Communalism and COVID-19 Have Changed the Classroom for Indian Muslim Children

Once school reopens teachers will have to learn to examine their own cultural biases before any intervention can be successful.

Education remains an important concern since the pandemic-induced lockdown started in March this year. There has been a lot of talk and discussion on how schools and teachers should be better prepared to deal with varying aspects of education in these troubling times – both while schools remain closed and when they eventually open.

There are exams that still need to be conducted, syllabi that need to be adjusted and completed, and the mental well-being of children that must be protected. With ‘social distancing’ norms in place, educational institutions will be the last to re-open once the lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Resultantly, educational institutions have got into action with a host of measures – online classrooms, webinars, online assignments, exams and so on. There has an emphasis on blending of learning from home to the classroom. For Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister of Delhi, this was an opportunity to introduce his ‘Happiness Classes’ on social media platforms for parents and the wider world.

Underlining the crucial role of these classes he said, “We are going through uncertain times today. Our goal right now is to sail through these times by shedding our anxiety and worries.”

UNESCO too has come out with a document titled, ‘Covid 19 Education Response: Preparing the reopening of schools’ and NCERT, the national level body for curriculum design and planning, has prepared an alternative academic calendar to ensure that continuity of learning is not disrupted in the current situation. 

Fair enough. But one wonders if the various protocols being put in place have spared a thought for the innumerable anxiety and uncertainties children from marginalised sections are facing and will continue to face as COVID-19 continues to spread.

The UNESCO document briefly mentions  the need for particular attention to the most vulnerable populations, including among them “refugees, migrants, minorities, those living in poverty and in remote geographical areas or urban slums, children with disabilities, those who lack nutrition and protection, those exposed to child labour, violence and other adverse conditions.”

Added to this list is the ‘vulnerability of females’ which the document says needs to be acknowledged. However, the concern remains largely limited to a learning gap brought about because of barriers to accessing education, confinement, lack of supplementary teaching and impact on nutrition and health because of school closure, for many who depend on schools for it.  

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However, there is very little attention towards how schools should prepare themselves to handle other forms of vulnerabilities the pandemic has thrown up, in the forefront of which is prejudice, discrimination and the ‘othering’ of the marginalised. We use in this article, the case of Indian Muslims, but these insights could very well translate to other communities facing deprivation based on their social identity. 

Over the last year, a lot has changed for Muslims in India.

The Citizenship Amendment Act

The Babri Masjid verdict in November 2019, was a sobering reminder of the status of Muslims in India. No sooner had this verdict started to sink in, that yet another bolt was fired in the form of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that allowed all but Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to gain fast-track citizenship of India. The CAA came on the heels of calls for a nation-wide registry of citizens, seen by many in the Muslim community as a ruse to disenfranchise Muslim voters. Protests erupted across the country, fuelled by police action on students at Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI), a premier central university in the nation’s capital.

Unlike movements of the past, the anti-CAA protests had at its forefront students, children, youth and women. JMI and the women led protest at Shaheen Bagh, just a few miles away, became the driving force of protesters, sparking similar demonstrations led by women and youth across the country.

Shaheen Bagh on Republic Day. Photo: Vedika Singhania

This was a protest for the new ages, driven by social media imagery of young artists and poets, innovative protest slogans and placards and evocative photos of women and young children, sitting undeterred at protest sites for days on end.

Amongst them were many young schoolgoing children who were equally vociferous. Political parties, religious leaders and mainstream voices of dissent had taken a backseat to new nameless but powerful faces. Some may argue that the namelessness is what gave this movement its strength.

As the movement gathered strength there were many who engaged actively in countering the narrative emerging from the anti-CAA movement. Less than a month after the unfurling of the national flag on the ‘grounds’ of Shaheen Bagh on January 26, violence erupted in North East Delhi.

Also read: The Children of Shaheen Bagh

The ‘delinquencies’ committed by Jamia and Shaheen Bagh had obviously not gone unnoticed and the price had to be extracted from the Muslims living on the margins. Into this scenario entered the coronavirus, schools were shut, and Indians were asked to stay at home. Many from the Muslim community themselves chided the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, Turkman Gate and elsewhere to heed the call of the prime minister.

A man carrying a child walks past security forces in a riot-affected area in New Delhi, February 27, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Coronavirus was a national issue and Muslims too were to be included.  The protest sites were eventually dismantled, and a period of lockdown began. This was however the beginning of a far graver story.

The Tablighi Jamaat

A few weeks into the pandemic and the coronavirus was co-opted into a communal narrative, spurred on by an incessant media. The folly and negligence by members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a fringe Islamic group, were superimposed upon the entire Muslim community. No sooner did this happen, that being Muslim itself became the disease. With the anti-CAA protests, Muslim loyalty and citizenship were already being questioned.

Also read: The Coronavirus Spread and the Criminal Liability of the Tablighi Jamaat

Now with the Tablighi Jamat incident, the popular narrative had Muslims viewed as being responsible for the spread of COVID-19, further increasing the othering process. Corona jihad and corona virus conspiracy theories targeting Muslims soon caught on like wildfire and spread across the country. The demonisation of Indian Muslims by the media began in right earnest. 

We know from research how even casual adult discourse can be absorbed by young children through what they hear and see around them – in their families and neighbourhoods. The intrusion of the internet and the media into the lives of children, who lack the ability to sift through this information can have grave consequences. With media updates, especially around the spread of the coronavirus, being viewed much more frequently than in normal times by both young and old, the communal virus surely has infected many more than the corona virus.    

What is alarming is how experience of such media images (and resultant damage caused) will play out in classrooms, once schools re-open. Additionally, how will schools gear up to respond to a system which demands social distancing? With an environment of hate and prejudice surrounding us today, surely classrooms cannot remain insulated.

One wonders if enough thought has been given to how this ‘social distancing’ will be played out in our classrooms. There is also little to no discussion, about if and how teachers are trained to handle diversity and conflict in classrooms. Through this discussion we try to unpack some of these issues and offer a way forward as classrooms regroup from the happenings of the last six months, and children return with varying experiences of the lockdown- both social and economic. 

The Muslim child 

The impact of an incessant communal rhetoric in the media on children is something which educationists should have been prepared for, but the challenge has become even more emergent in recent times.

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How much of this toxic exposure children store in their minds is anyone’s guess, but to believe that classrooms will remain protected from it is a great folly. While the never-ending relaying of negative propaganda about a community is likely to impact the self-esteem and confidence of children from this community, how it will be received by children from other communities is equally, if not more worrisome. 

By the time educational institutions open and classes resume, hopefully, we would have got some respite from the coronavirus through lockdown, quarantine, containment, sealing and isolation. But what is far more dangerous is the other C-virus, the communal virus, the containment of which people in the education sector need to prepare for.

A boy reacts as a healthcare worker takes a swab from him for a rapid antigen test for COVID-19, Ahmedabad, July 13, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

It is to be noted, that even without additional mental stresses of recent times, Muslim children are already disadvantaged on several educational outcomes. Dropout rates for Muslim boys and girls are highest across all age-groups and social/caste categories. According to the 71st round of the National Sample Survey on Education, Muslim children between the ages of 6-18 are less likely to own and know how to operate a computer, to have internet access and are less likely to attend a board-recognised schools compared to other religious groups.

Muslim students are also more likely to be dependent on school feeding programs, and its disruption is likely to have serious food security implications for entire households. Moreover, due to persistently low levels of education among Muslim, parents of the average Muslim child may be less equipped to support home-based learning.

There is early evidence to suggest that Muslim men and women are more likely to have lost jobs during the lockdown than other communities, further aggravating their precarious economic condition. While much of the current educational discourse is focussed on shifting classes online, there is little discussion on how these inequities are affecting access to educational resources and are strengthening existing disparities. 

Also read: We Need to Stop Raising Children to Hate Muslims

What would school reopening mean for children? Would it mean the same thing for children of all communities? How would the concept of ‘social distancing’ be played out vis a vis a Muslim child? Having been exposed to ‘negative media images’ over the last several months, would classmates be welcoming towards the Muslim children in their class?  What dynamics would be in operation during mid-day meal distribution in schools? 

Another, even more important question that needs to be asked is whether teachers will be prepared to handle when brawls arising out of this name-calling and devaluation break out in classrooms and the playground. In a country where teacher training programmes hardly prepare prospective teachers on critical issues of diversity and difference, marginalisation, prejudice and bias how will teachers cope?

How difficult it might be for teachers to handle such situations can be gathered from the experience of a history teacher in a small town of Uttar Pradesh written some years ago. Anita (name changed) writes, “I have never confronted a History class with so much insecurity as I do here. Just the mention of Jinnah or the Muslim League leads to the Muslim children being singled out. What do you do in a milieu in which there are not only strong communal undercurrents but also a very dominant underpinning of violence? A small classroom discussion which goes out of hand leads to gang-wars. I sometimes worry for the safety of the Muslim child…” 

The ‘Newspaper in Education’ is an important initiative in many schools where the newspaper is used as an effective teaching aid.  When schools re-open and children are encouraged to use the newspaper as an everyday classroom activity, will teachers be prepared to handle the disturbing questions young children may have on their minds after reading newspapers or listening to the news?  How will children receive the news about lynching of Muslims or of their economic and social boycott. Are our teachers sufficiently equipped to handle media and newspaper bias? 

A man sits in front of burnt out properties owned by Muslims in a riot affected area in New Delhi, March 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

When hate strikes society it envelops everyone and along with Muslim children, other social group children are also vulnerable. Racially motivated attacks on people belonging to the north-east were rampant in the early days of the pandemic, driven by rhetoric linking the virus to eating habits of the Chinese.

In an environment where physical distancing is being used as a ruse for social distancing and the stigma of the virus has not even escaped health professionals, children are especially vulnerable. Following RTE, classrooms have become much more heterogeneous. Teachers need to be especially sensitive to ensure that the classroom experience of students from poorer and marginalised households is not marred by ‘disease stigma’. This is especially critical because poorer students will come back to school following months of disruption in their education and learning due to limited access to internet and technology and will need more help to bridge this gap. 

Also Read: Mothering a Muslim in Times of Hate: Nazia Erum on How Communal Bullying Has Taken Root in India’s Schools

Teacher sensitisation is a crucial area and it is towards this that focus should urgently shift. Education departments and universities across the country should alongside other online courses, run teacher sensitisation workshops. This will ensure that teachers of schools and universities are better prepared to address issues of hate and bias which are likely to find their way into schools. Teachers will need to learn how to receive students back into the classroom – those who have been traumatised by poverty, illness, riots, lynching, hate, othering. 

Most importantly teachers will also have to learn to examine their own cultural biases before any intervention can be successful – biases towards the poor, the marginalised and those from different cultural and religious affiliations. In addition, training on digital literacy would help teachers learn how to harness the power of digital platform in the classroom, while promoting responsible consumption of information by students. 

Even as one ponders on the situation that has unfolded, it is worth reflecting on how this era will get recorded in school textbooks. What will children of India read about with regard to COVID-19, 50 or 100 years later. How will history texts explain the spread of this pandemic? 

A Rohingya Muslim man prepares to walk through a full-body sanitization tunnel installed at COVID-19 dedicated Government Medical College hospital, in Jammu, Sunday, April 19, 2020. Photo: PTI

Will its origin be traced back to China or will it be identified as something which grew in our own backyard where Muslims ghettoised themselves at the Markaz in Nizamuddin? 

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Will the numbers and statistics being reeled out in the media today find a way into maths textbooks as did happen after the Babri Masjid demolition in a primary school textbook in Madhya Pradesh: “If 15 kar sevaks demolish the Babri Masjid in 300 days, how many kar sevaks will it take to demolish the masjid in 15 days?” 

Given India’s demographic diversity it is critical to understand this issue in the context of education. It is imperative that classrooms provide an enabling environment for children, especially for those with highest levels of vulnerabilities.  The acute and persistent discrimination and disadvantage that may accrue post-COVID-19 needs to be addressed with some level of determination if we don’t want to further weaken the secular fabric of our society.

While continuing to address the distinct characteristics that are discriminatory towards the marginalised, and its consequences for educational opportunities in general, the recent variants that have been added should be looked at with heightened sensitivity. 

Azra Razzack is professor at the Dr. K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. Muzna F. Alvi is associate research fellow at IFPRI, New Delhi. All opinions are personal and not that of the organisations the authors represent.