The damage to our planet by environmental pollution has been a hot topic of discussion for decades. There are, however, equally serious if not greater dangers which no one talks about — the consequences of the pollution of minds, especially those of the young.
A child’s mind is, at its most impressionable, like wet clay waiting to be moulded into shapes — good, bad or ugly. According to Benjamin Spock, an American paediatrician whose book Baby and Child Care is amongst the best-selling books in history, 85 per cent of the child’s mind is developed by the age of five. This is spelt out lucidly by Robert Fulghum in his magnum opus All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten: “Share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, clear up your mess, don’t take things that are not yours, when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together!”
If the formative years are so crucial, it is vital that what a child is exposed to is healthy and positive. In the global village, there are streams of messages floating around, generated by mutual hatred. Children are mercilessly left to infer what they can from these. The consequences are unimaginably disastrous. The seed of poison is planted without much notice. This cancer affects the soul, curbs the development of the individual and constrains personality. Fear and aggression get ingrained in the psyche.
With the phenomenal expansion of TV, a child’s exposure to the outside world is enormous. Hate and violence pre-dominate TV content. According to an American study, by the time a child is 18, (s)he has been exposed to 2,00,000 acts of violence, including 25,000 killings. So much exposure to violence brutalises children more than adults. They tend to take murder as a way of life.
Experts believe that violence shown in the media is the single largest source of pathogenic and criminogenic imagery. Aggressive characters become children’s role models and many of them grow up to be angry young men and women. Their belief in the established legal system is subverted. The cases of mob lynching and people taking the law into their own hands prove the point.
The pollution of the minds of adolescents is as severe, if not more. The crisis of identity makes this age segment vulnerable to physical and psychological behavioural problems. They are overtaken by several emotional problems like anger, aggression, depression, loneliness, insecurity and feelings of guilt. The physiological changes lead to adolescents getting involved in high-risk behaviour like sexual experimentation and drugs. Crimes by and against adolescents surface in many forms like eve-teasing, abduction, rape, incest, prostitution, and sexual harassment. How can we forget that in the horrendous December 2012 Delhi rape and murder case, the most brutal offender was a teenager? In many cases of mob lynching and communal and caste violence, teenagers have been in the forefront.
Mind pollution typically expresses itself in the creation of stereotypes. This could be about gender, communities, religion, ethnic groups, or any other distinction. Targeting them with hate and violence is often the next step. One particularly severe pollutant is communalism, which calls for some elaboration as an example. The child’s mind is the worst victim of this pollution.
In my professional upper-middle-class setting, my seven-year-old son returns from a posh Delhi school and asks me, “Papa, are we Musalmaans?” Bewildered at first, I questioned him: “Why do you ask?” “A boy in my class was telling other children,” he answered. This was 30 years ago. It is a hundred times worse now. Nazia Erum, in her book Mothering a Muslim, has amply documented this phenomenon, where Muslim children as young as three have been called terrorists by their classmates. The communalisation of textbooks, demonising some communities in the process, is aggravating the situation.
The “we and they” being instilled in young minds is a terrible form of mental pollution. This not only fills them with anger and hatred for the “other”, but instills in them a fear of the other. As Edmund Burke has observed, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” It will not be wrong to say that living in fear is a self-inflicted punishment.
All pollution spreads through agents or carriers. Propaganda is a major carrier. In the wake of a few unfortunate terrorist acts, a well-orchestrated campaign dubs the entire Muslim community as terrorists. Some obscurantists trumpet derisive slogans about Muslims like, “Hum paanch, hamare pachees” (we are five – husband and four wives – and have 25 children), and an image is deliberately or mischievously created of Muslims as polygamists.
This is designed to cause a rift between communities. They have achieved tremendous success. This is a travesty of facts.
The only study on marriage customs (‘Towards Equality — The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1975’) found that all the communities in India, including Hindus, had incidences of polygamy. Muslims, in fact, had the least! The 227th Report of the Law Commission of India (2009) on prevention of bigamy via conversion to Islam stated that as many as one crore Hindu men had more than one wife, compared to 12 lakh Muslim men, as per the 1971 census.
The media, unfortunately, has played a key role in the propagation of distorted images. With the proliferation of social media, fear and hatred have become visceral. Individuals can easily find others who share those feelings and this soon leads to a mob mentality.
Now, let us turn to the Muslims. Some on the lunatic fringe talk of “jihad against the infidel” as a religious duty and a passport to Jannat (paradise). But en route to Jannat, hell is created. They conveniently forget the fact that the concept of jihad in Islam meant a struggle within to overcome illiteracy, ignorance, and immoral desires.
The resistance to mind pollution has to start with the realisation of its disastrous consequences — direct and imminent. We need serious research to quantify the possible damage by mind pollution, as has been done for environmental pollution. We cannot wait a day longer. Mind pollution has to be stopped. Moreover, the pollution that has already taken place has to be addressed.
While parents have to rise to play their role, the responsibility of the state, education system, judiciary, and the media needs to be especially recognised. Children require a happy and congenial environment when they are growing up, not fear and hatred. The coronavirus will, hopefully, disappear soon. But the communal virus will continue to haunt us for long. Let’s not build a nation at war with itself.
This article was first published in the print by the title ‘The other pollution’ on April 29. The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India. He holds a PhD in child development
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