Today’s Lesson: Spotting Slants.

Call from the Soil

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We are aware that today is Bakr-Eid, an important occasion for Muslims across the world. For some reason, my university marked yesterday (12th September, 2016) as our Eid holiday instead of today — perhaps it was a mistake. We were given a three-day weekend, which  extended up till Monday, and the academic session was to resume today. Last evening, we received an email from the university acknowledging that Eid was indeed on Tuesday, not Monday, and  those who wished to observe the occasion could do so and attendance will be awarded to them. However, classes would be conducted, as scheduled, and anyone seeking to attend them could.

Some of my friends and I were keen to take the day off. However, we realised that missing class wasn’t a good idea. A great depth and volume is covered in each session and we’d be sure to lag behind should we not attend. So we packed our stuff and reported back on campus this morning.

Our professor walked into the classroom to find a handful of us at our seats. Instead of taking attendance and beginning her lesson, she looked straight at us and asked a very simple question: “Do you guys think this is fair?”. She noted that today is an important occasion for a certain community and how countrywide it is declared a public holiday. When an extra day of leave is awarded for Deepavali, or an extra two for Dusshera, given their proximities to the weekend this year, and when some Saturdays in the semester are declared ‘working’ to compensate for these, why aren’t we extending the same attitude to this particular festival? Is it fair to assume that only Muslims find this day significant? In addition to Muslims, what about those of us who spend and celebrate this occasion with our Muslim friends? Is it okay to go ahead with classes, fully aware that such students — Muslims and non-Muslims — will miss-out on lessons for no fault of theirs?

As a student of the law, my mind at this point turned to the Constitution and its message. The most diverse nation on earth is held together, conscious of its many differences, but never letting these dent that which binds it together. We may not follow each other’s religions, speak the same languages, or belong to the same cultures. However, when some among us find something of immense value and sanctity, we don’t leave them to cherish it alone. Be it Deepavali, Nouruz, Christmas, Mahaveer Jayanti, Gurpurab or Eid: whether one believes in or celebrates these festivals or not, our society respects the fact that there are many others who do, and we express this solidarity together. This, to my mind, is the reason behind a public holiday.

Most of us are well-meaning people, respectful of each other in society. I’m sure my university administration is too. However, discrimination manifests in subtle ways, without our even knowing it; we may be hurting sentiments very inadvertently. It always pays to confront these in our persons and midsts when we spot them.

Our teacher expanded the discussion and we touched on many subjects. Among the important ones was on reservation for the disadvantaged in universities and the like. Some felt that reservation should be ‘economic-based’ and not pegged on ‘community’ or ‘caste’. We proceeded to consider that discrimination, wherever it takes place, is not only tied to economic status but also to one’s social background, colour, language, gender, etc. — prejudice is a multifaceted beast. While there may be problems in our current system of reservation, let’s not delude ourselves by holding that economic status is the only measure of a person’s outward condition.

Sliding down the same note, the discussion then touched on a revealing fact of our times. We are a sort who greatly uphold ‘merit’ — and this word has a specific meaning in our minds. Our meritocratic system says that those who score well, achieve or exceed targets, or clinch a rank — those who are viewed as the ‘best’ in any field— are the ones to whom the ‘best’ opportunities belong. We rank people on this measure and we divide-up society into the bright and successful or the dull and mediocre. Our arguments for who deserves reservation or not often stem from this attitude. And to look at the sheer absurdity and violence of such divisions (to notice how it makes us split the world into black and white, smothering an individual and the genius latent in and unique to each) will make us think of society, opportunity and entitlement in a whole new light. The urgency to create an entirely new society may then be apparent to us.

At this point, some perhaps noticed a voice in their heads go like, “Hey! That seems like an attack on Capitalism. So what do we see as an alternative? Communism, Socialism, some kind of Anarchy? That’s disastrous because…” To simply watch such a reaction in one’s mind is significant. Immediate reactions like these are common to all of us. Do we see how dull it is to merely agree or disagree when we hear something?  A mind that’s bothered about verbalising opinions is a dead mind. As Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it: to listen to something, without drawing conclusions, is to attend to it afresh, without the conditioning of all that one knows or thinks or believes. Real learning, real revolution — not external revolution, but inward revolution — happens when one becomes quiet and knows how to listen.

Today’s class, my classmates and my teacher reminded me why we’re here and the purpose behind our education  — the sheer point and beauty of it all.

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