When extremism stalks the students: Educational solutions to India’s conflict zones
(Original article: Times of India, March 22 2016)
Gandhi, the father of our nation, once said, “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” This quote is particularly relevant in the modern era, when violent extremism has led to widespread displacement of massive populations around the globe, and has contributed to a climate of distrust and fear. Perhaps the most telling effect of extremism is the disruption of education, from primary to college level – something that affects not only our present, but also our future.
A recent report released by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace, where I am chairman of the board, reminds us that India faces numerous challenges within our borders. Entitled ‘India’s youth speak out about higher education’, it consolidates the opinions of over 6,000 students from all over the country. Although the report’s authors intended to focus on the 22 themes in the higher education portion of the National Education Policy consultation process, currently underway at the HRD ministry, rather than conflict areas, it was an issue that was clearly on students’ minds.
Students from conflict affected regions frequently brought up early experiences that affected their ability to succeed in – or even get admitted to – college. These students said they had not been able to attend primary school for years at a time, leaving them unprepared for the rigours of higher education.
This trend was borne out by our survey. Approximately 12.4% of survey respondents attributed their lack of enrolment in higher education to “social unrest at their native place”. Youth suggested the adoption of a policy detailing best practices for providing education in emergencies. Ideally, such a policy would outline a way for students to continue studying, perhaps through distance learning courses, even while their communities are in turmoil.
While many of the students in the study wanted more relevant, skill-based courses in their colleges and universities, the need was especially urgent among those living in conflictaffected areas. Take, for example, the case of a young woman from Mizoram, who, in a focus group discussion, talked about the dire consequences of not gaining adequate skills in higher education.
She told us, “Most of the people in our place, since we cannot earn a living going to offices or something like that, join militant forces, go underground and become militants.
In order to avoid that there should be skill development so that we earn a living and not join the group.”
This student echoed the voices of many of her peers, who said that one of the key tools for fighting extremism is providing economic and educational opportunities. Youth across the country agreed that having viable life choices is the key to preventing their peers from making violent choices.
In addition to wanting more practical coursework, students in conflict zones expressed a desire to see themselves and their realities reflected in their school curricula, starting from ayoung age and continuing into higher education. Students said that a lack of representation in textbooks made people from conflict zones feel that their lack of development and exposure to violence were inevitable.
Said one student from a porous border region studying in Delhi, “You study history, but there is no history of northeast. It’s about kings and queens of other Indian subcontinents. All these factors, the insurgents are using these weaknesses as a tool to brainwash the people.” As this student rightly points out, having a curriculum that is inclusive and fosters critical thinking allows young people to imagine a different, more peaceful future for themselves. Therefore more efforts should be made to improve curricula starting at the primary level.
India’s diversity is its greatest strength. Let us ensure that our democracy gives young minds the space to be free, rather than imprisoning them within a lack of opportunities, resources and stability. As the youth in this report so rightly point out, we cannot continue to advance peacefully as a nation, unless we support education in every corner of the country – including those most affected by conflict. It is essential that the New Education Policy takes these recommendations into account.
The writer is Congress MP in Rajya Sabha