What Does it Mean to be a Muslim Student in non-Madrassa Schools in India


Syed Ali Mujtaba

A recent book “Mothering a Muslim” by Nazia Erum captures some of the realities of what it means to be a Muslim in non-madrassa schools in India.

A day after the 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 tum nay?” 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”, and “Mullah”, and are asking them to “go to Pakistan.” Katuwa (circumcised), Jihadi, and Mussallah (prayer mat) are other such words that are non-Muslim kids’ favourites to address Muslim peers in schools.  

Some thirteen 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, a joyous celebration at the end of the month-long Ramadan fast. There is no need to emphasise that Eid-ul Fitr is the biggest Muslim festival, on par with Diwali for Hindus and Christmas for Christians. The mother of the Muslim child gently chided the principal and the teacher but eventually went for the PTA.

But there was more to come. A phone call from the principal was a rude shock. “You know, it was Eid on that day, and now it is Muharram. Is it important to you? Due to Commonwealth Games we have lost a lot of working days and there are only three Muslim children in the school. One of them is a Pakistani diplomat’s ward. And they are out of town, anyways. We don’t have any Muslim teacher, so I thought of asking the only remaining Muslim parent whether to keep the school open. Is it OK with you?” My friend was furious: the same preschool had declared Karva Chauth (a Hindu festival) a holiday because all the teachers were busy fasting for the wellbeing of their husbands. She ranted, she raved but she did not escalate the matter. “I don’t want my three and a half-year-old child to be singled out as the one with a troublesome mum,” she said.

Salman, 13, was one of the three Muslim boys in Class VIII in an upper primary school at Nandnagri, in Delhi. Most children participating in cultural programs are Hindu. “I wanted to participate in cultural programs too. I learned a patriotic song but the class monitor refused to take me to 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,” he said.

His classmate Sara, 14, regrets choosing Urdu instead of Sanskrit as her second language. “All the girls who chose Urdu sit in the same classroom. There are some teachers who say: “You Muslim people have no brains, you read the Qur’an and pray to Allah, but don’t respect knowledge.”

She continued: “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 was a place of worship for Hindus but Muslims go there and treat God badly. We felt really bad when she said all this about Muslims. The whole time she kept saying Muslims do this, Muslims do that, and no one in the class objected because we were afraid of being beaten by her.”

Twelve-year old Sahir is in Grade 5 in a government school in Qutab Vihar in southwest Delhi. He said: “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 about 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. Hindu boys also call us Mullahs because our fathers have beards.

“One of our classmate’s father came to submit a form in the school. The teacher referred to him as ‘the man with the beard’ and made fun of him in front of the whole class and laughed at him. All the Hindu children laughed too and we Muslims felt terrible. … Only the Hindu boys are happy in this school.”

So, this is where we are today. A nation forged from the fires of partition was promised a secular India but 75 years later the nation still blames 9 and 10-year-old Muslim children for the sins their fathers did not commit. Why our classrooms are paying this price for such tough conversations we never had?

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 that is what is happening in non-madrassa schools, then advocating reform in the madrassa system of education should think twice about which education system needs reforms. Is calling Muslim children names an act in nation-building or an anti-national activity? The moot point here is that those working for reforming the education system in India should stop the kettle from calling the pot black. 


With excerpts from Farah Naqvi’s talk delivered on October 19, 2022, at the 5th Anita Kaul Memorial Lecture titled “The Elephant Outside the Classroom: Education for a Democratic India.” It was delivered at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

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