Like Eric Hobsbawm and Manmohan Desai, I have had the good fortune of living through ‘interesting times’. I have been a resident of those hinged years when people could still smoke inside cinemas and planes (why do they still install ashtrays in airplanes?); I’ve seen women’s fashion reach a new low when showing the tops of their knickers over their jeans or trousers has not only become acceptable but a preferred form of preening; and I recently realised that schools — most English-medium schools, at any rate — had stopped caning students some while back.
Strangely enough, in all the three aforementioned cases, I can’t put my finger on the exact dates when these tectonic shifts in society happened right under my clipper-untouched nose. That may somewhat explain why I was regularly called into the prefect’s office in school to be caned for getting low grades in my weekly report card for ‘poor attention’.
It turns out that in 2007 when I was continuing to be childish while earning adult money, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had come out with guidelines to check corporal punishment in schools. There’s now news that new guidelines are being framed under the Right to Education Act, in which Section 17b already states that “no child shall be subjected to physical punishment and mental harassment in school”. What happens at home, of course, is some other law’s business.
Corporal punishment has had a strange historiography. The dominant myth is that physical punishment meted out to children in the ordered environs of schools was a Western construct, whose rules (along with that of the then unpopular ‘pastime’ of football) were honed in 19th-early 20th century Britain and were picked up and perpetuated by convent and ‘English’ schools in India.
That is clever Orientalist bollocks.
The same fanciful notion of romantic kissing being a European invention continues to pass muster to this day. The great historiographer Prof. Wikipedia even mentions that “Hindus sometimes kiss the floor of a temple,” shifting Indians snogging into some deep anthropological, post-colonial folder. A culture of not fostering public kissing, helped by decades of not showing people kissing in movies, do not a non-kissing culture make. But, somewhere down the line, even we started believing that when we kiss we’re indulging in something sophisticatedly foreign.
But back to the supple slap or stick. The howls against caning in schools that we heard recently were confined to victims who were ‘children of people like us’. The fact that slaps, the traditional ‘gantta’ (knuckled punch on the head), and thwacks from rulers or sticks continue to shepherd children out of the cave-mouth of adolescence into the bright lights of young adulthood wasn’t ever on the radar. So suddenly, like the way WHO nudged hemp-friendly India to make cannabis illegal, corporal punishment in schools is now seen as being much more brutal than the death sentence.
Now, I don’t suffer from the saas-bahu syndrome (the woes that I underwent as someone’s daughter-in-law must be passed on to my daughter-in-law), but caning wasn’t such a big deal in the 80s (barring the post-wump-wump-wump pain on the well-clothed bottom, of course). It was seen as a rite of passage, a well-intentioned part of school life that earned the ‘victim’ a few brownie points from fellow classmates who, even if you were a died-in-the-wool wuss, saw you coming out as a pint-sized Achilles.
The truth is that caning — and every other form of corporal punishment seems to be riding on this brand ambassador of school-life pain — has now indelibly become associated with something vaguely (or not) sexual, something that paedophiles (closet or not) indulge in. That is an argument powerful enough for me — recipient of many canings from teachers male and female, old and young, straight and crooked — to change my mind and want caning to be banned in all schools, madrasas included.
As for whether suspension or staying back in school is a more effective form of discipline than the fear of the slap, I know the answer. I’m pretty sure so do the generations of kids to come.