Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was a rare film that raised awareness about the lack of sympathy and empathy that impacts the lives of children with dyslexia. While its iconic “Ma” song still generates copious tears amongst the listeners, our schools couldn’t care less about the plight of students with a difference.
Very recently, the suicide of a class ten student in Delhi’s National Capital Region (NCR) left us deeply disturbed about the lack of school’s effective measures against bullying. The death of Arvey Malhotra in Delhi recalls that ‘All is not well’ in our schools, and voices should be raised from all concerned sections to find out ways to make schools safer for students across backgrounds.
We write the article as individuals who had their own share of trauma inflicted by the system; we wonder why Indian schools, especially those in Kolkata, have repeatedly failed to check abuse and foster inclusive thinking. We spoke to some stakeholders — a student, a parent, a teacher, and a psychologist — to illuminate experiences and possible solutions that can make schools safer, healthier, and more affirmative for all students.
While the family is not always a site where a child feels heard and safe, at least one of us didn’t feel policed at home. Rajorshi’s mother, Lipika Das encouraged her son to discover himself — “You were so young. You would dress up and dance like Madhuri Dixit. I didn’t stop you. I didn’t think about gender at all. I wanted to encourage you to dance and learn music.” However, she concedes that she didn’t know that her son was being bullied every day in school. “You never told me. I didn’t realise what they were doing to you.”
For Probeshika (name changed), who is now a PhD student in a university in New York, the school became the first institution that normalised hiding. Their convent school tabooed any discussion of sex and gender; it was neither part of the curriculum nor encouraged within the socio-cultural space of the school. There was no confidante, counsellor, or outlet for expression. This lack of support was aggravated by the constant presence of bullies, sometimes even supported by the teachers — “A bully is itself a tool of suppression. When the teacher is participating in the bullying, it becomes very difficult to negotiate because it then becomes a question of power play.”
Probeshika believes that to a certain extent, one can negotiate with their peers, but when teachers become mere spectators, the situation turns very hostile. However, being “good in studies with a decent leadership quality,” Probeshika was able to negotiate with their peers. They wonder, “what would happen to an academically weak student or one who lacks any leadership qualifications?”
Educational Consultant Manjir Ghosh, who founded Educhange, insists that schools need to stop celebrating students with high grades and focus on awards which celebrate virtues and values — “for example, schools should promote awards for most courteous, loving, caring students. The focus on these values will encourage students to realise that these values have significance in the society as the school itself reinforces these qualities.”
One of us, in fact, was constantly ridiculed by both peers and teachers for stammering. A schoolteacher once told Abhijit that his English wasn’t good enough just because he was taking more time to read. Jay Timothy Dolmage would describe this attitude as “academic ableism.” He elaborates in the context of higher education that “the stigma of disability is something that drifts all over — it can be used to insinuate inferiority, revoke privilege, and step society very freely.”
Thus, Abhijit’s anxiety due to stammering was read as an inability to perform merit. Ghosh, who has overseen the growth of many schools in West Bengal, firmly believes that teachers have no business commenting on the physical attributes of students — “each person has a different body and deserves to be treated with dignity.”
As Probeshika also reminds us, schools don’t train us to communicate about bodily growth and development. They insist that topics of sex cannot be limited to biology classes and must be integrated into the social sciences curriculum. Furthermore, as evident from the drama series Sex Education, an awareness of gender and sexuality is crucial to the well-being of any person.
Ghosh is particularly against any kind of gendered segregation of activities in co-ed schools, be it in sports or academics. She also insists that rules with regards to the length of hair or school uniform should be the same for everyone — “a boy can also grow his hair as long as he ties it up like the girl.” For her, the primary focus should be on the need to inculcate, develop and practice sensitivity, care, and compassion. These are not treated as separate lessons for specific classes but as non-negotiable features of the everyday life of the school.
In the absence of such emphasis on care and sensitivity, students who seem different or don’t fit easily into societal expectations get frequently bullied and even abused. Meenakshi Khorana Saha, a psychologist and also the founding member of Healing Minds, argues that the family is the unit which should teach the children how to conduct in class. In other words, the nature of bullying has a deep relationship with the children’s family background — “bullying often develops due to the lack of a role model. A role model is very important for the child; it is through looking at and observing the model that the child learns what the desired behaviour is.”
For Khorana Saha, whenever a child is bullied, scolding the child or giving him/her punishment is not the solution; instead, the focus should be on counselling the parents and offering ways to introduce healthy family relations. When a person bullies someone, it is because of his bad role models or because he comes from a family where someone is bullied. It is where the school can step to create good role models.
Guidelines given by some governments state that, “The schools should appreciate and acknowledge students who provide support to the bullied students by either giving them prizes or by making them class prefects or monitors, so they become role models for the rest of the students.”
Khorana Saha insists that by celebrating students who are kind, compassionate and caring, schools can do a lot in generating good role models.
Since bullies often tend to seek attention, parents too need to step in and become important agencies of change. Someone who is bullying wants attention that the family is not providing. Guidelines further state, “Thus, care and support should be given to both those who are bullying and who are getting bullied.” The perpetrator should be made to understand what is wrong with their attitude, perhaps providing them with mandatory courses on development programs.
On the other hand, the survivor must be made to realise that it is not their fault that they are being bullied, and no emotion of fear, guilt or shame should be attached to it. “Schools should implement anti-bullying policies, and it is upon the parents to make sure that those guidelines and policies are being followed by putting pressure on the school administration.” advises the protocol given out by some governments.
Khorana Saha also added that the main responsibility of the teacher is to analyse why someone is silent and what possible help and care are available.
Dalia Rodriguez argues that “silence and silencing” are “gendered, raced, and classed.” In West Bengal, where casteism is rampant but downplayed, casteist comments can traumatise SC, ST and OBC students. Liberal education, even when informed by gender relations, does not encourage equity.
As Shailaja Paik writes — “unlike the upper-caste nationalists, instead of focusing on merely ‘modernising’ education and gender relations, Phule and Ambedkar sought to democratise them. They emphasised egalitarian relationships as opposed to privilege, and combined critiques of knowledge, caste and gender hierarchies in ways that opened up new spaces for women in general and Dalit women in particular.” A Dalit feminist standpoint can help schools recognise the way in which children from different backgrounds can engage and co-exist. In fact, an understanding of privilege and oppression is crucial to do away with any harassment. Since bullying is always about power, schools must consider ways to have a dialogue on power relations in our society.
While the New Education Policy 2020 seems to promise holistic learning, the onus to ensure proper mechanisms to prevent bullying and abuse remains on school administration. Until the Centre and state governments implement structural changes, schools will remain sites of ableism and violence.
Rajorshi Das is a Ph.D. (English) candidate at the University of Iowa. They are invested in queer studies, specific to South Asian diasporas and social movements. When not heavy lifting in classrooms, they write poetry about desires and friendships. Rajorshi can be found on Twitter.
Abhijit Dasgupta is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, GITAM School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He completed his Ph.D. (Sociology) from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. His dissertation explored the everyday lives of the Christian community in a Kolkata neighbourhood.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal for Feminism In India