Proiti Seal Acharya and Samyabrata Das are running The Peaceworks Human Rights Module: Learning to Live with Difference, at Chowringhee High School, Kolkata, as a part of our Anne Frank project. Here’s the report on the very first class as written by Proiti.
On the 3rd of October, Samyabrata and I began the Peaceworks Human Rights Defenders Programme at Chowringhee High School, with a group of sixteen students from classes 8 and 9. Anushka set the session going with a round of introductions, during which the students were asked to give us their names, as well as come up with words they associate with the term ‘Freedom’. This was an eager group, and the responses were diverse. While to some ‘Freedom’ meant the ability to live life as they pleased, others mentioned ideas like ‘Azaadi’, ‘Open Sky’, ‘The right to speak’, ‘Right to Religion’, ‘the Right to do what you want’, and ‘happiness’.
We shifted the conversation towards Human Rights, explaining what they were and also mentioning the Human Rights Charter drafted by the United Nations. The children seemed to be able to grasp the concept and also displayed awareness about the UN and its functions. Next, we divided them into four groups of four and gave each group a particular right from the Charter to think about. They were to make a list of the many ways in which the given right is violated in the world today. The four rights were: Right to Education, Right to Equality, Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security and Freedom of Belief and Religion.
Until now, they had been facing the front of the class. We suggested that they could sit facing each other in order to work better together. Anushka, Samyabrata and I each went to different groups to see if we could help them in any way. The group working on the Right to Equality was listing what they believed the right should entail. I explained to them that the task was to list examples of violation of that right. Once they understood what they had to do, they brought up topics such as caste discrimination, and discrimination against girls and women. I asked them if they were aware of the recent decriminilisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the Supreme Court. As they did not seem to be quite sure about it, I explained the development to them. I also told them about the recent Sabarimala verdict, and how it had upheld the right to equality by removing the ban placed on girls and women from entering the temple. The group then assured me that they had understood what they were supposed to do and set to work immediately.
Anushka spoke at length with the group working on the Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security. At first, this group was unsure about the meaning of this right, because they had not heard about it before. After Anushka explained what it entailed to them, they thought of war and its effects on common citizens, such as forced migration. They also mentioned ‘bad touch’, referring to the sexual abuse of women by men, a topic we plan to take up again in the coming session in order to further their understanding of its complexities.
Samyabrata spoke with the group discussing the Right to Education. At that point, the group had thought mainly of financial constraints as the primary reasons why a child’s right to education may be violated. Samyabrata encouraged them to explore this problem and its effects further- how a child may be enrolled in a school but have to walk miles and miles to reach it; how a child may not have a suitable space to study within his/her household etc. One member of this group asked him whether it could be said that the right to education was protected in India since the government had prioritized the right and built schools even in remote areas. He pointed out to her that these schools may exist on paper, but very often they do not provide students with basic infrastructure and other necessary facilities. Thus, the children’s right to education is not really protected. Samyabrata also asked the group to think about how differing attitudes towards girls’ and boys’ education unfairly affects girls, who may be married off or forced to dedicate all their time to housework while their male counterparts pursue formal education. On hearing this, one member of the group claimed to have read that child marriage had been eradicated. Samyabrata urged her to keep in mind that not all cases of child marriage are reported, and that there may be many such cases about which we may never find out. By now the group had understood what kind of approach we wanted them to take while making the list, and set to work amongst themselves.
The fourth group, working on the Freedom of Belief and Religion, was listing all the ways in which this right had been upheld, in their experience. They told me about the Iftaar Party organized every year at their school, which is attended by students from all backgrounds. They also mentioned how Durga Puja is celebrated by everyone irrespective of their religion. I explained to them that while their observations were accurate, the task was to list all the ways in which this right is violated.
Once the groups were ready with their lists, a member from each group rose to read their own list out loud to the rest of the class. We encouraged the students to respond to each list, to add other instances of violation that could have been included, according to them.
We were impressed by the way in which the children had articulated the instances they had discussed, and also by the additions they had made after speaking with us. For example, the group dealing with the Freedom of Belief and Religion spoke about how inter-religious marriages are met with extremely negative reactions. They also spoke about how members of different religious communities do not allow people belonging to other religions to enter their holy places, like temples and mosques. On hearing this, a member of a different group added that in many cases people do not even let holy books from other religions into their homes. The group listing violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Personal Security mentioned often overlooked issues such as domestic violence and marital sexual abuse. The group working on the Right to Equality mentioned street harassment as a reason why women cannot go out alone, thus affecting their right to use public spaces in ways that men can. They also referred to the humiliation that lower-caste individuals have to endure in certain spaces such as temples, where upper-caste individuals are treated with respect. The group working on the Right to Education spoke about how illiteracy can often prevent people from finding out about government schemes that may benefit them, apart from mentioning the issues they had previously discussed with us.
We followed this activity by explaining that there have been instances in history where large scale human rights violations have taken place at the same time, such as during the Holocaust. The students recognized the term, and also showed familiarity with the general historical context. When we mentioned Anne Frank’s name, they let us know that although they had not read the entire book, they had studied excerpts from it as part of their curriculum. We asked them to read the book during their Puja vacations. We also asked them to get together in groups of two or three and interview their grandparents and/or community elders about their experiences of large scale human rights violations, such as during the Partition. With that, the session drew to a close, and we thanked them for being such an enthusiastic, attentive group. We left feeling hopeful about possibilities for the future.
As the programme moves forward, we hope to use Anne’s diary to shed light on the tragedies of the Holocaust, while constantly referring to similar incidents in other parts of the world and especially in India. Our goal is to help them understand the systemic ways in which hatred and prejudice can spread and lead to such incidents, and also to show them that it is possible to create a future where informed, empathetic citizens like them can actively prevent them from happening.
Proiti Seal Acharya