‘Tolerance’ and ‘Respect for Cultural Diversity’ are idioms that may not have the glamour and hype in the arena of school education, if one compares them with words like leadership or entrepreneurship, but it does not mean that children should not imbibe them. These are soft skills that are essential to earn respect and dignity and to become sensitive towards others.
As a researcher and practitioner of teaching Social Studies in general and history in particular I have often felt that children of today are missing these soft yet essential survival skills. It is not their fault. Neither one can see the fault with teachers. It is the fault of the social system that blocks the path of children and teachers towards learning these skills.
Ahmedabad being a communally sensitive town provides an ideal ground to facilitate the learning of tolerance and respect for India’s cultural diversity to its thousands of kids.
It had been a long dream to find a space where I could begin my experiment. It was the end of May, when I was introduced to Sulekha Ali, a young woman who has dedicated her life for the cause, by Sarwang and Naazneen, both my friends, just before their leaving for the United States.
Sulekha Ali, a young Muslim woman, who was affected by 2002 Gujarat riot has a vision for tolerant India through her NGO – Arzoo (Together We Shine). When the riot broke out she was forced to abandon her home and live in a refugee camp. But the six months of staying in the refugee camp also brought her close to children who were going through the similar suffering in the camp. She started working as a volunteer to heal their pain. Thus was born the idea of Arzoo Education and Activity Centre. She brought children, both Hindus and Muslims together to provide basic knowledge and help them prepare for higher studies.
I landed at the Arzoo Centre located in a basement of a hotel building on the bank of Sabarmati River in Jamalpur Area. The area though filthy and surrounded by ghettos, but the centre offered a sharp contrast to its surrounding. As I proposed the idea of teaching kids once in a week on ‘States of India’ I was instantly accepted.
With little preparation, I started facilitating the class. As expected, children did not know basic information, such as naming 5 major cities of Gujarat (I was not expecting that children would know names of 5 cities of Uttarakhand). But it did not matter. They knew many more things which a textbook can ever provide.
There were Hindu and Muslim girls and boys together and there was noticed a subtle bond between them. As we moved deep into Uttarakhand, a few children started linking the teaching with their personal life. For instance, a boy who had gone to Hardwar, a city in Uttarakhand felt deeply connected with his memory while watching the video on evening prayer at Ganga Ghat. I was quite moved to see the Muslim children who were listening and watching the Hindu rituals with thorough attention. It was indeed a real pleasure to experience live ‘tolerance’. Sulekha was also present throughout the class. When we watched a Kumayoni folk dance, she asked the kids to find its similarity and difference with the garba dance of Gujarat. We finished the class after one and half hour. It was followed by a group meditation. The next activity was on photography, which I did not attend as I had other commitment. I left the centre for the week.
Truly Sulekha Ali and her Arzoo is a real hope for all of us interested in a secular healthy society. I offer my heartiest wish to her for all her endeavours!