Spare the rod

By T S Sudhir

Tejaswini had been surfing her favourite cartoon channels for a while when Uma asked her to write down the names and capitals of the states in India as practice for a test in school the next day. With an expression that suggested that she was not amused, Tejaswini told Uma, “I think you and the school are putting too much pressure on me.”

Much as we were amused at her choice of words, we also realised that the six-year-old had, probably unknowingly, used the ultimate weapon against the adult world around her that is trying to instil a sense of discipline and responsibility in her.

`How much is too much and how little is too little’ is the eternal question for parents struggling to strike the right balance in responsible parenting. Much as that may be an everyday learning experience that extends to a lifetime, I am quite sure most right-thinking individuals would agree on what we most certainly don’t want our children to go through.

We don’t want any child to be another Rouvanjit Rawla, a class VIII student of La Martiniere for Boys in Kolkota, who was allegedly caned and humiliated by his Principal and chose to end his life. Four months after the tragedy, Rouvan’s dad, Ajay Rawla has put his personal grief aside to come out and draw public attention to grey issues in the school education system. Maybe that is his way of coping with his loss, his tribute to a son who is no more, a child who would have been still around if only he had got more time and attention from the people around him.

At the time that I was in school in the 80s, I am not so sure I or any of my friends even knew what corporal punishment meant. `Spare the rod and spoil the child’ had been an adage our elders swore by, atleast in their generation. Threats, punishment, humiliation, physical abuse, were not issues really discussed or debated in the context of school.

Rouvanjit’s tragic death took me back to when I was in class V, to our Maths teacher. She was a terror and perhaps she is one reason, I still feel nervous about numbers. Most of us would spend most of our time in her class, trying to be invisible, hoping her gaze would not fall on us.

I still remember that afternoon when it fell on Gurpreet Singh, a diminutive Sikh boy. He had not completed his homework that day and to top it, was unable to answer a Geometry question. The teacher asked him to take off his trousers. As the stunned boys and girls looked on in horror, she reached out for his belt and the terrified lad kept pulling back. The tussle ended with Gurpreet on his knees, crying his lungs out. I wonder what mental scars that would have left on the 10-year-old. Insulted, stripped of dignity.

That day, I hated the teacher. I think the entire class did. But no one complained. We continued to live in the perennial fear that any one of us could become a Gurpreet any day.

Our Physics teacher in class 12, seemed to get a kick from physical violence. He would walk around during the morning assembly and any boy found out of step during the morning exercise, would get a sharp, stinging punch at the end of his spinal chord. As I look back now, he was a bully, who would have been better off, settling streetcorner brawls.

Then there was another teacher whose penchant it seemed, was to slap students, especially girls. So many of our classmates suffered the physical abuse, for crimes as silly as the shade of their red ribbon not being red enough to not getting a leave application to being five minutes late to school.

Not to say we did not have teachers who did not inspire us to become what we are today. But every Rouvanjit reminds one of these black sheep and unfortunately they never fade away from memory.

Being a parent, being a teacher, being a caregiver for children requires enormous skills, patience and a mature mental makeup. How can mere academic qualification be the basis for appointment as a teacher?

No child needs to be put through unnecessary trauma. It is well-established that often a victim of child abuse tends to become violent as he grows up because he learns that violence can be used as a power tool to get his way.

And then there are children who end up feeling inadequate, unable to cope, defeated by the system, and yet another Rouvan hits the headlines somewhere.

Much like ragging in colleges, it is high time this `ragging’ of an equally terrible kind in schools comes under the scanner, to shame and weed out those who have a perverted viewpoint on how to `discipline’ the child.

The National Commission for Protection of child rights under Shantha Sinha has got into the picture in Kolkotta. While the school Principal has reportedly confessed to caning Rouvan, the school management is resisting attempts to tar its reputation.

In a statement it says, “Attempts being made to hold the school entirely responsible are certainly misplaced. There are times when children need to be corrected and helped.”

Isidore Philips, a highly respected child rights activist scoffs at the terms `corrected and helped’.

“The concept of discipline is skewed. Correction does not mean insulting and beating up a child. A teacher cannot violate the dignity of a child. The problem arises because schools are rated only by the kind of infrastructure they have and the teacher-student ratio. Not by the emotional climate the school creates for the child. No attention is paid to whether teachers have the skills to handle children patiently. In fact, there is a yawning gap in the kind of skills teachers need and they actually possess.”

The irony is while the governments say they have the power to recognise a school, when it comes to problems relating to corporal punishment in a private school, they suggest parents approach the police. Which invariably does not and cannot happen.

How many parents can question the school management, even in case of corporal punishment? Specially because admission in the first place was so tough. And then it is in the middle of the year. Complaining may make matters worse for the child. So silence is preferred, with a silent prayer that the situation doesn’t repeat or get worse.

“Parents and children are not organised,” says Isidore. “Schools and teachers are. Parents and children are powerless and voiceless within the system. Even under the Right to Education Act, there is an elaborate redressal mechanism for teachers’ issues. Children are advised to approach the Child rights bodies, which are non-existent in most states. The juvenile justice system needs to be strengthened to give power to the aggrieved child and the parent.”

All this unfortunately is not likely to happen in a hurry, despite the tragedy of a Rouvanjit. And that’s what makes one feel despondent that even in 2010, corporal punishment is not a four-letter word.

I am not in touch with Gurpreet. But I am sure, wherever he is, he and most of us present in that classroom that afternoon, will be more than careful with the kind of school and teachers we send our children to. Because being weak in geometry is not a matter of life and death. But it could be if teachers do not learn their lessons in the `right angles’ first.

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About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
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10 Responses to Spare the rod

  1. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Thanks TS, for this sterling post; I hope all parents and teachers in india read this. Reference to gurjeet, took me back ,my own school days in 80’s; since i did not have spects, and the problem was not detected until i reached 6th, i existed in my own blissful world and so got “spared” to some extent. It is a grave concern, that even today we have to seriously hope for “right angles”; for, despite all the “progress”, parenting and disciplining, are such rare arts. One big reason is, you, me represent, the first generation of parents, who are even getting enlightened about the right way of parenting; According to me, the Biggest and may be the Single Hope, for the future of the country, is bringing up and educating the kids in a proper way. And ur blog, goes a long long way, in helping the parents deal with this challenge. A while ago, you wrote in detail, about the initiative in AP , about sports in schools; this continues the series, and shows ur commitment, and contribution.

  2. Padmaja says:

    Good observations…my heart goes out to Rouvanjit’s family. I was taken aback at the Gurjeet story.

    As a parent of three very active boys, I constantly grapple with this problem – how to discipline them without being physical? I also remember constantly the comment the Directress of the Montessori Institute made – “Remember, even looks can kill!” How true! As parents, every word and gesture we make are soaked in by the child.

    When it comes to teachers, my honest (albeit subjective) opinion is that discipline in Indian schools is in the caveman age. Is the sheer number of students the justification or the apathy/timidity of parents? I was outraged when a teacher slapped my then-6 year old son for “talking too much” in class – what if he had gone deaf? I complained to the Headmistress and then tackled the teacher herself who seemed taken aback – probably not too many teachers are confronted this way. But many people have cautioned me against antagonizing the teachers, saying that they will retaliate against the kids in many subtle ways.

    My sons go to a middle-of-the-road school, but I’ve heard similar “disciplining” stories from many elite schools too.

    The solution maybe probably lies in strong PTAs where parents have a voice, and can keep a vigilant eye on teachers’ interaction with students.

    Sorry for the rant, but you touched upon a pet peeve of mine!

    • Serenity Stupidity says:

      Hi Padmaja, First Sorry i for mistyping ur name in a reply to another of Sudhir’s post. No, ur comment is not a rant; it is a grave issue, going forward; grave because of the obvious, “better-be-silent” compulsion for parents. Big number of students is NOT an issue. It is a very easy excuse; one that is very hard for us to crack; just like the excuse for bad driving is too much traffic. I do not have kids(yet) but i am learning parent from all these posts and comments; The Simple TRUTH is, we can only allow such a person to be a teacher, who has got proper attitude and heart for teaching; but alas given the problems we all need to grapple, we are simply helpless in ensuring this; And yes, “elitist” schools are no heavens, i can say that for sure. Not yet being a parent, I do not know how PTA will help; but 1 thing n our hands, is to give time to own kids and watch their mental happiness/health; i am not preaching, but i think parents can atleast try and support the kids whenever some incident happens, thereby helping the child;

  3. Well written sudhir.Completely agree with you.It is time we got together to do something concrete at a national level

  4. Ganesh V says:

    Excellent post Sudhir.

    At school, we used to have the concept of PETs (Physical Education Teachers) who should actually have been named PATs (Physical Abuse Teachers). The names Charanjeet Singh and Rajaram will forever remain etched in my memory for the kind of beatings they used to hand out to students. They did not think twice about hitting students as old as 16 or 17 years old. This situation still exists in most Indian schools barring a small minority of elite schools. Our education system is just so hopelessly so antiquated.

    In my personal opinion, the above situation will only change when educationists start to believe that their job is to ‘nurture’ and not ‘educate’, i.e. to grow the innate talent and ability in each child to enable him or her to mature into an adult that they would most like to be rather than ‘mould’ them into something that the society or the people around them would like them to be. This will reduce the opportunity for conflict situations like the unfortunate one at La Martiniere to arise and longer term lead to India becoming a nation of happier people who are more at ease with themselves than they are today. Very utopian but every large change starts with the first step and the time for that first step in our education system is now.

  5. Varad Kamini says:

    Great write up indeed! It provides for a moment to reminisce our school days and also a platform for many of us to share our agonizing moments as parents.

    Like any other parent, my heart goes out to all those children who have made their way through extremists (teachers).

    After advancing in life and developing grey hair along with the grey cells, I have come to realize that there might exist two-fold problem to this issue.

    First and foremost is the way teaching as a profession is approached. More often than not, profession of teaching is chosen not because someone has an aptitude and love for teaching, but as a convenient option. Hence, we find teachers hammering students with the lessons as outlined in the schoolbook with little or no emphasis on imparting real knowledge.

    And students are expected to state the answers as dictated by the teacher, with/out any application of mental faculty. Unfortunately, in a way even I am party of this process and as I am allowing it to flourish. Since, last one year, my child has been drifting away from being top ranker to high ranker. I was astounded to find the reason for the same. He was making an attempt to write answers in his own words, instead of mugging up what teacher had outlined in the textbook. Hence, loosing marks. Consequently, now I have started advising him that if he wants to continue to get A1 grade, he needs to write his answers verbatim. Though to reduce my guilt, I enforce that he must understand his lessons well. And I thought the ‘guru’ was one who would guide you??

    Next in the line is the family & societal pressure for number game! Parents too are driven by this pressure and pass it on to their children. Worse still, even if your own parents are supportive, we have enough of so called ‘friends’ to remind your child at every walk of their life that if they are not amongst the high rankers, they don’t stand much of a chance in this competitive world.

    May be my views are little out of line/ context. But I have been facing this challenge with my kids. One of them is an absolute scholar and other one just took her board exams.

  6. Janki Sundaraman says:

    Excellent post,Sudhir.I still get nightmares about exams and not having prepared for them.It’s a curse children are over burdened to learn so many subjects in school but still what is the alternative?We should employ people who have a natural aptitude to teaching with lot of patience and love for children and student friendly teaching techniques with flexible methods.Schools are second homes to children and teachers resorting to inhuman punishments are to be punished by law.We don’t need teachers to teach children,but only create a favourable environment for them to learn on their own with pleasure.

  7. 刘慧娉 says:

    Corporal punishment can leave an indelible mark on a child’s psyche/self-esteem . . . pls. spare the rod !!!

  8. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Dear Tss/Uma,

    I happened to notice the picture added. Is it Tejaswini. I am assuming she is ! Very sweet. God bless her.

  9. Serenity Stupidity says:

    Dear Tss / Uma,

    Principal arrested, charged with severe physical thrashing. No evidence of suicide having been abetted.

    Yes, your eyes will pain reading in write in the details. rather than silently observing the news, or stopping at arrested.

    I am being deliberate, in shaming ourselves, in a hope, that it keep the society moving ahead, rather than “moving on”.

    For, If not the Rajitha’s, “We”, can start with the Rouvanjit’s, towards being answerable.

    Father grateful to the authorities, for the case not getting swept under. Let us dream of a time, when does not have to be.

    Let us BELIEVE, that We The People, CAN be SHOWN, that things CAN be different.

    My Conviction is, If We The People REALIZE, what CAN be, We The People, can start EXPECTING, how things should be. At least, they would or should have the choice, of KNOWING, what can be.

    For, it is not even about Knowing. It is about the Option, of Knowing. Knowledge EMPOWERS.

    One does not need be an activist, revolutionary, or a Journalist. To dream, at least, if not be able to do anything, or help any one, towards the Knowing, that I am referring.

    My Conviction, is that Not knowing what CAN be, We The People, are caught in Vicious Cycles, in many manners. Cycles which like an anaconda, keep taking away, the chance of knowing too…and cycles, which ensure, that “We” are buried ever deeper, into daily struggles.

    My Conviction, is that such Vicious cylcle(s), are the ROOT, of Nothing “changing”.

    So, I do not talk of “Change”. I Believe, in discussing, what CAN be. That, is the only hope, i believe…towards having, what “we”, should have.

    For, even if nothing changes, at least knowing why nothing changes over decades, can lend Serenity to souls.

    Thanks for this valuable space, which is one source of hope for me, to be able to dream, that at least I can break my own cycle, at least to some extent, and contribute towards Knowing.

    Knowledge is power, and Independence for a country, has to beget Empowerment.

    Hence, Freedom and Knowledge being such power, they need special souls to protect and spread them. I can only of being to do so. You, are doing. So, Keep on BELIEVING. That matters, which ought to be Important, are not Turned away from.


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