To transform Indian schools from being perpetrators of bias and prejudice to becoming fighters for justice and equality, Teesta Setalvad has launched the country's first educational curriculum to help children engage with various contemporary human rights and social issues in the classroom.
La idea nueva
Teesta is making Indian classrooms places where teaching finds a relevance in promoting values like democracy and social justice by introducing a curriculum that teaches children how to grow up to be tolerant, secular citizens of a multicultural, multiracial democracy. Employing interactive methods and a sound theoretical framework in the learning, teaching, and writing of history, the curriculum promotes understanding of contemporary human rights and social issues. By exposing students to the pluralism of India, it teaches them to celebrate diversity and revitalizes the content and teaching of history, a subject often seen by students as uninteresting.
To spread her curriculum across India–and eventually across South Asia–Teesta is training teachers to take up her approach to value education in their schools. She is also building a national advocacy campaign that both identifies caste, religion, and gender biases in textbooks approved by state education boards and draws attention to her new curriculum through advocacy with state education ministers.
Since the 1980s, a growing intolerance has tinged all Indian institutions. Religious minorities, women, and Dalits (members of lower castes) have been the main targets of violent rhetoric and actions. With right-wing, fundamentalist political parties rising to power, both locally and nationally, the mainstream Indian media have followed their lead, tackling the issue of communal violence only after particularly horrifying events and showing little inclination to examine the processes leading to (or fallout from) them. Even schools have not been spared. In the aftermath of the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, schools in the city and throughout India started witnessing deep schisms between children from varied ethnic backgrounds; teachers were regularly observed voicing deep and hateful prejudices.
In the context of this antiminority environment, Indian education is doing little to equip students to understand, let alone combat, this intolerance. Absent from social studies courses is any teaching or instruction in conflict resolution or in the analytic skills to critique media representations. Moreover, because children are taught not to question their teachers, they lack training on how to confront their experiences in a noncensorious manner. With decisions about educational curriculum and policies made at the national or state government level, there is often a substantial disconnect between schools and the communities they serve.
Even worse, educational curriculums in history and social studies often perpetuate the very prejudices that fuel discrimination. History textbooks have started excluding large sections of the population, conveniently marginalizing them so as to render them invisible in history and contemporary society. As well, they often misrepresent historical events and periods, making them prone to "communal interpretations." For example, the conflict between Shivaji (a great Hindu leader and warrior who fought against a Muslim invasion) and the Mughals (Muslim invaders who ruled India between the 10th and mid-19th centuries) has become an example of the perennial nature of Hindu-Muslim conflict, one that conveniently ignores that two of Shivaji's most trusted generals were Muslims and that his secular credentials made him a great national hero.
Teesta has taken up the challenge of generating spaces and techniques within classrooms to draw out, discuss, and debate these crucial issues of social conflict. Her strategy is three-fold: develop a curriculum that can counter divides based on religion, caste, gender, class, and country; train teachers in this curriculum that will complement the mainstream curriculums already used in schools; and build up a national campaign to promote curriculum dissemination.
Teesta has explored and evolved alternative methodologies of learning, teaching, and writing history and social studies. Her theoretical work is based on strong foundations of interactive ways of learning and aims toward initiating peace among young minds from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Called "Khoj" (literally, "quest"), this curriculum runs parallel to standard social studies for grades four to six. Characterized by creative, personalized exercises that explore prejudice in children while trying to impart important conflict resolution and media critique skills, it also contains history modules on Mumbai, Kashmir, the Northeast of India, and South Asia as a whole. "Linking history to current affairs and personal identity brings to life a subject that has never been very popular with students," says Teesta.
Launched in 1994 in one private school in South Mumbai, Khoj has now moved to 36 government schools and 15 private schools across Maharashtra. It has also begun to spread, in some form or the other, to schools in Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and to two schools in Sri Lanka. Teesta wants to develop Khoj as a cohesive South Asian approach that can develop a mindset of peace and cooperation among children in the region. To ensure that teachers' personal biases do not act as a filter to the history being taught, Teesta provides motivational training for teachers. By bringing together teachers and principals from a variety of schools, sensitizing them to the question of pedagogy, and exposing them to fresh perspectives in history, Teesta encourages them to be active agents of change. A minimum of 10 percent of teachers in a school need to respond for the program to take off, at which point the participants play an active role in developing alternative content and approaches for history courses. To date, Teesta has conducted 50 such trainings. To bring this approach to teachers she cannot train personally, she is also working to improve the course content and methodology in university education courses for would-be teachers.
To bring her approach into the mainstream, Teesta has spearheaded a national advocacy campaign to demonstrate the need for changes to the existing history and social studies curriculum. Specifically, she is leading an effort to identify biases in textbooks approved by state education boards. Having already garnered national and international attention for her critiques of these materials, she's involving a host of national and state level regulatory bodies in education–including the National Certificate for Education Research and Training, the State Certificate for Education Research and Training, and EDCIL (a government educational consultative body)–to become active partners in discussing the social studies curriculum and the revision of biased history books. Teesta also lobbies members of the state education boards, the India Certificate for Secondary Education (a board that many private schools in India follow), and major educational institutions and trusts that manage large numbers of schools to sensitize them on the limitations of the current curriculums.
Her campaign has already begun to bear fruit. In 2001 Teesta and her team led a national debate on the existing history and social studies curriculum with state level education ministers. An outcome of the event, a cross-party forum–the Parliamentary Forum on Education and Culture–was created to counter the disturbing trends in education. A parliamentary committee was also set up to oversee changes to objectionable sections contained in the social studies textbooks of Gujarat, a state that has seen some of India's worse communal violence in recent years. ECIL, whose mandate is to source alternative methods and curriculums for schools, has taken up Teesta's cause and become a major advocate of her new curriculum.
As the campaign generates growing interest in alternative curriculums and materials, Teesta is working to make such materials available, publishing 45 teachers training modules containing history booklets, comic strips, history questions, primers on world religion, games, and videos. All these materials will be available on the Khoj Web site, making them readily accessible for teachers and other educators across the country.
Ultimately, Teesta aims to bring her curriculum to all of South Asia, to celebrate the diversity of the region. Students are already demonstrating its impact. As a result of the Khoj curriculum, students from Mumbai schools become "pen pals" with students from schools in Pakistan, taking the pledge of peace between the two countries in South Asia. They call their pen pals "Peace pals." Once her curriculum is well known and widely available, Teesta will begin taking it to India's neighboring countries.
Raised by a lawyer father and a socially conscious mother who always made Teesta and her sister appreciate the importance of self-help, Teesta found history to be one of her favorite subjects. Reading constantly from her father's big library, she noticed a large number of books written by Gandhi, Nehru, and other leaders, but none by the architect of the Indian constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Dalit. This experience made her realize the biases can exist in educated, liberal households.
After graduating with honors in philosophy from Bombay University, Teesta began her career in journalism, a profession whose investigative nature and strong social commitments had attracted her since adolescence. Her inclination was to concentrate on writing about sociopolitical issues that concerned the marginalized people in society, both urban and rural. This necessarily meant battling on issues of principle and commitment with the editors of publications from the mainline Indian media, including The Daily, The Indian Express, and The Business India. As a result, apart from her job as a professional writer, she became one of the founding members of the Women and Media Committee, a group that brought together working women journalists to raise job-related concerns and awareness of gender-sensitivity in writing and reporting on issues concerning women.
From the late 1980s, the visible emergence of the fundamental, partisan politics started shadowing the state and its law-and-order machinery. With a right-wing government coming to power, Teesta grew disturbed by the discourse of violence and terror where religious minorities, women, and Dalits became the immediate targets. Concern led her, along with fellow journalists, to form a group called Journalists Against Communalism and Sabrang (literally, "All Colors"). She and the group took on specific and general issues of ethics violations by the mainstream Indian media and instigated a national debate; they also tried to mobilize large protests against the communalism practiced by the government.
In 1992-93, Mumbai witnessed violent communal riots in which the police and government were implicated. While working for Business India during this time, Teesta broke a story that had international ramifications: the transcripts of police wireless messages showed a blatant antiminority bias within the force. Her report was covered by The Eye Witness, News Today, The New York Times, the BBC, and CNN. But dissatisfaction with the "mainstream" Indian media eventually led Teesta to launch, along with colleague and husband, Communalism Combat, a monthly journal that acts as a watchdog on the larger mainstream media, influencing the way they look at issues. In order not to come in conflict with the ruling government, she launched the magazine under a public limited company.
While Communalism Combat broke even in the last few years, Teesta's conversation with some principals and teachers of private schools in Mumbai–in the light of the strong communal environment that was brewing in the country–made her realize that deep schisms existed between children from varied ethnic backgrounds. Teachers were also observed voicing deep and hateful prejudices, and it became clear to her that there was a problem with both the approach and content of the curriculum. Thus "Khoj"–"an education for a pluralistic India"–was born. Teesta lives and works in the city of Mumbai with her husband and two children.