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India: In Gujarat, Classrooms for Peace

by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, 15 June 2009

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Ahmedabad (Women’s Feature Service) - In 2002, Gujarat was the site of one of the worst communal riots in India’s history, with tensions between majority and minority communities continuing to simmer long after the immediate violence. Complicity of the state in the violence and systematic hate campaigns against the minority community were so blatant that commentators often use the term ’pogrom’ to describe the events of those stormy days. What made things even worse was the fact that many of those at the receiving end of the violence were from the poorest sections of society.

It is against this dark backdrop that Samerth, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, has tried to make a difference. Founded in the early nineties to promote participatory development among marginalised and vulnerable communities, it is one of the several organisations in Gujarat that has been working towards bringing about reconciliation and peace in an atmosphere of distrust and disquiet.

Elaborates Samerth founder-trustee Gazala Paul, a post-graduate in Coexistence and Conflict Management from Brandeis University, Massachusetts, "In rural Kachchh, our main thrust is on sustainable livelihood practices while in urban Ahmedabad our focus is on conflict resolution, peace building and education. We work extensively in ’bastis’ (slums), through educational interventions for children and youth, and livelihood restoration for women."

Working towards the economic restoration of riot-affected communities since 2003 in the Juhapura, Sarkhej, Jivraj and Vejalpur areas of Ahmedabad - for the benefit of both Hindus and Muslims - Samerth members find that the memory of the 2002 violence still troubles people. Most of them are impoverished, largely because of the inadequate compensation given to them by the government in the aftermath of the 2002 violence and because of poor civic facilities generally.

The NGO has, therefore, sensitively developed interventions to overcome the deprivation and also the entrenched attitudes of prejudice and hatred. Realising that Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in the ’bastis’ could provide a vital entry point to mobilise women of both communities, activists have enabled members to set up a savings and credit system as a means to supplement their incomes. They also make loans available to riot-affected families.

The encouraging response from women of both communities initiated a process of rebuilding trust between them and greater integration. But the most important initiative Samerth has launched is focused on children. It seeks to make an impact on young minds by coming up with out-of-the-box approaches. It has devised peace modules to tackle the effects of violence. Soon after the riots, the NGO ran playgroups in relief camps. "At that point," recalls Iqbal Baig, the organisation’s Programme Support Coordinator, "Our focus was more therapeutic in nature. After the closure of the camps, we shifted the pre-schools within the communities. Ever since, we provide pre-school education and carry out peace education with school children, youth and adolescents, community leaders and the clergy."

A few thousand children - with a fair representation from both the Hindu and Muslim communities - actively participate in the ’peace classes’ held in neighbourhood government and private schools in Ahmedabad. The peace modules tackle the biases and bring about a feeling of goodwill and mutual understanding. Quizzes and games, stories about eminent national leaders, exercises such as the ’spider web’ and the ’tree exercise’, all help children focus on topics of peace, non-violence, unity in diversity and social harmony in a creative and fun way.

Fatma Chopra, a field worker with Samerth, has been actively engaged in developing peace modules as well as teaching and conducting classes for young children. She also works at enhancing women’s livelihood skills and is trained in teaching needlecraft. She explains, "Through our peace modules and quiz competitions, we try to develop respect and tolerance in the minds of children from different religious and cultural backgrounds. By 2007, we were conducting peace modules in 37 schools. Children get very interested in the approach and there were animated debates on diversity and multiculturalism."

But there have been challenges. Admits Nasrin Pathan, a peace educator, "Initially, schools were hesitant and refused permission. But we started inviting eminent personalities as observers. This helped create an environment of trust among the managements of these schools. Slowly more schools agreed to cooperate with us."

Currently, Samerth runs eight playgroups, exposing children to computers and other creative activities even as they get to understand the meaning and importance of multiculturalism. The NGO has also encouraged schools to form Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) as fora to discuss issues related to harmony and peaceful co-existence.

Paul explains, "In Gujarat, we have experienced a sequence of communal violence, which has left deep scars on the hearts and minds of people. As a result, the minority community members are huddling together in different settlements like Juhapura, forming ghettoes. The lack of trust between people is so sharp that inter-community interactions had virtually stopped. This isolation allows conservative and regressive elements to take control and curb reforms and progress. We work in such an environment and it is very difficult. We have reached out to other NGOs to build alliances to counter communal prejudices, and tackle issues of injustice and negligence. We are also making efforts to strengthen the network for wider reach and impact."

Thus, the organisation, which now also specialises in providing training sessions on conflict transformation and peace building, has built alliances with bodies such as the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), Sanchetana - and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which had already set up SHGs.

In order to dispel divisive myths and stereotypes, Samerth has widely disseminated amongst children, teachers and parents, the Gujarati translation of a study on multicultural traditions that it had conducted in association with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Titled ’Gujarat Unknown - A Study on Syncretic Traditions’, it traces the syncretic and multicultural traditions through shrines, anecdotes and experiences and observes that communities in this region had coexisted for centuries and had carried out livelihood activities together, particularly in rural areas. These translated booklets are proving effective in building a general appreciation of how cultures have influenced each other and how reinforcing diversity is a precondition for human existence and an effective democracy.

According to Paul, "It has taken enormous energy and hard work by the Samerth staff to convince the schools, youth and ’basti’ women to allow us to dwell upon issues of communalism, secularism and peace. But the processes of reconciliation are certainly taking place and we are very happy when we see the children responding and changing."

Rehana Sheikh, a peace module teacher, shares, "If we go to the six schools of Vejalpur, Jivraj and Sarkhej areas, the children there have become friendly and talkative. They share stories of violence and show a genuine interest in other religions and customs. Some of them have even become torchbearers of the movement against communal feeling."

Samerth’s members are conscious, of course, that their outreach is quite limited considering the scale of the problem. But they believe that trying to get children and young people today to value secularism and diversity will make a big difference tomorrow, so that events like the 2002 riots never come back to haunt Gujarat.

(© Women’s Feature Service)