Sunday, April 24, 2005

Not just another exam

March 24th:

On Thursday, after spending time with my friends and doing some shopping, I went to Kurla to Anjuman Khairul Islam college. Jayantbhai and I first went to meet the principal – 2 teachers were conducting the tests in their respective classes. The D.Ed. college is on the 4th or 5th storey of a building undergoing repair work (a school occupies the lower floors). The principal apologized profusely for the state of things and for her inability to arrange for tea from the teachers’ room itself. After she sent out an order to the nearest tea stall, we got down to ‘business’.

I asked her and a couple of the teachers who had come into the room what they felt about these interventions for promoting communal harmony. It then came out that one of Anjuman’s history teachers had met the Janmukti people at Mani Bhavan during an event. They had discussed this initiative and she had invited them to Anjuman. And thus had begun the expansion of communal harmony education to Urdu colleges. “You are all teachers,” I said. “What do you think of the current approach? Is a one hour talk, a book and an exam enough to get these thoughts into young minds?” It’s a start, was the reply. A lot more would have to be done, both here and elsewhere, to further develop these ideas. The suggestions started flowing – a debate, some discussions, cultural programs…

“What about the situation in Mumbai today? How can that be combated?” This brought forth another spurt of opinions. One of the staff lives in Mira Road and she talked about how the relatively new community there was already divided along communal lines. “We had some Hindu neighbors, who became nervous at some point and decided to move. We pleaded with them not to. But they said that in spite of the respect and affection they felt for us, they did not feel safe here. After they left, the 2-3 Christian families also moved out. Now we are truly a Muslim colony. The real estate agent near the station will not even show properties in Naya Nagar, where we stay. ‘It’s not a good area,’ he says.” The pain at this was evident in her voice. Another example came through of a Hindu teacher who had worked in their college for a number of years, who left because she could not put up with the pointed remarks of some teachers in the college. “Somehow they would treat her as if she was responsible for everything done by some extremists,” said the principal. “I tried explaining to them how unreasonable they were and even warning them. But in the end, she decided she didn’t want to go through this every day. What could I do after that?”

There was talk about how Muslims get misrepresented in books and the media – how they are all considered sympathizers of Pakistan. Even in the D.Ed. syllabus, there are passages about Sikhs and Muslims that are insulting. I told them about some of the initiatives for combating this kind of ‘hate’ teaching. One teacher said that reading the booklet distributed by the Sarvodaya/Janmukti group was very comforting.

By this time, the exam was completed and we headed to one of the classrooms. About 40 girls were sitting in it – the D.Ed. course is a 2-year program after 12th standard and so they must be in the 17-19 age group. I was introduced to the class – the American bit was emphasized! – but I made sure to tell them I was homegrown. I told them that I hadn’t come to talk but to listen, to hear what they had to say about the book, the exam, the topics raised by it etc. As expected, there was pin-drop silence! The teacher accompanying me then asked them to say something – if they thought all of this was a waste of time, now was the time to speak up. Finally, one girl did get up. She said that she had enjoyed reading the book and that she had been surprised by a quote from Swami Vivekananda. From reading about him in a sociology class, she had thought he was only a promoter of Hinduism. This quote had painted him in a more tolerant light. A Sarvodaya volunteer said he would find out more details, but the teacher suggested more reading about Vivekananda to resolve these seeming inconsistencies. Another girl mentioned how she enjoyed reading about Aurangzeb and Shivaji, and so on. From their comments, it was obvious that they had read the book and absorbed it.

I then asked what other ways they could work with this information and promote communal harmony. The answer was that the book should not be distributed to students alone – everyone should read it. Plays, discussions etc. could be done in their local communities also. After about 10 minutes of discussion, I thanked them and went to the other class. A similar experience ensued. One comment received here was that there was a perception that because Musilm girls covered their heads (about 80% of the girls did), they were somehow backward. “But we are not,” she said. “We also study and work and are independent.” Another asked about terrorism and its whole-scale condemnation without looking into the factors leading to it. This prompted a discussion on non-violence as well as various forms of oppression. In all, it was an engaging discussion.

This particular project and our funding of it have been highly controversial within our chapter. Some of the points raised by opponents to funding had my agreement, especially those about effectiveness. At that time, I felt we had no choice – we had to work with groups that believe in promoting communal harmony, regardless of how effective they are. After this interaction, I feel hopeful. 60+ teenage girls read this book and absorbed what it said. They had meaningful questions, good suggestions, hopeful ideas. And this is just one college. If just a handful more colleges take up these programs, make some value addition to them, tie them up to some social activism…

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