Among the news and debates around the protests that have been taking place in India resisting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), some have centred around the politicisation of schools. A newspaper recently reported that a pro-CAA event took place at a Mumbai school where students showed their support by writing congratulatory messages to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on postcards.
A subsequent news item showed home minister Amit Shah displaying five lakh postcards in support of the Act. Several people criticised the involvement of children in political matters, including Aditya Thackeray, who tweeted that schools should not be places where political campaigning is done and politicians should stick to speaking about gender equality, helmets and cleanliness (sic). Shortly, afterwards, the government of Maharahtra issued a notice to the school for tutoring students on political matters.
While I agree, I am concerned that a discussion on political matters might be construed as political campaigning and well-meaning teachers might stay away from a very important discussion that students – as citizens of this country – are meant to have.
A few responses to Thackeray’s tweets show that people are unable to distinguish between political campaigning and civic education. As a teacher and researcher, who has taught in a school right in the middle of a slum in Mumbai which was inhabited by both Muslims and Hindus, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on whether a discussion on CAA or any other political event should be held in schools or not – whether in trying times or otherwise.
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Researchers Diane Hess and Lauren Gatti state that politics should be discussed in classrooms because it is where the discussion belongs. They say that schools allow a lot of diversity, which is hard to find in fairly homogenous spaces like households, places of worship, or professional bodies. Schools allow for a plurality of views, which can be discussed in a respectful manner and if conducted well, can help students see the other side of an argument owing to the different backgrounds that children come from. As schools and classrooms are training grounds to develop skills of discussion such as making evidence based claims, disagreeing respectfully and listening with an open mind, political topics that affect a wide variety of people, should be considered within classrooms.
Another reason why teachers should have political discussions in classrooms is because current political discussions affect young children’s futures the most and children have a right to be involved. Besides, not all children have the privilege to develop their political voice within their families, which might not only hinder their sense of agency around political events (giving rise to people who display apathy or call themselves ‘apolitical’) but also impede the likelihood that they will choose a political career.
Students also lose the exposure to politics especially in states where campus politics are banned. Thackeray stated that politicians should stick to speaking about ‘gender equality’, for example, even if they are not qualified to speak on it, and secondly, could simplify the role of politicians in students’ eyes thus robbing them of a precious learning opportunity on what the job entails – that a politician is political.
Hence, classrooms then tend to be the few places that remain where students can exercise skills required for a thriving democracy.
Despite all the reasons stated above, teachers and schools will still find it a challenge to discuss topics like CAA in their classrooms because of the fear of a backlash. But there are some ways to do it. A teacher can create a discussion around political events and stay neutral without taking sides and allow students to do all the talking. A teacher can also present a balanced view, by highlighting both sides in the argument, although one might wonder what can be the balanced view on CAA-NPR-NRC.
As teachers and schools continue to ponder on the ethics of these discussions entering the classroom, students are already being told that Narendra Modi is doing a great job, this time through postcards and previously, after the scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir, through essays in exams.
Politicians tell children what to think while a teacher can show students how to think.
When I taught children in a low-income school as part of a teaching fellowship, a religious skirmish in the neighbourhood had given rise to some tension. My co-teacher and I decided to address the questions that we could sense were shaping in our students’ minds. We asked them what they thought about people who belonged to other religions. Some of the responses were downright painful to hear and others left me hopeful.
My belief that these students were untouched by politics was definitely challenged. The discussion, that day, felt like all the conversations within homes and by-lanes made their way into our classroom and so did wisdom when some students stated that all religions and gods are one. They were just about nine years old at that time and we teachers had little to do but listen because the students listened to each other and agreed with the basic tenets of equality and plurality.
It is high time that teachers, school leaders and parents come together to discuss politics in the classroom to preserve the principles on which our country was founded. The students have questions and they want answers. They can hear statements made on television screens, they can hear some nasty things about others or sadly about themselves and it can be a highly confusing time, and they will listen to anyone who will speak to them.
It is at such times that you need to speak to your students, because if you don’t, someone else will – if they haven’t already.
Fiona Vaz has been an educator in India for a little more than a decade serving largely disenfranchised students. She runs SAGE, a gender and education research and consulting firm.
Featured image credit: Roxanne Rozario