The PeaceWorks Human Rights Defenders Programme at Ashok Hall Girls’ HSS: Day 1

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We went into our first class unsure of what to expect, but the response we got was more positive than our most optimistic predictions. Our class comprised of students from class nine, ten and eleven. Having students who were actually, genuinely interested made our work a lot easier, and the aims we had gone in with were satisfactorily covered.

    To begin, we wanted to understand their conceptions of human rights and then move onto some key aspects of it, including crucial articles of the UDHR.

    Since it was our first class, we also took some time out to discuss what forms history and how certain narratives are prioritized, breaking down the concept of euro-centrism to facilitate/ease further discussions about alternative histories for the students. Interestingly, a student of ninth grade said that we study the Western way of life and western history because they are more ‘modern’. This allowed us  to unpack the idea of ‘modern’ which seemed to set off the students as they automatically began to question a lot of their own preconceived notions about historical truth.

    We asked the students to identify ongoing social incidents under the articles we had discussed—Article 5, the right to life for instance, While discussing recent incidents, the case of the Pulwama incident came up, bringing up the conflicted question of whether the Indian army’s counter-strikes can also be considered violations of the right to life of the belligerents. One student insisted that the right to life doesn’t take precedence over national security, which we took up, directing the conversation towards what enforces these rights in the first place. We had an expansive discussion about this incident because it was fresh in the students’ minds, with the students trying to identify the exact nature of human rights violations committed by both the militants and the retaliatory actions by the Indian Army.

    The inextricable link between identity and human rights is a concept on which a lot of the module is structured since the issue of identity has led to the world’s worst genocides and human rights violations. We spoke about how those who do not have their own identities often face the brunt of social injustice.

    To take this further, we did a simple exercise where the students had to self-identify themselves, using whatever definitions they chose to. From their range of religious, cultural, gender, ethnic, caste and national identities, we tried to point out how each of these identities had majority and minority groups that dominated or were subjugated in society.

    One of us then proceeded to self-identify as a man, while dressed visibly in normative feminine clothing and asked them if they believed in our identification. They responded that they did respect the gender dysphoria but couldn’t accept it that easily. One student insisted that only the individual had the right to decide their identity, but that the identification holds value only if society collectively accepts that identity. Therefore as a part of society, it is our regular, everyday duty to respect identities of those around us, because it is only through our endorsement their rights are given, or taken away.

     The class had been given an ethical dilemma to solve at the beginning of the lesson- we ended the class with exploring the notion of individual and collective responsibility through it.

    We hope our class successfully emphasised the idea we wanted to share with the girls—that human rights are everyday rights that can be enforced only through public consciousness of them, as individual and collective responsibility. We tried to offer the students a clearer sense of how different ground-level history is from the textual history studied in school, hoping that looking at it from people’s perspectives would enliven/evolve their engagement with history.  

-Sanjukta, Sreemoyee