Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | A case of martyrdom at the service of demagoguery

Extolling war in schools goes completely against our national values of peace and co-existence

A bullet through the heart of Michael O’ Dwyer killed him. This was on 13 March 1940 in London, 21 years after the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh, which O’ Dwyer had called “correct action". Vengeance has rarely been served colder. For firing that bullet, Udham Singh was tried and then executed on 31 July 1940, passing into the folklore of martyrdom in India.

Violent as his action was, in the court of the people of India, it was also justice delivered, which the British judicial system had brazenly refused to do. Perhaps that is the source of the cathartic effect of his action on the country then, and persisting through the decades till now.

Despite this, it seems strange that a then newly-formed district was named “Udham Singh Nagar" in what was Uttar Pradesh in 1995. At least till electoral calculations were accounted for. The population of the new district was (and is) 66% Hindu, 22% Muslim, and 10% Sikh. The cynical practicality of politics prevailed. Clearly, the politicians involved had no qualms in attempting to use an Indian hero toactivate one community.

One late winter evening, just short of a week for 79 years to that fateful day in London, the Sampark Kranti Express deposited me at Rudrapur station, the headquarters of Udham Singh Nagar district. The overbridge from platform 2 to 1 has steep steps. I have helped carry bags across for those I have felt for. I picked up the bag of an elderly lady. She was visiting her son, who is in the army on the western border somewhere. That brief walk together was sufficient for her to tell me that “there is vengeance in the air and it’s never good".

The next morning was cold, for March, and misty. I drove to Khatima and then some distance further. The government primary school of Tedhaghat was on the main road. As I entered Class V, I heard a boy say, “Sabki apni raay hoti hai, sabko sunna chaahiye" (everyone has different views and they must be heard). How exactly could an 11 year old say such a sage thing?

The answer to that question was clear as I sat for the next 90 minutes with the children and their teacher Renu Upadhyay. In the first few minutes, it was apparent that with respect to the school subjects, this group was where it should be, maybe even ahead. However, their communication, capacity to think, and sensibilities were remarkable. We conversed about whether demons could be good. Then they explained why it was important to work collaboratively. They wrote three stories for me, working in groups, in 10 minutes. All of their parents are daily wage earners.

Like many other highly effective teachers, Upadhyay doesn’t see herself as doing anything special. She says she is doing what she should, she is just doing her job. She is so immersed in her role that every nuance of the complex role of a teacher has become a part of her life. She can’t parse these out. Just the way that elite marathon runners routinely run more than 40km in 2 hours but would find it hard to explain what makes it possible, aside from complete dedication. Which is what Upadhyay has. As we were leaving, she gave us a poem that a child had written after Pulwama. “Unke bhi ghar me hai koi, unke bhi hain sapne kai; phir bhi woh rehte nidarr" (there is someone in their homes too, and they too have many dreams, but still, they remain fearless), referring, of course, to soldiers. The poem was wistful, with not a trace of vengeance. However, that wasn’t the case in the rest of Udham Singh Nagar. From Khatima in the east to Kashipur in the west, through that cold week, vengeance did seem to be mixed in the mist. Belligerent sloganeering by a group of teachers in the precincts of a school, demanding instant retribution, was just one bizarre instance.

In another school, I witnessed a “group discussion" on Pulwama. The first few moments captured the gist: “Eent ka jawaab patthar; nestaanabood karenge" (retaliate with double force; complete annihilation). These bright, confident children were indoctrinated with canned speeches.

Eulogizing Udham Singh in schools or naming districts after him is not consecration of retribution. He is an actor in the narrative of India’s struggle for independence. However, extolling war and demanding vengeance in schools is reprehensible. This is antithetical to every idea of good education. It undermines all our constitutional values and violates the basic responsibility of schools. There is a thin line between such schools and the madrasas that trained the Taliban. I have no idea how many teachers and schools are infected, but even one is one too many.

I just couldn’t let go. After a while I asked the children, “What will happen if we hit each other? Again and again?" They thought and one of them said, “We will break each other’s bones." A 10-year-old gazed at me for a while and in an astonishing turn, said, “Shaheed to dono taraf honge, aisa nahi karna chaahiye" (there will be martyrs on both sides, we should not do this).

There may be a few more exceptional children like her. However, most will follow their teachers if they lead them down this path to perdition. This is not the India that Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh gave their lives for. This is not the India that we promised ourselves.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.