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The recently reported suicide of a 16-year-old student of DPS Faridabad, due to homophobic bullying, has rightly provoked consternation from India’s queer community. An analysis by Naz Foundation International in 2005 itself had reported that 50% of homosexual males experienced bullying in school in India and Bangladesh.
As a queer man, I was no different. There is hardly a time that I remember being called by my name. Instead, I was called chakka, baila, “null set” and gud – all derogatory terms. It has been nearly six years since I passed out of high school, three years since the Navtej Singh Johar judgement, which declared that I’m no longer a criminal and that I have equal rights as my cisgender heterosexual fellow citizens – but there is still no law that prevents and punishes discrimination against queer people.
Experts agree that bullying is a serious public health crisis that needs to be addressed on equal footing with other health crises. According to a 2019 report by UNESCO New Delhi, physical bullying affects 60% of high school and middle school students and affects 50% of students in higher secondary schools. The same report also said that in primary schools, the incidence of sexual violence was as high as 43%.
The harmful effects of bullying manifest as physical and mental health symptoms, including disrupted sleep, and anxiety and depression, in both the bully and the bullied. And note that mental health is another public health crisis India has failed to address, even as it has become worse during the pandemic.
Now, as schools across the country open up, it is time that we addressed homophobic bullying as a public health crisis, and deal with it with the force and alacrity that it demands.
Equipping teachers, empowering schools
Teachers are important nodal entities who can detect and eliminate bullying. To address bullying, India has to adopt a multi-pronged approach. It needs to start with equipping teachers to not only deal with bullying but with the students struggling with their gender and sexual identities, which bullies target.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) teacher training manual could be a good first step towards helping queer children. NCERT pulled it down late last year. After the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) sought a response from the NCERT, the latter transferred the members of the committee who drafted the manual.
The NCPCR is yet to take cognisance of the student’s suicide at DPS Faridabad and the proximate cause, their homophobic bullying.
The NCERT manual had advocated for gender-neutral toilets, puberty blockers, and sensitisation of teachers and key educational staff. These are good measures. Queer people have been at the margins of legislative policies and we may not see an anti-discrimination law for a long time. In this situation, it falls upon schools to address systemic bullying and adopt zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, led from the front by teachers.
Teachers in turn need to be complemented with queer-affirmative counsellors in schools, to help children deal with issues with their gender or sexual identities.
A public health approach
Queer people face two kinds of bullying: the first in our social settings, at school and in other places, and the second kind in the form of the government’s attack on our rights, including our reproductive rights. Only the electorate can deal with the latter, while the former can be tackled through science-based public health interventions.
A 2001 paper discussed various aspects of bullying, including its epidemiology and clinical management. Its author, epidemiologist and columnist Erica Weir, proposed a four-part approach in response: (quoted verbatim)
- Zero tolerance for behavioural disturbances such as bullying, victimisation and standing by during bullying;
- A discipline plan for modelling appropriate behaviour;
- A physical education plan designed to teach self-control skills; and
- A mentoring program for adults and children to help children avoid assuming one of the roles in the triad
This, however, may not be enough. In addition to these policies, we also need to adopt a public health policy that includes a statute that defines ‘bullying’ and mandates research-based programmes in every district. This should be done in consultation with students, staff, community and public health experts, to develop a conducive environment.
While statutes and policy can include criminal sanctions, the government should avoid doing so to the extent possible. Instead, the focus should be on rehabilitation and on positive behavioural disciplinary measures.
The student’s death has shaken the queer community. Although the school’s principal has been arrested, the damage cannot be undone. The incident also raises the question of the number of children who don’t make it to the front pages of newspapers in communities that are not upper-middle-class, in urban areas or don’t have supportive families.
It is time we act to prevent bullying and, more importantly, it is time we create support systems to affirm and care for queer children as a matter of immediate public health concern.
Note: This article was edited at 6:44 am on March 4, 2021, to note that it’s been six years since the author passed out of high school, not law school.
Rohin Bhatt (he/him) is a master of bioethics student, Harvard Medical School.