Last week when the video of a Muslim student confronting his teacher at Manipal University in Karnataka went viral, it triggered an unpleasant memory in the mind of 21-year-old Humza Siddique.
In the video, which sparked a massive uproar on social media, a young engineering student berates his teacher, telling him that it was not funny to crack jokes about his religious identity. The teacher had compared his Muslim student to Ajaml Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist who had attacked Mumbai in 2008.
Siddique had a similarly traumatic experience in 2019, after five Muslims were killed in alleged police firing in Meerut in 2019, at the height of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The law which, for the first time, introduced a religious element into Indian citizenship law, had sparked off demonstrations across the country.
When the news of the violence reached his classroom, Siddique recalled his teacher turning on him. “My teacher said, ‘these people [referring to Muslims] will never accept any law’,” Siddique said, speaking to Scroll.in. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘You know how to throw stones’. My other classmates, many of whom were my friends, laughed it off as if nothing happened.”
Like Sidique, many young Muslims Scroll.in spoke to said they could relate to the experience of the Manipal University student. Against the backdrop of rising extremism in Indian society and politics, they too had faced hate inside the classroom, both from peers and, even more troublingly, from teachers.
‘Pakistanis and terrorists’
A few days before the Manipal incident came to the fore, 21-year-old Haseena Bano, a college student from Balotra, Rajasthan, had a similar experience of her teacher making Islamaphobic comments in class. According to Bano, on November 21, her history teacher bought up the case of a violent murder in Delhi in which the main suspect is a Muslim.
“He said these Muslims have no sense of mercy,” she told Scroll.in. “He said Muslims believe that if they kill one Hindu they get rewards of one Hajj [pilgrimage to Makkah in Islam] and if they kill two then they will get heaven. He also asked students that Hindus should stay away from them. They are Pakistanis and terrorists. Hindus feel hurt even after killing an ant.”
Bano said she could not bear this Islamophobia any further and confronted the teacher. “How can you make such remarks?” she asked him. “He said, ‘It’s written in the Quran.’”
Hassan, 24, a journalism student, recalled his experiences of facing prejudice from her teacher at The Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi. He claims that research topics put forward by him in 2020 examining the media portrayal of Muslims or its alleged role in supporting majoritarianism were shot down summarily. Hassan blames Islamophobia for this.
“You should come out of this rhetoric and frivolous thinking of your community,” his teacher allegedly told Hassan in response. She also asked him where he graduated from. “When I said Jamia Millia, she said, now I know where this mindset is coming from,” he said.
Jamia Millia Islamia is a central university located in Delhi with minority institution status.
Later, in another instance, when he proposed a research topic comparing right wing media in India and the United States, the same teacher, Hassan said, brought up Islamaphobic tropes to attack her student. “Does this propaganda come from the same streets, protests that were a few months back protesting against the government,” she said, referring to the anti-CAA movement, recounted Hassan to Scroll.in.
While he was unable to protest these incidents at the time, afraid of how it might hurt his academic career, it pushed him to leave the university and take admission elsewhere. He said it was a “big relief” to leave the institute that has “come in the grip of the Hindu right wing”.
While the problem of Islamophobia in the classroom crops up throughout India, some regions fared worse than others.
Hafiza Sheikh, 46, grew up in Mumbai and went to a Christian-run school in the city where she says she did not face any sort of communal hostility. However, this changed with her daughter.
After she got married, Sheikh moved to Greater Noida, a part of the National Capital Region that is located in Uttar Pradesh. In 2016, her daughter, then in class 5, faced an unpleasant experience. “A day before Independence Day, a classmate wished her,” Sheikh said. “When she asked why, he said it was because it was Pakistan’s independence day. When my daughter came home, she asked us why she was being associated with Pakistan if she was Indian.”
This prompted Sheikh to take up the matter with her daughter’s teacher who in turn took up the matter with the parents of the boy. “The issue was addressed and since then things are fine with their school,” she said.
Sheikh feels that the communal hate is proportionally higher in North India compared to her childhood in Maharashtra. “I remember the [1992 Mumbai] riots but we did not face any violence directly because we were living in a mixed society of Sindhis, Muslim, Christains,” she said.
A similar experience was shared by Noor Mahwish, a law student at a government university in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Mahwish went to school in Kolkata, where she never faced any Islamophobia. However, when she started to study in Allahabad in 2019 the situation changed. “In my first year of my law college, during a class on the Hindu marriage Act and Muslim personal law I confronted my teacher for demonising the Muslim community over Triple Talaq,” she said. “She [the teacher] was using ‘hum log versus woh log’ (us versus them) to talk about Hindu and Muslim personal law.”
Nazia Erum, author of the 2017 book Mothering A Muslim says that while prejudice towards Muslims has always been there in India but the “tone and intensity has changed, especially over the last five years”.
She said while earlier interactions in the classroom would mostly be “innocuous and infrequent” but “now they occur more often and are marked by hostility rather than humour”. “It shows how deeply entrenched Islamophobia is now,” she said.
Erum spoke to Muslim students across 12 states for her book. An astonishing 80% said they had been bullied on the basis of their religious identity in school.
Erum blames the wider climate in the country for poisoning the classroom. “The hate we see in classrooms is an extension of the hate broadcast in the speeches of our leaders or in ‘news’ debates on our television every night,” said Erum, warning this would eventually affect the children of all communities.
She held the adults responsible for failing the children: “When teachers become part of the problem it only goes to show how commonplace and deeply entrenched the propaganda against a specific religion has become.”.
Some names have been changed on request to protect their identity.