New Delhi - During a conversation about her life in the ninth grade, Nazmeen, a slender 14-year-old with tightly braided hair, began to sob.
"Why did she say that when I always study so hard, " she cried, wiping away her tears.
Her teacher, Nazmeen said, had told her that she would fail the school exam. "Ma'am has been making jibes like that since the sixth grade," she said.
The rundown locality on the outskirts of Delhi, where Nazmeen lives, is home to mostly poor Muslim families, who earn their living as labourers, rickshaw pullers, selling cigarettes and repairing bicycles. Their children attend free government schools in the area.
Nazmeen said that she got along with the Hindu students, who make up the majority of the class. But her Hindu teacher, she believes, doles out harsher words and a negative attitude towards the Muslim girls.
|The HRW report highlights discrimination such as food deprivation, cleaning toilets, derogatory remarks, and denying leadership positions [Betwa Sharma / Al Jazeera]
The student recalled being scolded for not paying attention in class because she was feeling weak from fasting in the month of Ramadan, last year. "Ma'am said 'I haven't asked you to keep roza and it isn't my problem,'" she said.
Nazmeen, whose father is a labourer, requested that the name of her school is not identified because she does not want to get into any more trouble.
Reports released by the Indian government and human rights organisations in recent years highlight the problem of children from socially excluded and economically marginalised communities being discriminated in schools.
The children from Dalits - the former untouchables - tribals and Muslims, who face subtle or glaring discrimination, feel humiliated and hurt, and eventually they no longer want to attend. Dropping out makes them vulnerable to child labour and early marriages.
Government data shows that more than 42 percent of students drop out before completing the eighth grade, and more than 49 percent drop out before the tenth grade.
'They say we are dirty'
A report released by rights body, Human Rights Watch, on Tuesday, "'They Say We're Dirty': Denying an Education to India's Marginalised," highlights religious and caste-based discrimination in India's schools.
The report based on interviews with students and teachers in four states - Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar - reveals discrimination such as segregation in classrooms, corporal punishment, food deprivation, cleaning toilets, derogatory remarks, and denying leadership positions.
"The teacher tells us to sit on the other side. If we sit with others, she scolds us and asks us to sit separately," said Pankaj, eight, of the Ghasiya tribe from Uttar Pradesh state's Sonbhadra district, who is cited in the report.
The teacher does not sit with us because she says we are dirty. The other children also call us dirty every day
"The children from the other community don't play with us or talk to us. The teacher doesn't sit with us because she says we are dirty. The other children also call us dirty every day, so sometimes we get angry and hit them," he said.
Human rights activists are concerned that the discrimination is preventing the realisation of India's Right to Education (RTE) that aims to provide quality education to all children between the ages of 6 to 14 till elementary school (till eighth grade).
Since RTE came into force in 2010, nearly all children are in school.
Government data shows that the total enrollment of children in primary school increased by 14.6 million in the past five years, which includes 56 percent girls, as well as 55 percent backward castes and 41 percent Muslims.
Meenakshi Ganguly, head of Human Rights Watch in India, said that it was the responsibility of the government to ensure that all the enrolled children feel safe and welcome in school, which allows them to complete their education.
"We are a proudly diverse country, we celebrate that diversity, let's do that with honour, equity and not with discrimination," she said, making an appeal for zero discrimination at the launch of the report.
But would the appeal cut into the thick cloak of prejudice?
Experts believe that few efforts have been made to sensitise teachers, or detecting and preventing discrimination.
Vimala Ramachandran, an education pioneer for over two decades, said that at present no mechanism exists to monitor teachers and penalise them for discrimination.
"Whenever there is an inspired and good headmaster or headmistress, there is no discrimination in schools," she said.
Mohammed Irshad, 12, who lives in the same locality as Nazmeen, said that his class teacher regularly whacks him.
"I was closing a window to get some shade but it broke," he said. "Sir, really hit me, and he makes a fist while beating us."
Irshad said that he interacted normally with his Hindu classmates, but his teacher picked on the handful of Muslim boys.
Israt Jahan, his middle aged mother, said that when she complained to the school principal he made a snide remark about Muslims producing too many children. "It’s my decision how many kids I have, how can he talk to me like that," she said.
Some teachers do not understand why children of cobblers and washermen should be taught. Their thinking is 'What will they do with studying'
Annie Namala, executive director at the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, pointed that government bodies and civil society groups had done studies to address discrimination, but these recommendations were not being implemented.
"None of these are really getting to the light of the day, nor it translating into any point down the files and papers," she said.
Increasingly, parents with even some money are opting to send their children to any cheap private school in the vicinity. And so, government schools are filled with the most marginalised children, while their teachers belong to upper castes.
Ambarish Rai, national convener at the Right to Education Forum, says that these teachers don't understand why children of cobblers and washermen should be taught. Their thinking, he said, is "what will they do with studying".
Besides child labour, girl dropouts are especially vulnerable to early marriages. Government data shows that the dropout rate among girls is more than 41 percent till the eighth grade and over 57 percent till the tenth grade.
Ramachandran said that girls from marginalised communities suffer the worst from of discrimination. Girls from lower castes are made to clean toilets, while girls from the higher castes make tea for the teacher. In Rajasthan, she pointed out that government schools for girls don’t offer science and math beyond the eighth grade.
Nazneem, whose goal is to become a doctor, is stuck between a rock and hard place. At school, she endures her teacher's barbs, and at home, her mother talks about marrying her off in the next two years.
Momina, her middle aged mother, said that girls in their community were now being married even before they turned 18 because parents were scared of leaving their daughters unwed in an environment where sexual crimes were frequent.
"We cannot risk the shame," she said. "My daughter only goes to school and back. Otherwise she stays in the house with me."
Nazmeen wants her teacher to understand that her leaving school brings her closer to an early marriage and takes her further away from being a doctor.
"My future depends on school," she said.
Names of some students have been changed to protect their identity.
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