A teacher being killed for a pedagogical decision is something that must disturb teachers around the world. We teachers feel that our classroom is a safe haven, it is something has immunity from societal and political pressures. Teachers can take decisions in their classes and talk about issues and things that cannot be discussed on the street. Nothing is or should be a taboo in the classroom. Things that might sound repulsive or revolting to the traditional popular wisdom should be allowed to be brought into the class room and the students should get the opportunity to engage with ­­­­­them critically. To achieve all this, the teacher has to be free and should also feel safe.

It would be very scary if a teacher is asked about his pedagogical decisions outside the classroom, by people who would have little patience with engaging with the process through which she makes her decisions. It can lead to dire consequences. The case of the brutal killing of Samuel Paty in France is the most recent example. We also recall the attack on TJ Joseph on July 4, 2010, in which his right hand was chopped off by the members of the Popular Front of India.

Paty lost his life. Joseph survived the attack to write the story of travails that he had go through after the attack. He was charged with creating religious hatred and enmity between religious communities. He had to face a criminal trial. His college s­uspended him and his church excommunicated him. Unable to bear all this his wife ended her life. She died by suicide.

Joseph was attacked by people who were not his students. They had not taken the examination for which he had set the question paper. They were incensed by his decision to name a character, a village madcap, after Mohammad in a passage selected to test the grammatical abilities of the students. The decision had turned into a news item and an excuse for a propaganda against the teacher blaming him for insulting the Prophet. A mob fury was generated and a group decided to punish him for his act of “blasphemy”.

A pedagogical decision

In a somewhat comparable situation, 10 years after this incident and in a country far away, a teacher in a school in France made a pedagogical decision. In his attempt to discuss the idea of free speech he selected some images. These included two cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

As in the case of Joseph, the news of this class discussion became the talk of the town. The teacher was identified and his identity made public. There was incitement against him. A young Chechen, a recent migrant took it upon himself to punish teacher Paty for his crime of blasphemy. Killers do not discuss, they kill. The killer teenager had no intention of understanding the decision of the teacher. In his eyes, the classroom was an extension of the street.

We need to return to the class of teacher Paty that proved to be fatal for him. The cartoons he had chosen were from the set published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication of the cartoons was followed by an attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and mass killing of the staff members of the magazine in 2015. The killers were affiliated to a fanatical group that claimed to act in the name of Islam.

It was only recently that the trial of the accused had started. Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the cartoons on this occasion. It was deemed an act of assertion of the freedom of speech. A brave act to reiterate that even killings would not deter the magazine from its primary task, which is to offend people irrespective of their feelings.

A painting by French street artist Christian Guemy, known as C215, pays tribute to members of Charlie Hebdo newspaper who were killed in January 2015. Credit: Thomas Coex/ AFP

It can be assumed that the immediate context of the class on free speech was the trial and the decision of the magazine to republish the cartoons. We understand that Paty wanted to discuss the challenges that the concept of free speech faced and the risk it involved. It is highly unlikely that he did not know that there was a large number of Muslims who, while strongly opposed to the violence done in their name also felt humiliated by the way the magazine had questioned the most fundamental tenet of their faith. The killings had made it difficult for them to even express their disagreement with the magazine. The teacher must have been aware that some of the cartoons were even projected on the walls of public buildings.

All this was accompanied by the resolve of the government to forge an Islam compatible with the values of enlightenment and laïcité. The French premier Macron had delivered an hour-long speech on October 2 in which he declared that Islam was facing a crisis worldwide. He accepted that the state had failed to give a sense of inclusion to Muslims and the past of French colonialism was a lens through which members of the ex-colonies, mostly Muslims understood their relationship with the present day France. The speech is complex. Without naming them, the address makes it very clear that Muslims are deprived of schools and other facilities and they live in an unequal condition.

An accomodative approach

Teacher Paty must have factored all this in while designing his class. We are informed that he was a responsible teacher. He was sensitive to the religious sensibilities of his Muslim students. While talking about his selection of images he did give these Muslim students the option of either turning away their heads while the cartoons of the Prophet were being displayed or leave the class. He definitely took all care not to offend them and was accommodative in his approach.

It is clear from this pedagogical approach that Paty knew that his class was not on the same plane. By permitting the students to opt out of the lesson, he was excluding them from the class itself. He was also putting them in a very unenviable situation. If they refused to look at the images or leave the class, they fail the preliminary test. It would be established that they were inferior to those who decided to remain in the class.

Another question cropped up in my mind as a teacher. Why was this option given only to Muslims and not to the non-Muslims as well? Could it not be the case that someone in the class shares the feeling of her Muslim classmates and find the cartoons an unnecessary provocation that served little educational purpose. Its publication was not intended to initiate a discussion with French Muslims but to challenge them to tolerate it and prove that they were equal citizens of France. Why did the teacher not assume that there could be non-Muslims who would not like such cartoons to have a space in a civilised society?

A pedagogical tool that cannot be used by a section of my students is something I must discard in the first instance. The suitability of a pedagogic strategy can be measured by its universality in the context of the class room. The theorists and practitioners of critical pedagogy would agree that the selection of teaching material is crucial. The potential of a selection to push a part of the class into silence makes it undesirable.

A nation in which the premier declares that France owns the cartoons, the very premise of free speech becomes unstable. Anyone questioning the cartoons, sans violence would risk being called anti-French. The question of free speech becomes secondary as the acceptance of the cartoons becomes its basis.

A difficult task

The job of a teacher is different from the job of the President. The decision of the President to go on offensive against “radical Islam” is less honest and ethical than it appears to be. It looks brave as it appears to be daring the terrorists but observers of the French politics tell you that this is an exercise to outmaster the anti-immigrant and anti-minority National Front. In the name of laïcité, it seeks indulgence from Islamophobes and to placate them .

It is evident that the critics of Charlie Hebdo can be easily called collaborators or abettors of the crime of the murderous attack on the members of the magazine.

A teacher has a more difficult task in hand. She must create a sense of equality, must find ways to give confidence to students who come from that section of the society that feels intimidated. A class on free speech that assumes voluntary exclusion of some students ends up creating an unfree space.

A classroom lecture or exercise is not an act of free speech as commonly understood as it has to be exercised with a clear pedagogical purpose. The teacher has a responsibility, to inform, to make available tools to examine the dominant view. A classroom is not a space to allow to teacher the pleasure to have her say, her way.

One wishes that those demanding punishment for Paty had some patience to invite him for a discussion on these issues. One wishes that the community leaders had the wisdom to understand that social media cannot be the platform where pedagogical decisions are discussed. The parents could have demanded audience from the school and the teacher. It could have resulted in better understanding for both sides.

By putting the class on equal footing with the publication of the contentious cartoons, they confused the categories of expression. It allowed a man who had no stake in the classroom to play judge and executioner on behalf of the students and thus make it even more difficult to have these conversations. It is, however, the task of teachers across the globe to raise these questions and start a difficult dialogue.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.