This article is based on the text of the 5th Anita Kaul Memorial Lecture, 2022, titled ‘The Elephant Outside the Classroom: Education for a Democratic India’ delivered at the India International Centre in New Delhi by Farah Naqvi on October 19, 2022.
The viral video of a Muslim student ‘calling out’ his teacher’s bigotry at the Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka has led to a spate of commentary. But let’s not treat this as a moment of epiphany – like Newton’s laws of motion or the Archimedes principle – a sudden startling realisation; something we just figured out. Bigotry in classrooms, against Dalit students, tribal students – and increasingly in spate against Muslim students – is something we have known about all along. We simply chose to be in denial, kept silent, and kept pushing the elephant out of the room. What’s novel in the Manipal moment is the breaking of this silence. A moment when the doors of the classroom are forced open, giving us a glimpse of what has simmered inside for a long time. The young man in the video is an engineering student at a university. Old enough to muster the guts and gumption to give prejudice a pushback.
Imagine much younger children in pre-school, primary school or middle school. Too young to call bigotry by its name, too tiny to fight back. And parents just too scared about how vulnerable their children would be if matters were escalated.
Exposing the elephants in the rooms of our lives is important for all human endeavour. The things that are so big and dark that they cannot be said, but that we need to confront, for our own mental health. As a society too, we have to deal with the denial. To talk about the big things that we know we need to address, but that make us acutely uncomfortable. Sometimes, we feel helpless to do anything. At other times, it does not seem important in the immediate scheme of things. Then the elephant becomes so big and so socially, politically, even personally explosive that it seems best to just keep pushing it out, but it continually pushes in.
We are at a point of crisis – as a country and as educators of our children. If we want a democratic future for India; a future where we cherish the idea of equality and are willing to fight for it, through civilised dialogue among citizens, we have to confront the divides in our classrooms.
That is the elephant I want to speak about – the social divide and hate that is infesting our society and therefore our classrooms. No classroom can be an oasis of equality in a highly unequal world. We have lost the ability to confront squarely the social divides in the context of the classroom. They have been pushed beyond discussion in educational public policy. As the elephant becomes bigger and stronger and more conspicuous, the silences in the space of education have gotten deeper and coded social interactions in classrooms have become endemic.
Is a student-citizen in the constitutional scheme expected to surrender her human rights and dignity as a precondition for accessing education? No. When they walk into a classroom, they carry with them the full bundle of fundamental rights. That is being violated everyday behind the closed doors of the classroom. We need to fling those doors wide open.
On July 20, 2022, Indra Kumar Meghwal, a nine-year-old Dalit boy in Class III, got thirsty in school and drank from the pot kept aside for upper-caste teachers. For that sin, he was beaten by Chail Singh, his 40-year-old upper caste teacher at the Saraswati Vidya Mandir in Surana village of Jalore District in Rajasthan. For 25 days, a desperate family travelled 1,300 kilometres, through 8 hospitals to save their little boy’s life. He died on August 13, in an Ahmedabad hospital (300 km away from his home).
One could argue, in that death, a silence was broken, so there is no ‘elephant.’ We do talk. We write op-eds. But the fact is that nothing changed in the scores of school rooms in our country. And the rebuttal machinery is active. The Rajasthan State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights denied any caste discrimination in the death. I doubt very much if the ideas of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the caste system, and caste oppression were ever discussed in that school, either before or after the boy’s murder.
Instead, on August 23, 2022, came news from Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh where a Dalit girl was beaten by a former village head, Manoj Kumar Dubey, and thrown out of class in a government school for not wearing a uniform. She said she did not have one because her father could not buy one. And on September 5, 2022, in a higher secondary government school in Ballia district, an 11-year-old Dalit boy was beaten by a metal rod and locked up in a classroom. His crime – touching the upper caste teacher’s motorcycle. The teacher, Krishna Mohan Sharma, was finally suspended, but the only thing the principal apparently said to the mother was, “Don’t escalate the matter.” What does it mean to ‘not escalate the matter?’ The elephant. The big things we’re supposed to silently accept, to not speak about.
Perhaps we feel relieved that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA Act) is there to deal with these daily horrors, so that we, here, don’t have to. We outsource the fixing of a social problem that lives amongst us to a law. Conviction rates under the act are abysmal, hovering between 22% and 26% in the last few years. And for every case of egregious physical violence of a school child reported under the Act, there is the unreported, sometimes unreportable ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’ – of othering, of discriminating, of making a child feel less than, robbing them of the fullness of confidence and rights. Hectoring them instead on facile notions of duty and covering up our silences with abstract notions of nationalism. Love the nation, stay united and stay silent.
We read of these lives and deaths and beatings and slurs, and the media calls them ‘incidents.’ The very word ‘incident’ has an isolated quality about it. A randomness. Deliberately disguising the structural nature of the problem. It also seems to happen in ‘far away’ places called Ballia, Bhadohi and Jalore. Generally, in government schools.
So, shift to Delhi, Noida, and Gurgaon. Shift to private schools where millions of our children study (35% according to one estimate). Look at elite schools. Go to the schools the people in this room send their children.
A recent book by Nazia Erum (Mothering a Muslim) captures some of this reality. For example, a day after a bomb blast in Europe (in 2018), a teacher at a popular Noida school read out headlines to her Class VI students. A student loudly called out the name of the only Muslim boy in class. ‘Yeh kya kar diya tumne?’ he asked. The teacher heard the exchange, but did not say a word. Some of the things that kids are apparently calling their Muslim peers in primary schools are ‘Osama’, ‘Baghdadi’, ‘Mullah’, and are asking them to ‘Go to Pakistan.’ Katuwa, Jihadi and Mussallah are other kid favourites I have come across.
From the violence to the name-calling to the everyday, seemingly benign, othering – it falls along the same arc, the same continuum. It’s part of the same problem. And it’s not new.
Thirteen some years ago, a friend’s son was in a fancy Delhi pre-school, voted by a leading education journal, as “the best preschool in India”. It decided to schedule its annual PTA meeting on Eid-ul-Fitr – the ‘big’ Eid, a joyous celebration at the end of the month-long Ramzan fast. I don’t have to tell this audience that it is the biggest Muslim festival of the year, on par with Diwali for Hindus and Christmas for Christians. She gently chided the principal and teacher but went for the PTA.
But there was more to come. One day, a phone call came from the principal. “You know, it was Eid on November 17, and now December 17 is Muharram. Is that important to you? Because, you see, due to the Commonwealth Games, we lost a lot of working days and there are only three children who observe this religion, and one of them is a Pakistani diplomat’s child, and they are out of town anyway. None of our teachers observe it, so I will speak to the one remaining parent to keep the school open, if it is OK with you?” My friend was in fury. The same preschool had declared Karva Chauth a holiday because all the teachers were busy fasting. She ranted. She raved. But she ‘did not escalate the matter’. “I don’t want my 3-and-a-half-year-old to be singled out as the one with the troublesome mum,” she said.
From upper class South Delhi mum to poor Dalit mum – from everyday othering to physical violence, neither could ‘escalate matters.’ Their vulnerable child’s well-being was at stake. This is one reason why this elephant grows so fat. Children in preschool or primary school are too young to take up cudgels on their own behalf, and parents are too scared to ratchet things up.
You could say this is an overreaction. The preschool was, after all, being nice by asking my friend to give permission to keep the school open on Muharram. But they were not. They were telling her she was different and asking her politely to conform to the cultural mainstream. Holidays on religious occasions are not matters of personal favours between a parent and a school; it is a social contract between educational institutions and the ethos of the secular nation they flourish in, even if there isn’t a single child who observes ‘this’ or ‘that’ religion.
Another example of the ‘everyday stuff’. A geography teacher in a leading private school in Delhi started discussing the exam result of the wrong child with a confused Muslim mother in a PTA meeting. The teacher then looked at her notes again, and laughed, “Oh sorry! I get so confused between Azaan and Farhaan and Rehaan.” (These children, by the way, were three different boys in three different sections.) I doubt she ever made the same mistake with Rajesh, Rakesh and Suresh. It was offensive, but the kind of power imbalance moment when both parties in an interaction choose to pass things off as cute/silly. It was not cute. Muslim names were odd to her. And she made it clear.
Prejudice in schoolrooms is not always obvious to an onlooker. Anyone of us could walk into a classroom in rural or urban India and find ourselves unable to see it.
No visible signs of wounds on any child. They are all in some kind of uniform. They all put on their most docile and obedient face. They stand up and chant ‘good morning, ma’am’ in unison. They sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ on cue. They sit down. We all feel pleased with this performative unity.
What we don’t see, because it is normalised and invisible is the many forms of difference each of these children will encounter through their day in school, across multiple sites.
There are the obvious things we occasionally read about: separate drinking water pots, toilets and places to eat mid meals, the name calling, bullying, teasing, beating, kicking, slapping and spitting. But there is the other stuff, invisible to our eyes wide shut.
Do a physical mapping of the classroom. Who is prevented from sitting in the front row, seated in isolation, or segregated into groups?
Do a sociological study of the teaching-learning process. Who does the teacher address; whom does she avoid; who does she make eye contact with; whose doubts are never clarified; who is discouraged from asking questions; whose notebooks are not checked; who is humiliated and laughed at if they give the wrong answers; whose notebook is chucked at them in disgust; who is discouraged from dreaming and aspiring; who gets the harsher and more frequent punishment?
Do a study of participation/leadership experience. Who can never be selected as the class monitor, even when they do well in studies; not invited to lead assembly; not allowed to lead in school functions; not invited to represent the school for important programmes; not invited to represent the class when visitors come; not involved in cultural programmes?
Do this across several classrooms and the patterns will become clear.
Several years ago, Human Rights Watch did a report, foregrounding the experience of some of the most vulnerable children in our schools. It helps validate what I have just said. I want to share some of these children’s stories in their own words.
Eight-year-old Meena, from the Ghasiya tribe, attends a government primary school in a village in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh.
If we go to drink water, or go to the toilet, and accidentally touch children from the other community, they yell at us saying ‘You dirty Ghasiya, why are you touching us?’ and then go and complain to the teacher. The teacher then scolds us saying ‘Why are you touching these children?’ We are made to sit separately…The teacher doesn’t even sit in our class, she sits in the other class, … just tells us to write or read whatever we want.
We don’t eat lunch with the other children. If we ever go to ask for any more food, the cook shouts at us asking us to go away saying ‘You eat so much.’ But when there is food left, the cook calls the children from the other community and offers it to them. If we ever complain to the teachers, they warn us that if we go and tell anyone they will cut our names from the school.
Sahir, is 12 years old, in grade 5 in a government school in Qutab Vihar in southwest Delhi.
We don’t feel like going to school because the teachers always single us out to beat us. The Hindu boys laugh at us. The teachers don’t let us participate in any sports. Class monitors are always chosen from among Hindu boys and they always complain about us Muslim boys. The teachers never believe us. They insult us by saying ‘You children come to school only to eat and to collect [scholarship] money, but you don’t want to study.’ Whenever they check our workbooks, they make negative comments on our work and throw the workbooks at our faces.
Another boy, Javed, from the same school said:
The Hindu boys are allowed to go to the toilet but we are not given permission. Whenever the teachers are angry, they call us Mullahs. The Hindu boys also call us Mullahs because our fathers have beards.
One of our classmate’s father came to submit a form. The teacher referred to him as ‘the man with the beard’ and made fun of him in front of the whole class and laughed hard. All the Hindu children laughed too and we felt terrible. … Only the Hindu boys are happy in this school.
Twelve-year-old Priya realized what it means to belong to the Dom community – a Dalit population mostly working as sweepers and garbage collectors – when her classmates in Gaya city in Bihar used the term disparagingly.
Other children don’t let us sit with them. Some of the girls say ‘Yuck, you people are Dom [sweepers]—dirty caste, we are good caste.’ I feel bad. I curse myself – why did God make me Dom caste so that they can mistreat me?
Salman, 13 years old, was one of three Muslim boys in Class VIII in the upper primary school at Nandnagri, in Delhi.
Most children participating in cultural programs are Hindu. I want to participate in cultural programs too. I learned a patriotic song but the class monitor in charge of deciding who gets to participate refused to take me in the event…. Sometimes I don’t like being Muslim. I feel insecure when there are Hindu- Muslim fights because most Hindus get together and surround the Muslims. My mother asks me not to stray too far from home when there are communal tensions.
Sara, 14 years old, in Class VIII in a government upper primary school in Nandnagri, regrets choosing Urdu instead of Sanskrit as her second language. All the girls who chose Urdu sat in the same classroom.
There are some teachers who… say things like: ‘You Muslim people have no brains, you read the Quran, pray to Allah, but don’t respect knowledge.’
A few months ago, we had a substitute teacher who said the floods in Uttarakhand happened because Muslims have opened meat shops there. She said that it’s a place of worship for Hindus but Muslims go there and treat God badly. It’s because of Muslims, she said, the disaster happened, to pay them for their sins. We felt really bad when she said all this about Muslims. The whole time she kept saying Muslims do this, Muslims do that. No one in the class objected because we were afraid of being hit by her.
I have shared so many children’s voices with you, one after the other, because I want us to feel how relentless this daily brutal humiliation can be. And how soul-destroying for a child who says ‘Why did God make me a Dom’ or ‘Sometimes, I don’t like being Muslim.’
In a recent article, Supreme Court lawyer Shahrukh Alam wrote about what constitutes hate speech. She says:
‘Hate speech’ is often posited against ‘free speech’, as if they were complementary ideas. In truth, the concept of ‘free speech’ stems from the idea of equality: from the democratic impulse; whereas the tendency towards hate mongering is mired in the oldest, most archaic ‘bullying for power’. In that sense, ‘hate speech’ is almost a misnomer, for it isn’t a speech problem: it is a problem of systemic bullying with an eye towards exclusivist, political power. The incitement is not always meant to lead to physical violence; it is in itself violent in its persistent stigmatising and calls towards exclusion. [emphasis added]
‘Hate speech’ does not refer to offensive, or foul-mouthed speech directed at a people, or even to vitriolic complaints directed at the government. It is speech that can cause actual material harm through the social, economic and political marginalisation of a community.
Hate speech is “not just random vitriol: it feeds into a broader context of discrimination”. These are “not solitary acts of deliberate outrage, or provocation, which might result in [mere] hurt sentiments,”
Yet, when we discuss and fulsomely condemn hate speech, we don’t really think of all the things being said in classrooms. I think it is time we made that shift.
So, this is where we are today. A nation forged from the fires of partition, we promised ourselves a secular India, and 75 years later still blame 9 and 10-year-old Muslim children for sins their fathers did not commit. As Dalit assertion has grown, so has the violence. Our classrooms are paying this price for the tough conversations we never had. Why?
Because 75 years ago, when we stood on the horizon of freedom, we did promise ourselves the end of hierarchy based on caste, religion, gender and much else. The framers of the constitution were alive and alert to the grave harm that social division does. We gave ourselves Article 15 (The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them), Article 16 (There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters of employment under the State), and Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability). Under Directive Principles, we gave ourselves Article 39 – which spoke of giving our children freedom and dignity. We enshrined affirmative action for Dalits and tribals.
Our leaders desperately hoped there was something inexorable, inevitable about the march of modernity; the modern man/modern women would leave behind (the ‘medievalism’ of) caste and community as primary markers of their identities as we all embraced a scientific temper, a new humanism, and our new identities as citizens of a free land. We were expected to grow less and less attached to the ascribed identity (the ones we were born into) and to forge instead a bond as citizens with the larger republic and with each other. We would be a secular state. With diversity of equals.
We boxed the secular promise into familiar tropes. ‘Unity in Diversity.’ Looked grand, but it was never the grand diversity of equals. Because the optics of unity was not matched by actual justice and equity on the ground. Imagine the trauma and plight of a Muslim child today who has to trot out his skull cap for the national ‘Unity in Diversity’ photo-op, knowing well that wearing the same skull cap can now get him lynched to death on a train.
And Muslim children have for too long faithfully discharged their nationalist burden of representing diversity, and lived out tropes of being the community of rich kebabs, fragrant biryani and silken ghararas, while slipping deeper into the abyss of lack of education, poverty and joblessness (making the purchase of meat for kebabs very expensive and pure silken ghararas quite out of the question). The Sachar Committee told us all this.
We imagined inclusive equality through familiar tropes and false representation. And handled real inequality and prejudice in classrooms quite poorly. Yes, we gave scholarships and reservations, and enacted multi-cultural republic day parades, but we did not have ‘the conversation.’ The big bigotry conversation. So even as in schools across the country, a fragile social contract was being rapidly frayed, we remained in denial. Simply putting all children in the same uniform does not change social hierarchy and end social prejudice. (I wish someone would enlighten the honourable justices of the Karnataka high court of this truth)
I now want to speak of laws. While I do not believe that laws can solve our social problems, it is important to examine legal protections, because if nothing else they set a moral benchmark for what is not considered acceptable in society. Murder and rape are not OK. Bigotry is also not OK. Have we said that in our laws?
Well, on rampant, widespread prejudice across spaces, sites, and sectors, from school rooms to board rooms, from housing to shops, in public and private establishments, companies, malls and parks – we’ve actually said and done nothing. In most democratic jurisdictions around the world – the US, South Africa, Australia, UK – acts of discrimination are actionable. Civil cases can be filed, and until such time as people keep their prejudices to themselves, there can be consequences and correctives.
In fact, democratic nations, with far fewer endemic, deep-rooted, discriminatory social norms, often have more than a single anti-discrimination law and multiple mechanisms to protect against all kinds of discrimination – whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality, or age and marital status. India is of course a unique democracy in far too many ways. One is that we never tire of calling ourselves the largest democracy in the world – as if size is what really matters! But among its unfortunate unique features – we remain perhaps the only modern democracy without any comprehensive statutory framework that recognises discrimination. We may have a constitutional right to equality, but it is not backed by a justiciable law. We have nothing like the Civil Rights Act in the US or the Equality Act in the UK. I have always found that strange and inexplicable. Were we not serious about our constitutional declarations? I think, as I have just said, there was a desperate naïve hope that “we would leave it all behind”, and a secular denial that ascribed identities are indeed resilient and strong. Or, maybe it cuts too close to how much our own silent privilege is the flip side of this reality, and how much it is implicated in this structural injustice.
A conversation was briefly started after the Sachar Committee report of 2006 – about an Equal Opportunity Commission and Anti-Discrimination Legislation for all categories of citizens, but it soon went on the back burner. Then over a decade later, an Anti-Discrimination and Equality Bill, was introduced by Shashi Tharoor, as a private member Bill in parliament in 2017, but it lapsed.
It also took us far too many years to acknowledge atrocities against Dalits and tribals. It was in 1989, over 40 years after independence, that we managed to enact the POA Act, the main legal protection for Dalit and tribal children against violence in educational institutions. But it still cannot help a Dalit who does not get called for a job interview or is denied housing in an upper-caste complex, or even the kids who are segregated in classrooms, unless someone also hollers casteist slurs in full public view. Because for the POA Act to kick in the indignity has to be ‘public’ and accompanied by visible evidence of casteism. It does not protect against the silent, resilient, othering.
Given these giant gaps in our legal regime, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act), was pioneering in more ways than one. It made elementary education a fundamental right of course, but for the first time in Indian legislative history, ‘discrimination’ in schools was named, acknowledged and prohibited in a universal social legislation that applies to all citizens. Section 9 (c) of the RTE act categorically said that children belonging to weaker sections and disadvantaged groups shall not be discriminated against and prevented from pursuing elementary education, on any grounds. It did not include minority children (Muslim or Christian) in the ‘protected’ category of ‘disadvantaged children.’ That was a tragic, unjust lapse, and that needs to change.
Even so, the RTE Act raised hope; it was a historic opportunity to build an anti-discrimination regime in schools. But, as with many social legislations, there were no hard and fast sanctions for violations, or clear routes to implementing its non-discrimination clause.
I am not sure that was even the expectation, actually. The hope was that a conversation would be triggered. That some public awareness would shift. That schools would be mindful. That School Management Committees would have a space to talk about prejudice and bigotry. That aggrieved parents would get assurances, even hollow ones. It would create a moral benchmark, and be considered shameful to treat children differently. Perhaps an ‘Equality Declaration’ would be pasted on every school wall saying something like:
The Constitution of India guarantees the right to discrimination-free schooling; All students should be treated equally and with respect; No distinction between students on the basis of identity will be tolerated in this school; No form of differential treatment either in the classrooms, in the playground, or any school activity is acceptable; It is the duty of the school, the parents, the children, and the community to ensure that we preserve and promote discrimination-free schooling for all.
Some version of this would have been my dream ‘Equality Declaration’ and we proposed this along with a slew of other measures to end discrimination in schools when I was in the National Advisory Council.
Because public signage matters – it matters that we have ‘no sex selection’ posters in clinics and hospitals. It matters that auto-rickshaws and taxis in Delhi bear signs saying – ‘this taxi respects women.’ It is not the solution. What it is is – a public acknowledgement of the problem. It creates a climate. It starts a conversation in minds, in the larger public sphere. It sends a message.
But, tragically, the conversation around prejudice and discrimination that we hoped would happen post-RTE, did not. The reality today is that while there are cases of teachers and school administrations being hauled up and suspended for graft and corruption in disbursal of scholarships and school uniforms, for slapping, for inappropriate behaviour with girl students, for being rude to the principal; last year five female teachers of a government primary school in Agra were even suspended for ‘unethical behaviour’ after a video of them dancing to a popular film song in an empty classroom surfaced online; and yes, teachers get suspended for egregious physical violence against Dalit and tribal children after a case is filed under the atrocities act. But no one gets suspended for the daily trauma inflicted by good old-fashioned bigotry.
Thirteen years after enacting the RTE, discrimination remains the most difficult forms of exclusion to ‘prove’ in schools, and a phenomenon least discussed in the educational system (including in teacher training institutes). The dominant tendency is to simply deny that prejudice exists within schools.
That is really quite rich. And daft. In a nation that displays abiding loyalty for caste and community on its sleeve at every election, when we unabashedly discuss Dalit, Brahmin, OBC, Thakur, Lingayat, Maratha, Hindu and Muslim; India, where a quick glance at any number of matrimonial sites – Jeevansaathi.com, Shaadi.com or Bharatmatrimony.com will remind us that huge swathes of our population embraces and values ascriptive difference; where we learn from the very air we breathe that there is different social, economic, political power in these layers of identity; In that India, we imagine that children in our classrooms will be magically the same, and magically treated as equals? So, do we acknowledge the power and privilege of different caste and community identities because that is the basis on which marginalization and violence takes place? Or, do we deny the very existence of all such identities because they divide us? The latter is an argument, I have heard too often. ‘Oh! It’s so divisive to ‘rake up’ these issues!’ I am sure someone will say that about this lecture as well.
I don’t believe we can afford to be in denial. Not anymore.
In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Centre – a leading American organisation devoted to translating the gains of the civil rights movement into practice – which has a Teaching Tolerance programme for educators, decided to look closely at an emerging phenomenon in American schools. The programme’s Director, Maureen Costello, heard stories coming in from educators across the United States about a sudden surge in bullying. She sent out a questionnaire to over 10,000 educators, and was shocked by the results.
Over 90% of educators said the ‘school climate had been negatively affected by the [Trump] election.’ “The elephant in the room was that Mr. Trump’s campaign had an effect. We could not avoid the fact that children were imitating him both in word, tone and behaviour,” said Costello. “The Trump Effect”, according to the study, “arises from comments the President made about immigrants and minorities, which emboldened politicized bullying in schools [emphasis added]. Muslim children, in particular, have been primary targets for hate.”
Also on the upswing: verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, and Nazi salutes.
A professor at the University of Southern California who studies school violence found the survey results unsurprising. “I get lots of calls from schools and school districts. There’s been a two-year spike in school bullying and harassment, and right now there is a generalized climate of permission to say hateful things to other groups that are deemed as ‘different.’ [emphasis added]
I share this only to point to our analogous reality – that what is out there, in the air, all the bile and hate spouted by the politicians with mikes and foghorns, has a profound impact on children in schools. Like the US post the Trump election, India is also amid a generalised climate to say and do hateful things.
Just last month, the PTA of a leading private school in Delhi sent a letter to parents with a range of concerns following the shift from online to a physical school. Among the worries was “a growth in cases of bullying and displays of ‘strength'”. The letter put it down to post-COVID adjustment problems. I think it partly reflected the violent forms of communication that have become a part of our social fabric and media landscape. Including the daily slow drip of “Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim” poison into the veins of our nation.
And it’s not just the content. It is the style. The aggression and jeering and laughter when some poor sod is vanquished under blazing arc lights of national public television. A nightly world of happy family viewing where domination is paramount. Where the only purpose of an opposing viewpoint is for it to be shut up and put down. Where crushing the weaker opponent is a foregone conclusion, but an entire theatre is enacted around the kill. Children are imitating in both style and manner this gladiator sport they see night after night on their TV screens. It represents the end of democratic dialogue, debate and civility.
We might well be witnessing an entire generation growing up bereft of the very essence of a democratic way of being and communicating as a society. Forever seeking imaginary enemies to demolish. Acting out on easy prejudice across classrooms in ‘displays of strength.’
This is a ‘what do we do’ moment. Yes, we need an anti-discrimination law in India, and we must campaign for one; we need to strengthen the RTE rules and guidelines to stop this bigotry. But when it comes to schools and to vulnerable children, we cannot privilege an adversarial ‘us-versus-them’ model that resorts to courts and to the law alone. How many teachers can a school system suspend? How many children can be booked under the POA Act? (Yes, there are cases of children as young as 11 and 13 who have been booked under the Act.) Surely we must worry, yes for the children who face prejudice, but also for those who act on it. They are learning it from us, the adults. And hate harms the hater too. We have to create spaces to talk inside the school system.
I know that is a tough ask. Especially today when we are being asked to believe that we are in some post-identity moment; when the mantra echoing through the airwaves is – one nation, one language, one ration card, one people, one community – an aggressive flattening of all diversity, denial of difference and therefore the impossibility of the fault-line of discrimination. But take a leaf out of Gandhiji’s book of resistance. And October is an appropriate month to invoke Bapu. We remember him largely for ahimsa and satyagraha. But he was also a masterful communicator. He knew that ideas of satyagraha would work only if there was sufficient public opinion. He did not wait for a hostile press to spread the word. He started his own journals. He wrote, and he walked the streets to create public opinion for freedom.
Many more of us need to make those journeys; enter the classrooms and study what lurks beneath the surface; what is not immediately visible. If we want a democratic future of equality for all, we need to engage critically with classrooms as sites that reproduce inequality on a daily basis.
The Indian education system is one of the largest in the world with over 1.5 million schools, 8.5 million teachers and 250 million children. If what I have spoken about today is affecting even 10% of these children, either at the giving or the receiving end, that is 25 million children too many.
We need to remember in this moment, when we are witnessing hate assemblies make calls for violence against minorities; when an elected representative, an MP, has taken that first unthinkable step and openly called for an economic and social boycott of an entire community; in this moment we must remember from history, that genocide never begins one fine day with mass killings. It begins with the everyday othering and bigotry that I have described, which is a frightening part of our classroom reality. If we are to regain a democratic future, we need to do everything in our power to stem that rot in the hearts of our children.
I end with words from a seminal judgment for equality, that was a breath of fresh air, delivered by Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia on October 13 in a split verdict by a 2-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India on the hijab ban imposed by the Karnataka government in schools. The matter will now go before a larger bench. Until then, let us take from these words the hope I started my lecture with.
The question of diversity and our rich plural culture is… important in the context of our present case. Our schools, in particular our pre-university colleges, are the perfect institutions where our children, who are now at an impressionable age, and are just waking up to the rich diversity of this nation, need to be counselled and guided, so that they imbibe our constitutional values of tolerance and accommodation, towards those who may speak a different language, eat different food, or even wear different clothes or apparels! This is the time to foster in them sensitivity, empathy and understanding towards different religions, languages and cultures. This is the time when they should learn not to be alarmed by our diversity but to rejoice and celebrate this diversity. This is the time when they must realise that in diversity is our strength.
This article was first published on The Wire.