It’s a school like few others. The lessons are taught via songs and stories, assignments involve asking questions, not answering them, and it is open for to – children and adults.
‘Manuskichi Shala’ or ‘School of Humanity’ is an initiative by Sambhaji Bhagat, a performance poet and anti-caste activist from Mumbai, to remind people of the basic tenets of humanity, ones he believes are fast eroding in recent years. To do this, he’s designed a weekly ‘school’, with classes held over Zoom every Sunday. Every session is based around a theme: justice, unity, environmental conservation et al.
Last Sunday, I attended one such session around the theme of ‘sacrifice’. Most of the 200+ attendees were pre-teen children from across Maharashtra, joining via smartphones. Some were in their living rooms, some on the porch, at least one in his mother’s lap.
The hour-long class was divided in neat 5-10 minute capsules. A group of activists, white-collar professionals and students across Maharashtra took turns speaking, based on a pre-decided schedule. One read the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, one showed a short film promoting inter-religious harmony, one narrated the story of Shirish Kumar, a 15-year-old from Nandurbar who died while leading a protest during the 1942 Quit India movement. There was also a short interactive session, where episodes from Shivaji’s battles for sovereignty were used to draw lessons on how to overcome the challenges of our times. The session ended with a musical rendition of a poem by Daya Pawar, a Dalit writer, on the importance of standing up for what’s right.
The entire session was dynamic, with enough multimedia elements to keep the students hooked. There were network glitches, as Zoom sessions often have, but never as much to mar the experience.
Bhagat had been toying with the idea of Manuskichi Shala for nearly a decade, he explained over a phone call a few days later. As a lokshahir, or ‘people’s poet’, the 61-year-old has spent much of his life travelling through India, performing songs based on themes of caste, politics, corruption and extremism, calling for workers, peasants and the disenfranchised to unite.
But it was only in August 2018, when a group of anti-reservation activists burnt a copy of the Constitution at Jantar Mantar, that Bhagat realized there was an urgent need to educate people about democracy and their rights.
“I’ve always felt that the democratic structure we have in India was an initiative of the political elite,” he says. “Our freedom struggle was for self-rule, not necessarily a democratic rule. It’s what’s made a lot of people not realize the importance of the constitution and the values enshrined within.”`
Towards the end of 2018, Bhagat and a few other activists who were part of his performance troupe started performing in the slums of Ambernath, a far-flung suburb of Mumbai. Their songs revolved around the values of the constitution, and called out the charlatans masquerading as its protectors and the communal forces out to destroy it. “People aren't always easy to convince,” says Bhagat. “They nod along with you but also accept vote for cash, or be swayed by communal agenda. For lasting change, you should catch them young. That’s when we started Manuskichi Shala for children.”
At first, the classes started in the Ambernath slums in early 2019 and continued until March, when covid-19 lockdown forced them to close down. In August, the classes resumed, this time over Zoom. From 20+ students in Ambernath, Bhagat and his colleagues could now connect with hundreds more across Maharashtra. Each of its teachers works for free, preparing for classes in their spare time. Yet, the interest and number of attendees, says Bhagat, has only grown every week.
There are limitations to Manuskichi Shala: the classes so far are conducted only in Marathi. “To expand our reach, we’re also planning to launch a Hindi chapter titled Insaniyat ki Pathshala,” says Bhagat. To this end, he’s been reaching out to activists and educationalists from the Hindi-speaking states over the past month.
“To become a model citizen, we have to be a decent human being first,” says Bhagat. “And that’s what we aim to teach.”