The PeaceWorks Human Rights Defenders Programme at Vidyanjali High School

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We have developed a Human Rights module, the PeaceWorks Human Rights Defenders Programme: Learning to Live with Difference, as a part of our Anne Frank project. This module is currently being run at Vidyanjali High School by Sunandini Mukherjee and Sahana Mukherjee. The following is a report on their experiences in the classroom.

The Human Rights Defenders Programme

The Human Rights Defenders Programme

Day 1 

Not a class of more than twenty, the students of Vidyanjali International School – all in the eighth standard – enter the A/V room with a lot of apprehension. What was this ‘workshop’ they have suddenly been asked to attend and that too, at 9 o’ clock in the morning? Some of them stop at the threshold and ask, ‘May we come in, Ma’am?’ Sunandini and I manage to hide our own trepidation and greet them with a smile and a hello, ask them to pull out the chairs and be comfortable. Some of them confidently sit up front, curious, smiling, while some hesitate and choose to sit at the back, glad to be away from the ‘teachers’ gaze’. We ask them if they’ve settled down so we may begin. Some nod enthusiastically while some, I sense, aren’t sure about this yet.

Sunandini and I introduce ourselves and give the students a brief description of the PeaceWorks program. We are curious to know what the students think about Human Rights, what their ideas of violence and freedom are. ‘Right to Education,’ one of them states and Sunandini writes it on the green board. One says, ‘Freedom from violence’ and Sunandini adds to the list. I ask them, ‘What does freedom smell like?’ and the students smile. Sunandini encouragingly adds, ‘Freedom can also mean stepping out of this classroom,’ and the students giggle. We realise it’s a tough task to define freedom, tougher even to describe how it feels to be free. One definition or one description will hardly do justice to how variously freedom has been dreamt of by so many people across the world.

After discussing the idea of ‘difference’ briefly, Sunandini and I start the first class with Anne Frank’s story. We have a rather generalized notion in our head that all young adolescents studying in an English-medium school must be familiar with Anne Frank’s story, but when none of the students respond positively at hearing Anne Frank’s name, our idea – like most other generalized ideas – receives its first setback. We ask them if they have ever come across the word ‘Holocaust’. They tell us they haven’t and we realise we have presumed too much. I take a step backward and ask them, ‘Do you know who Hitler was?’ The students brighten up at having finally reached a common ground with us and say, ‘Yes’. Thus, we go further back in time to 1914 and briefly discuss how the First World War and its impact on Germany paved the way for Nazism. Before we realise, it’s time and the bell rings. We don’t want to hold them back, so we end the class and request them to borrow a copy of Anne Frank’s Diary from their school library at the earliest. Some smile and nod while some are restless to leave.

Day 2

On the second day, we try for a more interactive session. We notice that those who sat at the back in the previous class stay there and those who sat up front remain sitting in the first row. In an attempt to break this hierarchy a little, we pick and choose volunteers arbitrarily and ask them to read out from Anne Frank’s diary. I give them my copy of the book because no one has issued it from the library yet. We deliberately choose one particular entry in the diary where Anne Frank talks about all the things she plans to take with her before going into hiding. Apart from one, the other students read it out quite dispassionately. We realise that they are probably not in the habit of reading aloud, and if they are ‘made’ to read aloud, they become anxious. More so because they seem unsure if their classmates will lend them a patient ear. In order to ease the situation a little, we ask them to engage in an activity.

We ask the students to imagine a situation where the community they come from is being targeted and hunted down and then to make a list of things they wish to take with them before escaping, much like Anne Frank. We let them take five-ten minutes and once they’re done, we ask them to read aloud from their notebook. Everyone – without fail – mentions mobile phones, food and money. One even says, ‘My car.’ Sunandini and I keep trying to help them answer more creatively. We give our own examples – a diary, a plant, a handkerchief. One student raises her hand and says, ‘Yes, my diary’ while another adds to it, ‘My doll’.

Day 3

The third class opened with a discussion of World War II and how with the rise of Nazism, people came to be slaughtered on the basis of difference. A background on the theories of ‘superior race’ and the extermination of Jews was already given in the last two classes. A documentary on the Holocaust was screened. It was chosen so as to demonstrate how fascism rises under façade democracy – a war torn eager German people lured by food and clothing into the biggest tragedy of the century. The coinage of genocide was discussed at length – how it became important to use a term outside everyday vocabulary to define the overwhelming magnitude of killings- because such a thing had gone beyond the limit of what speech can communicate.

The reaction of the students was mixed. Some of them watched it with attention, occasionally taking notes. Others seemed to be interested but were probably not able to understand all of it. There were still some others who giggled at the sight of corpses and people crying for help. We ended by talking once again about difference and how it has been ‘dealt with’ by fascist regimes across the world.

Day 4

The fourth class sought to introduce the Partition of India (1947). Since the pupils didn’t have any idea about the final stages of the Indian Freedom Movement, a background lecture was given that included a discussion of imperialism, the Two Nation theory and how people found themselves on the wrong side of the newly drawn border. We thought that it’s important for pupils to be introduced to the practice of writing and rewriting history books based on a certain politics of representation. To this effect we talked about people whose stories go untold in the meta narrative of History- Hindu and Muslim neighbours who shared the same locality but were divided on the basis of social mores. We talked briefly about Ismat Chughtai, her depiction of occasions of feasting when Hindus would accept only uncooked meals from their Muslim hosts and always serve the Muslim guests on utensils kept aside for that specific purpose alone. In an attempt to demonstrate the essential belief behind difference-based behaviour, we also talked about the notion of purity as it appears in many Hindu texts and followed religiously by the lot.

It is difficult to say if pupils can retain a thing or two from what they hear in class, especially with the absence of secondary or even primary study of history. However, we hope to relate the lessons to one another and also to events, stories that they may be familiar to- stories closer home. In the course of the next few classes we hope to read out parts from books that are usually not prescribed as text books, and also use audio-visual material to demonstrate better.

 Sunandini Mukherjee & Sahana Mukherjee