By Nazia Erum
Jan 7, 2018
What is it like to be a middle class Muslim parent in India today? Over the course of writing a book, I reached out to 145 Muslim families with kids studying in some of the top schools of the country. What I learnt was disturbing, to say the least. While parents today can ensure meals at malls, membership to sports complexes, education at leading institutions and clothes in vogue, what they cannot ensure is that their children will not be bullied for their religious affiliations. As many as 80 per cent of Muslim children I spoke to had experienced some kind of religious bullying, from as young as six.
The bullies were almost certainly taking their cues from their parents and what they picked up at home. But what was more worrying still is that some schools are also unconsciously creating religious divides. The catchment area of one of Delhi's best-known public schools includes Jamia and Nizamuddin, two largely Muslim localities. The school offers foreign languages along with Sanskrit and Urdu. A teacher of the school tells me, "My section has mostly Urdu students and a few French students. While it was not an all-Muslim class, the ratio is definitely skewed. So, one of the parents wrote a letter to the administration saying they wanted their child's section changed as there was too much of 'M factor' (as they put it) in their present section. And they were obliged."
Across India, and especially in the north, many CBSE schools that have thirty or more Muslim students in a class, clump them together to form a new section altogether. As more Muslims embrace formal mainstream English-medium education, this trend is seeing a peak in recent years. Sanskrit is offered across most of India as an elective third language. It is usually offered as a choice against a regional language or a foreign language. Where there are a large number of Muslim students, often Urdu is offered as an elective. But many schools divide up the students of each year into sections based on the languages opted for. Thus, section A will comprise students who choose to study Sanskrit and section B of those who choose Urdu. This means that sections are not only divided along linguistic lines but also end up being divided along religious lines. For, with a few exceptions, most Muslim kids opt for Urdu and most non-Muslim kids choose Sanskrit.
We need to talk about the consequences of this beyond classrooms. When a 12-year-old child is separated from students of other religions, what are we inculcating subconsciously? Children hit adolescence in classes 6 to 8, and these are their most formative and impressionable years. When a child grows up in a school demarcated on religious lines, how deep will the dividing lines be drawn in our society? Will we ever be able to share a table or a plate?
"Never were differences out so open in schools before," a parent from Bhopal, Raiqa Khan, tells me sadly. "I think this compartmentalisation of classes started since 2005 in Bhopal. I was also teaching in one of the leading schools at the time when it was introduced. The majority of the kids in a single section ended up being of a single religion. It did have an impact on the kids, as they were not ready to bond with students of other religions. Most of our friends are non-Muslims. My best friend is a Pandit. Earlier my son too had a healthy mix of friends from all religions. But (now), he has only Muslim friends. All the kids coming home are Muslims. That worries me. There is definitely a divide. I can feel it. I can see it," Raiqa says.
When parents questioned this division they were told that timetables are easier to set and students do not need to be shuffled for a single class, and traffic in the school corridors is thus minimised. But when asked officially, school administrations denied the prevalence of any such practices. A school owner, on condition of anonymity, told me, "It makes economic sense for the administration to group students together according to language. It's a simple case of maximising resources. The administrations are only thinking about how much money is being saved, not about the ripple effects in society."
If students are compartmentalised this early they don't get to learn about 'others'. Students of one section don't get time beyond classes to bond with students from other sections. They don't share Tffins. They don't make friends. If you ask the kids, they say, "Woh Bante Hi Nahi Hamare friends. Bas Hi-Hello Ho Jata Hai. (They don't become friends with us. We just greet each other in passing.)"