Speak up, be fearless!


By Chintan Girish Modi and Sini Santosh Nair

(Chintan and Sini facilitate Personal Development and English sessions with eighth graders at Shishuvan. Here they write about their interactions with students about freedom, sexuality, rape, fear and much else in the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of the young woman in Delhi who has inspired many to speak up and be fearless. This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Teacher Plus magazine: http://www.teacherplus.org/2013/february-2013/speak-up-be-fearless) 

On the first day of school after our Christmas vacation, we sat down for Circle Time with one class of eighth graders. Welcoming them after the break, we asked what they would like to talk about. Amidst whispers and murmurs, Hriday spoke. “I want to ask a question. We have been hearing about all these protests in Delhi. I don’t understand why these people are blaming the government,” he said.

That was a powerful moment in our classroom. We did not have to work on setting the stage for a conversation we had been waiting to have with our students. That question brought us straight to the heart of what had been troubling us during that Christmas break – the gang rape and murder of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi. Newspapers and television channels were full of it, so were homes, streets and Facebook status updates. The students knew about what had happened. Some were able to recount details of what happened to the young woman and her male friend on the bus ride. Others knew about the protests happening in various cities, including some of the slogans; one of them: “Don’t tell me what to wear. Teach him not to stare.” Others were acquainted with the police investigations, the medical condition of the woman before and after she was flown to a hospital in Singapore, and also the Honey Singh concert in Gurgaon that got cancelled after strong public outrage against the lyrics of his songs. Sahir had also managed to watch the video of Kavitha Krishnan (National Secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association) that had gone viral on YouTube and social networking websites owing to its powerful appeal for ‘bekhauf azaadi’.

Illustration by Manava Savla, student of Std. VIII

One of us had participated in a silent protest march in Mumbai and came back very moved and charged with the desire to do something substantial. One of us had written a blog post seething with rage at deep-seated patriarchal mindsets that valorize males and oppress females, often justifying inequalities, discrimination, and violence. This Circle Time session gave us a lovely opportunity to show our students what makes us sad, what inspires us, what makes us want to stand up and make a difference. The students in our class heard us speak passionately about sexual violence and about the sea of solidarity that emerged all over the country in response to a crime that was not one woman’s tragedy but a symbol of the hurt, pain and anger of multitudes of women who decided to stand up for themselves and of men who found the courage to stand alongside.

As teachers of young people, we believe that it is important to bring the world outside the classroom right inside. We were utterly convinced that we needed to discuss these things with the students, instead of trying to foolishly shield them from these uncomfortable, disturbing realities. In fact, ‘rape’ is a very important ‘event’ and ‘theme’ in To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel they are studying this year. This made our discussion even more topical and immediate.

A few days later, while planning a three-hour Integrated Learning session weaving in History, Hindi, and English, we decided to use the Kavitha Krishnan video as a starter. It drew a resounding applause from the students. It had clearly made an impact on them. They looked inspired and eager to share. They were able to understand and summarize the key arguments made by the speaker, and also offer their own insights on gender discrimination in our society.

They were also able to connect the video to Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’, a poem that is part of their curriculum and also their school diary, and spells out with remarkable intensity the same theme of living without fear, and breaking away from narrow societal frameworks to create a future that carries the promise of hope. In his notebook, Sahir wrote, “Tagore’s poem asks for equality and the eradication of social evils like divisions of caste and religions. Kavitha Krishnan is asking for the freedom of women to wear what they want, go where they want, when they want. The poem asks for the freedom to hold one’s head high, to search for knowledge without fear, to find reason in the darkness of thought. Kavitha Krishnan asks for fearless freedom, for stereotypical social norms to be pushed aside, for a world that ‘has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”

Fear is something that we rarely talk about though it is at the very root of the conflicts we are part of and surrounded by. Fear is a very tangible thing for children, as it is for adults. In their case, fear of asking a question that might invite a teacher’s ire, fear of giving a ‘wrong’ answer that might make their classmates laugh at them, fear of failing a test, fear of being punished by adults for not meeting up to their expectations, fear of not knowing how to communicate that one is being abused, etc. Big and small fears conspire to keep us away from realizing our full potential.

To take forward this theme, we decided to introduce the students to ‘Bol Ke Lab Azaad Hain Tere’ (Speak, for your tongue is free) a celebrated nazm by Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. We chose this not only for the meaning it carries but also because this was the poem recited by actor-activist Shabana Azmi at the silent protest march in Mumbai, and also because the young woman from Delhi was referred to as ‘Nirbhaya’ or the fearless one in several news reports.

The lyrics and metaphors were a bit difficult for them to understand but the English translation helped, and the meaning was effectively conveyed. We realized that when Hriday raised his hand and said, “The poet is saying that you have very little time, so use it well and speak what’s on your mind.” It is in this spirit that we wrote this piece. Students never fail to surprise and inspire us.

1. Kavitha Krishnan’s video on ‘Bekhauf Azaadi’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pbOhDJFc0Dc

2. Video of Tina Sani singing ‘Bol Ke Lab Azaad Hain Tere’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbwcUsWTy_I&list=PL849519A3551567ED

3. Lyrics and translation of ‘Bol Ke Lab Azaad Hain Tere’ http://urduwallahs.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/bol-ke-lab-azaad-hai-tere/

Note: Special thanks to Jaya Dayal and Vahbiz Dhalla who teach Hindi and History respectively, for helping with the Integrated Learning session mentioned above

15 thoughts on “Speak up, be fearless!

  1. Way to go Chintan Fear is indeed something that we need to talk about more freely with children. Recently, did a reading of “No Guns at My Son’s Funeral” for some kids and it was amazing to see how they came up with their own fears in response to the story.

    • Dear Ankit
      Thanks for writing in. You’re right! I’d say that adults too need to become more comfortable talking about their fears. In fact, I’d say that adults need to acknowledge their part in instilling fear in the minds of children. I’d love to know more about your reading and the fears they spoke of.

  2. Chintan it was absolutely amazing to read this article and also the views and reactions of the students to the recent rapes especially the Delhi Gang Rape.And it is great on your part to include this as a part of our IL’s and enhance the students understanding about this sensual topic and our society around.The illustration by Manava also depicts many things about our environment..a great job!
    Bingo Chintan keep having such discussions and also call us to be a part of some of these.

  3. ‎Chintan and Sini, I love your article yet again! I am very glad that such discussions are happening in our classrooms. A small yet a significant start to get the ball of change rolling. Great going Chintan! Truly inspiring!

    • Thank you, Sushree. It’s the children here who are the inspiring lot. They’ve an amazing ability to speak their mind.

  4. Just read this article. Chintan and Sini – a big big big hug to both of you for creating such environments in your classrooms – environments that can encourage discussions. Your school is awesome, the students are amazing and I would have loved to have had teachers like you, be taught in a school like Shishuvan and have friends like your students.

  5. I had commented on this in Teacherplus.
    Here is the same comment reproduced at Chintan’s request:
    Thank you for sharing your Circle Time conversation. Interestingly, this was our concern as soon as school reopened after the winter break. We too wanted a conversation around this… more… we wanted to know what children had picked up and what their thoughts and feelings were.
    Ours was a mixed age group of 5th to 7th graders.
    We encouraged children to share news that was of significance to them. Among numerous other news (thankfully) the Delhi reports featured.
    There were many questions around this.
    Why do people rape?
    Why were so many people talking about this case?
    We keep hearing this word: rape ever so often. But I don’t see it. Does it really happen?
    What is it?
    Why is it that women are raped? Or are men raped as well?
    Our objective was to listen, help them understand as much as they can that rape is an extreme form of disrespect and violation…. and one girl in the end came up to the teacher and said: But, Akka, I want to know what do they get out of it.
    So the conversation did not end really.
    We were however planning a series of conversations around growing up and safety that is usually an annual class held age wise addressing questions that they have about changes they see in themselves, about crushes, foul language and sexuality.
    Asking children: What would you like to talk about? is a freeing thing.
    Apparently, Feynman’s mother would ask him: What did you ask at school today?, and never: What happened or what did you DO at school today….
    There is a lovely book by Kamala Mukunda on this.
    Schools that encourage children to ASK questions and not merely ANSWER them help children grow free.
    Later that day, this teacher had a lovely conversation with the 8th graders as well.
    In fact, we had many such conversations that week across school.
    Like I had said in another article in this magazine earlier: Conversations are the strength of any school.
    Akhila Seshadri
    teacher, The School (KFI)

  6. Dear Chintan bhaiya,
    It was absolutely amazing.Children of my age can also get up and do something,so why can’t I.‎ Chintan , I love your article yet again! I am very glad that such discussions are happening in our classrooms. A small yet a significant start to get the ball of change rolling. Great going Chintan!

  7. Dear Chintan,

    Good article. Timely and relevant.

    I heard Kavitha Krishnan and her anger is immense and justified. The speech is emotional and although she makes some excellent points, we need to solve this problem with more rational strategies. I will be nude and I will walk at 2 is an emotional argument. Even yesterday there was a gang rape in Delhi, so clearly these protests, though necessary, are not really creating much fear in the perpetrators.

    I agree with her that the problem is at the complaint end where there are no FIRs filed. Then there is the investigation process which is another rape. And finally, the convictions are few and the pardons plenty. So this needs to change. We probably need to create a citizens cell that will escort victims to the police. This will ensure that there is a citizen’s empowerment that no one can object to. The media needs to be part of this process. In a country that shows so little political will we need continued exposure to shame the administration.

    It is important for children to know all of this and reflect on it so that the future society can change for the better. More importantly, how are we treating sons and daughters at home. Children need to reflect on their own life and values if literature is to influence their minds. What are the narratives being fed to girls in adolescence? What kind of private talk /jokes are adolescent boys indulging in? What are our movie item songs showing overtly? What is our advertising doing when objectifying female bodies? What are our fashion shows perpetrating in its show of skin? Is it a celebration of the body or a titillation of the mind or a commercialisation to make more moolah? We need to critically look at all of this with more scrutiny.

    ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ can be done with a dead lesson plan that asks reference to the context questions. Reflection, debates, letters for change, street , talks by students to adults on their understanding of and solutions for the problem, must come forth as a consequence of reading of that text. Have you ever heard of that happen in schools that did the text??

    Chintan here are my views on this that I had on Facebook a month ago. This is a global problem.

    This nude photo of Ashley from the Chicago Slutwalk 2012 protest* (illustrating what Kavitha Krishnan is saying ) was posted on STFU, Conservatives Tumblr page last night.

    One person wrote, “…its kind like putting a meat suit on and telling a shark not to eat you”.

    STFU responded:

    “We (men) are not sharks! We are not rabid animals living off of pure instinct. We are capable of rational thinking and understanding.

    Just because someone is cooking food doesn’t mean you’re entitled to eat it.

    Just because a banker is counting money doesn’t mean you’re being given free money.

    Just because a person is naked doesn’t mean you’re entitled to fuck them.

    You are not entitled to someone else’s body just because it’s exposed. What is so difficult about this concept?”


    *on January 24, 2011 Constable Michael Sanguinetti of the Toronto Police Service was speaking at York Univeristy in Ontario, Canada. In the speech he said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Women and men took to the streets, scantily clad, in what has become annual marches in cities across North America in protest.

    That’s what many commenters in this thread overlook; they presume the message is to rapists. Frankly, women in burqas get raped so clearly rapists don’t pick their targets based on the amount of skin showing. Ashley and other Slutwalk protesters are reminding LEOs, courts, and communities that what a person chose to wear is irrelevant as to whether or not a rape took place.

    Usha Pandit writes:
    Bravo! Complete agreement. People need to differentiate between the discretion of dressing with caution when going into an open zoo with uncultured monsters running loose (and no one to lock the doors – read political will) and the need for those who are holding the guns looking on and irresponsibly not shooting the rabid animals.
    When those holding the guns tell women to be discreet instead of attempting to lock or shoot and do not understand which part of the truth they should be engaging with, they show their cowardice, their lack of sensitivity and their own reprehensible lack of honesty to their alleged commitment to society and life. They need to be reminded clearly, so that they do not obfuscate the issue and run away hiding behind the caution (which is our prerogative – not theirs) instead of putting their butts into action and dirtying their hands with some real work.

  8. I’ve been following the news from the UK and wondering how far it’s penetrated, especially among young people; it’s incredible to hear that your students have engaged with it in such a mature and honest way, and that you have discussed it so openly and sensitively with them. Sessions like this give us hope that the change will come, and a new generation will come through questioning the values and actions they see around them.

    Thank you for sharing this with me Chintan.

  9. Hey Chintan,
    I am glad that you take up in class important everyday happenings around us and help the children gain fresh perspectives on such issues. Well, knowledge is not really what is IN the ‘textbook’, it is in what the children make of information available. In the ‘crowd’ of information-misinformation, to be able to discuss fearlessly issues that are of importance and of interest is so crucial. I wish more teachers can emulate what you are doing at your school. Kudos to you all for doing such good things and for writing about it as well…
    Congratulate the children too. I wish I can visit them and see them in action. They seem magical to me, like all children really…
    Cheers to more such learning (y)

  10. I have been reading a lot on the entire case and as a teacher I have been thinking what I would go back and tell my boys and girls. I am not sure if they understand what is going on and I am aching to have a conversation with them on this. I do appreciate your methods Chintan and Sini- of using syllabus in order to make learning come alive.

  11. Thanks for sharing this Chintan. As always, I’m amazed and impressed with the discussion and engagement with all the issues that you have at Shishuvan. The responses and questions of the students get to the heart of the matter (or at least some of it): the violence, gender discrimination, freedom from fear…
    We are all grappling with so many of these questions – the law, justice, the death penalty, victimhood or survivor-spirit, media influences, all the other manifestations of patriarchy, power equations within relationships…its heartening that the space exists for students to discuss these issues and ask these questions

  12. Sini and Chintan are two of the most inspiring teachers we have/had. They, along with our history and Hindi teachers, facilitated and entire four-hour session with us on the tragic gang-rape of the young Delhi girl. We understood clearly what had happened, how wrong it was and so on. We discussed our views. I think it was a most enriching session.

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