by- Jyoti Punwani

Every Saturday for the last few weeks, students from across Maharashtra, from the villages of Gondia and Buldana to cities such as Ahmednagar and Thane, have been calling up their teachers to check if their favourite Sunday afternoon programme will be held on schedule. And so far, ‘Manuski chi Shaala’ (School for Humanity), hasn’t failed them.

Neither a talent contest nor a quiz show, this hour-long Marathi programme conducted on Zoom, focuses on the Constitution. The viewers aren’t law or IAS aspirants, but school kids aged 10-17. Starting off in July with just 8 viewers, how did the programme’s viewership reach last Sunday’s count of over 600?

The answer lies in the way the core values of the Constitution are projected. The words “democracy, secularism, liberty and fraternity,’’ are rarely used, except when the Preamble is read out. Instead, these concepts are brought to life by every segment of the programme.

“I wasn’t interested in science,’’ admits 14-year-old Priyanka Jadhav of Yeola, Nashik district. “But ‘Manuski chi Shaala’ has made me start liking it, because we are forced to think why the experiments performed in the programme end the way they do.’’

The experiments are aimed at inculcating scientific temper, as urged by the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution.

Ahmednagar’s Sneha Ture enjoys the impassioned narration by Rashtra Seva Dal veteran Allauddin Sheikh on freedom fighters such as Aruna Asaf Ali and Shirish Kumar Pushpendra Mehta, who was only 16 when he was shot dead in Nandurbar for holding aloft the tricolour in the Quit India Movement. Sneha is sad about missing the programme now that her Std X classes have started.

Even icons such as Shivaji become figures to relate to. After a lively lesson on his life, students were asked to imagine how the Maratha emperor would have tackled the new enemy: Covid 19. “Awaken the Shivaji in you; let his life inspire you to find solutions creatively,’’ was the teacher’s parting message.

Most of these students have been reciting the Preamble in their school Assembly, but have started understanding it only through this programme.

What sparked off the idea of making the Constitution a part of children’s lives? Folk balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat, who runs the programme along with a varied team of intellectuals, who in turn reach out to teachers and artists across the State, recalls the incident that set him on this path. On August 11, 2018, two anti-reservationists burnt a copy of the Constitution in Delhi, shouting slogans against its architect Dr Ambedkar.

“There was hardly any outrage,’’ recalls Bhagat. “It made me wonder where we had failed.’’ Identity politics had overshadowed the concept of citizenship, he realised.

Manuski chi Shaala’s viewership has grown to over 600 since it began in July; (right) Priyanka Jadhav of Yeola, who never misses the programme
Associated closely with the Left, Bhagat had for long been feeling that ideology alone wasn’t enough to win over the people. “More important than ideology was being human,’’ says Bhagat. The Preamble best enunciated modern humanistic values, but taking these values to the people as a balladeer wasn’t enough. “Viewers would clap after our performance and then forget about it.’’

Bhagat felt only a door-to-door campaign would work, but it had to have a different approach. “On entering someone’s house, our activists would first light an agarbatti in front of the family deity; touch the feet of the elders; ask for permission to talk to them about the Constitution; and then go back a second and third time.’’

His volunteers encountered little resistance, says Bhagat, because “Not everybody wants to be a revolutionary, but everyone wants to be human.’’

The campaign culminated in a ‘Manuski chi Shaala’ being started in Ambarnath, where school children would gather to hoist the flag, read and discuss the Preamble, sing, listen to stories and play. “When the kids played kabaddi, we would point out that the person from the other team who is caught is not beaten because he remains a comrade, not an enemy – the concept of fraternity. In kho kho, we would stress the importance of awakening people and achieving our goal unitedly,’’ recalls Bhagat.

The school was a few months old when the lockdown was imposed. Now that it’s online, the biggest obstacle has been erratic network supply in small towns and villages. Bhagat plans to upload the programmes on You Tube for easier access.

Bhagat, 62, doesn’t expect to see results in his lifetime, but is determined to devote the rest of his life to conducting this ‘school’. “If it has to have an effect, it has to be continuous work,’’ he feels.

But the results are already showing. For Priyanka Jadhav, the most exciting outcome has been the change in her mother, who watches the programme along with Priyanka and her elder sister. “I love singing, dancing and acting, but my teachers had to convince my mother to let me take part in a drama competition. She would never allow me to participate in any such activity, saying that girls are the family’s honour. But the other day I asked her if I could go on stage once school reopened, and instead of refusing outright, she smiled and said, ‘Maybe’.’’