Here’s why we talk politics to children: A conversation with Samina Mishra 

By Somi, Rayhan 

In a world where the complexities of citizenship and identity are constantly debated and dominated by adult voices, Samina Mishra, an educator, writer, and storyteller, set out on an adventure to explore the nuanced understanding of being an Indian through the eyes of children. Her project, Hum Hindustani, which began as a small initiative, has now grown into a comprehensive examination of citizenship and democracy for young minds, particularly those from marginalised communities. In a conversation with SIGMA, Mishra shares her insights and experiences, highlighting the intriguing stories she encountered along the way. 

When citizen protests erupted across the country in 2019, Mishra embarked on a journey to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an Indian through the eyes of its youngest citizens?” She attempted to uncover how children, after deviating from traditional lessons, comprehend and interpret the concepts of citizenship and nationality through art-based exercises. When her project garnered attention, she seized the opportunity to delve deeper into her exploration, and the Hum Hindustani Project became an integral part of the Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures network, focusing on diverse educational practices and their potential to create sustainable and equitable societies. Through carefully chosen sites, such as Shaheen Bagh in Delhi (site for a citizens’ protest), rural parts of Firozpur in Punjab (site for a farmers’ protest), and Kitaab Mahal, a library catering to Dalit and Muslim children in Govandi, she wished to amplify those young voices that often remain unheard and are kept away from these complex narratives.

Mishra claims that for these children from marginalised communities, the concept of ‘being Indian’ is dynamic and ever-expanding rather than being limited to the definitions found in textbooks. The food they eat, the clothes they wear, the languages they speak, and the landmarks that shape their consciousness are all examples of everyday interactions through which their sense of Indianness develops and takes shape. “The idea of being Indian is a tapestry, woven out of everyday lived experiences, and these experiences cannot be curtailed into little boxes.” 

Using poetry, artwork, and insightful commentary, these young minds have been articulating their thoughts and emotions and reflecting on the complex issues of caste, class, and exclusion. Mishra fondly remembers a few lines that came out of an exercise on fraternity: “…woh log jo masjid todte hain kya woh mere log hain, woh log jo 14 April ko Ambedkar Jayanti manate hain kya woh mere log hain, woh log jo Taj Hotel ke andar jaate hain kya woh mere log hain….”

During another exercise centred on the concepts of equality and inequality, a 14-year-old girl created an artwork depicting her school, with boys standing outside holding placards that read, “Hijab waale mana hain.” When Mishra enquired about it, she discovered that the girl had a close Muslim friend, and because she herself had been bullied in school for being from the Dalit community, the friendship and frequent visits to each other’s homes had fostered a deep understanding of the other’s life.  In another exercise, children were asked to choose an object that represented freedom and write one line on it. A young girl chose a balloon and wrote, “I want freedom to burst like a balloon when friends say racist things.” Young minds are unable to express these thoughts and usually keep them to themselves. Mishra’s exercises allow children to express themselves and share their ideas with their peers.

Asked about her incredible storytelling abilities and how she explains the concept of a thriving democracy to children, she recalled a telling incident involving an 11-year-old from Shaheen Bagh. During the conversation, the child mentioned that the school imparted lessons on unity in diversity, but Mishra was struck by the fact that such a group discussion had not taken place within the school. Despite the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests taking place in their own neighbourhood, such conversations were held in hushed tones with brief mentions. Mishra cited how witnessing people of various faiths and backgrounds coming together during the CAA protests taught the young child about the essence of democracy. Such experiences form the building blocks of children’s understanding of democracy.

Mishra emphasised that children, even in the past, have always been aware of politics, despite being thought to be oblivious to it. She recalls how, despite being aware of her Muslim identity as a child, she was never discriminated against, thanks partly to her privileged background. She also discussed significant political events such as the 1984 riots and the Babri Masjid demolition, which have left an indelible mark on her life due to their proximity to her home in Delhi.

Connecting these insights to our discussion about ‘Happiness Class’ and social-emotional learning, Mishra articulated the importance of these principles in education and the need to make them an integral part of the learning process. “Education should enable us to understand our society, ourselves, and the world we want to create,” she emphasises. She investigates why social-emotional learning is kept as a standalone strategy and how adults can reflect on their actions to make the world a better place for future generations. Happiness may differ for different age groups, social groups, and so on, but one cannot attribute happiness to the acts of meditation and breathing alone. “It is far too simplistic to tell a young child who comes from an impoverished context that by breathing and meditating, their life will improve.” Recognising the value of mindfulness and self-awareness is important, but the onus should not be solely on the individual as societal structures and challenges also have an impact on the individual.

Who is Samina Mishra? 

Samina Mishra, a New Delhi-based polymath, excels in the fields of documentary filmmaking, writing, and education. Her primary passions centre on crafting media tailored for children and exploring the ways in which the arts can enrich the realm of education. Notably, she takes on the role of co-curator for Soundphiles, an avant garde auditory experience showcased at the prestigious Asian Women’s Film Festival. Currently, Mishra instructs a Film Studies programme at Pathways World School, Noida. Her forthcoming book, My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of the City, published by Mapin, is the fruit of her creative writing and art workshop, carefully designed to nurture self-expression and kindle creativity in children.

 


About the author: Samina Mishra, a New Delhi-based luminary, wears the hats of an award-winning writer, documentary filmmaker, and dedicated teacher. Focused on children’s media, her creations, like Jamlo Walks and Nida Finds a Way, intricately weave tales of identity and growing up in India. As the founder of The Magic Key Centre for the Arts and Childhood, Samina orchestrates impactful programmes, including The Incredible Child, a testament to her commitment to integrating the arts into education.


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