Dear fellow Indian Mothers,
I believe that no mother asks her child to hate another child. So it was disturbing and shocking when my friend Zareen told me, “My little one is only six-and-a-half years old and was hit in school for being a Muslim.” A student sitting on the same bench as her daughter, Samaira, asked her, “Are you a Muslim?” He then started hitting Samaira, saying, “I hate Muslims.”
Zareen says it took a few days before her daughter could open up about it. “I was appalled and shocked. I immediately called up the class teacher, who had a two-word response – It happens.” Indeed, today the battles have started early on.
I spoke to 118 families with children between the ages of five and twenty who were studying or had studied in twenty-five leading schools across Delhi–NCR. Of these a hundred students said they had been bullied due to their religion. The figures were alarming. I looked for the stories behind the numbers.
Saira was admitted into class eight in a top-ranking school in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave when her parents got transferred to the city. In her first year at the school, Saira fell victim to slut-shaming. Her sanitary napkins were displayed around the school, and she was called a whore. And all of this was done by boys from good families, shares Saira’s mother. But the bullying changed in nature after 2013 as the national election campaigns started all over India. Some of the students were verbally violent to her, and often she was told to “go to Pakistan”. How do you explain such attacks to a kid? How can you say ‘he is only a child’ to another child?
The incidents of religious bullying get reported much more among younger children but get dismissed as stray or juvenile cases. In higher classes, such as grades seven to twelve, the attacks are more vicious, but go largely unreported. When a Muslim kid is involved in a fight in the playground, often lines like “Yeh toh atankwadi hai… Yeh toh Pakistani hai… Isse maaro. (He is a terrorist. He is Pakistani. Hit him.)” are hurled at him. Insulted, embarrassed, singled out, cornered and unsure of how to respond, the boys usually prefer to ‘fight it out’ rather than appear ‘sissy’ by complaining to adults.
While the situation often borders on violence among boys, it mostly comes out in the form of subtle jokes among girls: “Kya tumhare mamma papa bomb banate hain? (Do your parents make bombs at home?)” and sometimes as misogyny along with Islamophobia in statements like, “Isn’t your father angry that your legs are exposed in your skirt? Is he part of the ISIS? Will he shoot us?”
Most children, even when they have not faced any direct aggressive communal bullying, will definitely identify with such low-key but repetitive comments. While physical violence is immediately recognized as damaging, verbal bullying where children internalize the implied meanings is seldom recognized for the harm it can cause.
This is not limited to Delhi–NCR. Even after I had completed my research for this book, I kept hearing such stories from all across the country including Lucknow, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Indore and Pune. A banker, Alpana’s son, had just come back from his first semester at boarding school in Bengaluru when he asked his mother, “Can we make friends with Muslims, Mamma? Should they all go to Pakistan?” Today, I fear it might be a problem in every school, at every level of our society.
Is it not disturbing when eight-year-olds mirror the accusations of the 9 p.m. bulletins in their 10 a.m. classrooms? Can we ignore an 11-year-old’s heartbreaking loneliness when he is sidelined due to his surname? Will we really refuse to see the muddled intuition of our fifteen-year-olds when they throw in a ‘Baghdadi’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ during a soccer game? Child by child, the bitterness of the world will suck up our little ones and spit out disturbed adults.
Every mother today is the victim of a world of hate and hostility. Hate affects not just the tormented but also the tormentor. And we don’t know which one our child will be. I worry for the children who are part of communal bullying at school. I worry for my daughter who will be joining them tomorrow, in the same playgrounds and classrooms. We need to speak, not for ourselves, but for our children.
I believe that no mother ever gives up on a constant daily effort to provide a better future for her child. Morsel by morsel, word by word, breath by breath. I refuse to believe that any mother will ask her child to hate another child. No other country could give us the best of all worlds like India does. This is our home, our mother, and we fight for it along with our children.
This is not just a lone mother’s fight. This is a fight for all of us.
I am a #MotherAgainstBullying.