“I don’t know what ‘Teesta’ is. What riots are they talking about?”
The class 12 student’s response to a video about a citizens’ protest at Jantar Mantar on June 27 would have been funny if it hadn’t been so startling. This 18-year old has studied all her life in a well-known school in the National Capital Region but had no idea either about the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, Teesta Setalvad, or about the protests that have taken place demanding her release.
For me, it was a moment of realisation. First, that Indians who are currently in their late teens or early twenties are unaware of the impact that events such as the Babri Masjid demolition or the Gujarat riots have had on the India that they live in. Second, it is easy to assume otherwise.
To her credit, though, the young woman wanted to know more. As a science student, she said, she had stopped studying Indian history – ancient, medieval or modern – in class 10 itself, and asked me to please tell her about these riots.
I hesitated. We like to shield the young from the horrors of the world for as long as we possibly can, but here was an open mind that wanted to learn. And so I gave a brief synopsis of the 2002 pogrom and the events that led up to it, citing various books, interviews and articles to corroborate what I was sharing.
I told this student that the majority of those who were killed had been Muslim, including an ex-MP called Ehsaan Jafri who was murdered in the most brutal way by a mob in Ahmedabad, despite several frantic calls to the police for help. Hesitatingly, I also spoke of the women who were assaulted and killed, but also that many who had led those mobs were finally sentenced to prison, thanks to the untiring efforts of human rights activists and lawyers like Teesta Setalvad and others.
I also told her that those who had been found guilty and convicted by the courts are now out on bail and those like Teesta who have struggled tirelessly to get justice for the victims are now in jail. Hence, the protests at Jantar Mantar and elsewhere.
Suffice it to say, the student was stunned.
“Does everyone in India know this?” she asked. “How come I don’t know any of this?”
I apologised if I had ruined her day. Waving the apology aside, she said, “I think I know why I don’t know all this. Because at home they only watch TV channels that worship Modi.”
She went on to tell me how most members of her family genuinely believe that Muslims are ‘dangerous’, and how this has always bothered her. “How can you blindly side with people from one community while completely demonising another?”
I was encouraged to see that this young person’s sense of right and wrong was still intact, and that she was disturbed by the bigotry around her. The next day, she told me she had challenged the prevailing narrative in her family by sharing on her family WhatApp group what she had learned about Gujarat 2002. What amazed her was that no one had been able to come up with a factual rebuttal to what she had shared!
I was reminded of a similar conversation I had had with 200 school children a few months prior. Two senior school teachers, again from a private school in the National Capital Region, had requested me to give a talk to their class 8 students about the farmers’ protest after they learned I had spent a fair amount of time documenting it. I agreed, but thought it fair to tell them, “This is a controversial topic, there be objections from some parents.”
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There was a moment’s silence and one of the teachers said, “We know. We’ll take the chance. We are social science teachers and it’s important that our kids hear about this protest from someone who was part of it, and get a perspective other than the one they see all the time on TV.”
Touched by their concern for the students, I took my time preparing. As this was in the days while schools were still physically closed, the session took place online. I began by showing the 8th graders a map of Delhi and exactly where Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur and Shahjahanpur borders are, where tens of thousands of protesting farmers had spent over a year. I showed them TV clips from November 26, 2020, the day the farmers reached Delhi and how the farmers simply pitched camp despite the violence inflicted on them and refused to budge.
As expected, a student asked, “But why were they protesting?”
To that, I showed slides outlining the poverty and debt Indian farmers live in and how the new farm laws would have meant further disempowerment and ruin. We then spent the better part of an hour watching video footage from the protest showing the farmers’ resilience, generosity and deep commitment to Gandhian non-violent protest. The students were moved as they watched the farmers’ gentle courage and their genuine hospitality towards any who visited them.
They were also inspired by how erudite and well-informed the farmers were, and somewhat aghast at how one-sided and biased media coverage of this protest had been.
One of those students sent me a short, but moving e-mail a couple of days later:
“As a citizen of India I know I need to do something. No matter how dark things may seem, I want to help and make things better and the only way to do that is to start with small steps.”
At a time when human rights activists like Teesta Setalvad and fact-checkers like Mohammed Zubair are being arrested for speaking the truth, and normal hope seems all but lost, that 40-word email from a Class 8 student gives me strength, comfort – and the direction I need.
Rohit Kumar is an educator and trainer.
A version of this article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.
The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.