Some brown people, some not so brown.

Some Hindu, some Muslim, some Dalit, some Jat.

Some women people, some men people.

Do we even know what all these types mean?


Since its foundation in 1994, KHOJ has been involved in continuous research that has facilitated us to prepare modules for intervention within the social studies syllabus of schools. It's an effort to evolve a comprehensive course that deals with misconceptions and prejudice, revitalises the teaching of history, explores diversities. All this while we have been creating space within the classroom and the existing school framework for discussions on issues of tension and conflict.

We consciously link the question of much-needed harmony, toleration and respect for diversity with honest explorations of the absence, in reality, of these attitudes in society and our institutional attitudes and frameworks. We believe that it is only because of this that our efforts at evincing genuine responses from children are fruitful. Which is not to say, or claim, that within weeks of the magic wand in operation, the children we work with fall in line with our goals. But we can confidently say that within a few years of the KHOJ module in operation, children are asking questions that they never did before - about society, their teachers and their parents.

Our methods of teaching history - including the History of World Religions, Local History, Sub-Continental History and Modern Indian History - within the first year itself have generated an enthusiastic and explorative interest in history, a subject that bored students and was actively disliked by them before. This would not be the case if KHOJ merely gave discourses on communal harmony or lectured on the unity and similarity of all religions, or merely concentrated on celebrating festivals together. What credibility can adults have with children if they simply lecture on the desirability of peace and harmony without creating the space for an honest discussion on violence in society and why they occur.

Our textbooks are not exciting or challenging for children. They offer dull images and, repetitively, extol the virtues of non-violence and satyagraha abstractly. Do we really believe that we can teach non-violence to children without exploring the human being's innate tendency to anger and violence and the consequences of that for herself or himself and the victim?

To illustrate this point better, I would like to share my experience with children on five linked modules that we have evolved through KHOJ and how we use them with every new group of children. They are related modules that link a child's notion and relationship with "God", her or his candid observations on ten different Indian communities (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Dalit, Brahmin, Jew, Parsee) and what the word 'Religion' means to them.

Only after the children's genuine opinion on these questions has been sought and received do we enter into the final module in this section. This includes two sessions where students are introduced to the History of World Religions - how and in what social contexts they were born, how and where they spread, what are the essential tenets, forms of belief and rituals. The final module in this group is an exercise in creative articulation when the 10-year-old is asked to formulate, an Ideal Religion for the modern world.

I shall in these columns restrict my analysis to the first two modules. As would be evident to any educator who glances at the KHOJ poster pull-out with this issue, when expressing visually or in words their ideas, notions and relationships with God, children are idealistic, searching and emotional. Searing questions to Him (unfortunately a majority, though not all, children relate to a God of the male gender) centre around disturbing questions of why there is poverty, violence, disunity, and hatred. Surely, God must have answers, and any child in the modern world needs to ask these questions. Children's abstract response to God is qualitatively at odds with their observations on different communities, however. And it is this critical and qualitative difference in responses that we need to understand very clearly if we are to make any real progress on imparting a sense of celebration of diversities and differences.

The responses to "My God" or "Dear God" are introspective, emotional and searching, for a unity that children find in their experience of real life, does not exist. Switch to the follow-up module and the responses of children illustrate the contradictions that I referred to at the start.

During this module, a two-minute cassette which is a collection of religious music - the Parsee kushti prayers, the azaan (muezzin's call), the Vaishnavjan bhajan, the choir from a Church, the recitation of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib - are played to the children. After this, names of the ten different Indian communities are listed on the board and the children asked to honestly write a few words on them. In their responses to "Dear God" (visual or written), notions of nationalism or their own national identity are very faint, sometimes barely visible. But the moment the same children share their honest impressions of different religious communities, it becomes very clear that the sense of nationalism is pronounced. This is something that was echoed in the very first KHOJ module when the child draws or pens her or his self-portrait. Studying over 2,000 responses of children from a wide spectrum of Mumbai schools on this module is an eye-opener. Preconceptions and stereotypes reveal themselves in a fashion that is a challenge to any person concerned with injecting an appreciation of diversity in young minds, battling against the hegemony that presently epitomises the content and structure of institutes of education. This sense of nationalism, as the responses quoted below reveal, has very close connection with religion and language, with some communities being associated with religions that, for children, are "foreign." "Christians speak English and it is not an Indian religion," for example. But, comparatively speaking, Christians enjoy a more benign image.

The term 'Hindu' draws, in the vast majority, a benign, expansive response: "The majority in India," "Hindi speaking", "open and tolerant religion", "an ancient community", "the most important religion." Children on an average have a bare knowledge of other smaller minorities like the Parsees, the Jews, and the Buddhists. To the term 'Sikh' and 'Jain' the children display a fair knowledge of their beliefs and ways of life. There is, at best, a sketchy knowledge and feel that the middle and upper caste, urban Indian child has of the discrimination that is still the lot of Dalits. The term Dalit is associated universally and simplistically with abject poverty.

But it is the word Muslim that undoubtedly draws the most negative responses. In the perception of many of the children, this word and the religion associated with it is "connected to Urdu." Anger, violence, burqa-clad women and noisy prayers, sum up what many of the children say when responding to the word.

So, children write, "Islam is a good religion but its people are angry". Or, "My friend is a Muslim but everybody says if a Muslim is your friend, you are not an Indian, you are a Pakistani." Another: "Muslim is the name of a religion. Majority of people in India. First, when the British rule India they play along to create a fight between Hindus and Muslims. All Muslims keep weapons with them."

Then there are others: "Muslims eat goats and hens and if we say something to the Muslims, they show a knife to us and we die."

"Muslims are not Muslims but they are Hindus. They have been made Muslims by the Britishers. They have a fixed time of doing their prayers in their own language."

"They wear black colour clothes."

"Muslims pray very loudly."

"They are from Pakistan."

"They go to their temple at night."

It is very important to be able to draw out such responses before we get into discussions on the religions of the world etc. Unless we first understand the play of hegemonic imagery and politics and how successfully it has entered the mass psyche, we will not be able to generate effective interventions to creatively counter them.

We have, therefore, to first understand and recognise why and how it has happened that the crowds at the Jumma ki namaaz ( Friday congregational prayers) bother us and stimulate anger, feed some sense of insecurity about "our" faith versus "theirs" and in the worst case scenario, generate violence even. So, to match "them" we concoct congregations of our own. Boisterous and noisy they may be but do not appear to be so in our perceptions and the perceptions of our children.

"Their" early morning azaan (muezzin's call) that wakes us up every morning is a disturbing intrusion. We view it quite differently from the inconveniences, noise pollution, filth etc. caused by "our" Navratris, or Ganesh, Jagannath or Shivaji Jayanti processions. Both may be as disruptive but simply because the latter enjoy greater social sanction they are condoned whereas the first, the azaan of "theirs" is a disruption, a matter of "their" shamelessly treading on "our" public space. These notions have even intruded into the world of children.

Is it not necessary for an educator with children to explore why the essence of a festival has undergone so drastic a change that from fun and frolic it today symbolises violence and molestation that drive most women indoors?

As said before, teaching tolerance is not a syrupy business that limits itself to talking harmony in proverbs and posters and lectures on the unity of faiths. A genuine appreciation and experiment in living together with equal space and the same rights to all entails an examination of our notions, and those of our children, on these issues.

Do we or do we not, for instance, genuinely believe that tolerance is also about all Indians enjoying the same privileges and the same rights. That if this notion of sharing and equality does not enter into our definition of tolerance, the notion that we both preach and practice does not really contribute to secularisation of society and its institutions, whether it is the school, the college or the home.