In a young Muslim man’s courage, a lesson for us all

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A 45-second video evoked conflicting emotions in me: As a teacher I felt ashamed. And as a citizen of this country, I felt reassured.

The video, shot in a classroom of the famous Manipal Institute of Technology, shows a passionate response from a student to the ‘casual’ bigotry of his teacher. The student is a Muslim; the teacher a Hindu. The student is reacting to the distasteful way the teacher had addressed him as “Kasab”. What happened afterwards is something the teacher must not have bargained for.

The Muslim student refused to be embarrassed by the obnoxious remark and challenged the teacher’s words. He told him that what he did was unacceptable. The teacher tried to wriggle out of the situation that he himself had created but the student did not allow him to without an apology.

The Telegraph has reproduced the transcript of the interaction. Obviously some student sitting on the other side of the Muslim student started filming the incident after the student reacted. Sadly, what triggered the reaction is not in the video:

“Student: No, these jokes are not acceptable. You can’t talk about my religion in such a derogatory manner. Teacher: No, no, you’re just like my kid.

Student: No. If my father says this I will disown him. (Other students laugh)

Teacher: It’s a funny thing (comment).

Student: No, it’s not, Sir. It’s not. 26/11 was not funny. Being a Muslim in this country and facing all this every day is not funny

Teacher: You’re just like my son.

Student: No, no, no. Will you talk to your son like that? Will you call him by the name of a terrorist?

Teacher: No.

Student: How can you call me like that in front of so many people in the class?

Teacher: Sorry, I told, no?

Student: You’re a professional, you are teaching.

Teacher: Sorry, I told, no?

Student: You can’t call me that.

Teacher: Sorry.

Student: Arrey, your “sorry” — that doesn’t change how you think or how you portray yourself here.”

The student was not browbeaten by his teacher’s shameless act. He does not hide the fact that he is a Muslim. He does not bury his head after being called Kasab. He does not let the moment go. The student is also not concerned that he would not have the vocal, active support of his classmates. He lets the teacher and his class know that he cares for his dignity even if they don’t think it is important. We can see them either giggling or fiddling with their hair. It was a consolation that they did not shout down their classmate.

People have criticised the silence of the other students but their reaction has to be understood in the larger context. Most of them, like many of us, face such moments in our family gatherings. We get used to such Islamophobic behaviour. We think that it is kosher to crack a joke about Muslims, address them abusively. Muslim children also grow up facing all this. Initially they are confused, sometimes they feel insulted. But their parents counsel them and ask them not to react. This is the experience of generations of Muslims and also Christians, and has seldom been questioned.

This video triggered the memories of many Muslims who recalled their own experiences at school and university, and even in workplaces. Or on public occasions. Many of our films and songs normalise this behaviour. Our political leaders do it too.

I recall my daughter, after a night out with her class, telling us about the Islamophobic remarks that her teacher made. She, eight years old then, reacted. The teacher was telling the class that Muslims do everything opposite to what Hindus do. My daughter asked her, why couldn’t we think that Hindus did everything opposite to what Muslims did? It was a childlike response. Hearing about this interaction, we were shocked and concerned that it was happening in a school considered to be progressive, founded by a Christian. We took up the matter with the principal. She could not believe it and said that the child must have imagined the incident. I don’t know whether the teacher was counselled or not.

We, who are not Islamophobes, let such things pass. Don’t make a mountain of a molehill, we think. That is why the Manipal students’ passive consumption of the interaction between their classmate and the teacher does not shock me. After all, we don’t have a prime minister like Justin Trudeau. After the murder of four Pakistani-origin Muslim Canadians, he said that such murders are a result of an Islamophobic culture that is normalised in our daily lives.

This is what Trudeau said while addressing a specially convened session of parliament to condemn the murder and express solidarity with the Muslims:

“Words matter. They can be a seed that grows into an ugly, pervasive trend. And sometimes, they lead to real violence. The jokes that are not funny, the casual racism… the polarisation we too often see in our public discourse and in our politics. As leaders and as Canadians, we not only have to say: enough is enough, we must also take action.”

The Canadian parliament concurred with him.

When the Muslim student said it was not funny for him, being a Muslim, to be called Kasab, his classmates should have said that it was not funny even for them, even when they were not Muslims.

The video appeared in the public domain days after the incident. The classroom was immediately identified. It was from the very prestigious Manipal Institute of Technology. The institution has started an enquiry and barred the teacher from taking classes. The authorities told the Indian Express that the student had not lodged a complaint but after the incident became public, the institution took cognisance anyway. It also said that the student and his parents had been counselled. It is not clear what that means.

The student has shown magnanimity and said that since the teacher has apologised, he would like to put the whole matter behind him. But the teacher, as reported by the Indian Express, does not seem to regret his behaviour. He is now claiming that the student heard him wrong. He had simply asked him, ‘Kaisa ho?’, and was enquiring about his general well-being, but the student misheard it as Kasab. The teacher also tried to lessen the seriousness of the allegation by calling it an afterthought, as he had been teaching the same class after the alleged incident and the same student never raised the issue. I think women would immediately realise what this teacher is trying to do by the taking cover of the lapse of time, insinuating that the allegation was untrue. Why did the student not complain himself or immediately after the alleged incident?

The teacher is now trying to brazen it out. It is highly likely that he will get the support of the Hindutva forces, which are very aggressive in Karnataka. How will the students and other teachers react? How will the institution behave? Will they blame the person who made the video, thereby making a ‘small incident’ into a huge issue, defaming the branded institution? Will they blame social media? Will they come to the defence of the teacher by accepting his claim? Will they say that we should let bygones be bygones?

The answers to these questions will reveal our social, individual, institutional and national character. The Muslim student has performed his duty – by asserting his identity, by asserting his right to dignity, by telling his fellow citizen, the teacher, that he was violating the constitutional pledge of fraternity and equality. The teacher made him unequal in the class. What he did was for his own sake, but perhaps he was also speaking on behalf of millions of Muslims of this country. He was asking his teacher to mend his ways, but perhaps he was also telling the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and other organisations which follow Hindutva that Muslims would claim their equal rights and it is for them to change themselves.

Let us see if the teacher is able to prove himself equal to the expectations of his student. Let us also see if we as a nation join him in this human, noble protest – and prove that we are a nation this Muslim young man can be proud of.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.

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Disclaimer: In a young Muslim man’s courage, a lesson for us all - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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