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Bullying in Educational Campuses

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

It happens; it is rampant; it needs to be addressed

With inputs from Mayukhi Khan, Sneha Mishra and Vishav

  • In February 2022, Arvey Malhotra, a 16-year-old student of Faridabad’s Delhi Public School, killed himself by jumping off his residential building, leaving behind a poignant suicide, which said “The school killed me”. A class 10 student, he was a victim of relentless bullying by his peers, who harassed him endlessly over his sexuality. His mother said the school ignored her complaint.

  • In November 2021, a 16-year-old boy died by suicide after being bullied and assaulted on the very first day of his offline junior college in Nhava Sheva, Mumbai.

  • In November 2019, Fathima Latheef, an 18-year-old student of IIT Madras, hailing from Kollam, Kerala, committed suicide by hanging herself in her hostel room. She had complained about being bullied, humiliated and discriminated against on account of her religion by both students and teachers. In her last chat with her father, she told him, “My name itself is the problem, vappichi (father in Malayalam)”.

  • In July 2016, 14-year-old Raunaq Banerjee, a ninth standard student in Baldwin Boys High School, Bengaluru, committed suicide as he could not bear the humiliation of being bullied by fellow students.

These are not isolated incidents – bullying is rampant in educational institutions in India, and it happens all over the country. There is no gender bar or age bar, with intimidation and "othering" of someone who does not fit into the bully's notion of "normal" being a common practice. Counsellors, psychologists and educationists are worried that bullying, which is not a new phenomenon, is becoming even more common in the age of social media, with cyberbullying aggravating the problem.

As per a McAfee report released this year, titled Hidden in Plain Sight: More Dangers of Cyberbullying Emerge, cyberbullying in India is reaching alarming highs, as more than 1 in 3 kids face cyber racism, sexual harassment, and threats of physical harm as early as at the age of 10, making India the Number One nation for reported cyberbullying in the world.

Characteristics of a bully

There are many different kinds of bullies, but there are some characteristics that are common to all of them. Says Delhi-based Rohit Kumar, an educator, author and activist who has held several workshops on the dangers of bullying, “Bullies are afraid of diversity, and of any one who is ‘different’. They actually suffer from a deep sense of insecurity, which, in all probability, they themselves aren’t aware of. Hence their constant need to put others down. Bullies are basically cowards. They hunt in packs. Seldom will you see a bully operating alone. Bullies are often scared people, who mask their deep, often irrational fears, with aggression.”

Counsellors and psychologists have often found that bullies are possibly people who have themselves been bullied, and instead of transforming their pain into something productive, they choose, instead, to transmit it. Adds Kumar, “It is the hurt who hurt. Bullies either lack empathy, or have chosen not to be empathetic. If a person is empathetic, then he or she will not hurt others because he or she will know what it feels like to be hurt by words, or by actions. It is also entirely possible that a bully grew up in a home full of bullies.”

Patterns of bullying

Bullying today is more personal, aggressive and spiteful than ever before. Students report being bullied for just about anything -- from disability to physical appearance, hobbies, economic backgrounds, sexual orientation, and even the marital status of parents. There are no boundaries. Name calling, communal slurs, racial comments, caste-based insults, mockery over not being up to the mark in terms of appearance and dressing are common.

Emotional abuse, such as threatening or humiliating someone, is a common form of bullying. As expected, minorities and groups of people otherwise perceived as ‘weak’, or easily targetable by society, are far more likely to be bullied.

Gender plays a significant role in determining the pattern or forms of bullying. According to a survey conducted by The Teacher Foundation, a Bangalore-based organization that provides school improvement solutions and professional development services to teachers and schools, and Wipro Applying Thought In Schools (WATIS), an initiative of IT company Wipro Ltd to upgrade teaching and learning standards in urban schools, while both boys and girls are involved in bullying, boys tend to resort to physical violence to establish their dominance, while girls prefer verbal and cyberbullying.

As per the survey report, “As many as 69% of students from grade 4-8 admitted to difficulties in working with students who are different from them in attire and mannerisms. Students who belong to a religion or caste different from the majority in that institution are at a higher risk of direct or subtle aggression from peers.”

Says Kumar, “Bullying is not necessarily gender-specific, but the different genders express it differently. Male bullies are much more likely to get physically aggressive and are much less subtle than female bullies, who can be more indirect in their bullying, but much more verbally hurtful. Female bullies tend to be better at using words to deadly effect. They can also ‘bully by exclusion’. In other words, they hurt others by ostracising those they deem unfit to be in their company.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity/gender representation are core points that are targeted by bullies. Dr Trinetra Gummaraju, transgender activist and surgeon, has been vocal on social media about her experiences – from being molested by older boys in school and ridiculed by teachers, to being denied entry at the girls’ hostel by her peers – her stories paint a clear picture of everyday bullying based on one’s identity.

Bullying also has a socio-economic pattern to it. “It is nearly always the privileged, the ‘in-groups’, and those who are further up the economic ladder, or the social hierarchy, who bully those they see as lesser or as inferior,” points out Kumar. “In a classroom, too, it is the economically (and, thus, socially) better off who feel free and entitled to put the others down. It is also something they learn from their families, where they, most likely, have seen either their domestic helpers being bullied, or have witnessed or experienced patriarchy at home. Many times, the ‘smarter’, or the more talented in a class, feel freer to make fun of those who they perceive as less smart,” he adds.

How can bullying be curbed?

Educational institutions need to take urgent and immediate steps to combat the scourge of bullying. All schools and colleges need to create a code of conduct, clearly laying down what kind of behaviour is acceptable, and what is not. Teachers and students must be empowered to enforce these rules, and respond to inappropriate behaviour. Regular anti-bullying workshops and seminars need to be held to highlight how bullying can damage a person for life.

Sutapa Bhattacharya, a teacher in Patha Bhavan Dankuni, Hooghly, West Bengal, says a caring environment is essential to prevent bullying. “Our school is built on the principles of Rabindranath Tagore’s educational philosophy,” she explains, adding, “In a school environment where each student is valued equally and encouraged by teachers and peers, bullying finds no expression. Children who bully do so because of their own suppressed issues and lack of proper love. Since everyone is cared for, our school eliminates bullying at the source.”

But all institutions do not take the problem equally seriously. According to Sumit Vohra, a teacher in a private school in Delhi, and a father of two girls, “Bullying is, sadly, not taken very seriously by school authorities in India. As a teacher, I have noticed many rich kids bullying children from economically weaker backgrounds.”

He adds that when such incidents are reported by the victims or their parents, schools either ignore them, or let the bullies go after a mere warning. “This greatly affects the psyche of the one who is bullied. Parents and educators need to jointly tackle this menace,” he says.

Explains Claire Whyte, Principal, Khaitan Public School, Ghaziabad, “Bullying has been a part of all schools I have taught in, so what can we do to make an impact and create a classroom that prevents bullying? I taught in one school where the school motto played a huge impact on behaviour, “A kinder you, a kinder world” was written on all class boards, and it served as a gentle reminder every day as to how we want children to behave.

“The present school I am at uses the arts programme to help students see situations from different perspectives through art, theatre and dance. KPS has a strong SEE programme (Social, Emotional and Ethical) developed for all classes right from LKG to Class 12. As students get older, they are made aware of the different types of bullying and how to cope in the various situations. We also have a strong counselling unit where students are made comfortable and encouraged to talk about any instance of bullying. We cannot eliminate bullying, but we can act swiftly to make sure all our children feel safe in school and know that the class teacher and management will deal with the situation promptly and in complete confidence.”

Dealing with the problem becomes much harder when parents of bullies do not take their children to task for bullying others. Says Vinita Bansal, a Gurgaon-based life skills educator, “While holding workshops, we got to know about many instances of bullying. Initially, we started off by informing the parents of the child who was bullying other kids. But most of the time, parents were not ready to accept the fact that their kid could bully anyone. Frankly, we first need to educate the parents, and then only can we hope to connect with children.”

Bullying needs systemic and institutional disapproval. Explains Kumar, “Because bullying is so endemic to human nature, a bullying-free culture needs to be consciously created in society and in institutions especially. The topic needs to be addressed repeatedly by those in authority so that the message goes across loud and clear that bullying will not be tolerated or permitted.

“It is also extremely important that adequate opportunities be created for students from diverse backgrounds to interact as humans first and foremost in safe spaces. It is imperative that institutions be made emotionally safe spaces. This can be done when there is an atmosphere of mutual respect, something that is best modelled by the elders or the seniors of that institution. Open and respectful conversations are an important way to do that.”

Moreover, all students need to be sensitized to the dangers of bullying, not just those who bully, and are bullied. Kumar underlines this when he says, “It is important also to tell students who are not directly affected by bullying to not just be ‘bystanders’ but ‘upstanders’ for those being bullied. It is also crucial for the bullied to face down their bullies. This is not easy, of course, and it is important that they know there is support for them. Finally, it is important that the bully knows there will be consequences for bullying, just as there are consequences for ragging.”

Clearly, it is not easy to curb the menace of bullying. That, however, cannot be accepted as an excuse to let it happen. Educational institutions have to remain ever vigilant about bullying, review their policies from time to time, and always listen to any student who complains about bullying, and then take remedial steps. But more than anything, institutions need to tell the bullies, in no uncertain terms – if you bully, you will be punished.

Bullying: Case Studies

Those who are being bullied, or have been bullied, often find it difficult to share their story, or express their trauma. But they need to be told that talking about their experience can be therapeutic, and can also help others who are going through a similar experience.

Here are some case studies highlighting the trauma a child goes through when bullied.

Rishita Das, a student of a well-known school of Delhi

I was around 10 years old when I was bullied for the first time for not having a very beautiful face, and having a dark complexion. It was mental torture for me, which created insecurity and self-doubt in me. I started to lose my confidence. However, after years of not loving myself, and blaming myself for not being pretty enough, I decided to not let all these things ruin me. Finally, I started to love myself and in future, I would like to be a campaigner who spreads awareness about bullying, and how to deal with it.

X (Name withheld on request)

I was a victim of severe bullying in my school days. I remember how awful and depressing it was for me to go to school. Going to school felt like a punishment. I wasn’t amongst the ‘cool kids’ of the school, who were rich and used to flaunt high-end stuff -- expensive bags, stationery, clothes. I did not have these things. I was given the title of ‘shy doll' by my mates. The name caught on, and everyone started to call me by that name. I used to cry myself to sleep every night.

XX (Name withheld on request)

It’s 2022 and the trauma still feels new, as it happened just yesterday. When I was in my sixth grade, groupism started in my school. I was not a member of any group, I was alone, and got bullied mercilessly. Things didn’t get any better the next year, and I started getting panic attacks. One morning, due to excessive crying, my I started experiencing pain in my chest. I was admitted to a hospital and was reported critical, which devastated my family. I was later sent for a therapy session. My psychologist encouraged me to talk about my problem. For the first time, I trusted someone and told her everything. She helped me deal with the trauma, and showed me a way out. To all those who are being bullied, I say talk to someone you trust. It will change everything.

Saanchi, now a 16-year-old

I started being bullied when I was just seven years of age. There were these girls in my class who always made sure I felt stupid. They used to bother me with their presence. We were just kids, still they bullied me. When I went to Grade 3, they started bullying me every day. They would write my name on the teacher’s desk, so that I would get scolded. Teachers would confront me about things I never even did. I was always humiliated by my classmates for absolutely no reason. When people think of their school and their childhood memories, they smile and feel nostalgic. For me, none of it is a good memory. It’s just a dark past, in which I suffered immensely. I hope no one ever goes through bullying, as it leaves a sense of insecurity in the person who is bullied, and that insecurity can last forever.

(Suneeta Kaul is a journalist, having started her career with The Economic Times in New Delhi. She has worked with several publications in various cities since then, and has also done a stint in the corporate world. Keenly interested in current events, she is a champion of social justice, equality and human rights, besides being a gender and street animal welfare activist.

Mayukhi Khan is an 18-year-old, who has just finished school, and is now studying in Drexel University, Philadelphia, in the US. She meddles with books, programming, writing, poetry and art.

Sneha Mishra is a 17-year-old, studying in Radicon School, Ghaziabad. She is keenly interested in writing poetry and short stories, and discussing and deliberating on social issues.

Vishav is a Jammu-based journalist, with over nine years of experience in various media organizations, including The Asian Age, The Pioneer and Outlook. He loves to teach, and has worked as Assistant Professor {Guest} at Delhi University for three years.)


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