Cane & Disable

June 26, 2010

If the tragic death of Rouvanjit Rawla, a 13-year-old student of Kolkata's La Martiniere for Boys, shows us anything it is this: that for all our gleaming buildings and six-lane expressways, we are still stuck in a time warp. It seems unbelievable that anyone, least of all the head of a school, should still believe that corporal punishment of students has value.

This belief is rooted in our impression of the English public school system and largely influenced by books like Tom Brown's Schooldays. Set in England's Rugby school in the 1830's, Thomas Hughes' 1857 novel extols the virtues of the English public school system and the values it supposedly instilled: defending the weak, standing up to bullies, nightly prayer, and not cheating on your exams. Some things were taken for granted: among them, corporal punishment by caning.

England's Parliament banned corporal punishment in state schools in 1986-87, as it happens, by a margin of one vote, 231 to 230 (Margaret Thatcher, the PM, was at dinner with Nancy Reagan and did not vote; and other Conservative MPs who favoured caning were caught in a traffic gridlock caused by preparations for a royal wedding and missed the vote altogether). Three years later, corporal punishment was banned in private schools too. Over 30 states in America have banned it, as has almost all of Europe.

So, too, has our own Supreme Court in 2000, and Section 17 of the newly minted 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act specifically prohibits it. Mr Sunirmal Chakraborty, the principal of La Martinière, is supposed to have said that he knew the law banning corporal punishment but yet made 'judicious use' of his cane. How does anyone make any use, judicious or otherwise, of something that is illegal?

You cannot instill discipline by committing an illegality. There is no greater indiscipline than the commission of that illegality. Pro-caning arguments are so weak that they are their own rejoinder: that the alternatives, suspension and detention, give the student a time off from class; they remove the student from the classroom; they strain the time and resources of parents and teaching staff.

Chakraborty and others, including the head of an umbrella organisation of several hundred missionary schools in Kolkata, continue to defend corporal punishment. It teaches students discipline, and something called 'the right way of life', they say.

It does nothing of the kind. It only reinforces the use of violence to assert dominance, validates cruelty, discourages independence of thought, and equates questions with insubordination. This is exactly what a school should not do.

The case against corporal punishment is overwhelming: an increase in aggression and disruptive behaviour, deliberate vandalism, more bullying (including a direct correlation to 'ragging' and 'hazing'), a drop in academic achievement and attendance, lowered self-esteem and an extreme fear of school and learning.

There is also a vast body of evidence linking corporal punishment to psychological conditions including clinical depression and suicide. Chakraborty's deliberate refusal to follow the law says only this: I am above the law. Implicit in this, and in the helplessness of the student driven to take his life, is a damning indictment of our society's failure to protect those who most need it.

It also mirrors our attitude to almost everything. We have become a nation of VIPs. Jumping queues, spitting, honking, entering a tiger reserve after closing hours, bribing someone — it's all ok because the law always applies to others, not to us. We are quick to accuse courts of passing unenforceable orders.

But what order or law can ever be enforced if we continue to defy it? And so corporal punishment still has vociferous proponents who believe that it is all right to continue acting illegally. It is not all right. Our very existence as a civil society demands that we follow certain rules. It is also a lesson that no amount of caning can teach.

(This article first appeared on June 18, 2010 in the Mumbai Mirror with the title "Spare the rod, save the child")

Just another fella with strong views
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