Where would you find Mahatma Gandhi in our schools? A picture of the Mahatma is up on some wall in almost every school that I have visited. Usually, it is the most faded of all pictures, having been up there the longest. He is also known to most children. In every classroom that I enter, the first thing that the children ask me is my name. I usually respond with Mohandas Gandhi or Narendra Modi. The ensuing mirth of disbelief is a good ice-breaker and is possible only because the children know of the two individuals in some manner.

Usually, they are aware of a few scattered facts about the Mahatma. He is dead. He was very old. His picture is up on the wall. Often, a couple of children will talk about his having something to do with India’s freedom movement. In most high schools, a few students can usually narrate a relatively cogent biography. Many, across classes, can quickly pull out the textbooks that feature him.

Where really is Gandhi in our schools?

At 8.30am on a day close to his 150th birth anniversary, I was greeted in a school by an all-students group song. In Hindi, it would be called a song in veer-ras, a song inspiring valour. It challenged all enemies to a fight to the finish. It promised a fate even more dire to enemies within. It swore a relentless pursuit of evildoers to their death. The crashing waters of the Bhagirathi flowing beside the school was like a drumbeat to the song; 6-to-12-year-olds consecrated extreme violence on the banks of a river whose myth of origin is about giving peace to 60,000 souls who were condemned by a curse to become ash.

The teachers looked expectantly at me for approbation. The brutal imagery of the song sung by little children was too much to let go. So I asked Kailash, with whom I had visited this school, what he thought I would do if he boxed me in my face. The children were listening. He said I would hit him back. Then what would he do? I asked. Hit me back harder, he said. The imaginary scuffle quickly escalated to knives and guns, with both of us fatally wounded. Then we re-started the scuffle. What would he do if he boxed me and I didn’t hit him back? He would be puzzled, he said, and perhaps hit me again. If I still didn’t retaliate? He would stop, he said. The children got it immediately.

We went back to the song and its treatment of enemies and others. There was no need for more prompting. Lucidly they described how they would deal with even mortal enemies peaceably. A bit of the Mahatma was rediscovered.

That is where he really is. Gandhi is in our children. It is up to us, to our schools, to the teachers in our schools, whether we nurture the Mahatma in our children, or leave him hanging in a faded picture and buried in a dreary text book. That is what too many schools do. However, there are also those that bring his spirit to life.

One school, on the banks of the same Bhagirathi, has no room for violence in word or action. The explicit norm of the school, followed by all teachers and students alike, is that disagreement must be resolved through dialogue among the parties involved. It may happen with a neutral mediator present, which is often a student. Displeasure must be expressed in the politest of terms. Since the norms were agreed upon by all in the school three years ago, there has been no real breach.

Another school, somewhere in the jungles of central India, screens the Richard Attenborough movie Gandhi every October. That is followed by a week of discussion and debate on the life of Gandhi, his methods, and his relevance. He is not deified, but examined critically. After the week is over, each class develops a project on “A Gandhi of today".

Yet another school, in the arid Deccan plateau, has no referees or umpires for sports. The teams playing nominate score keepers from among themselves and each player is a referee for her own actions and behaviour. Disputes are resolved between the nominees of each team. When examinations are held, teachers do not stand as invigilators.

Yet another school in a small town in the drylands of western India gives all its students an impossible project every year. They must identify a situation of conflict, one in which they themselves may or may not be involved. Then they must resolve this conflict through Gandhian means. Their track-record of resolution is low, but the understanding in this school of the importance of means over ends is high.

These are not isolated instances in these schools. The content of discussion in the classes, the approach and methods of teaching, and the practices and culture of these schools, all in tandem attempt to develop values and capacities that are Gandhian. The schools are loath to claim success, but they would proudly proclaim that they are trying.

It is a quest for all seasons and all times: how to grow our humanity. If in tribute, on his 150th birth anniversary, schools can begin nurturing Gandhi in our children, we will tap reserves that too often wither away. Empathy is at the heart of this humanity. Earlier a sceptic, I have become a faithful. If we could all just live. Vaishnav jan toh tene kahiye je peeda paraayi jaane re (A true Vaishnav is a person who understands the suffering of others).

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

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