Experiences, struggles and stories from rural Bihar
In most Indian school textbooks we find the six fundamental rights (Right to equality, Right to freedom, Right against exploitation, Right to freedom of religion, Cultural and educational rights and Right to constitutional remedies) as guaranteed by the Constitution printed on the very first page. It is then both ironical and unfortunate that most children and teachers never really understand the importance of these entitlements as more than mere facts to be memorized for an examination. We end up finishing school, college and university without really having an opportunity to understand/delve deep into either the significance or the power that these rights hold in our lives especially in the democracy that we cherish and celebrate.
This lack of unawareness and in-depth understanding of the meaning and importance of our fundamental rights carries forward the tradition of discrimination and exploitation both in the outside world as well as inside us. We live in a society where discrimination based on class, religious affiliations, caste and gender identities are widely practiced. If we look carefully we will easily see how exploitation, marginalization, discrimination and unfair treatment are infused in our day-to-day life, both at the individual as well as systemic levels. But we hardly speak against these wrong practices of injustice or retain an indifferent/aloof attitude towards them, as if nothing has happened. We often turn a blind eye to people’s pain and agony, the cries of hungry orphans on a cold winter night, the hardships of an old worker at a construction site working day and night or a tea seller who had lost all sources of income and couldn’t feed his family during the pandemic. Not knowing the value of our fundamental rights is the root of such violative and discriminatory practices, denying a significant section of the population its voice and freedom. So in my work on the ground with children from rural Bihar, a large section of whom are girls from the economically and socially disadvantaged communities, I realized that knowing about the rights intellectually wasn’t enough; we ought to help them see the importance of these rights in their own life struggles.
I was well aware that since these children come from a remote village, from poor/marginalized communities and are enrolled in government schools, my challenges would be to not only explain to them what the fundamental rights are or how the constitution was drafted but to make them value these rights as rays of light that could empower them and perhaps even help them fight oppressive social practices such as caste or patriarchy. They have neither the cultural capital nor the vocabulary to articulate themselves or their problems, but when we worked with our heart and soul towards a deeper and experiential understanding of fundamental rights it became a thoroughly remarkable initiative.
We started with discussions and we collectively discovered the deeper meaning of our rights and why it was important to mention them in the Indian Constitution. The kids were intrigued to know about the life and struggles of B.R. Ambedkar and how a dalit fought the oppressive caste regime and chaired the drafting of a constitution that is premised on equality and social justice as opposed to discrimination and exploitation. I elaborated the essence of fundamental rights and asked the children to figure out how we are still practicing discrimination, exploitation, inequality and slavery in our society.
Children as confident articulators of fundamental rights
Just like a container full of fuel doesn’t take much time to catch fire, children who are witnessing a life of struggle and hardship started speaking about how victimized, exploited, oppressed, angry or wounded they felt sometimes. A few girls reiterated how angry they felt when their mothers asked them to help out in domestic duties and not their brothers, or during a financial hardship how it’s their schooling/needs that are cut down and not their brothers’. The boys in the group too weren’t behind and spoke about caste discrimination on the playground or during ceremonies. Whether it’s the classroom, the playground, the marketplace or home, children recounted numerous instances of discrimination and thus when we started discussing the fundamental rights, they suddenly seemed like rays of light after a long never-ending night.
A young girl took the discussion further and invited her mother, who shared how she herself wanted to continue her studies but had to drop out due to an early marriage, another student’s father shared how he struggled to sustain his family of 10 during the lockdown when the owner of the factory where he worked refused to pay even his pending wages. Children raised important questions and asked whether there was some sort of a bigger conspiracy to keep a large majority of the public unaware so that they would silently keep working like cogs in a wheel without raising their heads or asking questions. The children made this and several other important observations, asked many deep questions that made me both proud and excited about how important it is to teach with pedagogic depth and a sense of empathy and love.
My work is to sensitize children and help them become aware of their rights so that they can live a dignified life and during this process it was for the first time that the children came out of their comfort zones and started speaking of their rights and questioning their surroundings or the way things have been going on for generations.
Instead of memorizing for the examination, they could illustrate the importance of rights with examples and illustrations from their own settings. They have acquired a new consciousness and become aware of their rights and duties. This is the beginning of an awareness and all I tried was to light a lamp inside their hearts and show them how with an awareness of our fundamental rights we can live with a renewed sense of dignity and self-worth.
The author is co-founder of Shiksha Swaraj and editor of The New Leam – an online portal for education and culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.