Dec 10, 2008

Lifestyle - Breeding contempt: a deliberate choice? (G.Read)

Kanimozhi Karunanidhi

Some schools, under the excuse of religious sentiments or spiritual beliefs, do not allow children to bring or eat the food of their choice inside the school premises. These rules are often unwritten but enforced.

While India is attaining freedom, She is attaining it in a manner which does not produce joy in the hearts of people or a radiant smile on their faces. Some of those who were charged with the responsibility for the administration of this country, tried to accentuate communal consciousness and bring about the present result which is a logical outcome of the policies adopted by the lesser mind of Britain. But I would never ever blame them. Were we not victims, ready victims, so to say, of the separatist tendencies foisted on us? Should we not now correct our fault of character, our domestic despotism, our intolerance which has assumed the different forms of obscurantism of narrow mindedness, of superstition, bigotry? Others were able to play on our weakness because we had them. I would like, therefore, to take this opportunity to call for self examination, for a searching of heart.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, on August 14, 1947, in the Constituent Assembly.

True, this is a moment for self-examination, an honest one. When the Mumbai siege is still fresh in our minds, when the anger and pain are still fresh and our own personal biases have not yet taken over, when fear still unites and holds us together and the blame game has not yet deteriorated into a full-scale slanging match, and when the economic crisis and the demands of electoral politics have not yet jaded our judgments. Without suppressing the questions that rise in many minds but are buried under the fallacies of condescending secularism or politicised fundamentalism, let us examine the small incidents that contribute to the rift that seems to envelop the minds of most of us, consciously or otherwise. It is the right time to de-construct some accepted norms and understand the underlying reasons.

We should put aside our fears of being politically incorrect or of giving in too much to “our” religious competitors. And the fear of abandoning our gods — who we think need our protection. And put to test our spirituality, which we believe cannot be nurtured except with our hatred and superiority.

Today (December 9) is Bakrid, an important festival for Muslims. And this country has a reasonably large population of Muslims who celebrate that festival. There is a sizeable number of educational institutions run privately that decide to work on this day — institutions whose founders claim to subscribe to other religious beliefs. A few days ago, in a particular school, when the teacher announced a project work for this day, a Muslim student expressed his inability to attend school on that day. She answers him, in a matter-of-fact manner: “Students who do not come to school on that day can consider themselves as failed.”

This would look like a minor incident. But ask the child. I can imagine the anger, the fear, the sense of being excluded, that moment would have created in the mind of the child. When the teacher spoke to him thus, did he feel he was queer? That he was different from the 50-odd students in the class? Will he search for answers when he gets out of school? I can cite many such examples of exclusion and the communal politics that leads to a few more — or fewer — red letters in a school calendar. These attitudes are reflected in many layers and levels.

This is not to blame any particular group or to say the others are all blameless. The others might have different versions of such stories to share. There are many such institutions that play similar games in the name of religion and end up sowing the seeds of hatred and divisiveness in the minds of children. The world today would like to claim that education, the evolution of civilisation, and the experience of wars has brought humanity to understand that people are more important — than even the state. But what we think will lead our next generation to enlightenment, tolerance and peace today, our educational institutions, are turning into production houses of intolerance and hatred. Schools discriminate in terms of the income of parents, on the lines of gender, and sometimes even on the lines of caste, religion and language. However ridiculous and unreal — bordering on the surreal, it may sound — often even on the lines of eating habits.

Some schools, under the excuse of religious sentiments or spiritual beliefs, do not allow children to bring or eat the food of their choice inside the school premises. These rules are often unwritten but enforced. Staff members routinely reprimand students who fail to abide by the unwritten codes. Emboldened by the act of those in authority, other students ostracise those who do not conform. What happens when these children leave school and face people of different belief systems and habits when they start their own lives? Where does it leave them in terms of tolerance if we, under the pretext of protecting them or being sensitive to a particular section, alienate them from experiencing the diversity? If we isolate them from exposure to other cultures or thought processes or faiths — as is being done in many places now — we have to prepare to reap the whirlwind.

Do we believe that every Siddhartha who is kept away from truth and reality will miraculously blossom to be a Gautama Buddha who will turn the world towards love and peace? Is it that educationists in this country cannot understand such a complicated theory: that ignorance is the breeding ground of fear and malice? Or is it intentional ignorance on the part of the people, the parents and the authorities with larger agendas who turn a blind eye to it. And do government agencies have no say on this?

If students are exposed to such biases on an everyday basis and if they imbibe it into their belief system at an age when thoughts are shaped through the images they witness, it would leave an indelible impression in their minds. Educational institutions and parents have to understand their responsibility and the important part they play in sculpting the future minds of this country. We have to ensure that at least they are free of these endless mazes. This is the least we can do for them.

(Kanimozhi Karunanidhi is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)

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