generating methods of evaluation that can allow comparison of qualifications across national and regional boundaries. This has resulted in making education more oriented towards achieving these set common minimum standards in an environment of cut-throat competition rather than allowing space to students, institutions or disciplines to attain their maximum creative potential in connection with the society to which they are organically linked. No wonder that there is reservation of seats for socially marginalized groups in many of the private colleges and institutions.

This process of standardization in fixing a common minimum for all (on the basis of market requirement/demand) in fact restricts the multi dimensional process of learning to gaining of some easily marketable skills. They spell ever-decreasing control of students and teachers over the process of education, making faring well in these evaluations the ultimate objective of receiving an education. These globally standardized parameters are not free from the skewed balance of power among different countries. A compilation of the Academic Ranking of World Universities reflects this very clearly with 280 of the top 500 universities in the world in the fields of science, life science, medicine, language and social sciences housed in the US. While one might make an argument for the greater access to resources in a country like the US, such systems of ranking also put in place norms defined by the position of power a country holds globally, forcing all other institutions to adopt the defined standard if they want to remain competitive in the global education industry.

I am quite concerned that the kind of comparison between US and India that Thane makes opens up the possibility of a move towards blind mimicry of the First World. I have not seen enough in Thane’s piece to assure me that he is aware of the multi-dimensional context-specific meaning of education, which can make a healthy give and take between teaching/learning practices in different countries possible. While we struggle for such a give and take, we must appreciate the efforts of students like those of St. Stephen’s to put education to the test of the world outside it. It is through such linkage between the classroom and its outside that the organic connection between educational institutions and the society in which they are located can be enriched.

(The author thanks Jiten, Behenji, Jonaki, Shriya and Prat for their comments on the article) 

Aritra Chatterjee is a former student of St. Stephen’s College and Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently a full-time political activist with Haryana Lok Shiksha Manch.

15 thoughts on “Of Angry Young Students and Education in India – A Response to Thane Richard: Aritra Chatterjee”

  1. I appreciate this article and wish to add just one more point: as someone who graduated from a liberal arts college in the US and now teaches at one, and as one who has spent much time with undergraduate and graduate students (I know these are American designations, forgive me) at the various DU campuses over the past several years, I can quite confidently attest that, for all their creative openness and critical discourse, American higher-education institutions actually pale in comparison with Indian ones when it comes to political engagement with the societies they are a part of. In fact, liberal arts schools in the US, many of which are by design located far away from urban centers and in the peaceful tranquility of the “countryside,” are really great for fostering political discussion and debate in the classroom, be it a political science course, a women’s studies or ethnic studies seminar, or the like. But from my experience, students in India were much more likely to actually engage in such debates outside of the classroom (in the public spaces of the campus, the chai shop, the canteen) and actually take part in political action both on and off campus. This is of course partly attributable to the very different political climates of the US and India (what Nandy might call their very different “cultures of politics”), but this is precisely Chatterjee’s point, and one I agree with wholeheartedly: for all the apparent rote learning and immutable structure in Indian colleges, they seem to foster and perhaps even produce a degree of engagement with the local community that has long been absent in even the most prestigious (or perhaps especially these) American liberal arts colleges. Perhaps it is US institutions that have much to learn from or mimic their Indian counterparts in this regard…


  2. Rote-learning (among other things it is symptomatic of) is politically more serious than the writer thinks. In fact, this dirty scuttle for ‘merit’ and exclusion of the marginalized are also due to cut-throat competition, of which a basic indicator is rote-learning. Dumbed-down, ritualistic education feeds directly to the market, and being fed is made the dream of most school-goers. Not to suggest that struggles for inclusion and reservations are not important, but proponents of those will have to work with as much gusto against the more bigger challenges of marketization and mindless competition. We will have to resist the numbing effects of dumbed-down education, however liberating it might be for us in our individual lives.


  3. Arita, first I want to thank you for your very thoughtful and informed response. I have told those who appreciated my piece to read yours as well – it is important to temper one’s views with those of “the opposition.” The wording of your second paragraph, of your normalization of backgrounds, (what I referred to in my defensive bit about “nationalism”) was a beautiful piece of writing and I agree with your characterization of how the discussion should be framed.

    Your views about Dalits and their inclusion as a social good in the broadening of education are worth noting, but the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Right now this issue in the US, which you referred to in your piece, is being more hotly debated than ever because of an imminent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. In India, quotas were supposed to be phased out after ten years, according to the constitution. The benefits to the underprivileged accrued through admission to institutions like St. Stephen’s are significant, but saying they are a relatively big leap is different from saying that they are as big of a leap as they could be. While there are books written about examples of success, can we honestly say that we are delivering on our promise on a broad level? Economic liberalization happened 22 years ago, where do we draw the line between being impatient or justified in our demands for further change? I do not know the answer. I have not read all of those books or seen all of those schools or met all of those graduates. I tried to keep my critique focused on my experience and only level a broad judgement where I felt it was appropriate. Based on my experience at Stephen’s and the experience of those around me, I believe we are far short of achieving a level of excellence we can be proud of, despite notable cases to the contrary. But, again, my perspective is limited.

    Related to this is a point you raised near the end of your piece about the elitism I spoke of. Allow me to give a quick personal example. I grew up in Montana and lived in low-income housing beginning at age 7. My single mother cleaned houses for a living and I was on the free school lunch program until High School, when I stopped eating lunch in the cafeteria. I was only able to attend Brown because of a full scholarship. In one of my Development Studies classes, the professor said “You are all part of the elite” and a girl with similar circumstances to mine reacted strongly. She described her background – she was from a very poor country and a poor family – and rebutted that there was no way she came from the elite. “You may not be from the elite, but the day you set foot on Brown’s campus as a student, you joined it.” I have thought a lot about that since and have come to agree (for an interesting look at this in the Ivy League, see this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-secrets-of-princeton.html). Despite that, though, the students of St. Stephen’s have begun to speak out and I applauded them for this. You clearly read their article differently from the way I did. I read it as students who were pissed off about the Principle interfering with their student lives and trying to make a higher argument about it. “Good,” I thought, “but I want more.” Like you said, history is indeed full of examples of piecemeal actions taken together to create meaningful change. Let’s hope their piece is an example of that and not just a gripe written with fancy words.

    At the end, though, we come back to whether I am trying import my standards of education from America and hold India to them. To a certain extent this is unavoidable – I was raised and educated in the US and it will always serve as part of the context for my worldview. You called this a “veiled upholding of Brown University,” but I do not think I put Brown on any sort of pedestal in my article. Honestly, there were very large parts of Brown’s Economics Department that I was VERY dissatisfied with and even wrote a letter to the Chair of the Department about. What standard was I using then? The same one I used at Stephen’s: an innate understanding of what a good education should be. We all know what this means on some level, we just struggle to qualify it. Student/faculty ratio, test scores, number of faculty with Nobel Prizes, admission selectivity… the list is long and often not reflective. But sitting in my classrooms at Stephen’s I felt frustrated, bored, and abandoned. My classmates felt the same way. It was not a comparison, it was a compulsion.

    India is an amazing place. I would not choose to live there if it were full of dull people who parrot the views of others… at least more than that happens anywhere else in the world. But there is a problem, no denying it. Here is another piece that is quite blunt about it: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/an-open-letter-to-indias-graduating-classes/. So while we figure out a way to fix things, let’s stop accepting the lie that a degree from a school like St. Stephen’s means everything we currently accord it. Only with the urgency resulting from that sobering view will we get seriously antsy about the future.


  4. I think Richard’s piece essentially focuses on one central point: the quality of education at this particular college (which feeds into a secondary discussion about the state of higher education in the country). He speaks from direct experience and foregrounds systemic problems. I find his essay exceptionally honest and forthright, and I find its direct and simple treatment of the question at hand (quality of education) refreshing. Most discussions on this subject are obfuscated by abstract references to extraneous issues that somehow detract from a useful investigation of the matter at hand. Instead of focusing on the core question of the quality of teaching and learning, these discussions (particularly those that lionize the socially-engaged and politically-grounded character of life at Indian universities) generally venture into abstractions and avoid the matter of quality altogether. In fact, I find the argument that life outside the classroom in Indian universities is rich and politically robust patently misleading. I do not agree with the assertion (made here) that Richard “valorizes” the college; instead, he simply reproduces the argument that this college is perceived to provide quality education and a pathway to better opportunities. His essay attempts to unpack and interrogate this perception. He makes a valid point when he says that students have more to worry about than their disagreements with an administrator. They do, and this does not in any way diminish their fight for gender equality or respect and recognition on campus.


  5. An interesting dialogue; whilst Aritra’s arguments are indeed welcome…anybody like Thane writing and informed by his/her western education is loathe to face it…both articles clash in terms of what they are addressing. Surely Thane’s elitism inevitably creeps out, yet the sole issue of rote learning hasn’t been addressed sufficiently in the response. Just as a million little incidents lead to far-reaching movts for change so do a million little issues. Whilst the process of education in India is opening upto those from the underpriviledged classes, the kind of access is still a bit warped – for instance, the focus on ‘reforms’ in higher education without addressing the mind numbingly sorrowful lacunae in basic to high school education in local towns and villages and government schools all over the country. Hence, even while there is reservation (read: not affirmative action) in higher educational institutions, there is an occurence of empty seats. Moreover, while there is probably some initiation away from rote learning (I am not aware of the NCF 2005), cbse results in social sciences and english scaling in the 90’s-100 leaves me astonished to the kind of evaluation conducted and thereby expectations from students. Moreover, India has been climbing down consistently in the global innovation index from a 23rd rank in the pilot report of 2007 to 41 in 2009 to 64 in 2012.
    However, author’s response article broadens the debate which is welcome indeed, particularly moving away from the valorization of a single college to also addressing the blind mimicry of the Western template as is disturbingly been evidenced in DU today. Not only are students being deprived of a say, but teachers and academicians as well. This has been the fundamental problem with our post-colonial experience – a tendency to be facile than analyse what the author stresses as contextual location-specific requirements to develop a correspnoding infrastructure – education, healthcare etc.


    1. why call thane’s views elitist? Seems like an easy way to dismiss a valid argument. What is elitist about wanting to improve critical thinking in education? I hear this elitist argument too often. So to appeal to masses people have to act dumb? and not point out glaring issue?


  6. Thane’s article was blunt as it was truthful. Its not the Us and Them debate that we need to obsess about in the issues that he has raised but about the teaching methods adopted in classrooms all over India. Despite the mandatory extension activities built into the curriculum, I am yet to find any meaningful activism or socio-political engagement with the community outside the classroom. The little that is done in these hours earmarked for service is only to satisfy the mandate, nothing else.


  7. I agree with richard and cannot bring myself to agree with this rebuke, First of all why bring the so called socio economic race and geographic factors into question to bring down richard’s observations. A dalit may find this discussion elitist? Then what is an educated elitist supposed to do , stoop? I have experienced the farce that is indian education system, i have been able to rediscover my creativity only after deciding to leave india and study in europe. You may bring in loads of factors like lack of facilities etc but that is no excuse for the pathetic education we have in place. How you can bring caste and economics in a pure topic such as quality of education is proof enough that indians tend to ignore the problems facing them in their eyes and instead make herculean efforts to make an excuse for it. I am sorry but to me your defense is nothing but nationalistic. Your claims about indian education not being just about rote learning has no basis, Alas i can only classify your defense as a way to justify a worthless indian degree no offense intended. I just find it passionately disturbing that indians continue to defend the worthless culture and system inspite of the great potential they hold. A good example is your self , Although i fervently disagree with what you say , i am happy nevertheless that there is space for debate. And although your views have no basis and have been heard quite often you put them elegantly.


  8. I find it laughable that the author starts out his argument by, “Educational experiences aside, we both belong to specific race/color/caste/class/gender locations which may also influence our views,” going on to argue why Thane’s argument isn’t multidimensional/imposes uniformity, and then himself adopts phrases like ‘First World’ numerous times throughout the article. Does he really think there’s only a single kind of education in the First World, or even among all U.S. universities?

    The above article is also precisely the reason why I found any sort of engagement outside the classroom in Stephen’s completely lacking and a huge farce. The outside-the-classroom discourse (at least in Stephen’s) was completely dominated by a certain section of people who always seemed to dismiss contrary opinions, without actually trying to engage with them. This article too, instead of engaging with the idea of what we could actually do to make quality education more feasible, seems to be totally talking past what Thane had written.


  9. The problem lies in the difficulty of defining quality education. There is a tendency in India to question the global benchmarks and pretend that they are not the right benchmarks by which to measure quality of education in Indian universities. Now some of them may be biased but how is it that other Asian countries such as China have a number of universities on the top 100 lists while India does not? What is so special about India that we should be treated as a special case and not be held to globally acceptable standards? We are not addressing the elephant in the room, which is that quality of education depends a lot on quality of teachers. Teachers in India have security of tenure, a uniform pay packet and no performance metrics they have to adhere to. So they have no incentive to perform well. Why should I stretch myself if I will be getting the same pay by just teaching poorly? Unless we are able to change this system of no firing, no incentive for good teachers, we will never see much improvement in our country for anything in which the government is involved.


  10. In our Education they are teaching us the contents only related to the subject and how to score marks in the exam so that we land up in a good company. But even the students who are having the good percentage are n’t able to be placed in any of the company. So there is something gap that is not being filled up between the college and the placement company by our Education. Colleges are more concerned about there accreditation grade or the brand name in there society so that students come and join there colleges. In the current environment the colleges became something like a share market having its value being raised or lowered. The lectures wants there students to learn only the concepts which are coming for exams and get a good marks. They aren’t concerned about the future of the students (not all the lectures but in majority I am saying).

    Lectures teaches the answers only the definition that is text book and memorize the same thing rather than understanding it or coming up with new ideas or innovations. They teach us only the subjective one’s but not how to face the challenges or overcome the failures and so on. This comes to know when we land up in the real time environment. Even the notes which they give are the routine one’s. The notes are being passed to seniors to us and juniors and so on. Once in while they even criticize the students based on the ranks we get. They fix in the mind that those who scored high are brilliant and those who scored less are dump. The practical things plays a main role the than the theory part because its easy to remember by doing practicals. But our lectures don’t allow to sit in practical lab much as it doesn’t fetches more marks. the programs that is being coded also are the routine one’s that is being followed from the ages. Here “Thinking outside the Box” is not being practiced in the colleges. But college is the basic foundation of our career, it plays an active role. They doesn’t teach how to code in a different way by giving the real time examples. They are just the routine theory and subjective knowledge. The lecturers which I faced in my college carry a notebook of the previous year and dictate the notes. Its not only in the colleges its also done in the school level also. And the same answers needs to be written during our exams as well. During class also they state that this answer is very important will be fetching you more marks and we all also mark it in our notes as important and study during the exam as a priority. The other topics which are at least preferences are not being learned ( I am talking about the majority of the Indian students point of view).

    The system really needs to be changed. It should not be on the subject knowledge only but also how to face the failures and the outside world due to this the suicide rate of the students will get vanished. At last it is the not the marks that is being scored should be considered but the extensive knowledge the students gains is important. The management seats which are being booked for buying the seats for the rich students or the VIP’s should be banned.


  11. As an Indian citizen who studied in India and then pursued the terminal degrees in the US universities, I have my two cents on this discussion.
    First, if asked to respond to Mr. Thane’s discussion 15 years ago while in India or fresh in the US, I would have sided with all the commentators defending the Indian education system. Now, after having gone through the US education system, and discussed with many International and Indian students here in the US, my conclusions are diametrically opposite.
    All those comparing Indian education system to the US system should do an apple to apple comparison. Noticeably, what tangible outcome from the indian education system can be compared with the the US system. I would think, new ideas in the shape of scientific discoveries, technological innovations are one aspect that should be compared. Second, in sociological, political or administrative sphere, what new system has germinated in these universities that has been planted globally.
    On both counts, US beats the output from India hands down. This is even after you factor in the larger population size of India and lower education cost.
    Defending false pride is an impediment to defining the problem let alone thinking of a solution.


  12. In the US, at the end of every course a student survey is conducted in which the students evaluate the course and the teacher. In many places, the result of the survey is publicised, say by placing it on the internet. In my opinion, this produces accountability in teachers. Evaluation of teaching happens in some places in India, but the results are secret. So it does not make for accountability.

    I think Indian students might want to ask that this idea be implemented in Indian universities.

    It is a shame that instead of worrying about the quality of teaching, the Indian student is more worried about dormitory regulation etc.


  13. I fully appreciate the relevance of social justice , but surely the criteria for reservation cannot be OBC/ SC/ST – it has to be basis the economic profile of the candidate i.e. whether he/she is actually disadvantaged from an accessibility/ monetary point of view. by continuing to live with these divisions – we are ensuring we continue to carry the baggage of these segregations along with us and continue with the differentiation basis class & caste. If the idea is social justice and equal opportunity for all, let there be one parameter for judging the same and that is where you stand in the economic/ financial hierarchy not what your surname is.


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