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Fighting India’s Ever More Deadly Culture Of Bullying

What if we see a country as a macrocosm of a school…

27/06/2017 8:59 AM IST | Updated 27/06/2017 3:05 PM IST
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Incidents involving communal hatred are happening so quickly in India that by the time this article gets posted, chances are that this particular incident would either have faded from public memory or would have been replaced in the public mind by newer ones.

I hope I am wrong.

On the evening of 22 June, three young men, Junaid (15) and his brothers Hashim and Shaqir, residents of Ballabgarh in Haryana were returning from shopping in Delhi for Eid. A group of 15-20 people got on the train at Okhla station and what should have been an uneventful train journey ended up in a horrifying lynching. This is what Shaqir told the Indian Express:

"They noticed we are Muslims because of our clothing and began taunting us. It would go on for a bit, then stop, then start again. First, they slapped us, then abused us, and then between Ballabhgarh and Asaoti stations, they stabbed us."

Shaqir and Hashim barely escaped with their lives but Junaid, the youngest of the succumbed to his stab wounds and died. According to those who knew him, "He was a very kind boy. He stayed out of trouble and kept to his studies."

Many times, bullies realise that they weren't actually thinking about the effects their words and actions would have. Once empathy dawns, so does realisation.

There have been several incidents of communal violence over the last few years and they have all troubled me deeply, but this crime hit me particularly hard. Maybe it's because the boy who died was the same age as the young people I work with.

I am an itinerant educator. I visit schools around India and conduct workshops for high school students on life skills like empathy, communication, leadership, kindness, critical thinking and living with generosity. My goal is "to turn classrooms into communities." My working definition of a community is, "A group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks, and who have developed some significant commitments to rejoice together, mourn together and make each other's conditions our own."

One of the topics I address most frequently is bullying—its nature, its manifestations, its dangers and the terrible effects it has on those who have been subjected to it. Over the course of my work with thousands of students in hundreds of classrooms over many years, I have learned the following 5 things about bullying.

1. It nearly always takes place in groups

The bully seldom operates alone. He will invariably gather some friends, find his "courage" in numbers, and then pick on the student who is different, either in looks, mannerisms or background.

2. Bullying is the by-product of stereotyping

It happens when we have failed to see the "other" as a unique human being who also feels the same emotions that we feel and has the same vulnerabilities that we have.

3. The power of empathy

One of the best ways to stop the menace of bullying is to awaken empathy in the classroom. The way I try to do that is to initiate a dialogue in the classroom and create a space where those who have been bullied, ostracised and excluded get a chance to speak about their pain. It is then that empathy finally has a chance to emerge. It is then that those who have been bullying realise what they have done and feel ashamed of themselves. I then ask them to please get up and apologise to those they have bullied and maybe even give them a hug. What follows is usually very touching—the bullies slowly get up from their chairs, walk across to those they have bullied and apologise to them. Tears usually flow at this point and the class comes together emotionally. It is a powerful and moving moment!

4. Quietness and active listening are prerequisites for empathy

The simple act of actually listening to not just the words but the feelings of the other breaks the power of groupthink. Many times, bullies realise that they weren't actually thinking about the effects their words and actions would have. Once empathy dawns, so does realisation. But it takes sitting quietly and listening.

5. The class-teacher's role

Perhaps the biggest thing I have learned is the role that the class teacher plays in the process. And that is one of the most important factors in making sure the class remains a bullying-free zone. Israeli school teacher and psychologist Haim Ginott once made this sobering observation:

"I've come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate... As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised."

It is [the response of our leaders] that will decide whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a citizen of India will be humanised or dehumanised.

If a country is a macrocosm of a school, then we as the citizens of a country can do something about Points 1 through 4 listed above:

  1. We can choose to step away from the groupthink that leads to bullying.
  2. We can refuse to participate in the prevailing narrative that demonises those who are different and refuse to stereotype them.
  3. We can choose to listen to each other.
  4. We can exercise empathy.

But, carrying the metaphor of the classroom forward, Point No. 5 is up to our leaders—our "teachers" and "principal".

To paraphrase Ginott, in all situations, it is their response that will decide whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a citizen of India will be humanised or dehumanised.

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