Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Peace Begins in the Mind of the Child

(a collaborative and reflective article based on the KHOJ experience)
Textbooks that dismiss the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in one sentence or fail to mention this first, post independent India’s act of terror, or condense the upheaval of the Partition to just four paragraphs represent an education system in denial. Caste and its evil systems of discriminations are carefully evaded though in the seventies we studied them under their ‘merits’ and ‘demerits’. Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who led the north west frontier province into non-violent satyagraha was a figure known to Indian children until he mysteriously vanished with the hate filled years since the mid eighteen hundreds.
The Indian classroom within the Indian school is a space that can successfully nurture healthy notions of diversity pluralism critical reasoning dissent and even handle conflict. Instead, burdened with a feudal notion of civic organisation, privilege, family, society and growth we have wasted that space. Hatred and violence that has grown in our midst has manipulated this space negatively.
Ask a child what he means by the word “Hindu” and the answers fit a type. Extend the questions further to what he or she understands of the word “Dalit” or “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Sikh” or “Zoroastrian” or “ Brahmin” and fifteen years and the analysis of over twelve thousand children’s reactions later, other types or stereotypes get formed. In the slow but steady way our public sphere has been dominated by the majoritarian notion of what culture is or should be, defying several hundred years of practiced pluralism when rulers both Hindu and Muslim encouraged a syncretic culture that is uniquely sub-continental to emerge, language, phrases and the air in the classroom have got permeated by notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Notions of what it means to be patriotic and good have also slowly changed with time. If Gandhi embodied these ideals at their peaceful non-violent best, India’s young search thirstily for an icon that breathes hope and courage into them.
Decades of our experience with democracy, our peculiar version of it, has not preserved its essence that was articulated so well by the man today hailed as father of the nation,
“ In matters of conscience the majority has no place”. His own simple and profound life gave words life and meaning. What he was speaking of what was the right to stand apart, stand alone, to dissent.
It is this value, that privileges matters of conscience, the right and duty to dissent, be they in association, negotiation, dialogue, growth, development, citizenry and politics that is absent from our education system and classroom ethos. Fast track growth in the IT sector could not have been possible without our very own brilliant computer heads. India’s IITs and IIMs and the topnotch global packages that they command prove our national commitment to individual achievement whoever be the evaluator. What then ails our civic national psyche from creating a public culture of inclusiveness and reason ?
Somewhere the fault lies in the challenges thrown at growing minds in the classroom. The privileged among us, even the middle classes have created and survived on institutions deteriorating in quality and commitment. Two years ago when a central government tried to ensure that medical students commit to one year of their lives to rural India they had to hastily backtrack on a decision imperative if we want to infuse some humane concern back into our national, public life.
Are our schools those that care and share? With each other, within the neighbourhood? What are the field trips that we organize. Of late Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore schools take the children to waterparks for one more day of fun at a price.
Instead, we try and tell schools and teachers to experiment with the field trip. Another legacy of the past two decades is increasingly segregrated cities and towns, a direct byproduct of brute violence. The result is a deepening of barriers as the buffer provided by daily interactions and the breakdown of stereotype are denied. Where the outcaste was excluded at first today the exclusion extends to religion and other linguistic identities. The urban and rural is probably the most insurmountable. But there too religion based segregation has made its ugly influence.
Have our schools and our teachers ever tried to use the field trip, once or twice a year to engage with this distressing social reality? Of segregation, denial. Privileging and othering? Have we tried to get our children to spend a day or two in a village? Visit a Muslim mohalla ? Spend a day at a durgah which is being ‘reclaimed’ by some?
We have. And the result is electric.
The KHOJ Field Trip.

Ten minutes away from one of the schools where our project was on in Mumbai, is a predominantly Muslim locality where we took our children. The visit was planned with the collaboration of Awami Idara, a community organisation that runs a library and conducts literacy classes. Due to their efforts, we were able to visit two mosques, with the Imam (head priest) of one even explaining the practised rituals of prayer to each child.

The warmth of our welcome overwhelmed even the most sceptical among us. Seventeen little girls studying at the centre welcomed us each with a rose, while banners and placards proclaiming intra-community camaraderie made an impression on the children’s mind. Warmly sung songs by a local choir began an experience that is bound to have made some impression on each child. While many children also butchers in their follow-up exercises, it was the sense of curiosity about another religion and culture (many, including the teacher accompanying us could not believe we’d be entering the inside of a mosque) that won the day.

The spontaneity of personal experience is the best antidote to stereotype and prejudice. As we entered the two mosques, a few children could not help exclaiming, “But it’s so very clean!”
How much we help close our children’s minds by denying them the benefits of first hand experiences.

A few weeks later we engaged all the children in a reflective exercise about the trip. The interlude was because of the Diwali vacation.
During this exercise, one student while depicting very positive images of the trip, unconsciously drew both an Indian and Pakistani flag.

Why the Pakistani flag when we were depicting a visit to an area barely fifteen minutes away from the school? Did not all Muslims originate from Pakistan? was the perplexed question asked back.

It is now seventeen years since Bombay (now Mumbai) was racked by brute anti minority violence following the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. This in turn was the result of a systematic campaign by political and far right religio-political groupings that polarised Indian society and state as never before. Gestures of harmony and tolerance have in the intervening years been few and far between. Worse, we’ve had the rupture caused by the genocidal carnage in Gujarat in 2002 and violence against poor Christian tribals and Dalits to make it worse.

Our field trip has continued but that first one years ago (1998) showed how the urge for peace and harmony was so much greater for the minorities who are the victims, whereas voices from the majority were few and far between.A humbling thought, once more brought home to us by the spirit of our welcome at Agripada that year. Does this concern not govern the consciousness of the majority? A difficult question to answer but one that is crucial to raise.

A Teachers Ringside view1
An unfortunate side effect of education in a “good” school may be an isolation of the students from the society of which they are a part. Opportunities seldom arise where children are enable to see and observe beyond their own families, friends and school mates. Verbal explanations and audio-visual aids do help in portraying various aspects, but not as effectively as direct exposure. This trip was therefore a welcome one.
I had the luxury of being an observer (apart from the odd check now and then) and was able to see and note the reactions of both groups of children. The spontaneous welcome of the host group and the initially hesitant response of the guests which quickly turned to one of interest, was obvious. Nothing like a spot of music to get things going -- and this is precisely what happened. It was a pleasure to see some of my prim, self conscious girls joining in with gusto. At that moment, watching all the children singing together, one saw harmony in all the sense of the word.
KHOJ was able to organise a trip into two mosques. The children removed their shoes and with curiosity and with respect went in and looked around with great interest. They asked a great number of questions that ranged from questions regarding Islamic beliefs to the reasons for fish in the water tank.
The bus ride and the walk through areas of Bombay to areas of Bombay to which they had never really gone, was an eye-opener. They threaded their way through narrow, crowded lanes, stepping over open drains and even peered into squalid dwellings. “Do people really have to live here? was the astonished response .
At the end of the day, the students came away overwhelmed with the warmth of the response, taken aback by the poverty and squalor, buzzing with the details they had heard and seen inside the Mosques. The hospitality and the warmth extended to us superseded other aspects of the children’s minds. The single rose given to us, the careful arrangement of seats for us, the sung -- the overall delight in having us there -- were the real highlights of the day.
Its difficult to tell exactly what the qualitative result of such trips are. Nor can a trip like this in isolation achieve anything from a single experience. But as a teacher of social studies, I have become growingly aware of the inadequacies of our systems of imparting information that detaches our children so completely. Knowledge is compartmentalised and relationships and connections rarely made between real life experiences and people.

Renu Koshy was the English and social teacher who prefers to teach middle school children because of their receptivity: she is also recipient of the Varki Best Teacher (among ICSE schools) a few years ago. l

“We have never had the benefit of such an experience before. Non - Muslim children coming into our locality, spending time with us, trying to understand what we are about. This has never happened before .
Ironically this visit created beneficial ripples even within the community. We had intimated the trustees of both mosques about the proposed programme beforehand. But on that day, as the children were visiting the mosque, some persons went and complained to the Imam that girls in skirts had entered the mosque, so there was some discussion on this after your visit. It was very interesting. The matter was discussed again by the Trustees. And do you know what their response was? “This shariat (that makes the rules for dress for Muslim girls within the Mosque ) applies to Muslims alone , and here was an initiative where for the first time on our knowledge we had received such a visit from non - Muslim children. How can we burden them with our rules ? “ .
For us, the whole experiences thanks to KHOJ, was a welcome gesture of solidarity with our children (The organisers gave a write - up of the visit to Urdu Times, an Urdu daily titled Nanhe Kadam, kaumi Ekjaise ki taraf -- Tiny steps, towards national integration ) and such exchanges must be encouraged.
The Maulana who teaches Arabic to our children was the one who explained Islamic ritual and practice to our little visitors. He found their avid interest ( in every detail including the clocks that display the times for prayers to the tiny fish present in the water tank available for washing up before prayers ) heart-warming and their questions keen. Even he expressed the opinion that such visits should be encouraged.
Like a visit to the zoo or any other filed trip, if children visit each other’s areas it will be beneficial. They will see how Muslims live, how they behave amongst each other, how Muslims behave with them. That will be a memory that will stay. They may not then so easily believe that Muslims are bad word or a blot on society and so many people, unfortunately believe. Such initiatives must continue. They are unusual and educative.

Mrs. Parveen, from the local Mahila Jagruti Kendra (womens’ organisation ) who helped organise the welcome was emotional about the whole effort. She told us that the visit for her and the 17 girls was unexpected, “we felt so one with these children, and were thrilled at the fact that children from another school could visit us. Or such an endearing trip could be thought off. Such efforts must continue.”

(As to told to Khoj by Comrade Maqsood Ansari, President Awami Idara)
Apart from involving equality and social justice principles of democracy, school years should generate in children a sense of respect for work, she said.
The activist, who is editor of ‘Communalism Combat,’ also called for a healthy exposure to the role of religion in civil society and the core values of various faiths from the school level.
Advocating that religious leaders should boldly engage in public discourses on social evils such as female foeticide and dowry deaths, Ms. Setalvad said it was wrong to regard religion as a “non-evolutionary” entity. “Religious beliefs must be as much about reformative aspect of faiths.”
She spelt out as a critical task negotiating an equation between religion and civil society within the framework of democracy.
Teesta Setalvad

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