By Akhil Kumar:
‘He bullied me so much that my mother sent me away to a school in Arunachal,’ confessed a teary eyed school classmate in my room in Delhi, where some friends caught up over drinks. I shrugged it off with an uncomfortable laugh and changed the topic, unable to decide how to react to this sudden and unpleasant reminiscence of the past. I had never imagined how I could have affected someone’s life in such a way. Those words still haunt me at times, sending me back to the days when I used to be an entirely different person than I am now, and force me to ponder on the emotional trauma I might have caused to many more people.
I was born and brought up in a small town in Bihar, and was raised in a very conservative patriarchal social setup (I added the word ‘patriarchal’ deliberately, as aggression and our perception of gender roles are interlinked). Returning back to the classmate in question, he suddenly stopped coming to school. I had no idea where he was, neither did I bother to find out as there was no dearth of people to pick on and I was busy basking in the glory of the ‘cool guy’ image that many of us subconsciously attach with bullies, even if we would hate to admit it.
The sudden realization of what I had done, hit me hard and made me reflect on the consequences of my action, and more importantly, what made me act that way. I thought about the very violent childhood I have had, and also how people treated one another in my family. Could it have been because my father was violently aggressive and it moulded my behaviour? Children don’t listen to you as much as they observe and follow your behaviour. Was it because my father often beat me up badly to vent out his frustration and the insecurity of losing power over those he thought he was entitled to have a dominant control on? Was it because I had been bullied in the past as well and the shift of power gave me an opportunity to mask my own insecurities and fears by appearing aggressive and dominant? Was it a form of an illusory sense of retribution for the humiliation I had suffered, both at home and otherwise?
The more I thought about it, the firmer I became in my belief that it is a structural and social problem that can’t be solved unless we don’t start seeing it as a collective problem rather than that of an individual. The social dynamics that enable this behaviour need to be analyzed, understood and reformed. How we, as a collective, encourage, accept, normalize and tolerate this aggression needs to be put under scrutiny. Corporal punishment, ostracization and the ‘othering’ of the children who bully isn’t a very effective way of reforming them. I say this from personal experience. I was beaten up at home after complaints from school, wasn’t allowed to join a very coveted school trip to South India, and parents wouldn’t let their children anywhere near me, let alone be friends. It wasn’t a deterrent; rather it made me more aggressive as I felt alienated and craved for recognition and acceptance.
Interestingly, the gradual change in my behaviour happened when I was removed from the environment I grew up in and was exposed to an entirely different world. I left home after 10th grade and landed in Rajasthan, among people from very diverse backgrounds and with no sense of security of being near local guardians or familiar faces. Nobody knew me there and fortunately I was privileged enough to have a fresh start in life, without the need to live up to a reputation and also removed from the inherent violence (both physical and emotional) of the regressive familial setup I was raised in. Not to say that the sudden change in my immediate environment was the only thing that changed me, but it definitely was a major catalyst in the transformation. The popular perception that such a significant behavioural change requires a lot of time, and can only happen gradually is something I would disagree with. I felt vulnerable and lost in the anonymity that a big city provides, the enablers of the aggressive behavior disappeared and it was sudden and unexpected (I was all of 17 back then). Bullying is a socially constructed behavioural trait and when the social enablers are taken away, the developments can be unexpected. Not to say that it is a general rule, and might not be valid for every case, but it happened with me. I never wanted to go back home, and was glad that I had the chance to escape. The fact that I don’t like to think of, or visit, the place I was born and brought up in (it has been 4 years since I visited last) speaks volumes about the psychological effects bullying has, even on the one who once bullied others.
We need to stop looking at the children who bully as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or treat them as criminals. Rather we should come together as a community to make them understand why it is wrong to bully others. They need help and affection, not punishment and ostracization. Justice should be reformative, not retributive. When we, as a society, have contributed to the development of a child, it is our responsibility to share the blame if they are in trouble and help them reform their behaviour. When people punish children for what we taught them to become, it seems to me, as Chester Himes once said in a similar context, “…as wrong as if they had hung the gun that shot the man”.
This is a personal narrative and my observations are out of my own experiences, they may or may not resonate with everyone, but I felt it was important to at least start a discussion on bullying, its consequences and possible approaches to deal with it. I believe that we need to take responsibility, as a community, and work together to find the right approach to deal with this problem. With time, the nature of our social interaction and relationships has undergone a significant change. With the rapidly changing socio-economic dynamics, we are increasingly witnessing an individualistic deviation in our interaction with our society, and this will inevitably lead to the subconscious ‘othering’ of people when the pressing need is to come together and invest more time to really understand the structural setup that facilitates and causes this kind of behaviour.
Punishment and retributive justice wouldn’t change what a certain kind of social conditioning caused. As a consequence of bullying, all of us suffer, and it has a long lasting impact on the psyche of all the parties directly or indirectly involved – those who bully, those who are bullied, those who are bystanders, those who intervene to help, and also those of us who judge and dole out ‘justice’. I hope we try to actively engage with this problem, for it was devastating for my tearful classmate, and my uncomfortable dismissal of the issue wouldn’t stop it from haunting me.
This article is a part of Amnesty International India’s ‘Proud to Be Indian’ campaign.