How Gandhi turned a 21st Century Classroom Into an Empathy-Filled Community

A vivid demonstration of the power and efficacy of Gandhi’s message of truth, courage and non-violence.

Bullying is a very real source of concern for schools everywhere. Defined as ‘the act of repeatedly and intentionally causing hurt or harm over a period of time to another person or group of people who feel helpless to respond’, it is pronounced in some schools and subtle in others.

It is a sad commentary on the priorities of the Indian school system that the vast majority of middle and high school students do not feel their classrooms are emotionally safe spaces. Sincere and well-meaning teachers address the problem the best they can, but the sheer weight of a yet-to-be-finished curriculum and the many other challenges that they face on a daily basis leave most of them with little or no time to address crucial interpersonal issues that a lot of their students face.

As someone who conducts anti-bullying programmes, I am always on the lookout for tools I can offer schools to tackle the problem. This Gandhi Jayanti, a friend gave me a brand new idea. He told me that on October 2, he and his wife turned their living room into a mini movie theatre for the day, and held a special screening of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi for his son’s classmates and their families.

Also read: ‘How Did Gandhiji Kill Himself?’ Asks Gujarat School in Exam

It turned into an all-day affair with lunch, popcorn and a freewheeling discussion afterwards. Despite the movie being quite long, the children and parents who attended the screening sat through the whole thing without getting bored. Even the parents in the audience with pronounced Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP leanings watched the movie quietly and respectfully.

“It’s difficult to argue with a man’s life, isn’t it?” my friend noted with a smile.

Inspired by how my friend and his wife had commemorated the Mahatma’s birthday, I wondered if Gandhi would speak just as clearly and powerfully to an adolescent school audience as well.

Could his message of truth, courage and non-violence help to stem the epidemic of bullying that so many schools today are facing?

The very next day, a co-teacher and I got together and created the structure of a five-step workshop for students of a high school with a fairly major bullying problem. This workshop, titled ‘Catching Up With Gandhi’, would consist of the students of the most ‘difficult’ class in that school. The parameters were:

  • Watching the movie
  • Taking the time to genuinely self-introspect
  • Getting to know the other students in class better
  • Bringing up classroom issues and talking about them honestly but respectfully
  • Making things right with each other

We began the workshop by asking the students what they would like to change about India if they could. The answers came quick and fast – end poverty, corruption and communalism, end gender and caste-based discrimination, take concrete and far-reaching steps to curb pollution, ban firecrackers, and make India safer for women and children.

It is always heartening to see idealism alive and well in young hearts, and it most certainly belied the average stereotype of the ‘troublesome, self-centred and bored teenager’.

We then asked them if they believed it’s actually possible for a single person to make a tangible difference. Opinion was divided, but their answers were thoughtful and thought provoking. One of the best responses came from a girl who spoke after everyone else had said their bit, “Yes, one person can change the world but only if that person is truly trustworthy and has strong personal integrity.”

One could not have asked for a better introduction to Gandhi.

None of the students in this class had seen the movie before, (perhaps because they were all born after the start of the 21st century?). As they settled down to follow the events of Gandhi’s life from Tolstoy farm to Sabarmati, from Champaran to Dandi, from the Round Table Conference to the riots in Calcutta, and from the horrors of the Partition to his assassination at Birla House, we were struck by their complete attentiveness.

It was remarkable to see a class full of ‘digital natives’ steeped in the world of smartphones and sound bites – and with ostensibly short attention spans – watch a lengthy 1982 movie in near total silence. Gandhi is a powerful movie and though it depicts a particular era of Indian history, it also has what it takes to hold the attention of those born three or four generations later.

The silence continued for several long minutes after the movie ended and we realised we had just witnessed the truth of Einstein’s words:

Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

With the impact of the movie still fresh on everyone’s minds, we asked the students to “do the Gandhi thing” and take a ‘moral inventory’ of their own lives, examine their own attitudes and see how much truth and non-violence they themselves practiced. They did so, and to our amazement, a number of them candidly and somewhat sheepishly admitted that their lives, and their behaviour towards others in particular, left much to be desired.

Also read: The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest

Commending them for their honesty and frankness, we then asked each student to sit with someone they either did not know or did not particularly get along with and get to know them better by finding out more about their lives. We did not think these conversations would last very long, but to our happy surprise, they went on for well over an hour, and even then, showed no signs of stopping.

The simple act of sitting down with someone they did not know or like and finding out about more about them as human beings, though slightly awkward at first for some, was a powerful experience and by the time all the conversations were done, new friendships had been forged in the classroom. The students had learned to see each other as human beings and not simply as members of their own cliques and ‘sides’.

As the day drew to a close, we requested all the participants to sit in a circle and asked them to share with the rest of the class what it felt like to be in that class. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, those who had been victims of bullying in the class began to speak about their experiences – slowly and haltingly at first and then with more and more clarity and conviction as they realised it was safe for them to speak freely.

Some broke into tears while sharing their experiences, prompting others of their class to get up, walk across the room and give them a hug. Many in the classroom apologised to the bullied for having been silent bystanders and promised their peers that they would not stand by quietly again.

But the most powerful effects of satya and ahimsa, perhaps, came to the fore as the class bullies, now shamed and sobered by the realisation of what they had done also came forward and apologised to those they had bullied, making heartfelt commitments in front of the whole class that they would not hurt the others again. A more vivid demonstration of the power and efficacy of Gandhi’s message I have yet to see.

Gandhi said India lives in her villages. As a teacher, I would say the future of India lives in her classrooms. If we can teach our young people to live with empathy, honesty and non-violence, then perhaps we can salvage our collective future one class at a time, and offer a humane alternative to the darkness and bigotry we see descending all around us. An old man in a loincloth has already shown us the way. It’s up to us to follow it.

The last I checked, the students of the class have actually stopped bullying each other. Their teachers say it is a now a pleasure to be around them. Those who ate their lunch all alone in a corner of the school canteen now sit together with their other classmates in the recess. The atmosphere in the class is no longer tense and fraught. Best of all, those who are from poorer economic backgrounds no longer feel they don’t belong in the class.

The students of 10-B have become the change they wish to see in their country.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at [email protected]