5th October 1997


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Battling against divisive forces

By Raushen Akbar

If we look at the world today, we find that lurking behind its political antagonisms are deep-seated religious conflicts. Whether we probe the conflict amongst the Hindus and Muslims in India, or the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, in most instances such conflicts are the overt manifestations of covert religious differences.

Battling against the divisive forces that tend to erode the sociopolitical entity of a country is Teesta Setalvad, the co-editor of "Combat Communalism" a monthly Indian tabloid . In Sri Lanka recently, on a visit coordinated by Faizun Zacharial of the Women’s Research and Action Forum (WRAF), she also presented a paper on Conflict and Education at a seminar on peace and reconciliation among children.

Having worked for 15 years in mainstream journalism as a correspondent for Business India, the Hindu- Muslim riots in 1993 which followed the Babri-Masjid massacre at Ayodya, made Ms. Setalvad acutely aware of the need for a secular journal to counter the polarisation of Indian society at that time. This became the raison d’etre for "Combat Communalism", which aims at analysing, exposing and exploring the communal tensions of a country’s people.

She spoke of the state’s passivity, the police participation and the callous disregard directed towards a minority community in the Bombay of 1993. "Frankly it was a Bombay that none of us had ever seen," she recalled. In the midst of the lack of concern when thousands of distress calls came pouring into the police control room, the abusive language and police violence messages and a nonchalant health service where doctors refused to treat patients (some near-corpses), she prepared for combat by initiating a signature campaign. Collecting over 350 signatures in Bombay alone, she appealed to the state to stop sweeping these burning issues under the carpet for the bulges were bound to show up sometime.

In the Ayodhya aftermath and the paranoia that was making inroads into the mainstream lingo, Combat Communalism introduced a column for children titled "Koje" (Discover) which became an open forum for conflict admission. One poem by Neelabhro, Standard VI, reads:

"... don’t fight, it isn’t right,

In a world of peace you took birth.

Quit the war. Live in peace,

Not in pieces".

Expressing a dislike for the concept of peace education which Ms. Setalvad feels is "a goody goody term", she believes in conflict admission firstly, and then hopefully conflict resolution. "There is no space in the classroom to discuss issues of conflict. Yet we have found that prejudices do run very deep even among the nine and twelve year olds whom we work with." Since June 1994, she has been working with over 10 Indian schools, which comprise a socio economic and linguistic mix, and has introduced a multi-media schedule which may be adopted by each school to inter-relate a child’s emotional processes along with the academic.

"It is a very positive experience. By discussion, debate, drawing and games we encourage the children gently to describe what makes them happy and comfortable and what makes them angry and sad." She disclosed the many instances of child beating at home and racial conflict among classmates which were exposed after such sessions. "The suggestions for resolution come from the children themselves," she pointed out.

She also expressed the need to introduce such programmes into the Sri Lankan education system and said that this suggestion had gone down well with the representatives of the National Institute of Education and the National Education Council who were present at the seminar here. "If the teacher is not oriented towards such open discussion, of course this exercise will be futile. We also hope to have a Sri Lankan section in our paper to co-ordinate a frank exchange of ideas and proposals," she said.

Listening to her speak so passionately and determinedly about her plans, I hoped that her efforts would reap a peaceful tomorrow, in sharp contrast to the prejudicial and discriminatory society in which we live today.

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