Giving peace education a fillip

Chintan Girish Modi

What does education have to do with peace and conflict? This seemingly naïve question is a profound one. In her article “Conceptualising critical peace education for conflict settings” (2019) for the journal Education and Conflict Review, Monisha Bajaj writes, “At the intersection of peace, conflict and education lie many potential realities, including (1) education for indoctrination and the perpetuation of violence; conversely, (2) education contributing to peace, human rights and social justice; and (3) instances in which educated members of a society, or schools in particular, come under attack from non-state actors or are targeted by state violence.”

Bajaj serves as Professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco in the United States. Building on several years of scholarship and practice, she outlines a framework that would be useful for teachers who want to dismantle “all forms of violence” and create “structures that build and sustain a just and equitable peace.” This can be done, she says, by “transforming content, pedagogy, structures, educational practices, relationships between educators and learners, and the systems by which we measure the outcomes of education.” If teachers want to take on this responsibility, how and where can they start?

A Thousand Cranes for India: Reclaiming Plurality Amid Hatred (2020), edited by Pallavi Aiyar, is a marvellous resource published by Seagull Books. The Tokyo-based editor has worked in journalism as a foreign correspondent for over 15 years. She has reported from Japan, China, Europe, and Indonesia. The book offers a collection of 23 pieces that encompass “reportage, stories, poems, memoir and polemic.” These texts can be used individually or as a set to provoke quiet reflection, facilitate discussion, and encourage students to produce creative work of their own touching upon themes in the book that speak to their experiences and imaginations.

The significance of the book’s title would be evident to those who are familiar with the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was two years old during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States in 1945. Though she did not have any visible injuries, the poison seeped inside her body. She died of leukaemia as a result of exposure to radiation. Given her zest for life, she found solace in the Japanese belief that folding a thousand origami paper cranes could grant anyone their wish. Whether she managed to complete that goal or not is not clear because there are different versions of the story. What survives is the symbol of the crane.

This book includes contributions from numerous writers and translators: Anjum Hasan, Annie Zaidi, Arunava Sinha, Gopika Jadeja, Gurmehar Kaur, Janice Pariat, Jonathan Gil Harris, Manu Dash, Mohammad Muneem Nazir, Namita Devidayal, Natasha Badhwar, Prajwal Parajuly, Radhika Jha, Ranjit Hoskote, Rumuz e Bekhudi, Salil Tripathi, Samrat Choudhury, Shovon Chowdhury, Srijato, Sudeep Chakravarti, Sumana Roy, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, Tabish Khair, Tishani Doshi, and Veena Venugopal.

In her poem “The Origins of Origami,” columnist and teacher Janice Pariat writes, “a stork, a flutter of/ silent sparrows, each/ a brittle memory, a string/ of parchment secrets./ in her hands they took/ form, a brutal love./ beneath each attentive/ fold, a razor slivers/ of hope./ she used paper/ to mould her sadness.” Sumana Roy, who writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction, has contributed a poem titled “Boneless Bird.” She writes, “I pinch, I stroke, I pat, I blow foo foo./ The bird doesn’t fly./ I can’t give it the sweetness of air./ Origami can’t give it will.”

What emotional truths do these poems reveal? Why do the poets use metaphors? Is it too painful to speak of death, blood and genocide? Do artistic choices have to neatly align with political convictions? Is the worship of beauty an escape from reality? Are we allowed to resist violence in ways that are meaningful to us but may not measure up to standards set by others? Each question is an invitation to enquire, of oneself and fellow human beings. The students in the classroom would have their own questions to add, stories to share, and musings to offer.

Salil Tripathi, an author who chairs PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, has contributed an essay titled “The Siberian Crane Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” to this anthology. He writes, “The last Siberian cranes came to Keoladeo National Park (as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is now known) in the winter of 2001, or perhaps 2002…at some point, as the soft, pale light struggled to cut through the thick smog enveloping the cities over northern India, the birds stopped visiting India.” His essay recalls 2002, “the year of a carnage in Gujarat that lasted months” – a time when “the skies over Gujarat’s cities” were filled not with cranes but vultures.

Aiyar’s book is valuable for teachers who want to engage with socio-political issues in their classrooms but feel weighed down by the paucity of time when they think about the effort it would take to curate from the volume of writing that is churned out every day. That said, it is important to get students to think about the editor’s curatorial process – both inclusions and omissions – using the introductory essay and the notes on contributors. What is common across the pieces? Where do the writers hail from? Is there an underlying pattern? Do you spot any biases?

People with disabilities, Dalits and Adivasis, people without a university education, transgender persons, those who are not active on social media, and people who live in the Northeast, are often excluded from anthologies produced in India. Thinking about the voices that find a platform, and the voices that do not, can help students learn about how citizenship is experienced differently by various people living in this country even if the Constitution of India guarantees fundamental rights to everyone. Freedom of speech and expression does not translate automatically into opportunities for publication. That is another matter altogether.

Mohammad Muneem Nazir, a poet who is also the co-founder of a band called Alif, has contributed a poem titled “Korkun” to this collection. It has been translated from Kashmiri into English as “Which Way?” by Rumuz e Bekhudi, a multilingual poet-translator based in Kashmir. The speaker in the poem says, “The darkness is seeking me on every street,/ I would grope for the sun, but which way?” This gloom is not defeat. He adds, “The white paper crane asked me, ‘Who are you? What is Alif?’/ I replied. ‘I am the artisan of every thought.’ Which way?”

Teachers too are artisans of thoughts. They have the power to design learning environments in ways that can nurture curiosity and compassion. Many of them participate in this work with a commitment that is nothing short of admirable. Their contributions are precious but often quiet and unsung. As poet, novelist and critic Tabish Khair writes in “Folded Paper,” a ghazal in English, which is part of this collection, “Only the smallest gesture and the gentlest act/ Redeem our lives against the falling of the sand.”

The author is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect. He can be reached at [email protected].

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