“They don’t think Sikh people are peaceful – specially after what happened in 1980s. It was very hurtful when you said they consider Sikhs peaceful. Maybe you would want to be more careful next time…”, said the student after the class. I was momentarily feeling triumphant after a “successful” class where the students gave me an ovation! And with this comment, I swiftly landed back to ground 0.
It was a class on “Religion and Politics”, and I was speaking on the current CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in India. We were discussing the case of religion used as a scrapegoat in political arena. And in that connection, I was reiterating the narrative for religions other than Islam that are considered not a problem or threat by the Indian government. India is the largest democracy, with a population close to two billion people. The country has been a multi-faith space. The post-independence nomenclature used by one of the leaders, Nehru, for India as being a secular country, has shaped much of the policy-making in the country.
As you are aware, the CAA proposed by the Central Government introduced some unconstitutional amendments, that are met with bitter protests. I selected this as a case-study to evaluate various processes that come into play when religion and political policy-making moves beyond peaceful communication.
With the student’s remark; I started reflecting back on every word I uttered for the duration of past 50 minutes in the lecture. Was I inconsiderate as I discussed the various religious aspects? Did I indeed say something that was out of the kilt? Fortunately, I had taped my lecture on my personal recorder, and I sat with it and a hot cup of tea to untangle the mental chaos.
As I listened to my recording, I heard myself say: “the present government does not consider Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists to some extent as being threats to the nation. Well, not as much as they consider Muslims to be at fault. The overall narrative of Hindu and Sikh as peace-loving surfaces to some extent in the religious repertoire…” I hit “pause”, and contemplated. Was this statement offensive?
I realized in that moment, that the contested spaces of religious practice and belief in India is very diverse. So diverse, that it changes considerably across the states in India. The religious texture and narrative in say Punjab may not reflect what the state of Maharashtra believes as an overarching narrative… In this myriad of narratives and religious commentary, the cognizance for sentimentalities is indeed a delicate dance.
And because there are inconvenient topics out there, I don’t think we should shy away from addressing those in the classroom. The instructor’s role is to facilitate. And an instructor, in my opinion, needs to create a space for discussion in the classroom. After my metaphorical pendulum of presenting varying viewpoints in the class, I had an open invitation: “this is one view to look at the CAA. You can very well analyse this as being a propaganda (we had discussed the elements of propaganda in an earlier class), and we can discuss!” There’s no predetermined “right” or “wrong” when we approach a certain dataset. The responsibility of weighing the parameters and deducing something falls on the analyst AFTER they make sense of the various points of data at hand. And it is my personal motivation to encourage the students to look beyond the binaries of black and white.
I had emptied my tiny cup of tea, but quotations on classroom address still linger…
In my attempts to include balanced viewpoints from all sides and dealing with sensitive topics in the classroom, I would appreciate your suggestions. Your inputs and experience will benefit me as I create scaffolding for my lectures on the future.