How Did It Come to This?

A high school educator traces the dramatic drop in the number of real-life role models exemplifying empathy and the growth of anti-Muslim bigotry in the classroom.

One of the advantages of being a teacher for a long time is that you get to spot the nuances of generational change before most other people do. Children and adolescents are finely tuned social barometers who are not only the first to pick up on changes in culture and society; they are also very often the first to act them out, without filters and subtlety. Sadly, they are also early victims of harmful societal shifts.

Take the case of the eight-year-old Muslim girl who got up on stage in front of a thousand people at a recent anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. She said, “One day, my friend called me a Pakistani because I am a Muslim. I told him that I am not from Pakistan. I am from Gurgaon, India. I am an Indian.”

Her experience is not uncommon. Islamophobia has now seeped into our classrooms, and children from Muslim families across India are finding themselves at the receiving end of derogatory remarks and degrading humour quite regularly.

How did it come to this?

A related question that seems to perplex many is: Has it always been like this, and we were just too naïve to notice? Or is this kind of othering a fairly new phenomenon?

The answer, I believe, is a bit of both. I shall try to substantiate with a couple of examples.

As any teacher who has taught for a while will tell you, there are certain tools in the teaching toolkit that stand the test of time and never seem to grow old, no matter how many years they have been used. For some teachers, it is a story, anecdote or poem, and for others, it is some sort of classroom activity.

For me, one of these tools has been interactive theatre or role-play. For nearly two decades now, I have done a skit with young students called ‘The Visitor” which brings out the importance of taking the initiative to be helpful. The skit involves a school student playing basketball during his lunch break when a visitor, new to the sprawling school, walks up to him and asks him how to get to the principal’s office. The student, who is in a hurry to get back to his game, is less than polite to the visitor and gives him such vague directions that the visitor ends up losing his way completely. It’s a funny skit and gets a laugh from the class.

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

I then ask the students, “What did the student do wrong?”

Till about 20 years ago, the answer to this question was a no-brainer. The vast majority of students would say without hesitation, “He (the basketball playing student) was rude and impolite and gave terrible directions to the visitor.”

When asked what the student should have done instead, the replies would be almost unanimous, “Well, it’s obvious the student should have taken the visitor to the principal’s office, duh!”

Prodding them further I would ask them, “But wouldn’t that have cut into his basketball time?”, and my question would invariably be met with a scornful, “So? Big deal! He can surely spare five minutes to help a visitor to the school!”

About ten years ago, I noticed students’ response to the skit began to shift. While approximately half the class felt that the student in question should have been more polite and helpful, the other half couldn’t quite see anything wrong with the basketball-playing student’s attitude except that maybe he could have been a bit more polite.  They also said the student “could have given better directions” or directed the visitor to another student who could then have taken him to the principal’s office. The thought of actually accompanying the visitor to the principal’s office didn’t even occur to half the class.

Now, when I do this little skit, invariably the vast majority of the class looks bewildered and doesn’t see anything wrong with the basketball-playing student’s attitude. Only a small minority of students in the audience point out, “He should have been much more polite, and he should have personally escorted the visitor to the principal’s office.”

Talk about an attitudinal shift over 20 years. Kindness for its own sake seems to be vanishing quickly. What do we blame this on? A potpourri of reasons, most likely.

The increasing speed of everything in society is probably a major factor that leaves little or no time for cultivating empathy. Kindness takes time. But with so much syllabus to finish, tuitions to attend and a host of extra-curricular activities to excel in, who has that time?

The obsession with social media and its emphasis on appearance as opposed to substance could be another. The preoccupation with self as evidenced by the growing epidemic of taking selfies leaves little room for thinking about others. And then, of course, there is the omnipresent mainstream media with its daily, relentless demonising of those who are ‘not like us’.

But the thing that has probably led significantly to this massive decline in empathy is the dramatic drop in the number of real-life role models who exemplify empathy and kindness. Values, it is said are not taught but caught, and in a society, fortunately or unfortunately, values percolate from the top. What is currently percolating from ‘the top’ politically, socially, and culturally in Indian society is anything but kindness, selflessness and empathy.

In the face of all of this, what is a child supposed to do?

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There is one more activity that I have used with young people over the years. It’s a conversation-starter which consists of the following question: “Is there any point in being a person of honesty and integrity in this day and age?”

Twenty years ago, the vast majority of a class on average would answer, “Yes.”

Ten years ago, a little more than half on average would answer “Yes” and the remaining would answer, “No”.

Nowadays, about 60 % to 70% of the students I ask this question to say, “No”. A very, very small minority, maybe 10%, says “Yes”, and the remaining say, “I don’t know.”

The court has ordered the Maharashtra government to formulate a policy to regulate pre-primary schools across the state before December 31. Credit: José Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Representative image. Children at a government school. Photo: José Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Coming back to the othering of Muslim children – with a large majority of young people today seeing little or no intrinsic value in helping others unselfishly or in leading a life of honesty and high personal integrity, is it any wonder that children like the eight-year-old Muslim girl mentioned earlier find themselves regularly on the receiving end of exclusion and discrimination?

This is not to say that all children discriminate, or all schools have children who discriminate, but a frightfully large number of educational institutions have become unsafe places emotionally and socially for children who are either from minority communities or economically weaker backgrounds. (In fact, it is now even a problem to be dark-complexioned.)

The only thing that can effectively prevent this kind of othering is the personal example and intent of those in charge. In a school, that example would have to be set by the principal and the teachers. Once a behavioural expectation has been set and it has been spelt out in no uncertain terms, the instances of bullying and othering diminish drastically.

Moreover, if that school has a strong culture of (genuine) community service, helpfulness, giving, egalitarianism and inclusion, then it becomes a place of openness, empathy and authenticity where everyone feels included, respected and safe. It also becomes a place where learning happens because it has mechanisms in place to deal with the socio-emotional dynamics that impede true learning.

In recent years, though, an alarming number of teachers and school leaders seem to have abdicated their responsibility to speak up for secular values. Instead of speaking out strongly, clearly and unequivocally against the growing climate of polarisation and communalisation, many now either choose to remain silent, or they openly endorse political, social and religious majoritarianism. There are honourable exceptions, of course.

One wonders how children will uphold egalitarian values when many of their educators feel no particular compulsion to do the same. Back in 2002, I remember a Delhi school principal condemning the communal violence in Gujarat in no uncertain terms at the morning assembly. One wonders how many would have the courage to do something similar today.

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

In a country, the onus of culture-setting lies with its leaders. But what happens when the country falls into the hands of those who see no value in being honest and authentic or inclusive, compassionate and kind? The results are all around us to see. The seeds of prejudice which have lain dormant in Indian society for a long time have now been watered, and have grown rapidly into a veritable forest of hate that our children are finding themselves lost in.

Who do we look to for moral direction and guidance at a time like this? A home minister who calls illegal immigrants “termites” and a prime minister who talks about identifying protestors “by their clothes”? Ministers who garland those who lynch; Bollywood artistes who don’t raise a squeak of protest against blatant wrongdoings for fear of falling out of favour with the powers that be? Businessmen who decamp with taxpayers’ money? Cops who break into university libraries and beat up students studying for their exams?

It is time for us as citizens of India to ask ourselves three most basic questions:

• What kind of India are we leaving behind for our children?

• Is that really the India we want them to grow up in?

• If not, then what are we going to do about it?

Our answers to those questions will determine the future not just for the eight-year-old Muslim girl mentioned at the start of this article, but for the rest of India’s children as well.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at [email protected]