It is widely believed that the awareness of identity does not take shape in a child’s mind before early adolescence. A study of four to eight-year-old Hindu and Muslim children living in the Daryaganj area of Delhi reveals that children as youn g as four years already begin to identify with their religious group and develop prejudice towards other religious communities. Daryaganj is a residence-cum-trading area with a mixed Hindu-Muslim population. The presence of Muslim families is quite marked in Daryaganj, yet it is not a ghetto like some other Muslim-dominated areas of Delhi.
My interaction with children revolved around tasks which required them to respond to material and symbols of both religions and to imagine themselves in real-life situations where an encounter with the “other” religion routinely takes place. The study revealed that four-year-old Hindu children were already quite fully submerged in the rituals and common practices of their religion. The passion and respect with which they talked about Hindu idols conveyed that they not only identified with the family’s faith, but also took pride in it. They folded their hands and bowed repeatedly while referring to Hindu gods and goddesses during the conversation. But it was when they were shown the symbols or material associated with Islam that they asserted their Hindu identity by emphasising that they were not Muslim. When shown symbols of Islam, the most common response was, Ye Musalmanon ka hai, main to Hindu hoon. Mujhe nahin pata.(This is Muslims’, I am a Hindu. I do not know.)
A strong consciousness of one’s religion figured in the interaction with Muslim children also. They also expressed their faith in the family’s religion in a pronounced manner. Most of them recited the related verses of the Koran when they picked up the rosary and their hands rose in a spontaneous manner as if they were offering prayers. These children also asserted their religious identity by distancing themselves from Hindu symbols while readily showing familiarity with them. For instance, when they were shown an image of Hanuman, they said: Ye Hanuman hai. Hinduon ki moortee hai. Ham to Musalmaan hain (This is Hanuman. It is an idol of Hindus, whereas I am a Muslim.) The Muslim children were aware that there are things which are used by both Hindus and Muslims, such as incense, kalava, diya and sweet offerings. In contrast, the Hindu children were absolutely clueless about this overlap.
Ignorance of other customs
The conversations held with Hindu children revealed that they were by and large ignorant of the practices and rituals of Islam. All the Hindu children said that Muslim men wear rosary in their neck. Not even a single Hindu child expressed familiarity with the story of the Prophet, whereas their counterpart Muslim children recognised relevant Hindu mythological tales instantly when they were shown pictures depicting these myths. Hindu children talked about things related to their own religion passionately and expressed their prejudice toward Muslims with equal passion by conveying their disgust with the help of facial expressions and gestures. For example, they were very negative when talking about the veil worn by Muslim women. There was a pronounced fear and scepticism in the statements made by Hindu children. They viewed Muslims as people who always stay together and make a threatening crowd. These children perceived Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of people who cannot be trusted and who can turn violent anytime. Muslims do not exist as individuals in these Hindu children’s minds.
Interestingly, Muslim children did not use any pejoratives while articulating their awareness about Hindus. They were relaxed while talking about Hindu temples and symbols. They saw the other’s faith just like their own. These children were aware that it could be a source of tension if one visited religious institutions of the other religion but they did not use this awareness to show prejudices against Hindus. The conversations with Muslim children not only conveyed considerable familiarity with the practices and symbols of Hinduism, but also a degree of positive interest and tolerance. This is in contrast to the ignorance and negative feelings that Hindu children had conveyed.
The study points out that early socialisation, which takes place in the family, creates attitudes and prejudices which are in conflict with the stated goals of educational policy. It reminds us that the education of small children cannot rely on rituals like taking a pledge in the morning assembly that all Indians are brothers and sisters. There is a need to address children’s socialisation more directly and comprehensively. Most of the present curricular material is reluctant to acknowledge cultural identity in childhood. A beginning has been made in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005) to overcome this situation. The study provides evidence for the relevance of NCF’s concern that schools must engage with children’s socialisation at home and in the neighbourhood. The greatest challenge lies in teacher training which, at present, ignores the task of sensitising teachers towards the child’s socialisation at home. The teacher has to be equipped with the abilities to create an ethos in the school in which the effect of socialisation can be loosened up to enable children to reflect on their own socialisation. This will make them capable of developing a rational outlook as visualised in the Constitution of India.