India took a belated but bold step to provide universal education by enacting the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. That egalitarian measure to empower disadvantaged children with a seat even in an unaided school — affirmed recently by the Supreme Court — has upset some institutions that obviously identify themselves with the privileged classes. The backlash to the law has been immediate, in the form of closures and protests. Now, in a shocking display of latent violence, a school in Bangalore has subjected disadvantaged students to a deeply stigmatising kind of discrimination: it has cut a lock of their hair to segregate them from other children in the class. These children have apparently not been entered in the regular attendance rolls either. The actions of the school deserve to be condemned and a full enquiry must be held into how and why it took such a cruel step. Unless the school involved is made an example of, it is likely that similar reprehensible acts carried out to assert class power will be witnessed in other institutions which have publicly opposed the equity objectives of the RTE Act.
In an address to the nation on April 1, 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the new law guaranteeing elementary education a redemption of a pledge made to all children. The Bangalore incident makes it clear that laws alone are not enough, strong determination is essential to break barriers down. The RTE Act and associated rules specifically forbid any kind of segregation, physical punishment or mental harassment of children. A reading of the law, however, indicates that the penalty for violation is essentially confined to withdrawal of recognition. What happened in Bangalore is both physical punishment and mental harassment of children, who are likely to carry the scars long into their lives. It is necessary, therefore, to review the penalties prescribed, and provide for stronger punishment to individuals also, for acts stemming from extreme class bias. A provision for government takeover of institutions that refuse to reform themselves may be necessary. Societal commitment through active vigilance and well-functioning supervisory institutions are vital to make the RTE Act work. Equally, governments must demolish the culture of elitism promoted by many unaided schools by encouraging the starting of more institutions. India corrected a historic injustice towards its children by making education a justiciable fundamental right under Article 21A. It should not hesitate to show political will to enforce this right in the face of bigoted resistance.