November 2019 marks 7 years of association with the Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, as their India partners. A chance encounter at a conference in Doha leading to a partnership that has led to one of the most relevant and important projects we have undertaken at PeaceWorks.
cccc2019 has also been particularly special. This year we added a new dimension to the work we have been doing under this umbrella—twice.
ccccFirst, taking it into interior Manipur—a region that has been witness to human rights violations for decades. A region that is very cut off from mainland India. And a region where students do not get the exposure that their peers in other parts of the country have the good fortune of taking for granted. Straight after the valuable experience of Manipur the Anne Frank – A History for Today project travelled to Ahmedabad—to the Conflictorium – Museum of Conflict.
Conflict is integral to life, but how a society manages conflicts reveals how mature it is. Total absence of conflicts may also not indicate an ideal society. Despite having produced thought-leaders like Buddha, Mahavira, Ashoka, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Vinobha, our civilization doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond the ‘win/lose’ logic when it comes to dealing with conflict. And once the conflict is over, we refuse to publicly introspect and strengthen our humanity. The Conflictorium is a space that strives to engage every section of society with a variety of conflict issues, by celebrating plurality and encouraging conflict expression and avoidance in artistic and creative ways.
ccccTheir mission statement says it all. In 2018, Avni Sethi, the founder Director of Conflictorium had delivered a lecture at our History for Peace annual conference in Calcutta. It was then that we had made a mental note of Conflictorium being an important destination for the Anne Frank project.
ccccA little over a year later, we were there, ready to begin the peer guide training on the morning of 19 November 2019.
ccccThe group of potential peer guides began to trickle in and what I saw made me very nervous and very excited all at once. Nervous because one group of 9 students was from the most elite school of Ahmedabad, coming from very affluent backgrounds, studying the IB curriculum in high school as each one of them would go to college in either the U.S or the U.K. The social divides being what they are in India, it was a wonder their parents agreed to let them come to this part of the city which was notorious for its communal unrest.
ccccThe other group of 9 was from Government schools adopted by the Teach India project. These were first generation learners, much younger, from families that had been displaced during the Gujarat riots of 2003. The challenge of working with such a diverse group was daunting.
ccccWe began with the obvious—getting to know each other. Pairing them, I gave them twenty minutes to converse and discover as much as they could about each other so they could introduce their ‘new friend’ to me. They clearly had fun doing this and I got to know some secrets too in the process!
ccccThis was followed by a discussion on the history of World War II, the Holocaust and the Diary of Anne Frank. The Teach India group were not familiar with any of these while the other group had all their facts in place, having covered the subject in their History syllabus, and some of them had read the Diary of Anne Frank. One of the students had also visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
ccccThis was followed by screening the film The Short Life of Anne Frank which led to even more discussions. We explored concepts of identity, persecution, discrimination, human rights violations. We discussed Genocide. Starting from the Stolen Generation to more recent ones and the controversies surrounding them. Switching between Hindi and English, I tried my best to conduct the discussions at different levels so the concepts could be grasped by all the students. But clearly, I could have done much better! Yash, the youngest of the participants very earnestly commented ‘You are using such difficult words, I am not understanding most of this!’
ccccIt was time, I realized at that point, to move to setting up the exhibition. Now, this is an activity that excites and energises the students, across the board. We have seen this in every single city, setting, surrounding that we have travelled the exhibition to. In less than two hours the entire exhibition was ready for its visitors!
The participants were then asked to calmly study, read and imbibe all the information on the exhibition panels, before dispersing for the day.
ccccNext morning, I realized, the film, the discussions prior to the film and the panels—all together seemed to have brought a lot of clarity. Yash too seemed confident and knowledgeable and in fact told me not to worry—he would single handedly take care of all the visitors.
ccccWe went headlong into mock guiding, with the participants talking turns with two panels each and going through the contents of the exhibition. All the while being prompted by me to find parallels of the events of the past, in the present. Quick on the uptake, each one of them found the nerve centre of the A History for Today part of the project seamlessly!
ccccAfter the first round of mock guiding was complete, I demonstrated a different way of guiding—one that involved picking one central photograph in each panel and conveying information with that photo as the axis around which everything else could be built.
ccccMore demonstrations followed, more questions needed to be answered, empathy was clearly getting built and the one comment that struck me hard came from, yes, Yash again: If they were being harassed so much, why did they not simply change their religion, he asked. This led to deep discussions on persecution on the basis of Race and persecution on the basis of Religion.
ccccWe could go on forever, but it was time for the participants to leave, after having finalized their responsibilities during the opening, and in the following week when they would be guiding visitors from other schools in the city.
ccccI cannot any longer remember the number of peer guide trainings I have conducted over the past few years. None of them have left an uneasy feeling. This session did. I had a nagging feeling that this process is very incomplete for those coming from the kind of background that the Teach India students came from—that I may have left them confused. They may have unanswered questions, incomplete grasp of issues and concepts that were discussed.
ccccThe following day, at the Teacher training workshop, attended by only two teachers—one each from the schools the two groups of participants came from—I took this issue up. Conveying my discomfort I requested the teachers to follow up conversations and discussions, particularly around marginalization and how important it is to understand that each one of us needs to stand up against it.