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Keeping Gandhi alive in the classroom

Avijit Pathak writes: Gandhi’s simple and profound truth should not be lost amid an intellectually narcissistic game of scholarship. We need to let a dialogic and vibrant classroom encourage students to be self-reflexive, ask new questions to make sense of the age they live in

Gandhi made sense of the world not simply through the cognitive power of the intellect. (Express Archives)

As the celebration of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth anniversary has become almost like any other ritual — routinised and soulless — a politico-philosophic and pedagogic question confronts me: As teachers/students, is it possible to keep Gandhi alive and vibrant in our classrooms?

Well, there is no dearth of scholarship, or the continual production of books, edited volumes and academic papers on Gandhi—from “postcolonial”/“postmodern” Gandhi to the reflections on “the doctor and the saint”, or Gandhi through Dr B R Ambedkar’s eyes. Yet, as a teacher, I have often felt that there is something beyond these heavily loaded discourses. Indeed, young students ought to be reminded of a simple fact: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was not a scholar — the way some of our distinguished historians and political philosophers are; nor did he communicate his ideas in the way they do. Instead, his books Hind Swaraj, My Experiments with Truth and his writings in Young India and Harijan are amazingly “simple”.

Furthermore, unlike a university scholar, he didn’t “theorise”. In fact, his writings, unlike a “value-neutral”/“peer reviewed” research paper, were inseparable from his politico-spiritual experiments, his self-reflections and vulnerabilities, and above all, the moral/ethical churning he passed through throughout his life. And hence, I feel, it would not be a good pedagogic practice if we reduce Gandhi into yet another academic puzzle to be solved in the classroom. Nor should Gandhi be reduced to, as schools often do, a discrete chapter in the history textbook, or an object of “moral education” that children seldom identify with.

Possibly, through the creative vibrancy of engaged pedagogy, we need to encourage our students — especially, college/university students — to feel and experience Gandhi, or to reflect on Gandhi with authentic politico-cultural and existential-spiritual questions.

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This is possible only if we remind our students, time and again, that they should not be paralysed by the dominant imageries of Gandhi, be it the official/fossilised Gandhi as the “Mahatma”, or the “impractical” Gandhi in the age of techno-capitalism, or the condemned Gandhi — “casteist” and even “effeminate”. Instead, with the ethos of studentship, they should be endowed with the spirit of free enquiry. In this context, two points need special emphasis.

First, think of a teacher and her students as co-travellers reflecting on the violence of the two dominant identities that shape our existence today. As the principle of market fundamentalism implicit in the irresistible march of neoliberalism transforms us into neurotically restless, greedy and atomised consumers trying to find our salvation in the act of ceaseless possession of “brands” and “products”, we lose what can be regarded as the ethos of connectedness. Likewise, as hyper-nationalism becomes the order of the day, we invent “enemies”, cherish loud and aggressive symbols of demonstrative patriotism, deprive religion of the music of religiosity, reduce it into a tight identity marker (I am a “Hindu”; you are a “Muslim”), and erect walls of separation. In other words, be it market fundamentalism or militant nationalism, our identities are getting increasingly violent.

And this violence is seen everywhere — the way the discourse of “limitless growth” causes an unsustainable and ecologically destructive “risk society”; or the way the practice of hyper-nationalism limits our horizons, and makes us perpetually insecure and hence, violent. Amid this all-pervading violence, is it possible for a teacher and her students to rediscover Gandhi? A simple and profound truth Gandhi was trying to communicate through his words and deeds was that ahimsa or peace would be impossible without sarvodaya, the ethic of care or connectedness with the natural ecosystem and the community of interdependent social relationships, and the redemptive power of love and nishkama karma.

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Not the sanctification of greed, but the richness of inner abundance — or, “soul force” — was Gandhi’s truth. Likewise, till the last moment before Nathuram Godse’s bullets entered his physical body, Gandhi was striving for an inclusive, non-violent and egalitarian nationalism. Let a dialogic and vibrant classroom encourage students to be self-reflexive, ask new questions to make sense of the age they live in, and engage with Gandhi. And let Gandhi’s simple and profound “truth” not be lost amid what academic scholars are otherwise fond of — an intellectually narcissistic game of “scholarship”.

Second, Gandhi made sense of the world not simply through the cognitive power of the intellect. He worked on his body and soul, experimented with diet and practices of healing, and attached extraordinary importance to the unity of brain and heart, or learning through doing. And Gandhi walked, walked and walked. Imagine his epic walk at Noakhali in 1946; he was experimenting with what he believed in — the potency of satyagraha and ahimsa; and he was meeting people, conversing with them, and trying to restore peace and sanity in a terribly violent milieu wounded by the virus of the “two nation theory”, or “Hindu-Muslim divide”.

The question is: Can we teach Gandhi only in a sanitised classroom through the ritualisation of exams, seminars and term papers? Imagine a teacher persuading her student to fast for two days, observe minutely the vibrations of their body and consciousness, and reflect on whether voluntary fasting, or for that matter, austerity enhances one’s “soul force”. Or, imagine a teacher walking with her students through the bylanes of old Delhi and Shaheen Bagh, meeting people, conversing with them, listening to the tales of their fears and anxieties, and collectively reflecting on the meaning and symbolism of Gandhi’s prayers.

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Possibly, through these “experiments with pedagogy”, our classrooms can engage with Gandhi more intensely and meaningfully — something beyond the act of publishing yet another paper in the “UGC approved” journal.

Avijit Pathak taught sociology at JNU for more than three decades.

First published on: 01-10-2022 at 10:45:24 am
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