ONE morning, at a school assembly, the principal urged students and teachers to make their school a ‘heaven on earth’. A bit later, the same morning, two boys from Class 3 were brought before the principal because they had got into a quarrel that resulted in fisticuffs.
Asked to explain themselves, one of the little boys spoke up with passion. Pointing to the other child, he said: “Ma’am, if this school is to be a heaven on earth, then what is he doing here?”
Professor Krishna Kumar narrated this story to a hall full of school students and teachers gathered to reflect on the “Idea of Democracy”. It was significant that the professor did not tell us the specific issue that started the boys’ fight. Prof. Kumar’s purpose was to draw us away from distractions — such as the precise nature or cause of our differences with others. He related the story to highlight a foundational truth: “Democracy cannot be an exclusive heaven.”
It is equally true that any meaningful form of democracy depends on nonviolence. For nonviolence is not merely desisting from physical or verbal violence. At a more basic level nonviolence is acceptance of those who are different from us — or whom we simply do not like.
The challenge lies in enough citizens being convinced about this and then working out ways to nurture nonviolence as a lived practice. Some of us have spent a great deal of time reflecting upon and studying these challenges in scholarly or activist circles. But now there is a sense of urgency regarding engaging young people in the exploration of nonviolence and democracy as workable, practicable ideals.
The Idea of Democracy Conference at Sant Kabir School in Chandigarh, in the first week of May, was a part of this larger process. This is an extension of the History for Peace initiative of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts which has been flourishing for over a decade. History for Peace is much more than an annual conference in Kolkata, which attracts schoolteachers and scholars from nations across South Asia.
Over the years it has become an intense process of engagement with students and teachers — about the path to peace and obstacles on the way.
Hence a series of Idea of Democracy conferences hosted by schools willing to support such critical reflection. The premise of these gatherings is that we must first acknowledge the darkness that is upon us.
The brochure of the conference in Chandigarh was explicit: “Erosion of civil liberties, suppression of political opposition and dissent, weakening of independent media, manipulation of electoral processes, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few…the optimism and the triumph of democracy that the world witnessed at the dawn of the 21st century has rapidly diminished.”
The conference addressed these concerns through a combination of lectures by scholars and interactive workshops conducted by those who have experience in working with schoolchildren on issues of democracy and social justice.
Predictably, discussions flowed more smoothly when they were more generically about social justice. The moment specific political parties, particularly the BJP, were mentioned, sharp divisions were immediately visible.
Perhaps this is why Prof. Kumar chose to make his point through a small, effective story that mentioned no specific issues. Prof. Kumar is a noted educationist and former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He is well known for developing a pedagogy that aims to mitigate aggression and violence.
This is not to suggest that specific facts should be avoided. After all, the keynote address of the conference at Sant Kabir School was given by Prof. Zoya Hasan, who presented a brief history of the events and processes that have brought us to the point where democracy is threatened by majoritarian rule and public culture.
Today, when an ‘idea of democracy’ discussion is taken into an elite school the key challenge lies in both acknowledging the material facts and yet also getting beyond them to focus on the moral values that are conducive to the well-being of all. Namely, that which the school principal alluded to when she dreamed of making her school a ‘heaven on earth’.
For instance, information and analysis which indicates that India is becoming more and more majoritarian was challenged by some of the teachers. Such analysis does violence to their feelings as patriotic Indians.
At this point, if those moderating the discussion give priority to settling disputes about the facts, they might lose the opportunity to find common ground on basic values. If, however, they begin with deeper reflection and sharing regarding the core values then disagreements over the extent to which those values are being violated in the material world might be more constructively explored or processed.
Of course, the reality is that there are those who appear to simply reject the ‘other’. The little boy in the story told by Krishna Kumar represents something in all of us. There are moments when we find someone so offensive, so intolerable that we simply do not want to inhabit the same space as them — be it in a home, an office or a nation.
If we treat fraternity, bandhutva, as the starting point or precondition for democracy, we may be doomed. But if we see democracy as the difficult, even maddening, struggle to keep recalibrating our own emotions in order to overcome, or learn to live with, the ‘why is he here’ feelings, then an entire universe of possibility opens up.
The History for Peace project’s 2023 conference from August 3-5 in Kolkata, is on the theme “The Idea of Justice”(www.historyforpeace.pw).Rajni Bakshi is the founder of YouTube channel Ahimsa Conversations