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Prejudices start early with schools

Its now seems possible that schoolteacher Uma Khurana is innocent of the charge of prostitution, reports Renuka Bisht.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2007 16:01 IST
Renuka Bisht

Its now seems possible that schoolteacher Uma Khurana is innocent of the charge of prostitution. But whatever the outcome of her case, it has already etched an indelible image in the minds of the unfortunate children who saw their teacher being crudely manhandled by a “faceless” mob. And every time violence creeps into a school, not only does the quality of education suffer, but the basic tenets of tolerance and civilization are also compromised among its students.

The UNESCO constitution says, “Since wars began in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Schools can provide one of the most powerful bulwarks of this defense and become harmonious anchors in an increasingly unstable world. But if we consider two trends, the curriculum wars and the mistreatment of dalits, it seems that our education system remains steeped in illiberalism and prejudice.

Sometimes an administration’s zealous interventions in the name of history are almost humorous, such as when Madhya Pradesh banned its tiny tots from singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Baa Baa Black Sheep to curb “western influences.” More ominously, Gujarat school textbooks have labeled religious minorities as foreigners and extolled Nazism.

In Karnataka, the minister for higher education has deemed references “glorifying” Tipu Sultan’s achievements unfit for school textbooks. His justification: “Tipu was an anti-Hindu ruler.” Amar Farooqui of the history department at Delhi University argues that this suggests that students should not be trained in critical enquiry, a vital learning tool with which they can assess historical figures for themselves.

Parochial schools such as the RSS-run Vidya Bharatis and the 30,000 odd madrassas in the country can be especially blasé in refusing to promote reflexive thinking and liberal values. In the latter, Mohammad Tazeem of Jamia Millia Islamia has pointed out, it is still common to teach commentaries upon commentaries of old textbooks, and to focus on the orthodox tenets of Islamic jurisprudence.

As far as Dalit students are concerned, the Human Rights Watch 2007 report titled “Hidden Apartheid” notes that the way in which caste discrimination is treated in textbooks helps sanction segregation in government schools. Humiliations meted out to Dalit students range across not allowing them to drink water from public taps, and declaring that they cannot learn unless they are beaten. Just last month, nine-years-old Navin Kumar Paswan was so severely battered by his teachers for asking for more food that he became blind in one eye. IndiaTogether reporter Puja Awasthi finds that even Dalit teachers bear the brunt of degradation, sometimes denied kitchen duties during teachers training and prohibited from punishing non-Dalit children at other times.

In a society marred by conflicts, schools that emphasize shared values can effect a peaceful transformation. But if our schools remain ensconced in a climate of intolerance, we will raise a generation riddled with inter-group antagonism, with little respect for the civil foundations of secular democracy. As “the liberal conscience of The Washingtion Post” Colman McCarthy has warned, unless we teach children peace, someone else will teach them violence.