British comedian Jimmy Carr was believed to have once remarked, “I was born in Slough in the 1970s. If you want to know what Slough was like in the 1970s, go there now.” This could as well typify the Indian response, or the lack of it, towards addressing causative factors contributing to communal violence.
Unknown perhaps to Jimmy Carr, a movement called Aik Saath in Slough was started in 1998 after several incidents of racial violence between members of the Asian community focused media attention on this problem. Aik Saath is made up of young people with ages ranging from 13 to 25 and currently trains more than a thousand young people every year.
This team of young people is for the most part made up of young Asians from the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities. The peer training scheme means young people work together to develop conflict resolution skills and apply them in everyday life. The primary objective behind Aik Saath is the promotion of peace and racial harmony through the teaching of conflict resolution skills in the local community of Slough and surrounding areas.
The anti-racism scheme developed by Aik Saath trains teenagers to resolve conflict—from verbal abuse to playground bullying and physical fights. Though this course was developed in the context of racial violence, the benefits of the training spill onto everyday conflicts which arise among young people.
Being the first such initiative in the UK, whether Aik Saath’s activities have led to a reduction in racial and other forms of violence in Slough or not would require a much longer time to effectively assess. However, if praise from Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for helping the UK create a fairer and more equal society in the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, is any indication, Aik Saath, if nothing else, has been a firm step in the right direction.
While a raging debate is going on in India about the introduction of sex education in the school curriculum, I do feel that conflict resolution as part of the curriculum would be much less controversial and thus an easier task to achieve for the ministry of human resource development. However, besides the course curriculum that Aik Saath has developed, it is the community initiative without government backing which is worth emulating, considering the founding members were all in the age group of 13-25.
As in the recent years we have seen the creation of civil society-led movements substituting government efforts in many arenas, it is time civil society picks up the cudgels on behalf of our next generation?and assists in this process. At least situations without political overtones can be attempted to be tackled through conflict resolution skills being imparted to recipients from a tender age.
The questions at the end of all of this are: Could the Godhra pogrom been averted had the perpetrators been put through conflict resolution training? Probably not. Would Abhishek, Akash and Vikas still be playing football at Gurgaon’s Euro International School rather than where they have landed up after the shootout, had conflict resolution been a part of the school curriculum? Maybe. The contrast couldn’t be starker.
Saionton Basu is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org