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'Encounters' and the Telling Silence of Children

A set of interviews conducted with children from families of a minority community living in the vicinity of the Batla House "encounter" in New Delhi in September 2008 reveals a large degree of alienation, fear and confusion. These also point to the need for more effective curricular framework that is sensitive to cultural and religious differences in schools as well as the imperative for better forms of interactions between and among teachers and students.

SPECIAL ARTICLE

‘Encounters’ and the Telling Silence of Children

Farah Farooqui

A set of interviews conducted with children from families of a minority community living in the vicinity of the Batla House “encounter” in New Delhi in September 2008 reveals a large degree of alienation, fear and confusion. These also point to the need for more effective curricular framework that is sensitive to cultural and religious differences in schools as well as the imperative for better forms of interactions between and among teachers and students.

The author is grateful to Anil Sethi for taking pains to edit this article.

Farah Farooqui (farah.farooqi@rediffmail.com) is at the faculty of education, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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I
n September 2008, Jamia Nagar, a Muslim-majority area of New Delhi, was shaken by an event in which two young Muslim boys, allegedly “terrorists”, were killed and a few others arrested in an “encounter” with the police. This was perceived by the Muslim community as unjust targeting of their co-religionists. Fear among the people of the area was quite palpable. Children especially were grappling with enormous trauma and horror. A 15-year old girl, who had read Anne Frank’s Diary, felt so utterly dejected that she declared: “Muslims may now have to live in hiding like Jews in the Nazi era”.

Although historians, sociologists and educationalists have extended the frontiers of social science in recent decades by working on a variety of neglected or marginal groups and how these groups view crucial events and social processes, little work has been done – to the best of my knowledge – on how children construct “big” events and the attendant social reality. In Section 1, therefore, this paper documents how children respond to an event in the vicinity of their living – such as the Batla House “encounter”. It tries to understand how this incident has had an impact on their perceptions of people and institutions and how it influenced their thinking about their own future. Section 2 focuses on schools and explores the interplay between curriculum, pedagogy and the daily rituals of school life to see how these might exclude Muslim children. It demonstrates how our schools stereotype the Muslim child and how curricula caricature cultures without representing their distinctiveness. And, quite obviously, the children – like everybody else – look at “big” events through the lens of their daily experiences. Section 3 tries to point the way forward out of this morass. It narrates the kids’ experience of jan sunwai and how this introduced them to democratic processes, thus rekindling in them a sense of hope and justice. It delineates the linkages they made between the “encounter”, their life, the larger sociopolitical reality and the constitutional system of the country. In this way, in lifting the veil of silence, in getting the children to talk, this essay gradually moves from perceptions of a single event to a much wider web of “realities” that shaped those perceptions. If it explores the politics of education, it also examines the possibilities of education through a grasp of day-to-day politics!

1 Listening to Children

In order to understand children’s ideas about this event and related issues, I interacted with 26 Muslim children, both girls and boys, living in and around Jamia Nagar, Delhi. The interactions took place in groups of two, three and four. Two groups of three and two children each lived in Khanpur, 10 kilometres away from Jamia Nagar. During the course of developing textbooks for the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), I had interviewed and informally interacted with these children several times, from 2005 to 2008, for under standing their ideas regarding different concepts in the sciences and social sciences. They were used to me asking questions and to responding unhesitatingly. In December 2008 and January 2009, when this research was conducted, almost three months after the alleged encounter, all of them were studying in “reputed” private schools. They were in classes 6th to 10th, and there were just one or two Muslim children in each class. They were in the age group of 10 to 16 years. The interviews were conducted in groups as I felt that the children would feel more comfortable in the company of their peers. This also meant that the children added to and challenged each other’s views. The ideas presented in Section 1 are largely representative of the views of all 26 children although only a few of them have been quoted directly. The children spoke to me in a mix of Hindustani and English and are reported here through translation. For purposes of this article, each child has been assigned a numeral and has been identified through it. It is significant that the interactions that generated the data for this paper also led to the growth and development of the children’s ideas. Two participants, Child 1 and Child 9 have been quoted at length throughout the paper to flag such a transition.

Fear, Insecurity, Mistrust

The children perceived the event as an unjust targeting of

Muslims. According to them:

Oh! the encounter was of course fake.

The slain police officer, constructed as a martyr by most, was an offender in the eyes of the community and these children. The alleged “terrorists” were victims. The children were cognisant that their viewpoint was in complete contrast to that of their non-Muslim friends and teachers in school and the m edia, which for them represented the sarkar (government) and desh (country). This awareness and the tense neighbourhood caused fright and bewilderment. They strongly felt that undue suspicion falls on Muslims in case of any untoward incident. They lamented:

Child 1: We are not safe as we would be the first to be suspected since we are Muslims. Child 19: Since I am a Muslim, I may be called a terrorist. Child 9: If a riot such as the Gujarat one happens, then any of us could be among the slaughtered.

Their use of hum or us suggests that they not only identifi ed with their religious group but thought that by being a member of the group their fate is tied to that of the group. As Allport (1954) suggests, “Misery finds balm through closer association of people who are miserable for the same reason. Threat drives them to seek protective unity within their common membership.” The children feared that “they” can be made scapegoats when violent incidents such as bomb blasts happen. The actual fear may have got mixed with imagined fear, enhancing their stress. The children of two groups who live away from Jamia Nagar held the same views. Proximity to the place of the incident increases stress, but geographical distance from the l ocale does not always provide protection from stress and a nxiety. Near-instant reporting on television and other media narrows the psychological distance and increases the general feeling of insecurity.

The children had their own experiential and cultural reasons to explain why they thought the “encounter” to be fake:

1: One boy was a gold medalist, why would he be involved in blasts! We have to study so much, how much more would he have to study!

25: Muslims cannot do such a thing on a Friday. The frame of reference of the children was not confi ned to this particular experience. They referred to other incidents which, according to them, were of the same kind. These included the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the lesser-known Ansal Plaza case in New Delhi. Their distrust of the police and judiciary, of other public institu

tions and the state machinery in general was quite evident as they arraigned them as connivers in framing innocent Muslims:

1: The police connive with the politicians. They themselves kept the guns [there] and said [they] were found there.

16: They [the police] are with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and the RSS [Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh].

9: It came in the newspaper that the court also takes bribes.

The ideas of these children also seemed to be infl uenced by media images and stories of police indolence during periods of strife. During the interactions, three children – of two different groups – wove imagined tales about what they might do to save themselves in case of a mob attack. This revealed a thinlydisguised but immense trauma among them.

Perception of Discrimination and Prejudice

In order to make sense of the larger incidents of discrimination and injustice, the children cited their immediate experiences as evidence. According to them, if there is bias even in a space like school, it can prevail anywhere and everywhere. Most of them used words such as bhi (also) or tak (even) to emphasise, how a “moral” and “righteous” space like school could be unfair. Sentences such as, “School too is partial” or “Even the teachers are partial” were mentioned during the conversations. The following dialogue tells us that the experiences they perceived as discrimination were related by them to their religious identity.

1: Anyway, school is also biased, there is a ten-day holiday for Diwali, whereas only one day for Id. Display boards are decorated on Diwali and an Assembly is held, no such thing for Id.

9: To some extent, teachers also discriminate.

1: Like some mark [papers] strictly and talk rudely.

The everyday experiences of “discrimination” which these children encounter in school and elsewhere were now being revisited and reflected upon in the light of this incident. They felt their teachers were biased towards them simply because they were Muslims. They also tried to express that the “encounter” was a conspiracy resulting from an extreme prejudice against Muslims. Perhaps this incident made them oversensitive and

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they started closely examining others’ behaviour for signs of prejudice and believed that they can also become targets of hatred and violence at some point in their lives. Oversensitivity, according to Allport (1954), is a result of repeated experiences of discrimination. As the children mentioned:

9: Daniyal was blamed for spoiling the smart board though it was some other child who did it.

23: I worked hard for my mathematics subject work this year and when I scored 23 out of 25, the teacher said “Hope you did not cheat”.

11: Teachers just assume that Muslim children cannot score well in examinations.

These children tried to articulate that Muslim children are stereotyped and constructed to be trailing behind. Many children, including Child 1, tried to say that Muslim children are stereotyped as troublesome by teachers. A perception of “injustice” seemed to be pervasive among these children and their entire experience of schooling may be affected by this.

An issue that all children were anxious about was that news channels often dubbed their locality as one connected to terrorism. They said their name was maligned because of this association. They spoke of the uneasy questions they had to face from their peers in school:

1: Have you seen the terrorists?

9: Are all residents of your area Muslims – Taliban? The children’s fears were not baseless. A number of friends living in areas around Jamia Nagar also told me about similar perceptions of adults. Friends reported that hiring an autorickshaw for this area, difficult earlier, became next to impossible after this incident. According to Staub (1996), this kind of collective branding of localities and dehumanisation of inhabitants makes vulnerable groups susceptible to mass violence. I also recall how students of a reputed college of Delhi University refused to go on a field visit to Faizabad in 2010, although the field visit was integral to their curriculum. The tearing down of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the attendant violence continued to haunt minds as late as 2010. The Jamia Nagar children needed help to grasp that individuals and groups have multiple identities. They seemed to have been overwhelmed by religious identity and reported that their peers at school made comments that popular Hindi film actors Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan were also involved with terrorism: “Salman Khan too is hand in glove with terrorists”. They seemed relatively unaware of and confused about the different contours of identity such as “region”, “language”, “religion” and “religious sect”. They considered their Muslim identity as a determinant of their destiny. During the course of conversation, the children referred to Pakistan, and its relations with India, and how this determined the stereotyping of their “community” in Indian society. Even so, they

did not display any mature understanding of the historical and political reasons for this.

Concerns about Future Prospects

I managed to speak with the parents of six children. It was revealed that an open discussion about the Batla House event had not taken place with the children in any of these families.

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The parents said they tried to pretend for their children’s sake that things were not so bad and thus avoided an elaborate discussion on such issues in order to ensure that the children do not feel too insecure or pessimistic about their future. Persistent queries from children were answered with a fi rm warning that such issues were not to be discussed elsewhere, especially in school. They feared that a viewpoint contrary to the popular perception would prejudice the reaction of the school functionaries towards their children which would, in turn, hamper their prospects.

The parents felt that since Muslims are perceived to be low in status and “rustic”, it is important to teach children good behaviour and politeness. This would help project a cleaner image of Muslims to the world. Three of them felt that children should be taught to control and regulate their temper on being provoked. This was needed as they believed that the majority community incites people to create situations of confl ict and violence, in which the sufferers are inevitably Muslims. They said:

Only then will people think of us differently. Only through our manners and culture can we illustrate that all Muslims are not the same.

This supports the premise that parents of young minority children play an overt role in preparing the community’s youngsters for facing prejudice and discrimination, which the youngsters are inevitably bound to (Aboud 2005).

Both, parents and children expressed concern not just about their security, but also about their future prospects and said that the incidents in Jamia Nagar had further closed the doors of opportunity on them. They will be considered for jobs only if they are exceptionally good and work harder than “others”, who are in an advantageous position.

Mother (Child 9): We will have to work harder in comparison to

others, only then will we get work.

One of the parents said that he works overtime in order to supplement the family income and afford a good tutor for his son. They strongly felt:

Father (Child 1): Unless our children are “twenty to nineteen” [i e,

better than the others], they would gain precious little!

Research shows that minority groups endorse hard work as a means of overcoming their status despite facing overwhelming obstacles (Major and Vick 2005).

Some of the responses of the kids, in contrast to the above, showed their sense of uncertainty and pessimism related to control over future prospects. This, they felt, was a result of unequal opportunity and bias:

1: My cousin topped but still could not find a job. Papa says “they” don’t even invite people with Muslim names for interviews.

9: My teacher’s son is a great cricketer but he was not chosen for playing in the Ranji [tournament]. Muslim children from families with a reasonable education and cultural capital may strive for a place for themselves. But a large number of children who lack such support structures may feel discouraged to struggle for academic success as

this contradicts the image of education as providing equality of opportunity (Ogbu 2003). This needs to be examined as one of the factors for the glaring dropout rates amongst Muslim children as pointed out by the Sachar Committee Report (2006).

2 The Process of Alienation and Exclusion

The responses of the children, which included fear, insecurity, distrust, and fretting about the future, were indicative of a sense of absorbed estrangement that cannot be an outcome of this sole event. It is important to look closely at schools in this regard as it is in school that children come to experience how others see them and how they are organised in different groups (Howarth 2006). I know a number of school-going children who have lied to their non-Muslim friends about their religious identity. My daughter and I also lied about this at the age of eight or nine. This shows children at young ages understand the relative social position of their religious community in school and in the wider society. This recognition creates a feeling of alienation in these children. The process of alienation may operate in an insidious manner and the children may not be able to pinpoint reasons for their feeling of discomfort related to their religious identity. Schools, however, are identifi ed by children as the earliest, most injurious and devastating sites of discrimination (Joshi et al 2004). It is important to understand how the school curriculum, pedagogy as well as the everyday rituals and life of schools can exclude certain children and groups. The examples presented in this section are not necessarily of the Jamia Nagar group but whenever a reference is made to them it is specifi ed.

Curriculum, Pedagogy and Exclusions

The ideological and political use of the school curriculum and textbooks has long been an area of controversy. The National Curriculum Framework of 2000 (NCF 2000) introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, without the approval of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), invited intense public criticism, following attempts to distort historical facts and use of communal ideology. Later, under the Congress-led government, NCF 2000 was reviewed by the NCERT and CABE was reinstituted. A committee of CABE (2005) was set up to review the textbooks other than those published by the NCERT such as those of state boards, private schools as well as those managed by religious and social organisations. The committee observed that these textbooks contain disturbing communal propaganda.

The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 (NCF 2005), following the recommendations of the National Policy on Education, 1986, kept the constitutional vision of India as a secular and pluralistic society as its guiding core, resulting in textbooks which are sensitive to India’s cultural diversity. But changing NCERT textbooks is not enough as these are used in less than 10% of Indian schools. Furthermore, many schools that use the CBSE syllabus use it for the higher classes only. Most Indian schools and children use textbooks prepared by the state boards and private publishers which consciously or otherwise continue to remain apathetic to minorities and their cultures. The following passage from the Class XI

58 Sociology textbook of the Rajasthan State Board (2005) is an apt example:

Because of the role of Muslims in the Partition of India, they are seen with suspicion. Not just this, Muslims have tried to maintain a separate identity. The conflict between Hindus and Muslims started when Muslims came here as invaders and forcibly converted the natives of the country to Islam (translated from Hindi).

The book has justified the present-day conditions that Muslims find themselves by calling them betrayers and invaders. It also projects a communal view by propagating that the two major religious communities have perpetually been in a state of conflict and continue to be in the same state until t oday. The book praises and constructs the dominant community as peace-loving and tolerant whereas the onus of confl ict is tacitly put on Muslims, represented by medieval rulers who invaded and plundered the country. Thus, Muslims are stereotyped as threatening, intolerant and violent. This kind of r epresentation justifies their low status and social exclusion while simultaneously bolstering the sense of superiority of the dominant community by giving space and respect to its culture and values (Joffe 2007).

Such communal messages are rampant in textbooks of many states (CABE 2005) as indeed they are in the textbook cited above. Not just children, but many teachers may not have a critical view of knowledge and may treat such content as valid. Consider the plight of the (few) Muslim children in class whose entire community is pronounced as the cause of all disturbances. They become targets of ridicule by the peer group which can emotionally scar these children.

If such overtly communal words do not appear in the textbooks, then subtle messages are conveyed through classroom interactions. One such example, that continues to appear in the Hindi grammar books, is the idiom around a certain Shivaji-Aurangzeb battle: Shivaji ne Aurangzeb ko lohe ke chane chabwa diye (Shivaji humiliated and defeated Aurangzeb). On asking what this meant, a teacher used the prefi x, “maharaj” and the suffi x, “dusht” to describe Shivaji and Aurangzeb respectively: “Shivaji Maharaj aur dusht musalman raja” (lord Shivaji and the wicked Muslim ruler). The teacher’s construction of this conflict betrayed all sense of reality. According to the children, the picture in their mind was not that of two rulers trying to expand their territories but of a sworddazzling “god” in war with a “demon”. A number of children, I have found, have this confusion. The reason may be that the name Shiva is also the name of a Hindu god. This teacher’s attempt to invoke “patriotism” by showing the victory of a Hindu ruler over the “other” resulted in the “othering” of her own students.

Myths such as the above, when presented as history, provide a frame through which other communities are perceived and spur people towards communal action (Bhattacharya 1991). When such stories appear as official textual knowledge or are narrated or referred to by persons of authority such as teachers, then other related myths regarding Hindu-Muslim confl icts and plunder, heard through word of mouth from family members or the community, also appear to children as “truth”.

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These stories construct a threatening stereotype of Muslim men and women in children’s minds.

A powerful historical story is around the Partition which has been recurrently used by the Hindu right to propagate communal action and rationalise acts or thoughts of vengeance towards Muslims. Being a recent event, the oral histories of “Muslim betrayal” and “violence”, are passed on to the new generation. Contemporary sociopolitical events such as the Kargil war, cross-border infiltration of insurgents into Kashmir and the 26/11 incident of terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 are presented through an intermeshing of old and new stories. This, coupled with the powerful images projected by the media, results in the labelling and teasing of Muslim children in schools. In many movies, India and Pakistan come to represent “Hindu” and “Muslim” instead of Indians and Pakistanis (Akhtar 2007). The result is that even carefully and sensitively constructed and historicised curricula relating to the study of society, diversity, the freedom movement and the formation of the Indian nation state may be rendered ineffective in dismantling such images. A Muslim child was trying to draw the Pakistani flag but was unsure about the position of the crescent and star on the flag. Her non-Muslim friend was quick to notice this and remarked, “Oh you are a Pakistani and you don’t even know about your own fl ag!”

The other problem involving the curriculum is of representing the distinctiveness of the group without reinforcing its stereotypical image. We also encountered this while developing the Environmental Studies textbooks for the NCERT. In a chapter on changes over space and time (Looking Around, Class IV, NCERT 2006), depicting a Muslim wedding, the artist made the picture of a bearded groom. After much discussion in which we tried to situate the scene in terms of the age of the groom, his socio-economic and cultural background, and, also the proportion of bearded males in such a population, it was decided that the groom’s beard can be “shaved off” while his father can remain bearded. It is important that the curriculum charts “difference” within communities and subliminally situates it as a product of history, culture and society.

The ‘Hidden Curriculum’

Apart from these overt messages, there are covert and hidden messages of acceptance of some groups and non-acceptance of others. Rituals such as the morning assembly, celebration of festivals or even the physical environment of the school may be alienating for children. Recently, I happened to visit one of the Rashtriya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas for supervising my teacher-trainee students. Two idols of Saraswati, posters of Krishna and other goddesses and lamps with rangoli around them adorned the principal’s office. In many other schools, special prayers (pooja and havan) are organised before public examinations. Such rituals, symbols and practices gain legitimacy and “official” status by becoming a part of the school calendar and environment, while some others are, consciously or otherwise, denied that space. As children develop identifi cation with their own religious symbols and a sense of separation from others at a young age (Gupta 2008), such messages

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of non-acceptance of their culture may give the concerned children a sense of inferiority (Bigler et al 2001).

According to Singh (1981), a preference for one’s own religion and prejudice against that of others begins to take shape as early as 4 and 5 and fully crystallises by 8 or 9. Also, children become aware of associated stereotypes and the negative value that others place on their social identity by elementary school years (Bigler et al 1997; Crocker, Major, and Steele, 1989). One way in which this happens in schools is through labelling, hurling of taunts and “jokes” by peers and teachers. The Jamia Nagar children also reported that they or their friends were often referred to as mulle, katya, aatankwadi, Osama, Taliban, Kashmiri and Dawood. So, in a sense, newer labels have been added to an old list of such “monikers”. Such labelling is suggestive of denunciation by peers and teachers and harms the collective self-esteem of children who feel helpless and disinterested in school. Above all, they feel “guilty”. A child related how he was never addressed by his name but as “Mohammad”, “Miyan” or “Maulana” by a teacher. He dreaded her class for the fear of being stereotypically constructed as the “other”. The teacher expressed surprise when she met his mother and said “arre tumhaari ammi jan burqa nahin pahantin” (Oh! your mother doesn’t wear the veil). These words, according to this middle-class child, led him to believe

– and not without reason – that his family was constructed as “backward”, and that the teacher had preconceived notions about his social background, language, culture and religion.

Stereotypes lead to the belief that “group-characteristics” are innate and natural (Jost and Hamilton 2005) and ignore matters of economic and social inequality (Gillborn 2008). The homogenisation of the group may shape judgments and actions of even teachers who many a times consider children problematic, destructive and backward. This kind of stereotyping is oppressive and it discourages children who may underperform and suffer from poor mental and physical health (Bhatti 1999; Gillborn 2008; Mc Glone and Aronson 2006; Camicia 2007). These prejudicial remarks play havoc with the children’s sense of selfrespect. Such children may lose the confidence to share their cultural “data” with their peer group leading to further isolation of the group. Remarks such as “all terrorists are Muslims but all Muslims are not terrorists” have become their standard rhetoric even amongst the most “educated” and hence are endowed with enormous power in distressing children, who wonder about their identity and its relationship with conflicts in larger society.

The perception of discrimination and prejudice was evident in the responses of the Jamia Nagar children. This perception was potent enough to create in them a feeling of alienation. It also coloured their subsequent examination of life – situations and events for, inevitably, they looked at life through the lens of these experiences. The school and curriculum apart, messages about how their religious group is valued or devalued are also communicated through familial and social circles, mass media and social imagery. As they complained:

21: Pizzas are not delivered in our locality.

1: Muslims don’t get houses on rent at good places.

9: See how unclean this locality is!

All this needs to be seen against the backdrop of the contemporary social setting in which a number of people from dominant groups barely have any experiential knowledge of Muslims. This is because Muslims are condemned to ghettoisation and mixed group localities are relatively rare. The representation of different communities in the government schools in areas such as Jamia Nagar remains lopsided. Since Muslims are socio-economically backward (Sachar Committee 2006), their numbers in “good quality” private schools remain poor.

When interaction between different communities is less, the media exerts a substantial influence on people through manipulative strategies of persuasion, selection, repetition and emphasis (Hussain 2000). Jinabde (2009) points out that popular Hindi cinema – Bollywood – projects Muslims as inherently violent, fanatic, and obscurantist and they are often cast as smugglers, butchers, gangsters and beggars. The latest, and the most dangerous stereotype of Muslim in fi lms like Amir and Fanaa is that of a terrorist. Nayyar (2009) observes that in the states where Hindu right-wing parties e njoy considerable influence, the press is particularly harsh on Muslims. Such propaganda leads to the essentialisation of Muslims as products of their pathological “nature” while absolving the political and social system of all responsibility in ensuring equity.

3 Democratic Processes, Justice and Hope

Not only do the experiences of the children colour their perception of the incident but this incident also gives them a new vantage point to view different situations. This section describes how exposure to democratic processes kindles in the alienated children a sense of hope and justice. The following is an excerpt from a discussion which took place between 11 children of the Jamia group with respect to a public hearing (jan sunwai), organised by a civil-rights group after the alleged “encounter”. My participation in this discussion remained limited to prompting students by asking a few questions. One of the siblings of Child 1 aged 17 years, who had witnessed the jan sunwai was eager to share his experiences and joined the group in this discussion and has been referred to as Child 27.

In this section, wherever a reference has been made to the Jamia Nagar children, it has been specifi ed.

Child 27: Thousands of people came for the public hearing. Arundathi Roy was also there. All types of people, teachers, lawyers, and women came for it, but the organisers were mostly Hindus.

9: It is important to have Hindus in the group, only then will the matter be heard.

1: When people come together, it feels they are representing the wider truth, not just the interest of their community.

27: People were not talking just for the heck of it; the fact-fi nding team had collected evidence.

3: Why do we have discrimination at all – on the basis of religion, b etween boys and girls, on the basis of caste and class?

9: Let’s make a fact finding team! Is all this the “Right to Expression”: protesting, demonstrating?

1: All non-Muslims are not against us, people differ in their mentality.

4: Swami Agnivesh is a good person. He also knows about our Prophet.

13: My friend is also very different.

4: Mine too.

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The vivid and elaborate description of the public hearing was followed by a two-and-a-half-hour discussion that revealed that an exposure to such democratic processes can kindle hope by demonstrating alternatives available for justice. When the children saw that people of diverse backgrounds and overlapping, inclusive groups had come together to struggle for a just cause, it gave them a lot of confi dence. The discussion helped them realise how caste, gender and class cut across their religious group, which they had assumed to be monolithic until now. They now understood that the notion of an imagined homogenised community is a construct and felt such a construction to be responsible for the plight of Muslims.

The children were friends with many non-Muslim kids at their schools and knew them rather closely. They were, therefore, seen to be different from the larger “Hindu whole”. Even so, the children needed adequate exposure for challenging their stereotypical construction of the “other” through dialogic reflection and an engagement with text, films, music and visuals. The jan sunwai had helped local Muslims obtain some public space. The kids noticed this and it served to address their timidity and hesitation. The public hearing rescued them from an uncritical and unexamined closure of their mistrust of the system. They could see that those who testified in the public hearing did so only after grasping the legal implications of their act for the “victims”.

Some children even seemed open to reviewing their views and suggested that they should do some fact-fi nding themselves, including a good comparative analysis of newspaper reports. This offered them an alternative way of relating to the incident by showing the way forward, instead of remaining fixated in a “victim-hood” mentality. As the discussions in the public hearing included pressure strategies and other measures for bringing different agencies to participate in the justice process, it helped the children realise that machinery and laws exists and justice can be struggled for. This, in a way, brought out agency in these adolescents. They felt they too can become agents of change and can help create a just society. Many recognised that their knowledge of the legal system is limited and they needed to know about it in order to be more aware of their rights and also to be able to help victims of injustice and oppression. They used the words “government”, “laws” and “police” interchangeably but at the same time tried to understand the relationship between these.

An interesting discussion took place about the saffron-clad civil society activist Swami Agnivesh. This made them question their assumption that the outward markers of identity signify ideology or that religious leaders are apolitical. The children also focused on the right to speech and expression, asking whether ordinary people had the means, status or power to exercise this right. If the Gujarat government could disallow actor Aamir Khan’s fi lm Fanaa from being screened, can ordinary citizens enjoy rights? Furthermore, was this right to be invoked only against the state? Could it come into play at home and at school? They discussed what would happen if they made a complaint to the school authorities regarding a

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non-serious authoritarian teacher as also the process of registering such grievances. Most felt that their rights in their families were curbed in the name of “respect” and “discipline”. The interactions with the children were eye-openers: they suggested how schools could play a decisive role in deepening democracy in daily life. They ought to play a crucial role in educating children about issues of rights and power with respect to families and the schools themselves!

The state glorified the Batla House “encounter” as a “just battle” between “heroes” whose sacrifices should be emulated by citizens and “enemies” who deserved to be punished, even banished. Big posters could be seen all over the city, lauding the sacrifice of the slain police officer for “protecting the nation from the enemy”. Concepts such as citizenship are obviously open to many meanings but state-sponsored “anti-terrorist” publicity attaches to “citizenship” a fixed meaning focused on an unquestioning sense of patriotism and loyalty. These meanings quickly begin to circulate among the people. The litmus test for a “nationalist” passport is open and unqualifi ed admiration of agencies such as the army and police for defending the nation and its citizens. The hidden curriculum of schools accords considerable space and recognition to these “recruits” of the state. School assemblies and news-reading sessions as well as casual, unprocessed, “common-sense” remarks by peers or teachers reported the Batla House events in a certain light. In the process, citizenship was bestowed on some and denied to others.

Such gross and insensitive propaganda creates a terrible conflict in the minds of children from minority groups. The Jamia Nagar children reported that they felt proud of their Indian-ness and India’s national symbols. Yet, they looked critically at the “recruits” of the state, at times even thinking of them as mercenaries. This left them fearful and wondering about their acceptance as citizens. Were they being “unpatriotic”, they asked. Some of the dilemmas expressed were as follows:

1-If we criticise the police officer, then we may be thrown out of the country. 13-They were saying on the TV, those who support the enemy is also an enemy.

On asking what images come to their mind on hearing the word India, they talked about the national fl ag, the national anthem and the Republic Day parade. They said they were proud of being Indian. Some began to sing the song, “Yeh Mera India, I love my India!”

Allegiance to these symbols reserved their membership in the larger national group. At the same time, jan sunwai helped them resolve how they could remain deeply patriotic while still criticising the government or the state machinery. They understood that it is the citizens’ role to keep a check on the activities of the state through participation in public affairs. They learnt that healthy political distrust and criticism have to be evidence-based and guided by humanitarian values.

27-The people who were present there were in a way trying to help the government so that no innocent person is caught. 1-If a large number of people say something, can it not be wrong?

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The children struggled to understand the crucial distinction between majorities, majoritarianism and democracy.

It has been argued that children’s curiosity sharpens their intellectual facility (Freire and Macedo 1995) as they strive to understand patterns. The Jamia kids made interesting linkages between this event, their own experiences and the larger sociopolitical reality. But some of these connections were also naïve and may have resulted from communal propaganda. Their quest to understand their status vis-à-vis other religious or caste communities may make them vulnerable to communal and divisive publicity. Thus, it is important to help children problematise, and perhaps even theorise, their experiences in accordance with their developmental understanding. It would be useful to help them learn about power, hegemony and vested interests and how these serve to maintain inequities. As Engineer puts it, all Hindu-Muslim confl ict, often shown just as a religio-ideological battle, also needs to be interpreted in social, economic and political terms (Engineer 2006).

Such political issues, if taken up in the classroom, are not just about content. The process itself is political, as power operates not just between the teacher and the students but among the students as well (Fine 1993). In the process some students feel silenced and subordinated while others feel empowered and privileged. When children possess suffi cient self-confidence, feel valued and empowered and can count on being heard, only then can a discussion take place on such contentious questions. The same holds true of many other important matters such as secularism, citizenship, nationalism, or democracy. The everyday experiences of children may obscure the learning of such sociopolitical concepts unless their point of view and internal conflicts are taken note of and given space in the classroom. I spoke to the few children who amongst these 26 had read about secularism in Social and Political Life, NCERT textbooks for Class VI and VIII (New Delhi, 2006 and 2008). The following response shows that their n otion of the concept of secularism is influenced by their experiences and was different from what is intended to be taught through the textbook.

9-Secularism means that we should not follow our religion.

The tensions and contradictions between “textbook knowledge” and lived realities need to be considered and acknowledged for children to be able to make any sense of what they study. Schools, by bringing to the fore, lesser heard and feeble voices in contrast to popular belief and the overriding voice of the state, can support children’s access to democracy, as these voices delineate the sociopolitical existence of the less powerful. One child was more than just excited as she related how a teacher at least raised questions related to the “encounter” in the school assembly. She looked contented and relieved. Negating and rebuffing these children will not help because this might imply that the experiences and opinions of many members of an entire community stand negated. And these experiences and opinions often rest on personal local investigations, stories of witnesses, and wide-ranging discussions. It is important for schools to be aware of the multiple perspectives that exist regarding communal confl icts and state-sponsored atrocities.

The Way Forward

The ultimate goal is that students and teachers not only understand the world but engage in social action to change it. We can draw inspiration from the journey towards democracy of La Escuela Fratney, a school in Wisconsin, US. Here the staff and parents engaged in a year-long process of debating, defi ning and deepening the school’s understanding of multicultural, anti-racist education (Apple and Beane 2006). The exercise began with teachers talking about the contributions of coloured people to the history of the United States, including it in the curriculum and moving towards a more transformative active stage, where the teachers and students critiqued the stereotypical messages of television, children’s books and textbooks. Likewise, it is vital for Indian schools to build their own understanding as to what it means to be an institution practising democracy and secularism. Caution needs to be exercised in rescuing secularism and democracy from majoritarian emphases, which results in accepting the dominant culture as the “mainstream” culture. A powerful discernment of exclusion can be silenced by the dynamics of power. In the process, a deceptive public image of secularism may be upheld. For example, there is an instance when a particular school organised a three-day excursion just a day before Eid, thereby excluding the unquestioning “minority” in the school. Secularism, in the context of schools, can be interpreted in terms of equity in distribution of social capital where all groups and communities feel represented in the curriculum and the everyday functioning of the school. Furthermore, practices involving space utilisation during school assemblies and other celebrations as well as the physical environment and the ethos of schools need to be questioned, so that the dominant culture does not become institutionalised as an invisible norm within the school’s symbolic and material curricula.

In order to combat stereotypes, it is important to give children not just adequate exposure to each other’s lives but also forums, material and spaces that help them counter powerful historical and contemporary images. Exposure to accomplished people from the minority community can help not just in challenging stereotypes but also in giving

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    confidence to some children that they too can strive for a Since textbooks are perceived as the main source of “legitiplace for themselves. mate” knowledge, there is a need to keep an eye on them. An

    In order to create situations where the settled beliefs and urgent need was expressed by the CABE Committee of 2005 to assumptions of different cultures are questioned, especially set up national-level and state-level textbook councils but no those of the dominant culture, an important policy schools progress has been made in this regard. It was suggested that the need to adopt is to keep a tab on the diversity index of all councils be fully autonomous so as to genuinely represent civil stakeholders. This is an imperative condition to facilitate society and academia. They were to provide ordinary citizens intercultural interactions. It will help children appreciate with forums for registering complaints regarding textbooks, that not all can be convinced that a given culture is the best which would be followed by investigation by the councils. For even if the members of that culture stand convinced about keeping itself updated, it was recommended that CABE may set this. Such beliefs just cannot carry any objective basis. Inter-up a standing committee, to be guided by the National Textbook actions also weaken cultural boundaries as ideas and Council for carrying out periodic reviews of textbooks. p ractices are exchanged. Most importantly, this can create a While it is for the law and the system to ascertain whether situation of contestation and mutual interrogation (Parekh the “encounter” at Batla House was fake or genuine, it is im2007). While acknowledging that multiple teacher character-portant for the education system to recognise how the experiistics matter, research posits that exposure to teachers ences of different children impinge upon their perception of a from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds positively crucial event like this. By giving them broader and multiple affects children’s attitude towards those groups (Brown and lenses to analyse the incident, children can be saved from

    Bigler 2002).

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    Akhtar, A (2007): “The Syntax of Secularism in Hindi Cinema” in B Chandra and S Mahajan (ed.), Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society, Pearson Education and NBT Publication.

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    EPW Index An author-title index for EPW has been prepared for the years from 1968 to 2010. The PDFs of the Index have been uploaded, year-wise, on the EPW web site. Visitors can download the Index for all the years from the site. (The Index for a few years is yet to be prepared and will be uploaded when ready.) EPW would like to acknowledge the help of the staff of the library of the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, in preparing the index under a project supported by the RD Tata Trust.

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