Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief
By Ameeta Mulla Wattal (Mrs.), Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi, INDIA
It is in a school that we can identify emerging trends and critical uncertainties. We have to believe and teach consistently that learning has no place for exclusivism. In a humane learning system, children have to be taught to let go traditional rigid attitudes and acknowledge that good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere.
It should also be kept in mind that the nature of knowledge in the future would be faster changing, larger in breadth available worldwide through electronic communication with more dependence on a global idiom.
A certain waning of syncretism has taken place in our society, leading to marginalized thinking. Often the torchbearers and leaders of society have become the propagators of this style of thinking. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ concept seems to have come in to stay. In a school, on a cognitive level, a new understanding of identity, which runs counter to these modes of thinking, has to be incorporated.
A single culture or trend of thought, ‘la passé unique’, is not the answer. Especially over the last decade intolerance has spilled over to the middle class adults, who are really the mirrors of the community, thereby affecting the minds of our young. Crime and hatred have taken on a charismatic appeal. Society and violence have taken on a new inter connectivity. Children are exposed to a violent society. Educationists are often met with the silence of cynical resistance or passive indifference in PTA meetings when they talk of values and harmony and coming together of people. The concept of learning has started differing from the context of education. This distinction is important because every conceptual educational value is bilateral (mutual) like love, growth & compassion and every contextual aspect is unilateral like hate, communal discord and exclusivism.
The field of educator leadership must be reconstructed so that the transformation of schools becomes its central force. Schools should not only be factories of academics and ability sections but laboratories of practicing compassion, preemptive justice, empathetic listening and condemning through its actions social ills.
Today schools are the harbingers of hope. They are citadels where the right values can be nurtured and protected.
When we talk of human rights, the first thing that comes to my mind, are the rights of children, which often get neglected. The life of a child is not a package deal. It consists of the sights, sounds, colors and fragrances of its growing up years which make him the adult of tomorrow. A community that learns and a learning school share a commitment, which is nurturing/supportive, often challenging but always caring.
India is a melting pot of cultures, religions, languages and people. Very often, violence between communities breaks out due to religious & social differences, which often results in arson, rape, violence resulting in damage to life & property, the victims being children and women. A break down of state machinery results in a closure of schools.
With the emergence of fundamental thinking many religious communities have developed alternative educational systems. Apart from these schools even children in main school education bring with them the prejudices of the society in which they live. In order to create a progressive system and inculcate tolerance education, it is imperative to retain one’s own belief and tradition at the same time embrace the differences that lie in the other.
I have been working at Macro and Micro level, both nationally and internationally. There are innumberable progreammes that have been created to foster peace education. Our Motto is Vasudhaiv Kutumbkham – ‘The world is a family; which incorporates understanding, tolerance and belief at different levels of peoples, cultures and thinking.
Some of the initiatives that I have conceived which are carried out in our multi cultural school environment are :-
Purpose : We have set up Peace Clubs, which have been initiated for Justice, Peace and tolerance education. The purpose of Peace Clubs is to elicit in the children a desire for peace, to foster them a culture of peace and to equip and empower them to be effective peace messengers. This has to be done through attitudinal changes in the children. The peace club aims at children’s socio behavioral modification for the betterment of society at large.
Present Situation : The present socio political and economic structures in the society do not seem to ensure an ambience of peace and tolerance. We have been forced to grow amidst violence and are prompted to adopt a culture of violence. The most pitiable victims of this situation are the children. This situation has to be changed and can be changed in the interest of humanity that has a right to peace.
Institutional backing : Schools are great portals of knowledge. They also play a great role in shaping children’s perceptions, perspectives and most importantly their values and in molding their characters. The schools have the sacred duty of forming and reforming and transforming them into socially useful and responsible citizens, because it is these children that will shape the destiny of our country in the years to come. The present situation demands that the schools help these children develop a taste for peaceful living, a taste for inner peace, social peace and political peace. The schools can support and promote Peace Clubs as they do with literary clubs, National Cadet Corps and Environmental Clubs.
Membership : The Peace Clubs have those boys and girls, in the age group of 12-18, who are personally willing to be members of the peace clubs. These members are called Peace messengers.
Structure : Each Peace Club has a total of 25 children and are guided & animated by one or two teachers, who are know as Peace Animators. Of course, there can be more than on Peace Club in a school. Though Peace Clubs begin with Delhi Schools, they are destined to gain momentum and then to spread to other cities and together to states.
Frequency : At least once in a month, the Peace Messengers and Animators meet together for two hours. Such meetings are the opportunities to gain insights from the lives of social, political and religious leaders for the Peace messengers and to learn various peace techniques and skills. Tolerance and appreciation of other cultures, religions, languages etc are part of this learning.
Training : Peace Animators undergo periodic training. There are training programmes / seminars for the Peace messengers too.
Our school is actively involved in programmes of value education, which are conducted by a co-group of Peace activitist and inter faith leaders to bring in an understanding of human dignity and life by creating a world free of prejudice through the Gandhian Vision. We are connected with innumerable schools abroad in order to integrate non-violence into the curriculum and make it a way of life.
The Mahatma Gandhi Oberschule in Berlin has had innumerable exchanges with us over the last 20 years. As also with Schools in Russia, Japan, Australia, England, Singapore, United States and Pakistan. Our involvement with the anti apartheid movement is historic with leaders like Nelson Mandela, Sizulu, Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, visiting our school in order to felicitate our effort in the movement. Over the years children from our schools have played a vital role in generating awareness for the African freedom movement. We continue to profess our solidarity to the African cause. When Nelson Mandela came to India, we came out in large numbers to accost him a huge welcome. We have been organizing signature campaigns, painting posters, staging demonstrations, writing songs, poems and forming clubs like the Africa Club which united students to support the struggle against apartheid.
The international clubs in our schools are
What our children do, is an unfailing objective to champion the ideals of equality and truth. Our new generation in the classrooms is imbibing the spirit of anti colonialism and anti segregation.
Monthly Programme are conducted on issues which deal with the trauma induced by religious violence, communal tension, riots victims and child refugees. Through the medium of peace and reconciliation endeavours, Peace Marches, Seminars, Prayer Meetings, Panel Discussions, Presentations, interaction with civil society, and media, children are sensitized to incorporate peace learning within themselves and the community. All the above activities are conducted either by children or for them, within or outside the school environment.
Student Committees have been created, which venture into tribal belts in India, accompined by social workers and teachers, after identifying other schools which are open to interaction. The students referred to as ‘Peace Messengers’, are sent for exchanges in order to integrate an understanding of the indigenous people in our country and make it a truly hands on experience for children. The communities that we have integrated in our school are those in the back ward areas of Madhya Pradesh, North East of India, Southern Belts, along with exchanges with students in the war torn Kashmir region
Our school has coordinated with the army sponsored Sadbhavna programme (Peace Building), a venture for the children of the Gujjars and Bakerwal (sheppered communities) in Kashmir. These communities have always been at the forefront of battle, since they inhabit the border areas between the boundaries of India and Pakistan. 100 students accompanied by 15 teachers from Poonch, Rajouri, Doda, Kathua, Jammu and Udhampur Dist. visit the school yearly for a twinning of a child to child level. This sensitizes students to the trauma faced by the children of the Kashmir valley. This brings into focus the unreported tragedy that is continuously being repeated by the continuing conflict. The victims being women and children.
The programme is held at 3 levels with a visit by the Kashmiri children to our school where they interact and make friends and mentors, who are children of their own age, who continue to keep in touch with them in the coming years through letters and follow up visits.
This is an endeavor, which helps in bringing together children, who have been victims of militancy in the Kashmir valley. Most of these children have lost their families to the continuing conflict between India and Pakistan.
This exchange is carried out annually in observation of the United Nations Human Rights Day (10th December).
Our school is actively involved with the Aids Awareness programme through the UNESCO Club. Photo exhibitions, talks, playlets and presentations are conducted by experts and children to bring in awareness about the illness, the victims are street children.
We conduct annually The Model Unites Nation Programme, where the agenda is as follows :-
1. Children in armed conflicts
2. Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist
3. Situations between Israel and Palestine, Eritrea and Ethiopia or any other country, which is in conflict.
4. International cooperation on humanitarian assistance by sensitizing children towards national disasters.
5. Child rights.
Our programmes on sustainable development have helped in bringing about awareness through projects on paper recycling, water harvesting, air monitoring, waste management, garbage disposal, etc. We continue to work at innumerable levels nationally and in the poorer community to create a safer and more peaceful atmosphere for the economically deprived sections that live in poorer ghettos around our school.
We have initiated a scholarship programme in order to incorporate children from minority communities, who come from economically weak backgrounds. We bring in 25 children annually and integrate them into the school system. This is done by giving them a freeship, which includes books, uniforms, mid may meals, sports kits, trips and excursions, extra coaching facilities, medical checkups for them and their families, free transport. This is an endeavour towards inclusive education, since we have over 5000 students belonging to different social and economic backgrounds from the very rich and elite to the middle class and also the very poor and backward. This proves to be a very heavy expenditure on the school budget, but we believe that holistic education has to have within it a complete spectrum of society.
At the point when students are admitted into the school at nursery and kindergarten levels, the ratio of the minority and the majority communities are kept in mind along with gender in order to keep a balance in the school environment. Later on this proves to be a great help while conducting orientation programmes for parents to bring about understanding and tolerance.
Teacher and Child Training Programme :
The work that we do in the community through women and child development programmes, vocational trainings, inclusive education, special needs, social work schemes are innumerable and it is difficult to explain in one paper the complete spectrum of peace and community building work that our school is involved with because to us education is for life and goes beyond class room teaching.
I have been involved with school and community education for the last 28 years and have been connected to and conceived a lot of the work that I have described above. I have done remedial teaching with children of different faiths, conducted theatre workshops in order to bring about healing in fragmented communities, worked in areas where communal violence has broken out in states of Gujrat and Uttar Pradesh by bringing together Hindu-Muslim school communities through dialogue, I have created capsules for teacher training programmes, a lot of work has been done by me in jails with juvenile law breakers, children with learning disabilities, working with child refugees in Kashmir and North Eastern States in India. Many teachers for peace programmes have been initiated by me in India with a developing and executing evaluation mechanisms for peace education. I have been an editor of Children’s magazines that have focused essentially on child’s Rights and issues. No amount of work and experience can ever be enough to counter the danger which is faced by our children living in these angry times. I continue to work ceaselessly in bridge building.
We must believe that all life is inter-related, all persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, what ever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
In the words of Mother Teresea :
We can’t all do great things,
But let us continue to do small things with great love.