As a teacher, I share your anxiety over your children’s future, given the present socio-political turmoil in the country. We are both worried about what our children are thinking and how they’re perceiving what’s going on. I’m writing to you with the purpose of sharing some insights that I have gathered from my experiences with children and otherwise.
I hope that they will help you parent your children to be kind, responsible and productive citizens of India.
In my first year as a teacher, I found myself navigating through the many challenges of working in a government school. Most of the students in my Grade 2 class were first generation learners and the most literate parents from my class had studied till Grade 8.
They all inhabited the same or similar, nearby communities. A lot of the parents were drivers, domestic helps, guards or street vendors. I’d often visit their homes to discuss their children’s performance on tests, classroom behaviour or absenteeism and gradually developed a healthy relationship with most of them. Halfway through the school year, I faced my greatest challenge on the job (so far) when Akib, one of my students, said to me:
“Lucky ne kaha who mere saath tiffin nahi share karega kyunki main Muslim hoon”.
Lucky said he won’t share his tiffin with me because I’m a Muslim.
It was appalling to see that eight-year-olds could develop communal ideas.
I didn’t want to confront Lucky without understanding the best possible way to deal with the situation. So, after some brainstorming with fellow teachers and lots of reading, I came up with a plan. The next day, I asked Lucky if what I’d heard was true. Shy, sensitive and extremely creative, Lucky was one of those kids whom I had to try really hard not to favour.
“Yes, Didi” he replied without an iota of guilt, telling me that he didn’t know what he said was wrong. When I asked him why he said what he said:
“Mummy ne kaha ki Akib ke saath nahi khaana kyunki woh Muslim hai.”
Mummy told me not to eat with Akib because he’s a Muslim.
Lucky’s mother was the most literate parent of my class and the most invested one too. I told her what happened. She explained to me that she had nothing against Akib and had never said those words to Lucky. I reminded her that all my students were equal for me and that I wouldn’t stand for any student insulting the other on grounds of caste, gender or religion.
I also told her that she should be careful about her son developing these ideas, because he’d find it difficult to work with people any different from him, if he continued down this path. Whether she believed it or not, she agreed with me and promised to speak to Lucky about it.
To drive the message home, I developed a study unit around former President Abdul Kalam, complete with videos, activities and even Abdul Kalam-themed colouring pages! The unit was a hit, with many students talking about becoming a scientist. When Lucky said “I want to become like Abdul Kalam” I thought the battle was won.
So, that afternoon I asked Lucky if he had made amends with Akib. He said no. I asked him why and he had nothing to say.
“Abdul Kalam was a Muslim, you know that right? Did that make him a bad person or someone you wouldn’t share your food with?” I asked Lucky. He said nothing.
This disappointing interaction paved the way for a Friday afternoon class party, the first of its kind for these students. We arranged the desks to create a long rectangular table and I randomly placed different tiffins in front of everyone, myself included.
The idea was for you to have a bite from the tiffin and pass it on, so everyone got a taste of all the food. I saw Lucky eating from Akib’s tiffin and vice-versa. At dispersal I asked Lucky if he enjoyed the party.
“It was best, didi,” Lucky said. “I saw you eat out of Akib’s tiffin. Why did you do it?” I asked him. “It was yummy,” he said with his sensitive, knowing smile and ran off.
That day Lucky learnt that his Muslim classmate was very much like him and continued to be friends with him. I learnt that communal ideas take root way earlier than I knew and that they could crumble over a meal and getting to know the ‘other’, provided one tried.
Two years later, I was teaching at an affluent, private school and had accompanied my 6th graders on a school trip. We were on our way back in a Shatabdi train and dinner had just been served. I was sitting beside three boys who were unwrapping their food, when a cockroach ran across one of their trays. Screaming and laughing ensued and so did a conversation about the level of hygiene in Indian trains.
Sometime later, one of the attendants came by with feedback forms. I asked the boys if they had any feedback to share. They looked sceptical but took one form. As one of them started to fill out the form, the other said:
“Rehne dey yaar. Humare ghar aa jayenge, mob lynching ho jayegi.”
Let it go. They’ll come to our houses; we’ll get lynched by a mob.
This has till date been the most shocking student interaction I have witnessed in my life. It was said in the most nonchalant way.
How do these kids know what mob lynching is? Why do they fear being lynched by a mob for complaining about the lack of cleanliness in a train? As I got my bearings back, I tried to explain the importance of feedback to the boys. I told them that they had nothing to fear and no one was out to get them for filling out a feedback form.
They weren’t convinced and I didn’t know how to explain it any better in that moment.
I spent the rest of the train journey thinking about how we’re bringing up a generation living in fear. Was this fear rational? No. It’s unlikely that young boys from affluent, upper caste families will get lynched for filling a feedback form.
Yet, this fear existed, played on their minds and made them believe that speaking up had dire consequences.
Since that day, I haven’t been able to muster the courage to tell my students to read the newspapers every day. And I have questioned myself for it. Shouldn’t we shelter our children from this violence? Do they need to know that atrocities in the name of gender, religion and caste are rampant in this country? Turns out, they already know. Believe me when I say there’s no sheltering them from this information.
However, we can make sure they get the right information, have a safe environment to ask questions and assuage their fears.
A (teacher) friend of mine called me to say that her 5th graders were anxious about what’s happening with regard to the CAA-NRC issue. “Will you not be a citizen of India anymore?” one of her students asked a fellow Muslim student.
A brilliant educator, she sat them all down in a circle and asked them to share what they already knew or felt about what’s happening. Then, she told them to think of the information that stuck with them most and to go home and read three articles about that very information and check its source.
As teachers, it’s important to make sure we don’t colour our student’s judgement with our own views; a much needed reminder in times where students are being made to re-enact the demolition of the Babri Masjid for their annual day performance.
I understand that our views, ideals and principles are all things we want to pass down to our children. But with them also go the biases, the prejudice and the insecurities that we live with.
I grew up being told that I must marry a Brahmin, that intelligence was in my genes. When I talked about a new friend, I was always asked what caste he or she belonged to. All this at a time when I didn’t even know how to articulate what or how I felt.
What kind of person would I have grown up to be had I not had a mother who said I should marry a good person, that my friends should be good people and that I should read more books if I wanted to be intelligent.
Your children aren’t just your future. They’re mine and ours and this nation’s too. They’re far more perceptive than we know, exposed to all kinds of information and looking to you for guidance.
And I understand that parents are people with their own flaws and fears. Our lived experience has caused us to develop certain ideas and beliefs about the society we live in. For instance, I’ve sat through many dinner table conversations as a kid and heard about stories of the Emergency and Partition. As I grew older, I began to call out any communal statements from uncles, aunties and relatives that were made post the sharing of those stories, like “I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry a Muslim” or “keep your distance from them” or even lines like “Dalit toh fir Dalit hi hai na” (Dalits will be Dalits, after all).
When I expressed my dissent I heard statements like, “Oh beta, hamare dost bhi Musalmaan hote they. Par dekho kya kiya fir unhone” (Even we had Muslim friends, but look what they did).
There was also a more refined argument that went something like, “I don’t have a problem with Muslims. I just don’t trust them enough to make them my family. This a worldwide trend, everyone’s worried about them.”
When I went to college, when I met ‘them’, I didn’t hate them. If not today, then as they get older, your children will meet all kinds of people and they’ll learn (hopefully) that Lucky and Akib could have the exact same taste in food, sports, television and books. Their experience will not be the same as yours and neither is their context.
What good will come from propagating ideas based on hatred or stifling dissent? A few days ago, my younger sister was protesting against the CAA-NRC at ITO. She told me that her friend, a fellow protesting student asked what she’s told her parents about where she was going. When she replied saying that she’d told the truth, her friend was shocked.
Turns out that most of my sister’s friends had lied to their parents about where they were going. Why? So that they could go stand up for what they thought was right.
So, listen to what they have to say, hear them out. Disagree with them, by all means. But don’t disavow their dissent.
There’s far too much to be gained from being that parent who listens. My mom accompanied me for the protest at India Gate. She sat down beside my sister and me, sang ‘Hum honge kamiyaab’ with embarrassing enthusiasm and offered biscuits to the policemen. Her white hair stood out amongst the mass of protesters and my heart swelled with pride.
So many of us have taken to the streets to express our disagreement with the government’s actions but stay silent on our family’s expression of privilege and ignorance (if I may call it that). I can tell you from my own experience that they’re mighty uncomfortable, these conversations with the family.
However, I chose to sit across the table and talk rather than hope that my people don’t actually want to live in a Hindu Rashtra. So, for the last one week, with the full family’s participation, the dinner table had a clear pro-CAA and anti-CAA side. But yesterday, we found a pro-India, pro-humanity side and it was totally worth it.
It is our responsibility to educate our children so they may think for themselves and distinguish right from wrong. When their education and exposure lead them to protest at India Gate to safeguard their constitution, disagree if you must. But, do ask why and listen with the intention of understanding your child.
Evolving your view based on your child’s understanding doesn’t make you a lesser parent, but an example of someone who’s always willing to listen and learn. Children who grow up in families where dissent is welcome, where they’re taught how to disagree respectfully and to listen to the other side are more likely to be honest with their parents and cultivate a healthy relationship based on mutual respect.
Please know that I am in no way propagating that you should urge your children to protest (unless you wish to).
I’m simply pointing out that I inherited my idea of India from my parents and grandparents. Fortunately, it was one that was inclusive, diverse and beautiful and I wish the same for your children too.
I hope that you teach your children the value of equality, inclusiveness and kindness. If you see this as ‘idealistic’ or believe that this moral education will get you nowhere, I pray that your kids don’t find themselves face to face with those who learnt destruction and rioting in primary school.
A concerned teacher.
Asmita Prabhakar is a schoolteacher.