‘Do your parents make bombs?’: Muslim students become targets of prejudice, hate in Delhi schools

Terror attacks and America’s wars in West Asia have fuelled a global backlash against ordinary Muslims.

delhi Updated: Jan 21, 2018 08:49 IST
A Mariyam Alavi and Zehra Kazmi
A Mariyam Alavi and Zehra Kazmi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Muslim students,Muslims,India minorities
(Illustration: Animesh Debnath)

A day after a bomb blast in Europe, a teacher at a popular Noida school read out headlines to her Class 6 students. A student loudly called out the name of the only Muslim boy in class. “Saad*! Yeh kya kar diya tumne?,” he asked. The teacher heard the alleged exchange, but did not say a single word.

In the last two decades, frequent terror attacks by terrorists who were Muslims and America’s wars in West Asia have fuelled a global backlash against ordinary Muslims. Closer home, religious clashes, the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid feud, Mumbai riots, several terror attacks, and divisive politics have strengthened biases against the community.

Schools have not remained untouched by this rhetoric, despite textbooks stressing on India’s unity in diversity. But even as adults find it tough to wrestle with Islamophobia, how do you raise a Muslim child in this environment?

Writer Nazia Erum’s new book, Mothering a Muslim, explores this dilemma of growing up as a religious minority in India, where children as young as five find themselves targeted for their identity.

Nazia set out to write the book after her daughter Myra was born in 2014, when India was in the middle of what she says was a high-decibel, polarised election campaign. She was looking for some reassurance from other mothers like her.

But when she started collecting testimonies, a pattern started emerging.

“Baghdadi, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Osama, ISIS. Being asked, do your parents make bombs…will your father kill me with a gun?” were just some of the taunts Muslim children faced at school, according to the book.

“This is not about kids – the children only mirror what we have done to ourselves. This is not even about Muslim kids – it’s about all kids. This behaviour is not harmful only for the tormented, but also for the tormentor,” says Nazia.

Being bullied for one’s religion is not a phenomenon limited to Delhi schools. American schools have been grappling with the problem on an aggravated scale.

A March 2017 poll by US-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding cites 42% of Muslim respondents saying their kids were bullied because of religion, either through insults or physical assault. One in four parents said the bullying involved teachers or school administration.

In October 2017, the Council on American Islamic Relations’ report on school bullying found that incidents of harassment were on the rise. Thirty-six per cent respondents said they had their hijabs tugged, while 57% said their peers posted offensive remarks about their religion online. Advocates linked the rise in bullying incidents to Donald Trump’s full-throttle election campaign, in which the US president made several remarks equating all Muslims with terrorists. To Fox News in December 2015, discussing his ‘ban on Muslims’, Trump referred to them as “a sick people”.

If cases of religion bullying are not isolated, then what really is happening within schools in Indian cities?

The genesis of hate

Ayesha*(17), shifted to one of central Delhi’s renowned schools in Class 9 in 2015. She was in-charge of decorating a school board on the 1965 Indo-Pak war and was cutting a Pakistani flag, when a classmate strolled up to her and said, “Oh, cutting the flag of your country?”

“I didn’t understand at first... So I asked him why he said it. He told me, you know why,” says the teenager, now in Class 11.

The upset teenager talked to her mother, 50-year-old business consultant Nazreen*, who despite being distraught, tried to reassure Ayesha that while what was said to her was unacceptable, such things would soon pass.

“Of course, I was concerned. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in eastern India, before attending college in Delhi. I was never made to feel that this is not my country, or that I don’t belong here,” she said.

Was such bullying unheard of before or did it pass under the radar?

Janaki Rajan, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, who has been working with school children for over 30 years now, said an anti-Muslim sentiment had been “simmering” since Partition. “The generation that saw the brutality of the communal violence at the time is still alive. They may have passed it on to next generation,” she says.

Nazreen said such incidents rise when communal tensions flare up. In the aftermath of the 1992 Mumbai riots, her niece, who was four at the time, was burned with sparklers by a neighbour’s child of the same age.

Parents Hindustan Times spoke to cite several reasons for the rise in such bullying — children exposed to sensationalised 24X7 news, unfiltered videos and posts on social media and the profusion of popular culture with West Asian terrorists as villains.

According to Annie Koshi, the principal of St Mary’s School in Safdarjung Enclave, children are only reflecting what they see and hear “perfectly respectable adults” do and say in society.

“The news today is about skirmishes on the India-Pakistan borders, about cow vigilantes, about Triple Talaq. The predominant narrative is that the Muslim is the other, and that if you are Muslim, you must be Pakistani,” she said. “We get to hear of such incidents in our school too, but then it is up to us to build an alternative narrative,” she said.

Rajan said endemic discrimination and bullying was almost commonplace now.

“At (a private school in Delhi), I was told that when a teacher got stuck on what the flag of Pakistan looks like, she turned to the Muslim child in class for confirmation... And we can’t expect teachers to do much either, as they may also have similar prejudices and biases,” she explained.

Speak up, discuss

Schools do take action when such incidents come to light. However, not many students come forward with complaints.

At Sahil’s* convent school in South Delhi, ‘mulla’ or ‘terrorist’ is casually hurled during lunch breaks or on the playground. But most children never complain. “Snitching is looked down upon,” explains the Class 12 student. “Besides, it’s just words. Sometimes we sort it out among ourselves with a fight.”

Saad didn’t want to approach the school, said his mother, Azaad*, who runs a non-profit organisation. Azaad explained to her son that while Muslims have been involved in terror attacks, Islam doesn’t condone violence.

But when one of his friends repeatedly called him ‘Baghdadi’, Azaad spoke to the other child’s mother. “I spoke to the kid’s mother, who countered with how my son had called her son ‘motu.’ Is calling someone Baghdadi the same as calling someone fat?” .

Muslim mothers say they experience another fear too. What if a remark escalates into a physical fight or something worse? Azaad sees off her older son, a first-year law student at a Noida university, with the same ‘hidayat’, or advice every morning: “Don’t discuss politics or religion.”

This act of self-censorship extends to other areas as well. For Nazia, it meant giving Myra a name that would “unburden” her from her Muslim identity.

What can schools do to build a more inclusive environment?

“Whenever such incidents happen, you need to speak about it, dissect it and see where the child got it from. We need to have discussions with children about these issues to get them to think critically about it. If you let it go, the thought puts down its roots, and then takes over,” said Koshi, who added that teachers need to be trained and sensitised too.

Annie Namala, the director of the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, who has served as a member of the National Advisory Council during the implementation of the Right to Education law in 2010, stresses the need for teacher training. Without training, even those who wish to make a difference will not have the tools and techniques to address the issue, she said.

The other hope is the kids themselves.

When Ayesha told her friends about the incident, some of them confronted the boy. They debated the incident among themselves and the boy apologised.

Sahil too says he hasn’t heard offensive slurs like ‘mulla’ or ‘terrorist’ since he came into senior school.

“I think it’s about maturity; they realise the folly when they understand the meaning of their words better. Whether someone is Muslim or not, we should treat everyone equally and not comment on religion, culture, caste or colour,” he said.

(* Names changed to protect identity)

First Published: Jan 07, 2018 09:37 IST