It’s a bit of a trick being a political science teacher nowadays. The reason I know this is because I have a friend who teaches political science to high school students in New Delhi. I’ll call her Meera.
Meera is the kind of teacher who never has a problem with student absenteeism because she knows how to bring her subject to life. When parliament is in session, she shows her class live Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha TV telecasts. She also organises regular classroom debates on current events and makes it a point every morning to discuss with her class the major socio-political events of the previous day. In short, she is the political science teacher everyone should have, or should have had when they were in high school.
It goes without saying that the students in her class are extremely well informed and can hold forth intelligently for hours on end on Indian politics because their teacher has taught them to think critically. But because she has taught them to do that, they also ask a lot of uncomfortable questions. And this is why it is a trick to be a political science teacher in Modi’s India, because while teachers like Meera are encouraged to get their students to “perform well” on one hand, they are discouraged from teaching them to critique India’s social and political realities on the other.
Meera tells me there is an unwritten agreement amongst the other staff members not to be vocally critical of the present dispensation and to avoid discussing Indian politics during school hours.
I burst out laughing. “And how do you manage that?”
“I don’t,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I am a teacher and if I am going to teach them my subject then I have to talk about current political realities, right? Political science, after all is the scientific analysis of political activity and behaviour.”
“Does it get you in trouble in the workplace?” I ask.
“Sometimes, but what choice do I have?” she says. The fact that Meera’s students score well in her subject and win awards and trophies at inter-school debates and contests makes it hard for the school authorities to censure her too much.
Meera pulls out a book from her bag, opens it to a page bookmarked with a post-it, points to a passage that she has underlined and asks me to read it. The book is called Gandhi After 9/11 and it examines the relevance of Gandhi’s teachings in the 21st century. I read the passage she has marked out loud:
“Moral living is necessarily political, since it is concerned with real human suffering, exploitation, oppression, poverty, violence, war, inequality and injustice. The political is necessarily moral, since it is not value-free or an end in itself, but is concerned with establishing relations that are nonviolent, peaceful, compassionate, egalitarian, democratic, and promote welfare for all.”
She explains to me that a) she cannot avoid discussing Indian politics because she is a political science teacher after all, and b) dodging political issues is tantamount to dodging moral issues, which she says, in all good conscience, she cannot. As if to underscore her point, she then shows me a list of questions that her students have brought up for discussion over the last few days, weeks and months:
“Why do political parties end up booking their MLAs into resorts when new state governments have to be formed? Are our leaders so lacking in moral conviction that they can’t refuse temptations and allurements? How can we trust our leaders if it’s so easy to bribe them? Also, what does this say about the BJP?”
“162 MLAs from the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP met in a hotel, raised their arms and took an oath to stay away from lures and temptations. Seriously?? Are these adults leading a democracy or grade school kids taking a pledge not to misbehave again??”
“Is cleverness the new integrity? Has chanakyaniti taken the place of honesty?”
“Why do so many people support the BJP knowing full well that its communal and polarising tactics run contrary to the principles laid out in the Indian constitution?”
“Why did the Supreme Court, in effect, hand over the disputed land in Ayodhya to those who essentially committed a crime by bringing down a mosque there?”
“Why are constitutionally elected leaders of Kashmir still under lock and key? Why haven’t Indians all over India they made more of a hue and cry about the nearly four-month old lockdown there?”
“Why is the government raising the fee so drastically in institutions of public education? Why are they making it difficult for poor students to get a decent education at an affordable cost? Is the government anti-education? Or is it anti-poor? Or both?”
“Why do 1% of Indians own more than 50% of the country’s wealth?”
The moral dimension of these questions strikes me and I marvel at how straightforward, direct, and refreshingly shorn of verbiage they are. I can’t help but wonder how much these questions from a group of 16 and 17 year olds resonate with the questions a lot of us have been asking as well. (I also can’t help but think Meera is pretty damn brave!)
Meera has not only taught her students to ask important questions about the condition of India, she has also succeeded in getting them to question the huge moral issues underlying them. She has taught them to ask crucial questions about the nature of right and wrong, corruption and honesty, inclusion and exclusion, compassion and indifference, wealth and poverty, and finally, justice and the lack of it.
In so doing, I believe she has managed to help her students understand that the great majority of our problems stem from the fact that our moral core as a nation is dangerously close to being hollowed out. I ask Meera if she can tell me in one phrase or less what she feels India’s biggest moral/political problem is.
“Apathy,” she says without hesitation. It’s obvious she has thought about this a lot. “Apathy basically means ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’. The antidote to that is knowledge and empathy. We have to teach our students to know their country and understand it, and we have to teach them to care for their fellow citizens.”
The journey back to political and societal wholeness will be difficult and fraught. I am so glad there are teachers like Meera to show us the way.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org