[From CNS Archives] Spare The Ruler But Do Not Spoil The Child

The nation is abuzz with the news of Rouvanjit Rawla, a class VIII student of Kolkata’s prestigious La Martiniere School for boys, who hanged himself four months ago, reportedly unable to bear the humiliation after he was caned by his school principal Sunirmal Chakroborty, and allegedly by some other teachers as well. What was his crime?

His class mates said that he was naughty and did not do his home work on time. Perhaps due to the alert of the media, the police complaint of the boy’s father, lodged after an interminably long 4 months period, did not rot in a forgotten file. The school principal has confessed to ‘caning’ the boy and has no regrets about the incident which, perhaps according to him was merely a part of the character building process of the students. Surprisingly no teacher from the school had thought it necessary to alert the parents about their son’s indiscipline—it seemed easier to thrash the boy. Also, more surprisingly, the boy thought it better to end his life rather than take, at least, his parents in confidence.

The problem is symptomatic of an archaic mindset within the education system that sees physical abuse as a means to discipline students. In reality it promotes a culture of violence. Such incidences, despite a decade old Supreme Court ban on corporal punishment, keep on surfacing in the media at regular intervals. We read them and forget them. But this time the eyebrows of the highbrows have been raised, as the victim and the perpetrator, both belong to the upper crust of society. Till now we felt smug in our gilded cages, thinking that such aberrant acts can only happen to ‘them’ and not ‘us’—them being students of low/middle income backgrounds, studying in government/ run of the mill/village schools, managed by dissatisfied / sadistic and lowly paid teachers. But now a premier college of a so called cultured city, manned by the ‘creme a la creme’ of teachers, is in the docks for an unpardonable misdemeanour. It has forced the bhadralok (civilized people) to wake up from their hallucinating stupor and look at the grime under their expensive carpets.

While school teachers cannot absolve them from such heinous crimes, parents are to be blamed equally. I still find it hard to believe that not only the ritual of caning persists in temples of learning, but also that there seems to a complete breakdown of parent-children relationships. That teenagers find suicide an easier option than confiding in their parents, is a telling commentary on the present times where we parents want to showcase our offspring as shining trophies and not as fallible human beings. The family is as much to blame as the school.

Shobha De in her column in The Times Of India ( 14 June 2010) while rightly condemning this barbaric act, talks of her own school days in a Scottish missionary school where ‘rebellious and disobedient’ children like her were frequently caned. But she thought it wiser to hide the swollen, angry red welts on her upper arms from her parents and said not a word about the frequent torture. It is now, and that is too late already, (and she is honest enough to admit it) that she has come out in the open with this ‘dreadful part of her youth’—to retell and relive those hellish minutes when “I’d be summoned to the principal’s office after standing on the yellow bench for hours, often without food and water.”

I was luckier, perhaps, having studied under Irish nuns at Loreto Convent, Lucknow. I have very fond memories of my school days during the 60’s. Corporal punishment was not banned by law and we did get the occasional rap on the knuckles by some teachers, (but never from the nuns) and we took it all in our stride. There was no question of complaining at home, as that would have elicited tighter slaps from our parents, for daring to complain about our ‘guru’. Caning was quite commonplace in boys’ schools. I remember my younger brother regaling us with the novel methods of his peers for reducing the ferocity of the lash (which was ceremoniously given on their buttocks) – one of them being padding themselves with towels. All this was taken in good spirit as a necessary part of character building. We never questioned the morality of it all, because perhaps, we were brought up that way. And also because never ever was a life at stake. Suicides were not fashionable, as they seem to have become now. We were fed a heady mixture of strictness tempered with pure undiluted love in those days. But then times change and God fulfils Himself in other ways. We have gifted our children with ‘psychological stress’ and academic pressures’ bringing their tolerance levels to naught. I fondly remember my Physics teacher, Mr Zutshi (God rest his soul in peace), who was an excellent teacher and a very hard task master. His scoldings hit us more than any ruler or cane. But none of us nurtured any grievance against him. He loved us and shouted at us. But we knew that he corrected us because he cared for us. I came to know later that he resigned from his post during the late 70’s, as parents started complaining about him causing mental anguish to their daughters. Whatever little knowledge of Physics I have today (as well as moral values) I unashamedly owe them to the likes of Mr Zutshi.

Times change and so do perceptions. Corporal punishment has been rightly banned in schools. But the fragile tolerance level of our kids and elders needs a serious make over. We elders are robbing the children of a carefree and innocent childhood. Parental pressure, which starts rather too early in life (around age 2 years of the child) is the real killer. We are worse than tyrants, wanting our children to excel in all spheres, to keep one up in society. The result of this mindless upbringing, where winning competitions and earning prizes is the sole purpose of life, is breeding an uncaring, aggressive and senseless population of brats, irrespective of their economic status. Deep in their heart they do not believe that they can overcome their loneliness and craving for love/friendship without any strings attached to it. Their rudderless existence is making them not only ready to kill their peers (there are far too many newspaper reports of school children firing at each other), but also unmindful of taking their own lives. Ragging, instead of breaking barriers between seniors and the newcomers, has taken the vicious form of physical and mental torture. And we are happy to be mute spectators, as long as our child is not a victim—and then it is too late anyway.

It is easy to blame the system. But all of us are inadvertently nurturing a system which is indifferent and callous towards others. Love and compassion have been bartered with money and power. The reality shows on television are furthering this deterioration. We not only want instant coffee, but instant fame, name and money. Nobody has the time to brew humane qualities. Life is no longer sacred or precious—wealth and unbridled power is. Teachers and parents are equally to be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. The former are now considered to be merely paid employees, whose wages come from the pockets of the latter.

If only death can stir our consciousness, so be it. Let more people of the likes of Shobha De come out of their closets to form self help groups that stand up against corporal punishment, mental/physical ragging, cheating in examinations, disrespect for the law, and other underhand dealings. Let us stop treating our children as mere tools for enhancing our status in society. It is alright to spare the ruler, but do not spoil the child with excessive mollycoddling or with excessive strictness. Let us rear caring, loving and tolerant children, who are mindful not only of their rights, but their duties as well. Parents and teachers will have to temper love with firmness to become role models for this generation which seems to have lost its way.

[First published on CNS in June 2010]

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the CNS Editorhas worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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