My neighbour Arifa, a forty-five-year-old art curator, is the mother of two boys, who studied in the Lotus Valley International School on the Noida-Greater Noida expressway. A major terrorist attack had occurred the night before. Saad, her ten-year-old younger son, was then in Class 5. In his classroom, the newspaper was lying on the teacher’s desk as the students waited for their English class to start. The teacher walked in, picked up the newspaper and read aloud the headlines about the attack to the class. “What is happening in the world!” she exclaimed with a sigh as she sat down.
Suddenly, one of the students called out Saad’s name loudly. “Saaad, yeh kya kar diya tumne? [What did you do, Saaad?]”
There was silence in the class. The words stuck in Saad’s throat. He felt all eyes on him, waiting for him to say something. He was hot and angry. But he couldn’t find the words to retaliate. The question settled uncomfortably in the classroom, filling the air with tension. Through the incident, the teacher did not bother to look up. “I kept waiting for my teacher to react and scold the classmate, but she didn’t react. She kept sitting there in front of us without saying a word. After a while she stood up and began the class. I was silent, I didn’t respond and kept sitting there. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Arifa says the unmistakable changes came in after the national election campaigns in 2014. “People just became very in-your-face with their feelings about Muslims. And this I noticed was being reflected in their children at school. Bullying had always existed, but it was different before, largely comprising childish rebukes and stupid, dumb things being said to each other in schools. This has changed now. When a Muslim student is bullied it is on pronounced religious lines. Now he is called Baghdadi, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or simply a terrorist. Everyone’s speech is borrowed from the language used in the news [channels].”
While such slurs have been used since the 1990s, the tone and intensity have changed, especially over the last five years. Earlier the remarks were innocuous and infrequent. Now they occur more often and are marked by hostility rather than humour. Not that humour justifies the taunts. It shows how deeply entrenched the association of a Muslim to terror is. The context is different now and possibly feeds on the changes – global terrorism in the name of Islam has increased dramatically over the last fifteen years with ISIL (or ISIS) alone responsible for 95% of deaths from claimed terrorist attacks.
At the same time, the past decade has seen a rise in Hindu right-wing sentiment within India and a slew of distorted narratives that portray Muslims as invaders, anti-national and a threat to national security. These took centre stage in the run-up to the polarising national elections of 2014. From my conversations with many others across the country, it seems this consciousness has now been handed down to the children of our country.
Arifa’s elder son, Raffat, was called a “terrorist” casually in a fight when he was seventeen years old in 2016.
Arifa was appalled and immediately contacted the mother of the name-caller through the class WhatsApp group. “But your kid also called my child names! He called him fat!” was all that the mother had to say.
“She was actually defending her boy and equating a terrorist to fat. I had nothing more to say to her. The kids had been friends from a long time,” recounts Arifa, shaking her head. She took the matter to the class teacher. “There was no action. They simply said that they would talk to the parents. But then it kept happening repeatedly. And after a while my boys refused to report it to the school authorities,” Arifa said.
As the brothers have grown older, they have become pricklier. Even though they still get bullied, they don’t want to appear like sissies and carry tales to their mother, preferring to “fight it out”. The verbal abuses often turn into physical scuffles and fights in the playground or school buses. Arifa is usually very vocal and assertive of her rights, but in this case, over time she has given in to silence. “I keep asking them to not react as the political climate is such. One never knows when things get blown out of proportion,” says Arifa sadly, with a tinge of fear in her voice.
Raffat disagrees. “If they think we are terrorists then we will show them what we can do. How can they say that to us? Every time there is a terror attack in the news, my classmates ask me the next day, “Arre yeh kya karwa diya tumne? [What have you done now?]” “As if I am responsible!” When I asked Raffat why he gets into physical fights instead of complaining to the school authorities, he says that there is no point in trying to reason away the unreasonable. “If they want to fight, we cannot shy away!” said the visibly upset young man.
The bullies are only repeating what they hear in their homes. Our conversations are laced with hate and awareness of the “other”, and it is natural for children to start mirroring this in their words.
Arifa says, “I told my boys it’s best to ignore such absurd comments. Because they all have to together travel in buses and study. It’s not possible to avoid each other or live in animosity. It could lead to being pushed out from groups or being cold-shouldered.”
Arifa’s comment reminded me of eleven-year-old Maaz, who studies in Class 6 in a branch of Delhi Public School in the national capital region (NCR). Born to parents in an inter-religious marriage, he tells me how he is socially boycotted by his classmates due to his Muslim surname. He is often called a terrorist and nobody wants to play with him. “They are all busy playing with each other and don’t include me,” he tells me forlornly. “I sit with a Muslim girl during the tiffin break. She has some friends who are okay with me. I have no friends,” says Maaz.
Quite often, the battles start even earlier. “My little one is only six and a half years old and got hit for being a Muslim in school,” says Zareen Siddique, whose daughter Samaira studies in an internationally accredited school in Noida. A student sitting on the same bench as her asked, “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.”’
Excerpted with permission from Mothering A Muslim, Nazia Erum, Juggernaut.