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Once again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be giving millions of school-going children advice on how to clear their exams.
The next instalment of ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’ is due to take place on April 1, or ‘April Fool’s Day’. One is left to wonder whether the choice of date was inadvertent or a practical joke being played on millions of kids, given the controversy and debate surrounding the main speaker’s educational background and qualifications.
Exams are scary events in the life of India’s high school students, and PM Modi has artfully taken on the role of the understanding elder who tells the young not to worry. It is easy to see how millions of school children who may not have a tradition of critical enquiry in their schools or families can very easily end up venerating a prime minister who has deigned to take time out of his busy schedule to address their concerns. Modi is a clever man who knows that in just a short amount of time these children will soon become voters too.
As a teacher, I wonder if Modi is, indeed, the person best suited to give school children advice on exams and life. Is he the ideal role model for our students? The most important role of role models is to model the virtues and values that they would like others to imbibe. One wonders which virtues Modi models.
Is academic excellence one of them? Probably not, seeing that the nation still is not quite sure whether he has a BA or an MA, and from which university.
One is not too sure about the virtue of courage either, seeing that the prime minister has yet to address a bonafide press conference with genuine journalists in attendance.
Values are caught much more than they are taught, so who can young adults, who desperately need role models, look up to? It is this teacher’s humble submission that Umar Khalid, PhD, would fit the bill admirably.
Imagine if you can, and if only even for a few brief seconds, Umar Khalid addressing millions of kids around the country instead of PM Modi. Not as prime minister, of course, but as a scholar and an activist – well-nigh impossible under the circumstances, I know, but please humour me.
I believe the interaction would have a profound impact on the lives of those attending and watching.
First of all, many young people who, for the last several years have grown up on a steady diet of anti-Muslim propaganda would see for themselves that a young man who has been vilified relentlessly in the mainstream media is, in fact, a brilliant, well-read, compassionate and eloquent scholar who has put in the years to understand the deep problems of the most marginalised in India and who is committed to finding solutions to them.
And then, assuming that the event was being held live in a stadium as these events normally are, the attendees would, I believe, be shocked to see Dr. Khalid actually taking questions from anyone in the audience and answering them honestly. They would quite clearly see the difference between a scripted event and a real heart-to-heart conversation.
If I were in the audience, I would probably ask him about his time in prison, and how he handled a profoundly unjust incarceration. I believe a deep hush would probably fall on the audience as I imagine Dr. Khalid describe his daily routine in the prison, the fears he had to face, the anxieties he had to conquer when COVID-19 ravaged the prison, and how he managed to stay sane despite it all. I would want to know how he handled the really, really difficult days, including the ones when he was brought to court in fetters and denied bail again and again.
I daresay by the time he finished, the students would be in awe of the young man’s quiet courage.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the interaction, I imagine, would be the treatment of the word “pariksha” which means exam or test. I am quite sure Dr. Khalid would broaden the definition to cover much, much more than our prime minister currently does.
Chances are he would talk about the many parikshas the poor and marginalised in India have to fight daily, and the parikshas of conscience each of us face when we see the persecution of those who do not belong to the majority faith.
I believe Dr. Khalid’s perspective would inspire and challenge the students to do much more with their lives than simply become “exam warriors”.
In Hindi, this is called ‘khayali pulao pakaanaa’ or ‘cooking an imaginary dish’. The late writer and activist, Mahashweta Devi, however, once said that the first and most fundamental right of all is the right to dream.
The current dispensation has waged an all-out war against that right and done its very best to tell us we have no right to dream of an India other than the one being handed to us on a saffron platter. But we have a constitutionally-mandated right and responsibility to imagine a different kind of India, the kind where its children will have an abundance of those like Dr. Khalid to look up to.
To paraphrase John Lennon:
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the nation will be as one.”
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.