A peace educator shares his experience of two recent teach-ins about a safer world with zero nuclear weapons
Their words and faces have grabbed media attention in the last few months but US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un are not the only two threatening to take our world closer to a nuclear carnage.
India and Pakistan have continued to steadily build their nuclear arsenal, as discussions hosted by think tanks such as the Stimson Center, the Bookings Institute and the Atlantic Council indicate. The increasing (in)security in our region does not make headlines because there always seem to be more urgent social, political and economic issues occupying our attention.
The idea of talking about the perils of war only when we are on the verge of one seems foolish to say the least. As a peace educator, I believe that we need to build critical capacities and nurture compassionate approaches all through the year so that young people do not fall into the trap of high-decibel politicians and journalists calling for violence in the garb of patriotism.
As a volunteer with Global Zero, an international movement for nuclear disarmament where I am an Action Corps Leader, I work on growing the network of school, college and university students in South Asia committed to a safer world with zero nuclear weapons.
On November 16, 2017, I led two teach-ins on this issue at Shishuvan, a school in Mumbai that in 2012 participated in the Exchange for Change programme run by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and Routes 2 Roots. The initiative involved students from India and Pakistan writing letters to each other for several months and then going across the border to meet their pen-pals in person. Working at this school then, I visited Pakistan for the first time thanks to this programme. The school also invited Pakistani authors Haroon Khalid and Anam Zakaria to visit and talk to the students.
The recent discussions I led were with ninth grade students — 60 students and two teachers in each session. We began with an introduction to Global Zero, moving on to specifics such as names of the countries that currently possess these weapons, to the cost of maintaining these weapons and the humanitarian as well as environmental hazards they pose.
Students could connect what they learnt about the atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to their own situations. They pointed out that nuclear weapons can have disastrous consequences on physical and mental health that can last for generations.
We watched a video featuring political leaders and celebrities who have pledged their support to Global Zero, and talked about the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s recognition of the urgency of nuclear disarmament – this year, the Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), while Global Zero was also nominated for the award.
We discussed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons signed by 122 countries, the Markey-Lieu Bill in the United States that aims to restrict the President’s powers to conduct a first-use nuclear strike, and Global Zero’s Nuclear Crisis Group that is working with diplomats, military leaders and security experts to reduce the nuclear threat faced by the world.
The students were eager to learn more about the intensity of the nuclear threat in South Asia, and how they can help reduce that threat. During the course of the discussion, they discussed how stockpiling nuclear weapons in order to compete with a perceived enemy seems like a necessity but is futile in the long run because increased spending on nuclear weapons means diverting funds from education and healthcare. Developing countries like Pakistan and India need to think carefully about this. Given our geographical proximity, both countries will face tremendous destruction if either uses nuclear weapons.
Students also watched a video about an art project by American multimedia artist Jeffrey S. Brown, on how nuclear weapons can impact children and their childhoods. The video highlighted the immortal story of Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year old Japanese girl who died from leukaemia caused by radiation from the a-bomb attack on Hiroshima.
The sessions ended on a note of optimism as students made peace posters and pledged to say “No” to nuclear weapons. They also promised to think twice before making prejudiced statements about Pakistanis and to speak with their friends and parents about resisting narratives of hate and contributing to peace.
Chintan Girish Modi is the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, a peace education initiative that works with students and teachers to heal the discord between Indians and Pakistanis.