There are many arguments against corporal punishment but the essence of the issue can be encapsulated in a single question: would you let a stranger assault your child?
You could argue that a school teacher is not a stranger but such a claim would be bogus. The people who teach our children remain strangers to most of us. We may hear about them from our kids and perhaps meet them a couple of times each term, but we know nothing about them. We do not know what kind of people they are – sadists, perverts, maniacs or whatever — and we do not know enough about them to judge whether they are capable of awarding punishment fairly.
We grant them authority over our children largely because we have no choice. In most Indian cities and towns, we can get our children into schools of our choice with the greatest difficulty. Once principals admit our children, they act as though they have done us favours or bestowed some great honour upon us. The balance of power is tilted toward the school, its teachers and its administrators. We are lucky to have got our kids in and are never allowed to forget that.
This fundamental imbalance in the relationship between schools and parents — caused largely by the excess of demand for school places over supply — is at the heart of the current controversy over corporal punishment. I do not know if Rouvanjit Rawla killed himself because he was caned by the principal of La Martiniere, Calcutta. But I do know that the fact that La Martiniere continues to allow middle-aged men to assault young boys with sticks tells us something about the way in which the school sees itself.
The Supreme Court of India ruled against corporal punishment ten years ago. In doing so, the court upheld a principle adopted by most civilised societies: it is wrong for teachers to beat children. You will not find corporal punishment in most Western European countries or in the United States. It is true that the practice once existed. But as civilisation has moved on, developed societies have been determined to stamp it out.
So why does corporal punishment continue to flourish in India?
In some cases — village schools perhaps — it exists because of primitive facilities and the poor calibre of teachers. But in elite schools, it continues because such schools believe that they can do what they like to our children.
Even now, La Martiniere, Calcutta does not seem to recognise the essential barbarity of the practice. Its board of governors insists that a recent modification in its approach to corporal punishment has nothing to do with Rouvanjit’s suicide. The new rules ban corporal punishment by teachers. Surely any teacher who now assaults a student will be booted out?
According to the new rules at La Martiniere, a teacher found guilty of corporal punishment will face ‘suspension, withholding increment, reduction in rank, or removal from service which shall not be a disqualification for future employment’. Only in extreme cases will the teacher be disgraced and thrown out.
Consider the arrogance of the school’s response. It has faced criticism from much of educated India. The suicide of a boy who was assaulted by the school principal is the subject of a police investigation. The practice in question has actually been outlawed by the Supreme Court of India.
And yet, it states that a teacher who assaults a student may well get by with a mere reduction in rank. Or, the poor dear might lose an increment. And that’s it.
I imagine that La Martiniere is harking back to its colonial history. While the school has a formidable reputation, it has long been the subject of innumerable jokes on the public/independent school circuit. The official story is that it was set up in memory of Claude Martin, a soldier of fortune who fought to impose imperialism in India. But wags have always claimed that the school was set up by colonial authorities to house the innumerable illegitimate children that the profligate Martin fathered all over India.
I’m sure that this story is just a naughty rumour but the fact that this tale has been in wide circulation for decades tells us something about the origins of such schools and the so-called glorious traditions that they so proudly claim to uphold. Whenever a colonial institution brags about its traditions, I am always reminded of Winston Churchill’s response to a naval chief who held forth about the glorious traditions of the Royal Navy. “Don’t talk to me about your naval traditions,” Churchill told him. “I know what they are: rum, sodomy and the lash.”
So, perhaps the lash is part of the La Martiniere tradition, a memory of the era when Claude Martin rode all over India, vanquishing the menfolk and violating the ladies. But like most traditions that date from that era, it is a sick and primitive reminder of an age best forgotten. And it is somehow typical of colonial Indian institutions that they cling to Western practices that the West itself gave up on decades ago.
I hesitate to go much further because I am not in favour of one obvious solution in the La Martiniere case: the involvement of the education ministry. It would be easy to recommend that the government crack down on schools that assault our children. But the truth is that this would be an invitation to petty politicians and mindless bureaucrats to ride rough-shod over independent schools. If there is anything worse than schools preserved in the formaldehyde of colonialism, it is the tyranny of Indian babudom.
So, the only solution is a generic one. The reason schools have so much power over us is because there are so few of them and so many of us in the fast-expanding middle class. Things will never get better till some balance is restored to that equation. When you live in a society where every parent spends sleepless nights over getting his kid into school, it is inevitable that the schools will run riot and treat our kids with contempt.
I am all for education for all and for reaching out to the poorer sections. But let’s not forget that India faces a more immediate crisis. We have a middle class that is growing faster than available educational opportunities. If we do not open more good schools in our cities, then we can steel ourselves for a future where many middle class kids are denied the education they deserve. Or are beaten till they give up and die.
The views expressed by the author are personal