|Image: Deepa A|
In a tiny room with blue walls full of charts about birds, fruits and vegetables, 10-year-old Tamanna sits on the floor, drawing on sheets of paper strategically folded to resemble greeting cards. The room, on the first floor of a modest dwelling in the Siding Service locality of Ahmedabad, for the past seven months has been hosting a learning centre run by the NGO Pratham. “Earlier, we were in the Muslim part of the area,” says Kanchanben Rathod, a teacher. “But Hindu children, especially girls, wouldn’t come there, so we had to move to this place.” Tamanna, whose shy smiles preface her every sentence, interjects: “The Muslim children were troubling us; we were frightened of them. So I stopped going there.”
A few kilometres away at Allah Nagar, where vegetable vendors, children and goats jostle for space in the narrow paths of the slum settlement, is another learning centre managed by Pratham. Many of these children, also leaning against blue walls as they open their bags, wear skull caps. Mothers bring little girls, often wailing as they shake their pigtails in defiance, into the classroom, and stop to chat with the teacher. There are no Hindus in this area, and certainly none in the classroom. Both the children and their mothers speak of their lives inside the slum, having little or no contact with the world that lies beyond their inadequately covered shacks and the dusty, fly-infested lanes outside their homes.
Last November in Ahmedabad, where almost everyone is forced to navigate between real and imagined boundaries drawn on the basis of religion, a few social workers got together to attempt to bridge the divide between Siding Service and Allah Nagar. They organised a cricket match for the children. That game quickly came to be referred to as the “India-Pakistan” match, says Jigna Rathod, who works with Pratham. “Sometimes, children say such things,” she adds. Afterwards, the children traded insults and threw stones, recalls Anjana Parmar, another Pratham worker. Clearly, even a playground could not be neutral terrain, with the scorecard heavy with bias and prejudice before the game could even get underway.
A policeman snoozes inside a khaki tent pitched on a lane that forms the ‘border’ in the Parikshit area of the city. He, and usually his colleagues, are ostensibly here to douse the neighbourhood quarrels that end up taking on communal overtones. Their presence is a forbidding indicator of the omnipresent possibility of clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the area, separated by a ‘border’ – a term that Ahmedabad’s residents mention casually, as if indicating something as mundane as a traffic light that serves as a landmark (See Himal October 2006, “Gujarat as another country”).
Neelam Mewada lives in Parikshit, and she laughs when asked about the skirmishes. “We’ve gotten used to it,” says the teenager. Neelam went to a school in Shah Alam before the riots of 2002, in which the state government claims about 1000 were killed, while activists put the number of deaths at around 2000 (mostly Muslim). “I left my studies because the school is in a Muslim area,” Neelam says. When localities are identified not according to their physical characteristics but on the basis of the religion of its occupants, it is no surprise that a school can fall out of favour for being on the wrong side of the ‘border’.
In a paper on the impact of the 2002 violence on the education of Hindu and Muslim pupils, based on a study of two schools for girls in Ahmedabad, researchers Suchitra Sheth and Nina Haeems wrote about how one expects schools to be spaces where religious differences can be transcended. This proved not to be the case in the schools they studied, however, one a Gujarati-medium school in the Dalit-Muslim neighbourhood of Rajpur, and the other an Urdu school in Shahpur. In a subsequent piece published in April 2006, they wrote: “Even if neighbourhoods are antagonistic, one would imagine that the school could be a site for secular socialisation. The Urdu school of Shahpur of course does not offer such a chance because its students are all Muslims. But we found that the Gujarati school of Rajpur was scarcely different though it has students from both communities.” The authors added later: “We asked the girls to name close friends at school and not one Dalit child named a Muslim child and neither did the reverse occur. We found that the Muslim children played in their groups and the Hindus in their own.”
Perhaps these children have merely assimilated the ways of the world around them. Fr Fernand Durai, principal of St Xavier’s School, Loyola Hall, recalls how he was shocked by the attitude of a few children towards their counterparts from the minority community during the 2002 riots. “Our students have always lived together,” he says. “There is no differentiation on the basis of religion, so how did this come up suddenly? It means that the students must have seen or heard something, and they picked it up in no time.”
Indeed, several school administrations themselves were leading the harassment of Muslim children. Khurshid Saiyed, a politician affiliated with the Congress party, says that Muslim parents had to withdraw their children from many schools in 2002 because of the threats made by the school authorities. “Their ruse was to tell parents that the children were not performing well and hence were going to be failed. They offered a compromise to the parents: if they took their children elsewhere, they would give them pass certificates.” Hanif Lakdawala, director of Sanchetana, an NGO that works in health and education, refers to this as “subtle discrimination”. “Schools tell parents that the child will feel isolated in that atmosphere,” he explains, “so parents eventually decide they are better off taking their kids elsewhere.”
Afroz Baig, who works with local schools on peace-education programmes through the NGO Samerth, lists various tactics that some authorities have used to disallow Muslim children from attending their schools. “A school at Vejalpur didn’t throw out Muslim children, but told their parents that they couldn’t guarantee their children’s safety,” she recalls. “At another school in Paldi, the Bajrang Dal people injured the watchman, and the parents instructed their children not to speak to Muslims. How could one survive in that atmosphere?” Baig herself was at the receiving end of such discriminatory practices, when she tried to get her son admitted into a well-known school in Thaltej. “The principal categorically told me that the school had no place for Muslims,” she says.
|Image: Deepa A|
Chor and police
Near Chandola Lake is a school with an entryway that has been taken over by unruly shrubs. The blue letters that form its name are fading in the sun. This abandoned structure was once the L V Patel High School, run by a Hindu management that decided to pack its bags after the riots, when the area suddenly came to be dominated by Muslims. The school today functions about three kilometres away in a Hindu area.
At one time, Hindus and Muslims went to the same schools and lived in the same neighbourhoods. School managements were never identified by religion. After the riots, however, both communities moved to areas where they found safety in numbers. Says Lakdawala, “The authorities are simply not interested in the children – in areas where there are Dalit and Muslim students, we have heard high-caste Hindu teachers saying there is no point in teaching these children.” If the L V Patel management got around their predicament by moving to a new spot, others chose to shut shop altogether. One Hindu school management in Shah Alam sold their school building to a Muslim builder, who plans to renovate it to provide education for Muslims.
Several others from the Muslim community have also come forward to establish their own schools to accommodate Muslim children. Their action is a display of resilience and self-reliance, for the Gujarat government has done little to create or improve educational facilities in Muslim pockets. In areas to which riot victims have moved, such as Vatva and Faisal Park, there are hardly any civic amenities – no water, drainage or electricity. Parents laugh helplessly when asked if they send their children to school. Why would one think of books if there is no livelihood? Unfortunately, schools set up by Muslim trusts may not be the solution. By and large, this new wave of ‘educationists’ have no experience in education, and tend to place increased emphasis on religious mores and customs in an already segregated atmosphere. This leaves the Muslim pupils doubly disadvantaged.
The textbooks carry forward the theme of alienation. In the Gujarat State Board textbooks, it is not enough to qualify Aurangzeb merely as a ruler; he is always introduced as a Muslim ruler who was intolerant of other faiths. Hindu mythology is never about myths or legends; they are presented as facts as sacred as the gods whose stories curiously form part of Social Studies textbooks. Exercises for children, mentioned at the end of each lesson, include suggestions to learn more about “daughters of sages”, and the textbooks are full of slant and stereotype.
Such tampering with textbooks is particularly dangerous, says Fr Cedric Prakash of the human rights centre, Prashant. He and several others worked to bring many of these errors to light. “When children learn [these biases], even their games reflect the same thinking,” says Prakash, who recently won the national Minorities Rights Award for 2006. “When they play chor [thief]-police, the Muslim is always the chor and the Hindu the police. When we used to play, we were both the chor and the police on different days.”
Achyut Yagnik, co-author of the 2005 book The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, says it is important to see how history is taught in Ahmedabad schools. “The teacher, for instance, will only talk about the destruction of the Somnath Temple [by Muslim kings],” he points out. Influential Hindu sects such as Swaminarayan also run a number of educational institutions, says Yagnik: “More than the Sangh Parivar, they are responsible for Hindutva-isation, at a direct or indirect level.” Pointing to a vicious circle, Yagnik notes that most schoolteachers in these schools are from OBC, tribal or Dalit communities. “They are attracted to the sects, possibly because of a promise of a more meaningful identity in cities and towns. They are conscious that their standing in the Hindu social pyramid is low,” he says. It is in the hope of integration that they become members of the sects, going on to adopt ideologies that encourage Muslim-bashing, a divisive credo that may eventually surface in their classrooms.
A visit to Juhapura
In the cloistered spaces of Ahmedabad, it is now entirely possible for a Hindu or Muslim child to grow to young adulthood without meeting a single individual from the other community. It is a vitiated environment that can be exploited to create insecurity and fear. Says Shakeel Ahmad, administrator of the state Islamic Relief Committee’s legal help and guidance cell: “Our big concern is that there is no intermingling of communities because of the segregation that has happened. This alienation will have a terrible impact on the children. They are not in a position to know about each other’s culture and religion and, as a result, their tolerance levels will be low.” Adds Khandadkhan R Pathan, principal of the Republic High School at Lal Darwaja: “Hindu children will easily believe political propaganda against Muslims if they are not provided knowledge. If they know a few Muslims, then they will at least have a broader vision.”
Perhaps all it takes to demystify the dreaded ‘other’ is a simple visit. Lakdawala remembers an incident from an Id Milan programme organised three years ago at Juhapura, often referred to as the largest Muslim ghetto in Gujarat. He remembers: “A friend had brought his eight-year-old son along. The boy knew that the programme was being organised at a school in Juhapura, but on reaching there, he asked, ‘Where is Juhapura?’ My friend told him that this was the place, to which the child replied, ‘But I had heard that Muslim children carry knives; I don’t see that here’.”
Lakdawala talks about the experiences of activist and filmmaker Stalin K, also centred on Juhapura. The Hindu youngsters, mostly from poor economic backgrounds, with whom Stalin worked had particularly vile impressions about the ghetto. Stalin therefore took them on a visit. Says Lakdawala: “They walked around Juhapura for three or four hours. They ate at a bakery there; they enjoyed themselves. Stalin asked them if they saw any difference between their areas and Juhapura, and the boys said no.” The trip would have changed the youngsters’ perceptions about the area and its inhabitants. But, as Lakdawala says, it is not easy to get people to step outside the boundaries they have set for themselves. Trapped somewhere between those invisible barriers, the children of Ahmedabad and indeed all of Gujarat are forced now to live in insulated bubbles, unable to reach out to children on the other side.
~ Deepa A is a journalist currently based in New Delhi. Research for this article was completed under a Sanskriti-Prabha Dutt Fellowship in Journalism.