Friday, August 2, 2013

Peace beings in the Mind of the Child

Teesta Setalvad

Side by side with battling communal violence in the public arena, media and the courts, a unqiue exeperiment we began in 1994 was working with young minds supplementing what is taught (or not taught) in the history and social studies currciculum. KHOJ borne of the fires that seared  Bombay in 1992-1993 carries on today. One of the techniques we use is that of story telling, using short narratives to open the classroom to discussion and exploration. Here are two written by me…
Mumbai, December 1992, Nearly ten Years Ago
It was late at night. The whole city was tense after the events of the past few days and while most people were terrified of stepping outside their homes, a large group of blood thirsty men with coloured bands round their heads, drunken eyes and armed with freshly sharpened choppers roamed Kurla’s streets.Kurla is a densely populated part of Bombay. Most parts of Bombay are crowded with people. Here, too, different kinds of people live. There are people clustered in different localities. Many Muslims and many Hindus live in Kurla.
But on one particular street in Kurla, a lone building is occupied by muslims, next to which stands a mosque where they pray. It was people living in areas like this that were  most terrified during whole of last week. Because crazy stories were being spreading lies about people and making others tense and afraid. It was near this building at 1.a.m. that night that this incident occured. Unsuccessful in their efforts elsewhere, this bloodthirsty and drunken mob arrived outside this building and shouted in the dark of the night demanding that all the muslims living there line up one by one and come out. Everyone inside the building, man  woman and child were listening, trembling with fear . Waiting, but none came out.
Shout after shout . And threat upon threats followed. Fear, tension, blood, anger, shouts -- you could almost feel all these in the air. The mob was raring to go, angry and hysterical at no response. They were not going to wait too long to act. That much was clear.
As the tension reached breaking point, and someone in the crowd called loud to “Marco, to do , booming voice of a buxom old lady could be heard. She was plump and old, her hair peppered with white.
“You will destroy that building over my dead body, “ she could be heard declaring, “even I am a Hindu. But my faith does not teach me to destroy others’ property, to burn, loot and kill. If you want to do so in the name of Hinduism, you can do so over my dead body. But you will have to kill me first”.
There was a silence, pregnant with meaning. The trembling folks in the building through finding her voice familiar had no real faith that the courageous act of this lone woman could save their lives from the raving mob. But still they waited. Tense and afraid.
Minutes passed. Some more. Suddenly the silence was broken as the crowd broke up, turned around and started to disappear. As they did so, even the leader of the mob slunk away. He, by the way, was the old lady’s son.
Food and Faith
THIRTEEN year-old Lara was very excited about attending her chacha’s wedding in Hyderabad. Her new clothes, the jewellery she would wear, flowers in her and best of all, the mehendi on her hands. She could not wait too, until she could get the first  the first glimpse of her chacha’s bride. But that would have to wait for the mehendi celebrations, the day after, when all the women would dress up and take the bride’s finery, beautifully wrapped to the bride’s house. Her new chacha’s name was Tasneem. But before that chacha had arranged for all the children to visit the Hyderabad zoo the next day. The whole gang of them were very excited.
By 11o’clock the next morning, nine of them had been bundled into a waiting car (also arranged for by chacha) -- bathed and fed for their treat. An impressive old man, with a flowing white beard was the driver of the car that took the children to the zoo. They set out, and over the next few hours had a wail of a time roaming the zoo grounds, being treated to the little specials that make such outings memorable :, sweets, colourful ices, the works. Soon they were so stuffed they could not eat any more.
As the day wore on, and the sun rose higher, the chatter of the children dulled, some of them dozed in the car and slept. Since the zoo was some distance away, they woke feeling very very thirsty. Home was still quite some distance more.
Lara and her eldest cousin, Rashid had an idea. They told the old driver to stop near a local shop , one of them got out, requested water for the children which they drank n huge gulps, thirstily. As they clambered back into the car, they were all in for a rude shock. Instead of starting on the drive home, the old driver was frowning, something bothering him deeply. “You should not drink water from any where and any one, ”he cautioned “We don’t even know of the religion or caste of the shopkeeper,”  he explained . Lara, Rashid and the other children were appalled. What difference did the religion and cast make to a thirsty child, water was water wasn’t it, whoever drank it and from where ever it came? A heated and colourful argument with the old driver followed.
The next day, the wedding celebration began in full earnest, the best part was that all the girls were having their mehendi applied. A mehendiwalli had been called for the whole day. After many others, Lara sat that afternoon for her mehindi application. Midway, the mehindhiwalli gestured to Lara to summon an elder since she was hungry and thirsty. Enthusiastically, Lara went and filled her plate with delicious wedding-time specialities and a glass of sherbet. Instead of being appreciative, the mehendiwalli sternly asked her to summon an elder. Upset though she was, Lara did what she was asked. The mehindhiwalli then whispered to Lara’s aunt her request: could some snacks be ordered from the outside restaurant please, and a cold drink too? Understandingly, the aunt nodded.
Baffled, Lara needed to have an answer. Running after her aunt she demanded, “ but why could not aunty eat the delicious food that I brought her? Why are we getting this from outside?” “You, see, Lara” her aunt gently explained. “The ways of the world are strange, sometimes difficult to understand. This aunty belongs to different religion from chacha’s and dadi’s. So , she does not want to eat the food cooked in this house. Do you understand?? ”.
Lara shook and nodded her head at the same time. She did not understand that food or water had different religions. But what she was beginning to understand was that the ways of the adult world were different, strange and made her uncomfortable What worried her really was that the way grown ups behaved, it was as if they never ever wanted to change or question them.

Preaching History

Teesta Setalvad

Doesn’t every country or nation, society or civilization have a need, an urge, a  natural one if you like to glorify its past?
Haven’t we all been disillusioned with and faulted, on valid grounds, the sanitised, drudgery that is being dished out to our hungry, fresh and eager minds under the epithet of the word ‘education’?

Haven’t we all, also, been speaking of the urgent need to take stock and re-evaluate the institutions of learning? To ask whether our schools are institutions that nurture, excite and stimulate the mind engendering simultaneously notions of community, sharing and sisterhood?
Has not there been, for some decades now, an intense debate on the need to re-locate the mother tongue creatively in the learning/education process to enable the rich, emotional and creative growth of every child?
Has not the urgent need for a creative and rich sense and source of history -- through exciting history text-books, syllabi and the spoken word of the history teacher ---been articulated time and again? So that the subject becomes a point of wonder and discovery of the past through which our visions of the present can coalesce and gell?  So that future generations may well have pride, in our past, but a pride, deeply tempered with humility that critical insight and incessant questioning gives them? The humility of knowledge with the rewarding realisation that any reading or understanding of events and periods, dynasties and the peoples who lived under them will always be guided, or driven, coloured or enriched by the perspectives, locations and ethical-value systems of the receiver of that knowledge.
And when we speak of India, the rich, the poor, the rural, the urban, the tribal, the non-tribal, the Dalit, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian, the Keralite, the UP-ite, the Gujarati, the Assamese, the task becomes even more awesome. And therefore, a deep challenge.

 How does the student, and the teacher of history reconcile the vastness of regional and linguistic distances and locations,  the variety and contradictions in community lore and literatures,  the differences of approach and nuance in varied religious traditions and their symbols and thereafter put all of this together as the study of the one big whole: India and its history?
The excitement and the challenge lies if we are able to preserve all these nuances and differences, the variations and the shifts, and gift to the young mind with its infinite capacity to wrangle with the multi-polar -- varied senses of history. Not to be concerned as the more rigid adult world always is with offering certitudes but offer instead the ability to doubt, to question, to twist and turn things and beliefs, on their head, instead.
The legend of the Bhil tribal boy, Eklavya may or may not have the same emotive element for a Muslim or Christian youth living on the margins of acceptability in a deeply polarised Indian polity but as a profound comment on the denials of education to lower castes in a rigidly caste-ridden society and tradition, it surely has lessons for any student or teacher attempting to grapple with notions of social equity,  justice and systemic deprivation in the days of yore?
The vivid account of Gandhari’s curse on Lord Krishna -- the mythical  image of a mere woman cursing a God -- after the great war (Mahabharata) that left millions, including her eldest son dead, immortalised in Indian literature, may not have deep significance to the rigid follower of Hindutva but cannot but have profound meanings for women today grappling with more and more indignities -- familial and societal violence included  -- in a violent, modern world.

 The history of the first Arab settlers on Kerala’s shores may or may not be perceived to be of interest to students of history in the rest of India; nor the  fascinating fact that 5,000 years ago when this land that we now dub not just India but Hindu-sthan, gave the King of Persia a copy of the book, Kalilavadamana that contained vital information on a medicine for immortality;  but the business communications and trade links that this development lead to, and th e uniquely mixed communities that these associations engendered are critical in understanding the lives and cultures of these communities that line our vast shores.
The near-mythical intellectual association of the Shaivite jogin, Laleshwari and the sufi Sant Nooruddin have resonances through the folklore of Kashmir that  both help and baffle us while grappling with the ethos and understanding of Kashmiriyat.
And the student and teacher of history in India, while looking at the Ramayana  as a political epic will need to grapple and thereafter, reconcile that over 200 versions of the Ramlila – village-level performances of the epic --- have dotted this land. Each one rich and contradictory. Where Ram is venerated by some and Ravana by others.  If votaries of hegemonised history, that is Hindutva, violently disrupt the Dussehra celebrations in Tamil Nadu (as they did in October this year) that have always burnt effigies of Ram, not Ravana, as part of “their” glorious past and tradition, their aim becomes clear. The project launched to Hinduise history is also a project aimed aimed to stiffle democracy, variations and dissent in the rich area of culture and tradition and impose, in its stead,  a set of “moral and religio-cultural dos and don’ts” on a land and culture that had, hitherto defied such strait-lacing  nomenclatures.

 Independent India’s text-books and history teaching approach even before the onslaught of the saffron brigade were unimaginative, sanitised and also prejudicial. The sangh parivar is intent on pursuing a narrow and dictatorial educational agenda that is defined in terms of addressing only a Hindu nation, but even before members of the sangh  received political legitimacy, history was not only a most neglected subject for well nigh 50 years, and therefore the least liked, but the content of history text books at many regional levels also reflected blatant biases.
Under saffron-ruled Hindu-sthan the distortion of history project has been sought to be pushed through much more aggressively first through insisting on the study of a language, Sanskrit and the trappings of other symbols (like the recitation of the Saraswati vandana) that have a singular upper caste Hindu bias. The project and its intent is not limited to merely that, however.

The ominous terms “Indianising, nationalising and spiritualising” Indian education that Professor Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati have recently dished out have a specific import, coming as they do from the keen votaries of a sectarian and divisive vision of India not as a democratic, secular state but as a Hindu nation.

Sure every culture, and most civilizations have an irresistible temptation, a human failing if you like, to pick from the past, look for icons and symbols, hark back to traditions from the days of yore before packaging this potent mix into history teaching and syllabi.  The moot question that needs to be asked is, which past, or which aspects of it, does the Hindutvawaadi agenda seek to glorify.
Is it the tradition that Jayabala and Gargi represented when they, as single women held discourses on sophisticated intellectual issues of the day described in the Upanishads? Or is it the practice of sati -- the
 burning of a woman alive on the funeral pyre of her husband-- and the staunch defence of wife-burning as “part of our glorious ancient traditions” by then Vice President of the BJP, Vijeraje Scindia did in 1987?
The need in school curriculums to incorporate a study of the history and evolution of different religious faiths cannot be questioned. The inclusion in the recent proposal that has also advocated the incorporation of the Vedas and Upanishads into basic curricula, would hardly give commensurate  space to the Koran, the Bible, the Puranas, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Buddhist and Jain texts. Much less would such a project be concerned with the vigorous and energetic study of the contexts and conditions behind the birth of faiths, the sets of belief that went with the believers, changing through the generations,  a study of the History of God and man’s  engangement with the divine, festivals and the forms that festivities took reflecting current day dominations and assertions.

Hegdewar, Golwalkar, Savarkar, - we certainly cannot blot their presence from the historical landscape and the attempt must be not to do so. Generations must study them, just as students of history we need to study Hitler and the ideology that he represented, Zionism and its impact on the minds of the Israeli people; the politics of exclusivism practiced by votaries of both a Hindu (RSS, Hindu Mahasabha) and a Muslim Nation (the Muslim League).
The Hindutva project, apart from stifling democracy, different and varied ways of thinking and approach also sees the words Christian and Christianity, and Muslim and Islam as alien and foreign, never mind that these faiths arrived on Indian shores 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. The contributions of Persian and Arabic to Indian languages, the birth and life of Urdu as an indigenous language, the contributions of women and
 men of different faiths to the arts, the literature, the thought and culture of this land are disdained and excluded from this “Indianisation project”  with hatred spewed on them in subtle and obtuse ways.
The exclusion of varied traditions from institutions of learning and the hate-mongering against certain “outsider” faiths have always formed  the core of Hindutva ideology. But within this project to hegemonise and control the mind and impulse of future generations is also a repressive impulse against any social change and a  vote for the status quo.
No proponent of Hindutva speaks for the alleviation of social inequities, poverty, discrimination in empolyment, free and fair access to education, for example. In its celebration of a selective and sectarian past, it is a project that denies the realities of history by exclusion and distorts the rest through blatant manipulation.
What the Hindutva project means for women also needs to be discerned. Quite apart from the “home-keeping” recommended as essential instruction to young girls in high schools, other outfits that are affiliated to the same ideology have in the past few days made threatening noises against women who are challenging brutal and violent treatment within the families by husbands. The Purush Hakk  (men’s rights) samiti,  at a very recent meeting in Mumbai threatened any woman with dire consequences who dared to complain against physical abuse using section 498A of the IPC to register cases of domestic violence with the police!
Myths and traditions, images and perceptions.  In the words of middle-eastern author Fouad Ajami, “a country’s myth can console and knit together men and women of different needs, carry them through different times, explain sorrow, defeat, locate them in the world. But the myth can also hide the country from itself, hide itself from scrutiny”.

 One of the myths surrounding the glorious golden, thousand-year old Indian (read Hindu) civilization that many of us fall easy prey too, is  about its essence. We believe,  or would very much like to go on believing that it is also one of the world’s most non-violent and tolerant.  Do we by this very assertion hide ourselves from scrutiny?

There can be no doubt or of the myriad faiths, beliefs  that have woven their own traditions on this soil. Or the manifold peoples who have found themselves on this land, a home.  Various traditions touched this land, enmeshed, flowered , and have grown. Sometimes even flourished.

Yet Buddhism has almost vanished from the land of its birth. What traces remain, the modern day architect of the Hindu nation, Indian home minister, L.K.Advani would like to appropriate under the “all-Hindu” fold.
Inherent to the abhorrent notions of shudra  and ati-shudra, menial castes whose status was supposed to equal that of women, is the concept of “ so impure as to be untouchable”.  Do we really believe that there can there be any other system of repression or discrimination which can be more utterly humiliating than this? It has for generations now, successfully excluded a whole strata of people – nearly 25 per cent of them --from the eyes and ears of society and existence sparing them no means to livelihood, education and social upliftment.
In the readings of our past and our glorifications of it, we must be careful not to let it befuddle an inquiring mind. History, the reading and studying of it, must above all, sharpen the mind’s ability to, above all look at the past and the present with a searching and curious mind that is forever poised to phrase that eternal last question.
If the content and approach to not just history teaching, but all teaching under the Hindutva project is to dictate what should be learnt and what must be taught, outline the set of values germaine for a “strong and unified nation”, leaving no space for the development of individual commitments, regional and linguistic variations, multi-polar religious and cultural influences, the project is a  systematic and narrow attempt to regulate and control the mind. Limit its growth. Darken its spaces. And obliterate for a long time to come, that eternal last question.