Seven Things Indian Parents Can Do to Keep Secular Democracy Alive

It is tempting to feel paralysed when your own government seems to have turned on you, but there is a lot a parent can do to keep the idea of a secular and democratic India alive.

A lot of urban Indian parents I know are worried about the India their children are growing up in. They are concerned about the condition of society, the state of the economy, the rising levels of pollution and the declining quality of life. In short, they are worried about the future that awaits their kids. (Rural Indian parents have problems of a different magnitude altogether.)

A minuscule minority of Indian parents has the means to send their children to study and settle abroad. The rest know their kids have to grow up in India. The crises facing them are huge, including the promised imposition of the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens from which Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has told us, “There is no escape.” (Those words.)

And as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) comes into effect, anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can tell that see that very idea of a secular, democratic and progressive India is under attack.

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At a time like this, what does a conscientious parent do? It is tempting to feel paralysed when your own government seems to have turned on you, but there is a lot a parent can do to keep the idea of a secular and democratic India alive.

1. Honour the constitution. Keep a copy of the constitution of India on your living room coffee table where it can be easily picked up and flipped through. Discuss it with your kids. Talk about how special it is to have a ‘national book’ with clearly defined rights and responsibilities for all the citizens of India. (Illustrated books like We, the Children of India, by the late Chief Justice Leila Seth, for example, explain the spirit and importance of the Preamble in a fun, interesting, and child-friendly way.)

Let’s be honest, not too many of us can remember the last time we read through the constitution, if at all. It is well worth our while to familiarise ourselves with it. It’s also not a bad idea to keep a few extra copies handy to give to interested visitors. (It’s not an expensive book. If members of the Hare Krishna ISKCON sect can distribute copies of the Bhagwad Gita at street corners and traffic lights, surely we can also offer the constitution of India to those who are interested.)

2. Frame the Preamble of India and give it pride of place in your home. Words seen often enough have a way of working themselves into the subconscious mind. Visitors to your home will be sure to take note and it will make for a great conversation starter. People put up framed photos of gods, gurus, religious places and quotations in their homes. There is no reason why one should hesitate in displaying a picture or the words of the Preamble which encapsulate the heart and soul of our secular democracy. (At least till such a time that our constitution is safe again.)

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3. Make it a point for your family to celebrate festivals other than the ones you normally do. You may or may not be a religious person yourself, but showing respect and consideration for the faith and culture of others and participating in their festivals makes a very powerful statement to children and does a lot to inoculate them from the bigotry and othering they see around them. Celebrating iftar with a Muslim family, for example if you are a Hindu, or visiting a gurudwara on Gurpurab with a Sikh family will be a cross-cultural experience for your kids and expose them to other ways of respecting the sacred.

4. Demonstrate by your own personal example that you believe all Indians are equal. Back in the 1970s, my father, a government employee, owned a heavy old Lambretta scooter long before he owned a car. In those days, a simple ride on the back of a scooter was a treat. My brother and I would wait for him to return from work and he would often give us a ride around the neighbourhood park on the back of his scooter. He would not only give us a ride, he would also give a ride to the children of the ironing man and the colony chowkidar.

To him, kids were kids, regardless of whose kids they were, and just the fact that he treated the children of the less privileged with the same dignity as he treated us left a very powerful impression on my young mind. I grew up with the firm belief that people are humans first and deserving of respect, and that socio-economic status and religion are tertiary matters.

Our kids are watching and will take their cues from us.

5. Teach your kids the art of conversation. One of the worst side effects of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and even WhatsApp is that they have rung the death knell of conversations where two or more people sit together, talk to each other, listen to each other, and build on what the other is saying. Conversation is a somatic thing and has much to do with physical presence. Much that is conveyed by body language and tone of voice is missing in the so-called ‘conversations’ we participate in on social media, and much of what makes up a real conversation is woefully absent in social media chats.

Meaningful conversation has less to do with saying smart and witty things and more to do with genuinely listening to others and understanding them. If we can teach our children the art of real conversation, we will have done them and our country a very great service because we will have taught members of the next generation the value of civility, depth and authenticity.

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6. Teach your kids the art of debating. Teach them that dissent, debate and questioning are not new things – they are essential parts of a three thousand year old Indian tradition. From Gautam Buddha to Tulsidas, from Amir Khusro to Raja Ram Mohan Roy; from Savitribai Phule to B.R. Ambedkar, Indian history is replete with many who broke away from the oppressions of their day and gave expression to revolutionary new ways of being.

Patriarchy tells the younger and so-called ‘weaker’ members of a family, tribe or society to shut up and obey. Democracy, on the other hand, gives everyone in a society the right to speak up and question. As parents, we need to tell our children that it is good to question and debate. We also need to remind them that genuine debate is nothing like the gutter-level shouting matches that most news channels pass off as ‘TV debates’.

We need to teach our kids how to put forth their points of view factually and respectfully. Again, the way they will learn best is by watching us in action and seeing how we handle differences of opinion.

7. Watch Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi together as a family. The Sangh Parivar’s project of diminishing and doing away with Gandhi is now at its peak, but the old man is refusing to go away. The current nation-wide largely non-violent uprising against the draconian NRC/NPR/CAA is living proof that his ideas are just as potent today as they were when he was alive.

There’s nothing quite like watching Gandhi’s life to understand his message, (“My life is my message”) and to show our kids that we do indeed have a rich heritage of non-violent resistance. (It’s also a great film to screen in your neighbourhood community hall for the children and families in your locality, or even at your child’s school for that matter.)

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

There are, of course, many more things we can do as parents to keep the free, secular spirit of India alive, and the more we do, the more we will discover we can. A parent’s circle of influence is not as small as it seems.

As Gandhi aptly said, “You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”

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