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.
“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.
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.