The past two months have been unsettling for many of us, with events in the country revealing a deep divide in the way we see ourselves, and how we think about ownership, belonging and community. For perhaps the first time in many decades, we have seen sustained protests against what has been seen by a significant section of Indians to be an unconstitutional law. The rallies and sit-ins have drawn participation from people of all ages, including, in some places, children. The women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi were joined by teenagers on their way home from school and college, and mothers brought along young children, some with the colours of the Indian flag painted on their winter-chilled cheeks. There has been art and song and theatre, much of which has been shared on social media.
No matter what one’s politics, and which side of the divide one occupies, it is hard to ignore the fact that something momentous has been happening. And as with much of life, there have been many teachable and learnable moments, from unpacking the lyrics and the original context of Faiz’s ghazal Hum Dekhenge to the nature of secularism and citizenship, to the more problematic but equally important discussions on history and its bearing on the present times. This may allow the children to see that politics shapes our world just as much as science and technology and economics do – and while we are quite comfortable bringing contemporary developments in these domains into the classroom, we are reluctant to bring contemporary politics into our lessons. After all, children do see and hear adults discussing these issues and may also come across them on social media, but they do not always have the opportunity to ask questions and have an adult explain in straightforward terms what it all means.
Documentary filmmaker and writer Samina Mishra, in an article on thequint.com says that if children are “to understand the complexity of the world, they must be present in as many diverse contexts as possible”. While it may not be possible (or even always desirable) for us to give children direct experience of multiple contexts, it is certainly possible for us to expose them to the existence of such diversity – of people, places and cultures.
Much of the polarization that we see today stems from unfamiliarity. When we do not encounter difference in our everyday lives, there is no opportunity to make it familiar, to know and accept that it is in fact just a different way of being in this world. The classroom can be a safe space, a place where the children can achieve understanding of a kind that just might overcome the polarization that has become so pronounced in their parents’ generation.