Any discussion of the human rights situation in general presents difficulties, as every situation is different and demands individual scrutiny and a specific action plan. We would like to share our own experience.
On the local front, we have taken up the Justice Srikrishna Report. Several awareness programs have highlighted the atrocities carried out during the Mumbai riots in December 1992-January 1993. They showed how the Sena leaders spread rumors about minorities, such as that the riots and the bomb blast were the work of a Pakistan-inspired Inter Services Intelligence out to destabilize India. They also focused on how the Dhiv Sena-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment through provocative speeches before and after the demolition in Ayodhya. The programs led to a signature campaign addressed to the President of India to take the Srikrishna Report seriously and take the guilty to task.
We are also investigating so-called "encounter deaths," several of which we believe to be fake. In fact, it has begun to surface that the "encounter deaths" were premeditated killings.
India has seen a phenomenal rise in communalism. Sadly, a large section of Indian society opts to remain silent in the face of this malaise that threatens to destroy the country. There can be no fence-sitting. One is either pro-justice or against justice. There is no middle way.
The perpetrators of injustice subscribe to an ideology of subjugating others. The role of education is to expose this inhuman mind-set. Any education worth its salt must protect human rights. Promoting such education is the Justice and Peace Commission's goal.
Our primary focus is molding children and youth. We believe that, given the proper guidance, they will be our hope for the future. In our work, we approach schools and colleges open to human rights education (HRE), and conduct sessions for teachers and students on human rights, where they discuss issues related to women, children, the environment and communalism. We use case studies, street theater, poster making, puppetry and so on as teaching aids.
Participants study the historical development of the concept of human rights. They learn that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a treaty, nor a legal agreement between countries, nor a binding document. Rather, it is a declaration, a statement of intent or principle. They also study it as a document that classifies rights into civil and political, security-oriented, environmental and development rights. They study the Constitution of India and learn that their fundamental duties are patriotism, preservation of our cultural heritage, protection of the natural environment, safeguarding of public property, and so on.
We also hope to spread awareness of various human rights violations in India. While the rising incidents of human rights violations would make anyone throw in the towel even before starting, participants learn that it is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. They realize that they must behave and think in ways compatible with human rights. They are exposed to the ways the mass media are used to tread on the rights of others, how women, for example, are portrayed as second-class citizens. Their anchor is always the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eminent retired judges, lawyers, human rights activists and social workers help us out.
Our programs are conducted in coordination with the India Center for Human Rights and Law, and the Human Rights Watch Cell, both of which aim to promote human rights, document human rights violations, and so on.
A number of schools and colleges are open to HRE, and their principals have prepared the ground for it. We found that students and teachers were already familiar with the topic. They were receptive and participated actively in the sessions we conducted. They did their "homework" diligently and meticulously prepared their displays, paper-cuttings and posters. They found it easy to relate their own experiences to the topics discussed.
The frequency of the sessions depended on the schedule of the schools. Some preferred two consecutive days; others preferred four half-days. Still others opted for a seminar.
We found that we needed simple, user-friendly resource materials. Thus, we designed A Handbook for Animators, which is made up of four booklets dealing with the following topics: Understanding Human Rights; Violation of Children's Human Rights; Women and Human Rights; and Environment and Human Rights.
Users found the handbook easy to handle due to its case studies, pictures, role-plays, follow-up activity and so on. Although brevity and simplicity took its toll on legal details and intricacies, the students and teachers thought the gains far exceeded the drawbacks.
A question arose: If teachers do not have a human rights perspective, then how can they help the student? We thus explored the possibility of setting up a teacher training program, which would resolve two difficulties. First, the future teachers would be "human-rights-oriented" before they began their vocation. (In the future, they would only need refresher courses from time to time.) Second, since we are at the mercy of the principal (on whose permission our entry depends), some students may never be formally exposed to the concept of human rights, although we may somehow sow a seed of the concept in the minds of the student.
Another task is the development of resource materials for teachers. The teachers-in-training are asked to be creative in developing teaching material and to make the subject lively and interesting. Students at colleges where we work are producing materials to be used in schools and colleges and by the general public.
As the study of human rights is not part of the academic syllabus, whether or not it will be taught is left to the whim of the school principal. We believe that it should be part of the curriculum.
Human rights need to be reflected upon constantly. They require systematic study and organized treatment throughout the year. The subject can be modified to suit the cognitive level of the students. We are evolving a one-year syllabus.
Teaching, learning, assimilation and follow-up are parts of a single process of learning. Teaching ought also to be multifaceted. Parents must be involved in the entire process.
Another target group we aim to explore is the municipal schools, which need new approaches and thinking.
What about school drop-outs? NGOs are studying how to approach them.
Asian countries will soon face several challenges. A constant challenge is the question of "cultural specificity"; governments (usually authoritarian) claim that each country is unique and they alone know what is best for their people. Thus, any criticism or differing opinion is viewed as treason.
While it is true that countries have different cultural and other features, there is no reason why the idea of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms should not be promoted or be the prime concern of every government.
Education is a powerful tool for social transformation and justice. Through our programs we hope to develop values and attitudes that bring about peace, justice and equality. We have started the process of formation at the root of society by sowing the seed of humanism in the minds of our students, the future of India. The task ahead of us is daunting and challenging. We have many miles to go and promises to keep. In solidarity with like-minded people, the distance becomes shorter and the target achievable.
(Note: The Report of the Justice Srikrishna Commission is available at Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt. Ltd., P. O. Box 28253, Juhu P.O.. Mumbai 400 049.)