Mainstream school education usually instills stereotypes and reinforces the status quo. But some Mumbai individuals and organisations are now making efforts to change the way children think.
As a city that has experienced communal violence first hand, Mumbai continues to witness the ever-extending ramifications of communal tension and community mistrust. This is seen in its ghettoized housing and also in its schools and education system wherein stereotypes and misinformation about communities abound. Still, Mumbai also harbours individuals and organizations in its midst who are committed to resist. And one of the most important sites where resistance is taking place is at the places of learning. This is significant for it is through the process of learning that dominant ways of thinking can be challenged best.
While some question the popular ways of imparting education by being more inclusive and carving a space for the marginalised, some question the very foundation of what is being taught.
Uncle’s Coaching Classes: Because Some Good Things Can Be Free
In 1997, Feroz Ashraf started giving free tuitions to his watchman’s daughter. Today, he and his wife, Arifa teach more than 100 students at their coaching centres in Jogeshwari East and Juhu Galli. English, Mathematics, Urdu literature, Law and a range of other subjects Uncle helps students with multiple subjects. “They don’t have to pay but they must study well,” says Uncle, who is a curious combination of a man with a stern face but a rather pleasant disposition.
Originally from Jharkhand, Feroz Ashraf had always lived in a “culturally diverse and secular setting”. After the Bombay riots (1992-93), however, he shifted from Malad to Jogeshwari. Dwelling on this important ‘more than geographical’ shift of his life, he says, “This was my first contact with an area that was so visibly Muslim. Before this, I had always stayed in parts that were predominantly Hindu and had a number of Hindu friends. The riots came as a blow. They shook everything and for the first time, I was made to feel that I am ‘different’ from my Hindu friends.” Constantly trying to understand and come to terms with the process of dislocation the riot had brought about, Ashraf was moved by what he saw in Jogeshwari: “The conditions in which most Muslims lived in the area were miserably poor, particularly with regard to education. Most students, invariably boys, dropped out in class 8 or 9. And girls hardly went to school.” Thus began his endeavour to create a space where Muslim parents would willingly send their children, especially daughters to study. It was no cakewalk; he had to persuade families that the Quran ordered Muslims to study. “But I never consciously injected into them lessons of communal harmony. These things, one begins to understand naturally. If you are educated, if you are part of spaces where Hindus and Muslims can study together and coexist peacefully, you will realize these things yourself, without anyone drilling these into your head,” says the ever smiling Ashraf. Funded by the Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, other trusts and friends, ‘Uncle’s Coaching Institute’ does not have the conventional ‘coaching centre’ setting. Nearly six centres are run by Uncle’s former students themselves in their homes. They do not have chairs or benches but rather the setting is informal with mattresses, cushions and snacks thrown in between.
At a time when education is listed as one of the “best businesses”, ‘Uncle’s coaching classes’ come as a whiff of fresh air. In the words of one of Uncle’s students, Sarah Fatima, “I feel so much more empowered. I can now tell my parents that I will not marry a boy who is any less educated than I am.” Committed to a cause, Uncle’s coaching classes are one of those few good things that still come free.
Khoj: A Search for Alternative Meanings
Khoj, ‘a secular education project,’ headed by social activist Teesta Setalvad, since its inception in 1994 has tried to rewrite the popular perceptions imparted via History and Social Science textbooks and common ways of teaching in the classroom. In the words of Setalvad herself, “Over the years, our history and social studies texts, more and more, emphasise a prejudicial understanding and rendering of history, that is certainly not borne out by historical fact.” It is this “prejudicial understanding” that the project attempts to address. This critique is important because various structures of official knowledge, the textbooks in particular, often hide several biases. While articulating the impact of the Bombay riots on children’s mental landscape, the Khoj website states, ‘Children of some communities have been worst sufferers of these violent outbreaks.
The words, news, and images of violence and hatred broadcasted by media, especially television, have created impressions and opinions in the young minds which are beyond their comprehension. We were facing some innermost conflicts formed by the growing religious prejudice and intolerance never questioned before. Schools that prided themselves on a sound base of liberal values were horrified to find post December 1992 that their corridors and children reflected this prejudice.’ It is precisely these forms of anti-minority prejudice that Khoj seeks to combat. Through workshops and campaigns in municipal schools that involve interactions with both teachers and students, Khoj engages with complex questions about identity, caste, creed and religion in a manner that is simple, and engaging, while paying special attention to children’s feelings. For instance, in one of the exercises conducted, children in the age bracket of 10 to 12 were asked to draw a self-portrait along with sketches of people or things they liked and disliked. Their neighbours were then asked to comment on their own perception of these portraits. Not surprisingly, this led to a series of “outbursts” where children’s views on the portraits did not necessarily match with one another. The idea was to “emphasise the possible disparities in how we perceive and think of ourselves and what others think about us.”
Some of the other activities that form a part of the Khoj methodology include conducting informal question-answer sessions with kids that challenge existing stereotypes. Two questions are given here as references:
Q: Who were the chief commanders in Shivaji’s army?
A: Daulat Khan and Siddi Misri, both Muslims.
Q: Who wrote the following words: ‘The Hindus have always been considered by all other people as the custodians of learning and wisdom’?
A: An Arab historian, Qazi Said.
In addition to its various educational activities, Khoj also publishes its own textbooks founded on the principle of foregrounding alternate kinds of knowledge.
One of the most commendable efforts of Khoj has been its peace initiative called Aman an association between the school children of India and Pakistan. As Setalvad pointed out, “AMAN, the olive branch of KHOJ, has been connecting the children of India and Pakistan through letter writing since its inception. Children in Mumbai and Karachi have been expressing their dilemma and confusions through interesting questions. They have learnt to have colossal faith in each other which is priceless in today’s political context. The Centre for Advanced Studies School in Karachi and the Bombay International School were the first to join AMAN while many other schools in Kolkata, Bangalore and Delhi have been proactive in being a part of this program. Recently, we have succeeded in connecting with the children and teachers of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.”
Setalwad’s efforts are based on the argument that it is inevitable for schools with direct political or religious affiliations such as the ones run by the RSS to offer a series of “unquestionable absolutes” to the young mind, but as she points out, “the fact that independent and democratic India’s ‘secular’ texts reflect, with sometimes uncanny similarity, the very same disregard for a growing and inquiring mind, apart from being laced with a series of questionable formulations that hide gender, caste and community–driven bias is what requires urgent and specific attention. And remedy.” And Khoj does seem to be an effective remedy.
Sangati: Exploring the Relationship between Official Knowledge and Lived Experience
In 1981, the AVEHI Public Charitable Educational Trust came into being with the objective of “empowering through education” and in 1990, it initiated the ABACUS project to develop a “supplementary curriculum for schools”. The AVEHIABACUS curriculum was used with over 10,000 children in schools and with the aid of responses from students and teachers, AVEHI’s study material called Sangati came into being. Working with the aim of providing children and teachers a way of thinking, AVEHI wishes to teach in a way that enables children to link the everyday with what they read about in the school curriculum.
One of the most interesting things about AVEHI and Sangati, the integrated course package it has developed is the way in which it constantly reworks and revises itself, keeping in line with the needs that emerge from interactions with students.
When the Sangati educational material series was launched in 2001, it was based on 10 years of experimentation by the AVEHI-ABACUS programme with a variety of student and teacher groups in different situations in the formal and non-formal sectors. The Sangati series was packaged in the form of six comprehensive teaching-learning kits for Classes V, VI and VII.
From the new academic year in July 2001, these kits began to be used in all 180 schools in two municipal wards in Mumbai. Soon after the kits also became part of a UNICEF sponsored Life Skills Improvement Programme for Quality Education in 120 schools in Yavatmal and Chandrapur districts of Maharashtra. By 2006, the Sangati kits were already poised to become part of the school curriculum in all the municipal schools in Mumbai for students from Std V to Std VII. Even now, the way the programme works remains essentially the same – as a curriculum enrichment programme or a foundation course that links the different things that children learn in school and outside. Sangati includes kits on ‘Myself, My Body and Needs’, ‘Our Earth and the Web of Life’, ‘How Societies Developed’ and other such general areas, looked at with a critical eye.
All these attempts to educate in a way that poses a threat to conventional, often violent ways of thinking are indeed a ray of hope in a society that otherwise stands fragmented on lines of religion, caste, class, gender and so many other divisive factors. They are what we need most. They are our reason to believe that the worthiest battles are indeed fought through the might of the pen. While some like Ashraf, in their own simple ways, make a space for those on the fringes, others like KHOJ and AVEHI-Sangati question stereotypes and scratch the surface of mainstream question to ask difficult but important questions. And it is these questions that hold in them the potential to resist.
Photos & Design: Debashish Kumar, Ridhima Sharma, Fareeda Muhammed & Rajashree Gandhi