Teacher's Day this year is a Sunday. I suppose most schools will celebrate it on Saturday. I wonder what La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata, will do. I wonder if Principal Sunirmal Chakravarthy will come on stage, smile and accept a bouquet from the head boy and proceed to give a speech. I wonder if he will make the ceremony 'low-key'. I wonder if he will fall ill. I wonder whether four other teachers, accused of being responsible for one of their student's suicide, will absent themselves.
On February 12 this year, Rouvanjit Rawla, 13, ended his life. He was caned for bunking class on February 8 and out of fear did not go to school for three days thereafter. On February 12, he was given 16 minutes (not 17) to reveal to the principal the names of the students who had burst crackers in the classroom. He was not allowed inside the classroom by his teacher and stood outside and cried till the day got over. At 2.30 pm he hanged himself.
In his defence, Principal Chakravarthy said, "That day I did not scold or rebuke him. I said you have 16 minutes to find the culprit and you will be let off scot-free." To save his job and fight the chargesheet that is still in the process of being filed six months later, Chakravarthy is trying hard to prove that the suicide is not connected to the stress Rawla was put under. He must ask himself about the fear he commands, about the power relation his office has with students, that Rawla committed suicide despite being given full 16 minutes to prove that it wasn't him who had burst the crackers. Full 16 minutes.
Talking about caning, he said, "I have made judicious use of it in the past only to express my pain that a child's behaviour caused to me." That is revealing — caning is not about 'disciplining' students but to 'express' one's own pain caused by a child's 'behaviour'. In other words, students violating the unwritten code of the teacher-student relationship shall be faced with violence. This unwritten code is one of subservience, enforced by fear — Rawla committed suicide to escape what he feared would be his fate 16 minutes later.
Rawla's case got sustained media attention only because he was a boy in an elite school. His case got attention in June and many in Kolkata started speaking out against corporal punishment. At the Mother Teresa Public School in Delhi, a student attempted suicide by jumping off the second floor of his school after being scolded for coming late and punished despite his defence that he was called for by another teacher.
There have been cases where students were killed not by themselves but by their teachers. In January, 11-year-old Ajay Bagarti in Orissa's Bargarh district was beaten so badly by his teacher at St. George High School that he died in hospital 15 days later. In June, a computer teacher and the vice-principal of the school beat a 12-year-old so badly for not doing his homework that he died. The teachers went absconding. In the same month, nine students were beaten up by a drunk headmaster in another school in Assam. In March, four students of a government school in Delhi were 'sodomised' by a teacher.
Various legal interventions are being planned to prevent corporal punishment in schools. The first thing we need to do is to abolish this righteous, archaic institution of Teacher's Day. It's a relic of Nehruvian India. It's an institution that puts teachers on a pedestal and makes them demi-gods who are above judgement, rather than be judged as professionals.
This is not to say all teachers are bad, or that all of them go about murdering 11-year-olds. But paying respect to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is fine. But who remembers what exactly he did? In Radhakrishnan's name, we have an institution that furthers the idea that teachers are avatars of the goddess Saraswati and students are sinners who need to appease the goddess to discipline themselves to become good adults. We could do without this ritual.
Shivam Vij is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.