CHENNAI: The world woke up to the ever-present, persistent problem of police brutality in the USA when George Floyd died in the process of being apprehended by cops in Minnesota. It was a month later that we confronted the problem back home, when Jeyaraj and Bennicks died after being subjected to a great deal of abuse and torture while in judicial custody in Sathankulam, Thoothukudi. Last week, in Bihar’s Araria district, a gangrape survivor was arrested for “contempt of court” after she demanded the presence of social workers in the district court.
This, after the 22-year-old was made to recount her experience multiple times, denied access to a mental health professional, and her identity had been revealed in local news reports. While she is out of jail now, the two social workers who were arrested along with her have not had similar relief. Millions of Kashmiris, having lived through 11 months of lockdown, find no reprieve in sight. In China, millions of Uighar Muslims continue to be confined to “education camps” as part of the communist regime’s efforts of cultural erasure in the name of assimilation.
Elsewhere, war rages on. For us, mere products of a society that approves the violence of the authority even as it quells the smallest sign of dissent in its populace, this isn’t really news. The details may differ, the reasons may change, the victims may come and go but violence is something we expect on a day-to-day basis. Beneath the layers of institutionalised violence, systematic abuse, an out-of-date justice system, sexism, casteism and racism, it all boils down to blatant violation of human rights. Despite its lofty place in the Indian Constitution, human rights finds little place in the common man’s everyday life; certainly not in the education system. With all the wisdom of the ‘teach them young’ principle, perhaps that’s where we should start.
“The one thing we encounter every year is the question “why didn’t they teach this in school?”, when we begin classes on fundamental rights. One of my students plans to take this up as her research subject,” shares Nithya R, assistant professor and head of Department of Human Rights and Duties Education, Ethiraj College for Women. “In school, Civics is one subject that has lessons on human rights. Minimum marks are allotted to the subject and it covers very little. Children who study the subject too have very little understanding of it.
The objective is to sensitise the children to these rights and teach them to incorporate it in their lives,” she points out. Swarna Rajagopal, founder of The Prajnya Trust, questions the way we look at the subject of Civics itself. “It was in high school when we did History, Geography and Civics as part of a 100-mark paper. In that, Civics was only for 10 marks. You could do brilliantly by completely leaving out the Civics questions. If education is about peace, as Maria Montessori said, and education is about citizenship, then neglecting Civics is just missing the point,” she elaborates. In 2016, a Pakistani lawyer advocated for human rights education in schools in his country.
Drawing upon American philosopher and education reformer John Dewey’s position that a school is a model of good society, he suggested that schools are places where it is possible to operate a community based on social justice and human rights. As much as this is theoretically true, it also goes to say that schools become microcosms of the society they are housed in. “Who runs the school? We’re talking about them like they are a different species. They are people like you and me. Not only should schools mimic society, schools do mimic society. Schools are made up of the same kinds of people as those who go out to buy vegetables, or vote. Therefore, it has all the same preferences and biases – right from the ‘finger on your lips’ command. All of that stays,” Swarna explains.
How teachers, and society at large, view governance also affects how we look upon rights and rights education, offers Swarna. “Over the years I’ve had interactions with people where we talked about the purpose of governments. They talk about it in terms of regulation and control. That’s not the point of government. Human rights is one planet away. In consistence with that view of people (especially young people) needing to be controlled, there is a bit of anxiety about talking about rights. What if they claim their rights? Everything about our education in average schools (I’m not talking about super elite schools where people have exposure to alternative ways of thinking and training), there is a certain bias towards authority. In the classroom, that’s the teacher; in the school, it’s the headmaster; and in the world, it’s the government. When you have a bias towards authority, you’re not going to teach rights,” she surmises.
Human rights education becomes all the more vital at the school level, as early as possible, when we have seen time and again that late stage intervention barely makes a difference. “A majority of the country supports war, and considers police encounters and custodial torture as the norm. While the prison system is supposed to be reformative, it remains punitive. We used to go to prisons for visits with students. We get a very nice picture of the way of things there. But eventually, the authorities admit that they do indulge in violence to control inmates.
Besides, faculty from our department train police personnel on human rights in training colleges. But it stops right there. What more, people celebrate encounters; though it is for grave crimes like rape or murder, it is wrong from the human rights perspective,” points out Nithya. Far from just forming the foundation of our principles on worldly affairs, we are learning violence as a normal language of human interaction, suggests Swarna.
“You’re also not engaging dialogue. It may be as simple as the child saying “no, murukku is not my favourite – sometimes it’s too hard”. It is a perfectly valid and alternative opinion to yours. But you say “no, murukku is very good, you should like it”. In more serious conversations, it could be that “I’m going to punish you for saying this”,” she explains. All this is why Nithya and Swarna agree that there’s no such thing as starting human rights education too early. “We teach children ‘good touch, bad touch’ at the age of three. While lessons on rights can start during the middle school years, the basics can be taught from a very young age,” she suggests.
Practise what you teach
Going a step further, Swarna offers that anything you teach, you should actually live. “Ideally, the school should not just teach the charter but live the charter. You should have spaces for free speech, for asking questions, and students should be allowed to initiate the activities. If a child says I want to start a club about stamp collection, the measures I give should be related to stamp collection and sustained effort and not related to “you are not allowed to start a club”.
There should be some space for the child to define what they need to do. And definitely student government. Of course there should be rules and regulations for the smooth running of the schools. But regulation, in some part, should also be based on a consensual understanding of its purpose,” she explains. Swarna also highlights the difference between the Declaration of Human Rights and the culture of human rights.
“Where we might even include the Declaration as ‘fill in the blank’ questions, we fail to create the culture of human rights and democracy,” she points out. This is part of Prajnya’s work in its Education for Peace initiative. “Last year, we were doing this series called ‘Preamble to the Democracy’. We would go through the Preamble and talk about particular words to learn its meaning, history and value. The premise of the sessions was – we are going to look at this document that we think is important to preserve your rights as citizen; but one of the rights it preserves is your right to debate it, debate on it and reject it; but you must have an alternative. You begin that engagement in school and take it to its culmination in college,” she explains.
Based in Bengaluru, Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA) works for the cause of Citizenship and Life Skills Education. They work with children to get them to actively exercise their rights and equip them to engage with authorities to solve the problems of the community. For as much as the rights give us our individual freedom, it can also help tackle the problems we face and build a future on well-informed decisions is the idea.
Then, there’s Schools of Equality that uses activities and workshops to engage students in conversations about social justice and equality. They currently work with students, teachers and parents in many schools in Kadappa district of Andhra Pradesh, and in Chennai. Speaking about their work, Gheshna Nagendran, program manager, Schools of Equality, says, “Our programme is focused on identity sensitisation and equality. It is experiential and tailored to the age group, to be able to unpack complex concepts through creative modalities, activities and dialogue.
Students are aware of their rights, but more importantly, we create a culture of mutual respect and dignity so they’re respected and embodied by all. Our process involves moving rights from theory to practice. We see that the existence of a law doesn’t always translate into the field and we believe that the barrier to that is the attitude that we are schooled into as a society. At Schools of Equality, we aim at shifting attitudes and behaviours, to ensure that the rights are realised in praxis. We also encourage the students to be critical consumers so they can think for themselves when they encounter other narratives in their experience.” The programme also addresses how children view violence, by letting them examine its prevalence and impact at the individual and systematic level.
“They also reflect on their own role within the system and think of creative modes of action to proactively prevent and respond to violence so they’re not complicit bystanders. It is important to us that they learn how to discern the violence when it is happening around them and our children have demonstrated that through action. For example, we have heard of instances where our students have stood up to a sexual harasser in a bus. We have also had our students taking collective action to ensure that boys and girls have equal opportunities at sports in one of the schools that we have worked at,” they elaborate. As effective as their work has been, there is need for more, she points out. “It is critical to focus on prevention and start young — and engage everyone, not just a handful of select schools. Human rights education should be a part of the regular school curriculum,” they offer. Here’s hoping.