La Martiniere for Boys, an elite Kolkata school, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last two weeks.
It seems the 175-year-old institution regularly uses corporal punishment, which is banned by law, to discipline young boys.
One such incident of caning resulted in a 13-year-old student, Rouvanjit Rawla, committing suicide on February 12, 2010.
The police have registered an FIR against the principal, who has admitted to caning Rawla and the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights and the National Council for Minorities Education have found the school guilty of driving the boy to suicide.
They have also discovered that caning has created a fear psychosis in the minds of many boys.
The incident brought into focus one of the Indian education system's worst kept secrets – that corporal punishment, mainly caning (but also slapping, boxing of the ears, etc.) are common, especially in boys' schools.
The law is very clear:
The Supreme Court banned corporal punishment for children on December 1, 2000; and Clause 17 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 states that no child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment under any circumstances whatsoever.
But old habits die hard. Many teachers and, shockingly, even some parents, still believe in the dictum "spare the rod and spoil the child".
Herod Mullick, general secretary of Bongiyo Christiyo Porisheba, the umbrella organisation of 700 Christian missionary schools in Kolkata, says corporal punishment is needed to maintain discipline.
"Our schools are coveted by parents because of the discipline we imbibe in children. And you cannot inculcate discipline without some punishment," he says.
On June 15, La Martiniere for Boys Principal Sunirmal Chakravarthi admitted he caned Rawla and apologized, but defended himself against the charge of having driven him to suicide.
"I knew caning was banned and I'm sorry I caned him. The school will not practise corporal punishment any more… But I'm in no way guilty for his death – the child committed suicide four days after I caned him," says Chakravarthi.
"Corporal punishment is a corrective measure. Most of our former students are thankful to teachers who had slapped them and shown them the right way in life," adds Mullick.
But there aren't too many takers for Mullick's or Chakravarthi's arguments.
"How can the principal of one of the country's most respected schools claim that he knew the law but still flouted it? What will he teach the children?" asks Neil O' Brien, chairman of the Indian Council for Secondary Education that La Martiniere
is affiliated to and a former member of the school's governing body.
Most academics and sociologists Hindustan Times spoke to agree with O'Brien.
Malini Bhagat, principal, Mahadevi Birla Girls High School, Kolkata, goes a step further and says principals and teachers who practice corporal punishment should be sent for counseling.
"They are responsible for the children in school and they cannot fulfill their responsibility by hitting them and creating a fear psychosis. This can make some children depressed and suicidal," she adds.
"My son was a jolly kid and it has been proved that he was hit and this drove him to suicide," weeps Ajay Rawla, the child's father, who says he will never forgive the school "for making my once complete family incomplete".
Dr Subir Halder Choudhury, a leading psychiatrist, says children these days go through various kinds of pressure and, hence, need to be tackled sympathetically.
"If they are subjected to physical violence they sometimes feel they can 'take revenge' on the offenders by ending their lives. It is high time schools tried out other means of taming children," he adds.
Mukta Nain, principal of Birla High School, another well-known boys' school in Kolkata, suggests what these "other means" could be.
"We never inflict corporal punishment on our boys. But that doesn't mean we don't discipline them. When children do something wrong, as punishment, we ban them for a certain period from the games period or the library or other activities
like dancing, singing and contests that boys generally enjoy," she says.
"Unruly children can also be sent to a counselor," says Pradip Narayan Ghosh, vice chancellor of Jadavpur University.
His logic is simple: If colleges and universities can tackle young adults and teenagers without hitting them, it shouldn't be very difficult for schools to do the same.
So, is corporal punishment a barbaric practice that has rightly been outlawed? Or is it an essential disciplinary tool that political correctness and new age norms have demonised?
"My two children went to La Marts and I never ever questioned the school if even when it 'disciplined' them," says Avik
Saha, an alumnus of La Martiniere's Class of 1982, implicitly supporting the practice of caning truant boys.
Rubbish, say the nay-sayers.
"The whole concept of corporal punishment is archaic. That corporal punishment should go unnoticed in so many leading schools is appalling. It is high time the teachers stopped this barbaric practice and adopted the changing rules of society," says Bula Bhadra, professor of sociology at Calcutta University.
Society, clearly, is far from a consensus on the issue, but the law – and social pressure – is at least nudging opinion makers in the right direction.