This keynote address inaugurated the 6th annual History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' which was hosted in Calcutta through August 4, 5, and 6, 2022.
I cannot help but start by remembering those who could have been part of this gathering but are not. One of them is Umar Khalid—he is sitting in Tihar jail. On September 13, 2022 he will have completed two years there. Sharjeel Imam is going to complete three years in Tihar jail soon. I remember my colleague, Hany Babu, the linguist who is in Taloja jail, Mumbai. I also think of Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Soma Sen and others. We have Professor Romila Thapar here who fought very hard for the liberty of Anand, Gautam and others, and lost. So we must begin by remembering all those who should have been here but are not here. The issue we are going to discuss here is the idea of democracy. Since most of us are in the business of education, publishing or writing, this is in a way a discussion of education in democracy. We are doing this in a moment that many feel is a moment of crisis for our nation—not that this nation has not faced crises before—but this is the most serious existential crisis for the nation as we have known it.
In the early months of 2022, Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch warned us that there were early signs and processes of genocide taking place in India. Stanton explained, and we know, that genocide is not an event but a set of processes. It can start in ways which don’t look alarming to those who are not affected. For example, how do we receive the news that nearly 300 Bangla-speaking Muslim families have recently fled Manesar and surrounding areas in Haryana after hearing open calls there to boycott Muslims? Or, what is our response to the open assemblies held in different parts of the country—Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi itself—where Hindus were exalted and asked to take up arms and be ready to kill and be killed to make India a Hindu Rashtra? To kill whom? Muslims. How do we respond to the call for rape of Muslim women by Hindu priests? The Indian state, represented by the Solicitor General of India at the Supreme Court, took exception to Hindu priests being called hatemongers. He said they are respected figures for thousands of Hindu followers and even if they make objectionable remarks, they should not be called hatemongers since it would insult their followers and create unrest. So the priest who called for rape of Muslim women, should not be jailed, but the Muslim journalist who called him out, Mohammad Zubair, should be. He had to spend nearly a month in jail before he was bailed out. As we sit here and try to talk about history, peace, democracy, it won’t be out of place to remember that only yesterday, yet another bail plea for Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, was rejected. This is his twenty-second month in a jail in Uttar Pradesh. What was his crime? He was trying to reach Hathras for his work, a place where a Dalit woman was raped. He is a journalist.
While arguing against the bail petition of Umar Khalid, the Indian state said that by talking about the case of Babri Masjid, Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens, Umar Khalid was instilling fear in the minds of Muslims. Two years back, justifying the jailing of Sharjeel Imam, the Indian state told the court that the authors he reads made the State suspicious. Why do they read Paul Brass, the state had asked. In Assam, an official segregation of Muslims has been carried out. A category of indigenous Muslims has been created, which puts all Bangla-speaking Muslims in great danger—already houses are being bulldozed. People are being evicted in the thousands. The Chief Minister thinks all this is justified revenge. All of this lines up with the ruthless attempt to remake the nation. Life for Muslims in this country has become uncertain. A deep feeling of alienation has gripped the community. No political party, not even those that treat Muslims as their natural constituents, want to talk about them. When houses of Muslims were being bulldozed in Allahabad—now Prayagraj—no political party came out to support the Muslims. When talking about Prayagraj and Allahabad we must also think about the processes of genocide—one part of which is cultural genocide. By renaming railway stations, towns, cities and roads, the government is seeking to eliminate all Muslim signs. The message to Muslims is very clear: ‘You cannot oppose, let alone resist, what is being done to you’. To do so is criminal. To understand this, we need to read what the Delhi Police recently told the court about its analysis of the violence that took place in Delhi on the occasion of Ramnavami in Jahangirpuri. It said, ‘The procession of Hindus, even if heavily armed and abusive, raising provocative slogans, was peaceful. The situation turned violent when Muslims resisted this ‘peaceful’ procession. Elsewhere too, in Karoli, Rajasthan, the armed abusive Hindu procession was described as ‘shobha yatra’ by the police and Muslims were blamed for the violence. I have no answer for the elderly Muslim gentleman who, at a gathering in Indore asked if raising our hands to resist the sword that is falling on us is a crime. This is the moment in which we sit and discuss democracy. Roads approaching the leaders of the largest opposition party and its offices have been sealed since yesterday. The office of its newspaper, The National Herald, is being raided and sealed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). This is the moment of remaking India as we have known it. There is no outrage. It’s almost as if the ED is doing something that it is legally entitled to do.
This gathering doesn’t need to be given evidence to prove all this. Yet, it is only appropriate to look at the examples of this remaking or this transformation that is close to us—examples which we as teachers and academics resonate with. While thinking about this interaction in Kolkata, I came across a video—now viral on Twitter and other social media platforms—in which a woman principal of a school in Kanpur is surrounded by media spokespersons. I found her handling of the situation extraordinarily remarkable. This is something school administrators are not trained for. The media people were asking her why a Muslim prayer was being recited at the school assembly. She very calmly explained that prayers from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian traditions are done everyday in the school assembly. The media persisted: ‘But why the Muslim prayer?’ They said that a Brahmin parent was horrified to hear his ward uttering an Islamic prayer and it was he who asked the school how it could inflict this on his son. The principal explained that this had been a practice at the school since it was founded in 2003. It had not been objected to by any parent until now. Since parents have now objected, the prayers have been withdrawn in favour of the national anthem. It is quite ironic how the national anthem is used to express the feelings of diversity that the school wants to cultivate. It is not at all necessary for the school to have students from these religions to justify sarva dharma prarthana. But now, the secularity of the national anthem is being used to deny space to religious or cultural practices which cannot be recited together in a shared public space. The matter doesn’t rest here. The directors of the schools are now facing an FIR and possible arrest. What they have been charged with is quite serious: ‘Attempt to convert’. In Uttar Pradesh, consequences for this crime can be quite severe. The media informs us that the school has been purified with ganga jal.
As I try to make sense of this news, another piece of information hits me. A private school in Kakoli, Vadodara, had to face protests from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for having organized a trip to a mosque. The VHP claimed that they were informed by parents concerned about this ‘nefarious’ move by the school. The school claims they had permission from all of the parents. Some of the parents anonymously expressed disappointment that the trip had been called off. Schools or educational institutions create shared public spaces. This new publicness can also be called the ‘citizenship spirit’ that educational institutions in our times are expected to generate. The idea is to give a sense of hospitality to all, even the youngest ones. The endeavour is to keep enlarging and expanding this space, to keep training our senses to be responsive to the smells, sounds, colours and textures which are not available in our surroundings. Schools organize experiences—they do not replicate or duplicate what we think is our normal world.
Two other stories which drew my attention are from Jharkhand or Bihar. In one, a prayer like ‘Tu hi Ram hai, tu Rahim hai’ is seen as offensive—the practice of some school children standing with their hands folded on their chests while others in a gesture of pranam is described as succumbing to Muslims and Islamism. A virulent media campaign has been launched against the schools alleging they are Islamicizing themselves. Some schools in the district of Kishanganj in Araria, Bihar are being attacked for taking weekly leave on Fridays. A much sought after private school in Punjab was attacked physically for recommending a book on Shaheen Bagh and another one on Kashmir as part of its voluntary extra reading list—it is quite extraordinary that the school has refused to submit to the diktats of the state and its conniving government officials. But this bravery is exceptional.
This gathering does not need to be reminded that the ordeal of hijab-wearing students in Karnataka is not over. The Supreme Court is not yet ready to hear their petitions and pleas. Meanwhile, the girls have not been able to sit for their examinations. They are not allowed into their classrooms but the Supreme Court thinks there is nothing abnormal in that and they can wait. Emboldened by the refusal of the Karnataka High Court to protect these students and the reluctance of the students to deal with it, educational institutions in other parts of the country are also disallowing hijabs on their premises. The most disturbing part of what was called the hijab controversy is that Hindu boys and girls in the same institutions were mobilized to attack the hijab-wearing students. One needs to note, however, that in all other cases, the practices that are being questioned by the ruling Hindutva gangs and attacked, were never objected to by the parents or students. The practices have been there for decades. I recall my school days, when we used to wait for the long tiffin break on Fridays and thank our Muslim schoolmates for it as this long break was to enable Muslim students and teachers to offer their Jummah, the congregational prayer. It is a different matter that the school used to take attendance twice on Fridays to make it difficult for us to bunk classes after the long break!
In nearly all these cases that I have cited above—and there are numerous others I have left out—there is despondency. But, there is hope too. As I said, the communities do not have problems with these attempts towards creating a shared experience, be it in the form of multireligious prayers or visits to different religious places or having different religious symbols on the premises. An active and organized attempt is being made by the Hindutva gang to encroach upon school spaces. Add to it the editing of the textbooks and the introduction of practices such as surya namaskar or compulsory Yoga Day or Indian practices which naturally have a dominant Hindu colour or the forcible nationalization of madrasas. We still do not know if schools will be used to enforce the har ghar tiranga (tricolour-in-every-house) nationalism or not. The language of all these assaults is secular or nationalist. As in the hijab controversy, many of our liberal and secular friends were baffled why Muslim girls insist on coming to school in the hijab. Schools should be secular spaces, they said. Their argument was, schools should not entertain religious symbols. Many of them in fact opposed the insistence of the hijab-wearing girls. They said that the girls were creating unnecessary trouble. So, how do we deal with this secular or nationalist language? Because it makes the task of those who think of resisting these attacks very difficult. Religion is portrayed as narrow, backward and divisive. If you wear a hijab or a burqa, you are a backward woman but Hindu practices are universal. When the minister in Karnataka was asked why the very school or college which disallowed the hijab had Saraswati inscribed on the door and did a Saraswati puja, the minister said Saraswati puja, Saraswati vandana are cultural practices, not religious practices. We must not forget that the Supreme Court is responsible for this because it ruled that Hindutva is a way of life. That is why these practices or the insistence of Hindutva gangs to have their way is portrayed as cultural and not religious. But again, it is ironic that Muslim and Christian practices are portrayed as religious and therefore narrow whereas Hindu practices are presented as cultural and therefore all encompassing and universal and Indian. They are unifying but other religious practices are divisive. How do we face this situation?
Should educational institutions be expected to resist these attacks on their own? Do they have sufficient resources? Can they stand face to face against a force which is patronized by the state or by the state itself? Before we ask these questions, we also need to ask if we see these as sporadic events or as endemic. Can we discuss school education in isolation and not talk about what is happening to university education or to the media at large? Why are journalists being jailed—should this question not be an educational question? Why were our universities—more independent, more resourceful—the first to surrender before this totalitarian regime? Why did we accept the new National Education Policy without much discussion? Why are we allowing the University Grants Commission to reframe our curricula and syllabi? Why are all the heads and deans who are independent, who are professors, not raising their voices in academic councils and other bodies—why this surrender? Why do they willingly participate in Swachhata Divas Abhiyaan and why do they mobilize students to participate in this Swachhata Divas Abhiyan and this Yoga Day, knowing fully well the farce of it? They know it and yet they tell their students and I am talking about heads of departments mobilizing graduate students to participate in such events.
We must not forget that a new service rule is being implemented in universities gradually. Many central universities, I am told, have now adopted the new service rules which prohibit teachers from expressing independent opinions. They have to take prior permission from the authorities before writing any articles in a newspaper or before appearing on a public platform. In fact, one of my colleagues at a central university in Bihar was given a showcause notice by the authorities for having written something critical of the government and we had to find ways to save him. He wanted to give a straight answer but he could not—our lawyer friends warned us that he would be suspended and other consequences could follow. So if you want to go that route, you are welcome but we will have a confrontational dealing with the situation. This is where universities are today.
A young assistant professor in a private university—Sharda University—was suspended for having asked a question: Is there a comparison between the movement of Hindutva and fascism? He was suspended by the university authorities. Not only that, the UGC jumped in and said this question was ‘against the Indian ethos’. Again, a young assistant professor in the Central University of Kerala was suspended for three months for having taught a course on fascism. So now, classes are no longer privileged spaces: you don’t know when they are going to be made public and you are held accountable before the public at large. This is the situation in which university teachers are finding themselves. So there’s a lot of self-censoring going on in classrooms and elsewhere. A silence has dawned on campuses. In Delhi University, which I am part of, you cannot have a discussion like this. You won’t get any room, hall, space—it’s impossible. Students are having their study circles incognito, anonymously. Even then they come and tell me that they are being attacked—senior and Hindutva gangs attack them. So they are not allowed to have even informal, unannounced discussions among themselves. This is the situation which universities are facing currently. You must have come across news of the recent attack in Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). They have been attacked for having Maulana Maududi in their syllabi. His writings are taught there and the allegation is that this is propagation of pan-Islamism. This is only the most recent attack on AMU and JMI because they are Muslim universities.
We think that the situation is quite hopeless but I must not conclude on a note of hopelessness. For example, students from all faiths entered the anti-CAA movement expressing their solidarity with Muslims. But for the participation of students from all faiths, the battle for the concept of secular citizenship in India would have remained a Muslim-only battle. It shouldn’t surprise us that the students were attacked by the police, that universities were attacked and defamed. Active defamation campaigns against universities and intellectuals have been going on for at least for the past two decades. I remember the education minister of the first NDA government led by the BJP calling intellectuals ‘terrorists’. Since 2015, intellectuals have been defamed in all corners of India. Jawaharlal Nehru University is seen as a den of anti-intellectuals—if you go to villages of Orissa, Bihar and Gujarat, they will ask you if JNU hides terrorists. Earlier universities used to say ‘Hum JNU banna chahte hai’. Now VCs say ‘Hum JNU nahi banne denge kisi tarah se’. So this is the state we have reached.
But as I said, there is hope in hopelessness. The huge participation of students in the anti-CAA movement gives us hope. After the attack on JNU and Ramjas College in 2016, thousands of students from JMI, JNU and DU marched on the street of Delhi—therein lies the hope. My heart soared when I saw streams of students pouring in to listen to the now official antinational and anti-people Amartya Sen in a hall in Delhi. We had to put two large screens outside the hall to accommodate the students. Or a house full of young men and women to listen to Shubha Mudgal or T. M. Krishna. Or students hanging from roofs in JNU, which has been battered so severely that its survival was a miracle, to listen to Geetanjali Shree who was recently awarded the Booker Prize for her translated novel. Yes, as I said, if we recall Gregory Stanton’s warning, what we are witnessing is a process of genocide and genocide happens within fascism. So what we are watching or witnessing is the unfolding of fascism in India. We must name it. This is fascism. We must realize that we are in a state of fascism. It will be very different from the fascism of Germany or Spain—this is an Indian variety of fascism but we have to name it. We are in a moment where the state is being turned into a totalitarian state so when we say that this is an undeclared emergency, we miss the point because the Emergency was very different. Even in the period of Emergency, the Indian state was not a totalitarian state. The most dangerous part of now is that populations have been divided. So if we want to resist this totalitarian state, how do we resist it? Because national sensibilities have been fractured—there is no meeting point between Hindu sensibilities and Muslim sensibilities. This is the most serious thing we have to realize, confront and think about. Do we have resources of resistance and hope? Can we mobilize them or will we allow ourselves to be paralysed by this overarching fear? Will we wait to write another ‘Education After Auschwitz’ in which Theodore Adorno said that the primary task of education is to not allow another Auschwitz to happen?
Question and Answer Session
Audience member 1: I just want to share something similar that happened in our school, DPS, Ludhiana. We had a prayer song which says ‘Tum Rama kaho, tum Rahim kaho, dono ki garaj Allah se hai’ (You may say Rama, you may say Rahim, both draw their purpose from Allah) and during the open house, a parent came and asked why it was Allah and not Rama. It took me a long time to explain to them that it is a prayer song which we have been singing for a long time. They asked us not to play this song again. It is very sad—even the parents are not playing their part in spite of being part of such an educated society.
Apoorvanand: I agree.
Audience member 2: It is really pathetic that we are going through this. I basically think two problems are really crucial for us: one, as you said, self-censoring. We are always in fear of consequences and it is not only in reference to the state but in every layer of our interactions. Silencing ourselves becomes the most convenient option. This has become ingrained in our culture to such an extent that our conscience becomes unconscious. We are not ‘thinking subjects’—we have become passive robots and that is being created not through this regime but is a continuous process and as you said, it is now reaching its ultimate peak. The second problem is that we have never seen the discourse of politics influenced to such religious extent that we cannot even think of any discourse in politics happening without reference to religion. Think of Mahua Moitra’s commentary in recent times on Kali. Immediately Trinamool placed the responsibility on Moitra’s shoulderd and denied sharing the sentiments she had expressed. Basically we don’t want to antagonize ‘Hindu feelings’. Hindu feelings have nothing to do with most of these political controversies in the first place. Most Hindus are actually aware of this. If you think about Congress’ responses to these controversies they are enabling ‘soft Hindutva’! Think about Kejriwal, who is going around on temple visits. So no political party is fully committed to combating this. Before 2014, when an imam extended Kejriwal his support he denied it, saying he didn’t need an imam’s support. And now he is visting temples everywhere, to appease various caste-based votebanks. So, what is the way out if religion is so dominant in political discourse? The anti-CAA movement was one important thing that happened, where people came out spntanenously without political patronage. It was only later on that some political parties extended passive support to them but that died out because it was not well organized. So, how do we handle these two things? One, how can politics be free of religious constraints or how can we speak out our mind without religious influences. Second, how can we emerge from this fear of silencing ourselves?
A: I have no answer to this. It’s not, in fact, religion—it’s creating a majoritarian sentiment, and we must understand that. So, it’s not religion when Kejriwal refuses to go to Shaheen Bagh or when Congress leaders refused to associate with Teesta Setalvad after she was jailed. It’s an understanding that all they have to do is win elections and to do that you need a majority of votes, and the majority lies with Hindus. So you have to address Hindus. That is what has happened in the last eight years—Muslims are being left out and they are feelings this exclusion. Let me tell you an anecdote. After an incident of communal violence in a village near Delhi, we went to a very senior Congress leader and I requested him to provide relief packages to the affected Muslims. He explained to us very simply: In Delhi, we want to be Party no. 2 (Party no. 1 was Aam Aadmi Party). To reach that position we’ll need Muslim votes. But to get Muslim votes and to assure Muslims that we will win, we need Hindu votes. To get Hindu votes, we need to distance ourselves from Muslims because if Hindus don’t vote for us, Muslims won’t vote for us either.
This is the explanation that party after party—and all of them secular—give to you in Bihar, in UP, elsewhere. Muslims are constituents of Samajwadi Party, of Rashtriya Janata Dal, of Congress Party. But try to recall an occasion in the recent past when the leaders of this Party have tried to talk about Muslims—they don’t. And that is their explanation. More serious damage has taken place: the fracturing of sensibilities. A distinct ‘Hindu sensibility’, which is not Hindu but a majoritarian anti-Muslim sensibility, has been formed. So, it’s not really religion—that’s why Trinamool Congress distanced itself from Mahua Moitra (with reference to the Kali commentary). To be Hindu now is something else. Few years back, I was shocked when I learned that in Kolkata (or elsewhere in Bengal) the following slogan was raised: ‘No Durga, no Kali, only Ram and Bajrangbali’. But now I think that this majoritarianism—and Hindi is a vehicle of that majoritarianism—is invading other linguistic spaces. That is what we must understand. In Karnataka, slogans against Muslims and Hindutva slogans are raised in Hindi, not Kannada. So this majoritarian sensibility has been manufactured and is a reality. How to confront it is not only a task for political parties, it is a collective task in which all of us have to think about our own roles. So, I don’t have an answer to satisfy you.
The second point, self-censoring: the fear is real. As I said, the lecturer in the Central University of Bihar would have faced suspension but for the gol gol jawaab that we prepared on his behalf. He was ashamed—he said, I am not talking straight, this is not me. But this is what we persuaded him to do and that’s why I say we are in a state of fascism. We cannot behave as though we are in a normal state. The details of those who were supporting AltNews’ Pratik Sinha and Muhammad Zubair have been shared with the government. Mohammad Zubair is right when he says that now those donors won’t come forward to donate, not only to AltNews but to other places. Let me tell you about my own experience after the violence in Delhi and after the pandemic. We were mobilising relief and I was calling people who had money. They said they were ready to give money but not via a bank transaction or cheque. They wanted us to send someone to collect cash. It was difficult—we lost two lakhs.
This is what is happening. When the ED raids you, seizes your property, you never know. So this self-censoring is not happening just in the field of academics or writing. It has broken civil society. I know NGOs that work in the field of water preservation, but they used to participate in other democratic battles as well and find ways to support those struggles by sharing their resources but now they don’t. Many have lost their FCRA registration and many want to save it. So this is an extraordinary situation and we have to realize it. I don’t know the way out but to first understand where we are is very important and not have expectations which won’t be met. But as I said, we should not make it so large as to be defeatist.
Audience member 3: I have to admit that your chilling description of all the activities has really made me afraid, personally. I would like to ask you: What is the Central Government’s approach to Christians? I understand why the focus is on Muslims of course but then we have a very important Christian presence, especially keeping schools and educational institutions in mind.
A: While I was talking I was constantly reminding myself that I am not talking about Christians. Many of you must be aware that there is a Christian organization which monitors and keeps a record of what is happening to the Christian community. In 2021, more than 500 attacks took place on Chrisians in different forms—prayers were disrupted, priests were beaten up and jailed, houses attacked and demolished. More than 500! That is not a small number, if you take into account that Christians are themselves a tiny minority. To demonize Christians—their hospitals, the visibility of their schools, etc. is very important for the project of Hindutva. A kind of envy has been generated in Hindus and they keep pointing out that the Christian organizations have captured this land, that it belongs to us and we must reclaim it. So Christians are very much under serious threat—they are not being killed in the numbers Muslims are, mercifully, but they are facing physical attacks, are being jailed. We don’t know about it because the media does not report it full. Christian organizations do monitor, record and keep complaining to the authorities. This is the reality and I am very sorry I could not include it in my initial statement.
Audience member 4: You said something about naming this fascism and I was thinking there’s a clear threat to university and school teachers if they do it. The three of us work in what could be called extracurricular spaces. We are involved in peace education and do interfaith camps for kids among other such programmes. We know that there is interest and there are parents who do support this though there are a large number who refrain and are reluctant to send their children to these kinds of programmes.
What might be a safe way of holding these spaces, of carrying on these conversations? Because outside of schools, there’s still some hope and liberty to do what cannot be done openly in schools. So what might be a safe way to continue to encourage these parents who otherwise may not speak up, and how can school teachers support these parents and encourage them to send children out for such programmes so these kinds of conversations and the naming can continue to happen without putting one at risk?
Audience member 5: Just to add to that, as an organization we are quite low-key now. We are not out there, announcing huge programmes. We have a fixed set of schools and we also receive resistance—like when we did workshops with school children on the CAA or the NRC, and also when we talk about things like pronouns. However, we are trying our best but it hits me sometimes and I get sad wondering about why are we not able to do this on a bigger scale. You mentioned so many examples of attacks and only one of hope.
I think there is a dire need to also create a repertoire of positive narratives and stories so it’s not just fear being instilled.
A: I think that we have to understand the extraordinariness of the moment, and that explains why we can’t have one single prescription for all this. We need to remain under the radar and low–key. That is the way we’ll have to do it. We don’t want to lose spaces like this (the conference), so we have to find our own local responses to the challenge we are facing. One is of course a big challenge: How to reclaim India and Indian democracy? We don’t know when or how that will happen because change will come through elections and you have to appeal to the mind of Indian electorate or Hindu electorate, so to say. How that language could be formed and found is a challenge with which political parties are seriously grappling. So we must not blame or attack them because they are in the business of interacting with people—we are not, in that sense of the term. They cannot indulge in brave acts like intellectuals or others do—that is their problem. We have to find our local ways of responding and that is why the idea of having a joint big platform is not a good idea at all. We need to be very diffused in our responses because it is also very important to save the spaces which are available to us and not always be constantly insulting BJP voters. I recall an interaction which we had organized in a Muslim locality involving Hindu boys and Hindu and Muslim girls, just after 2002 in Gujarat. A Hindu boy came to me the next morning and said ‘Ye toh bilkul alag hai. Main toh ek Musalman ke yahaan raha aur sab kuchh thik tha’ (‘This is completely different. I was staying with a Muslim and everything was alright’) I asked him, ‘Aapne kya socha tha, ki woh raat ko aapko pakaa ke kha jayenge?’ (What did you think, that they would cook and eat you up that night?) These are occasions and interactions we need to create. As I said, resources of hope are available in communities. That school in Kanpur had that prayer since 2003 and there was no objection until the sudden intervention by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, which intimidated the parents. So we have to find ways to also talk to the parents and to the community. Our way of responding is always to do some public thing but we have to do many things which won’t be public, in that sense, and not expose all our friends to the political or public eye, not report everything to the media.
Audience member 6: Thank you very much for a very enlightening talk. I am the principal of a very small school in an area in Kolkata where the ratio of Hindu and Muslim students is skewed in favour of Muslim students, unlike in the rest of the city because of the community that we work with. Over the years, when we have tried to grapple with this idea of secularity inside the school, we have asked ourselves: Should we say that religion is something that happens privately, that it’s your relationship with God and we are not going to have any kinds of symbols or celebrations inside the school? Or should it be that the school should be an area where every religion is celebrated? Because we do believe that what you don’t experience is something you fear. It is the school’s responsibility to give you as many diverse experiences as possible and therefore we have adopted the latter approach and we celebrate everything. I would like to share just two experiences which are a little different from what you have been talking to us about: when we have tried to invite people from the Muslim community to educate us about Muslim practices, to come and tell us what their festivals are about, to help us create more days in the school calendar so all students would participate in all kinds of festivals—we had very few takers, almost none actually. We found one over the last nine years who was willing to come and speak to us about this once, and that too after a lot of difficulty—they refused to do this after that. Despite best intentions, we haven’t been able to convert our school space into the kind of multicultural, plural, inclusive space we wanted it to be. There is also a clear lack of education on my own part as the principal, on our own parts as educators and also I am giving a little bit of an excuse—I haven’t been able to find people from the Muslim community to come and talk to us about their practices even though we live right in the middle of a Muslim belt. Also, we have a community of 62 teachers with only one Muslim teacher—the HoD of our computer department—wonderful lady, extremely technically savvy—even though we have proactively looked for qualified Muslim teachers so our students can grow up knowing in a natural manner that excellence can come from everywhere. Three–four years back we found another Muslim teacher for our school and we were very happy about it but two things happened as a result, that I would like to share here. All this while, we have celebrated Eid and Sharad Utsav with equal fervour. After this teacher joined, the other Muslim teacher refused to participate in the Hindu festivals any more, which was not the case earlier. Another Muslim teacher we had, whose interactions with the primary school students was wonderful, left our school to go work in a Muslim school and I don’t know how to explain this to students. Plurality, inclusiveness is hard. I don’t have a question to ask, I just wanted to say that even with the best of intentions, there are too many questions that I don’t know answers to.
A: Thank you for that. I also don’t have an adequate response to the predicament you are facing. It could be because all the public spaces including schools are largely Hindu spaces in India—not the fault of Hindus but they are Hindu spaces. Leaving aside the the Muslim question, if you look at it from another point of view, say of people from scheduled caste communities. In university departments and faculties, the scheduled caste presence in a classroom is also a minority presence. Therefore, the response of the faculty members from that community sometimes looks very strange to people who are used to occupying public spaces. The university space never belonged to members of scheduled castes, it has not been their space, it is still not their space—they are an exception. I am not saying that the same can be said about Muslims but the Muslim response has to be understood and appreciated because the very fact that we don’t know Muslim practices even after living in close proximity with Muslims for hundreds of years says something about us. So, it can feel quite abnormal if you are called to talk about your festival or sensitize or familiarize people with your practices—one would feel slightly uncomfortable, that this space doesn’t belong to me, I want to be in a space that belongs to me. I know this is not an answer. The struggle is long and it has to be sincere, without blaming that community or holding them responsible for opting out or leaving you resourceless. I again recall the Hindi writer Premchand. He wrote an essay 90 years ago in 1932, ‘Manushyataa ka Akaal’, in which he writes ‘baees karor Hindu hai Bharat mein toh hum yeh sochte hai ki jis baat pe Hindu raazi ho jayenge woh baat toh ho hi jaegi’ (‘there are 20 crore Hindus in India so we think that whatever the Hindus agree to, will most definitely materialise’). Addressing Gandhi, in the context of starting his satyagraha, Premchand writes that ‘Hum bhi Congressman hai lekin phirbi main yeh kehta hoon ki Congress musalmano se koi bhi karyakam shuru karne ke pehle kabhi baat nahi karti’ (‘We are also Congressman but still I would say that the Congress never consults Muslims before starting any programme’). So when you don’t make Muslims part of the decision making process and tell them that what you are doing is good for them, and therefore they should participate, it won’t happen. This is also something we need to think about. And again this is not limited to your own struggle—it is a larger thing.
Audience member 7: Thank you for the talk. I have some thoughts slightly connected to the previous question, and a few observations from my school where we have students also participate in the decision making process about the curriculum and what they want to do with the day (it’s a residential school). Often I have observed, it becomes difficult to delineate what the majority really wants to do and then having a different, slightly complicated—sometimes what I feel is a saner—opinion because it requires discussion. But there, exactly like you said, the need to discuss doesn’t really arise at all at that point. If I had this particular conversation about democracy for example, I think everyone in the school would agree with it. But what is actually happening in the microprocesses within the classroom and staffroom doesn’t actually get connected with the larger ongoing process. So there is a lack of awareness on what one is doing within one’s context and of the context within which one is situated. It’s almost as if it has nothing to do with what is actually happening out there and so, it’s almost an eerily similar reproduction of what is happening on the outside. Within, it might not necessarily have to do with a cultural or a religious question. But I see the linguistic violence happen every day. My school is situated in a tribal area—the ways in which we correct them, the way the choices of the students are described, the way we sort of modify or modernize is violent and it is absolutely not democratic. I feel like education is at the crossroads because no matter what sort of discourses we have, it’s like a foil—any discussion or any values just cover the surface, they don’t really seep in. There is also a sort of alienation from one’s own context: I don’t look at my own experiences or even draw from it but I might be influenced by the media. Not really a question but just what I was thinking.
A: Thank you very much for sharing that.
Apoorvanand is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi where he has been instrumental in redesigning the department’s academic program. Jha has worked on the development of Marxist Aesthetics in Hindi Literature. He was part of the core group that designed the National Curriculum Framework for School Education in 2005 and was a member of the national Focus Group on Teaching of Indian Languages formed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He has worked with the committee to advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India under the Chairmanship of Professor Yash Pal. Created by the Government of India in 2008, the committee worked to craft a new vision plan for the sector of higher education in India. r Jha has published two books of essays in literary criticism: Sundar ka Swapna and Sahitya ka Ekant. His critical essays have appeared in all major Hindi journals. Apart from his academic and literary writings, he also contributes columns in Indian newspapers and magazines on the issues of education, culture, communalism, violence and human rights.