The Betul tragedy shows that the state does not consider emotional or intellectual maturity important in a person who teaches children
Picture a small boy facing two adult men. They are furious over something they suspect he has done, so they start hitting him. They feel they have the authority to do so because they are teachers. The boy is absolutely helpless. It hardly matters for this picture whether he is upper caste or Dalit or tribal. It is his isolation that matters in the moment of his helplessness. In that moment, he stands beyond the reach of all institutional mechanisms set up to protect him from the violent fate that awaits him. Neither the United Nations convention on child rights nor the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) can rescue him in that moment. In any case, the state cannot be of much help, for it is the state under whose authority and supervision the two adults beating him mercilessly have been selected and appointed to serve as teachers. It hardly matters whether they are serving in a government or a private school, for both kinds of schools draw the legitimacy of their access to the child’s mind and body from the powers entrusted to the state.
The two adults kept thrashing the boy till he collapsed. His parents took him to a hospital in a neighbouring city. The doctors found that his backbone had been smashed. The treatment they suggested was too expensive, so the parents took the boy to a hospital in another city. There, the boy was declared dead. From the report that has appeared in the press (The Hindu, December 7), it seems the teachers got angry when the boy informed them that the ‘school bucket’ had broken, and they suspected he had broken it. This incident occurred in a government school in Betul (Madhya Pradesh). One of the teachers has been arrested, and perhaps the other one will also be taken into police custody soon. The case against them will undoubtedly proceed. Perhaps NCPCR will back it after its own inquiry. Due procedures will be followed, and the law, as they say, will take its own course. While the case starts its journey along that familiar course, we can ask at least one fresh question, though it is not immediately evident how exactly it should be formulated.
As a crime, corporal punishment in school offers little scope for any doubt about the culprit. The newly granted Right to Education (RTE) seeks to ban corporal punishment, meaning thereby that a teacher cannot use it as a means of disciplining a child. In a case where corporal punishment has led to injury or death, the teacher’s culpability is self-evident. All that a legal inquiry needs to establish is that the punishment was actually given, and that it is this punishment that led to serious injury or death. In the classroom, the teacher alone has authoritative access to the child’s body, and this access derives from the teacher’s being in charge of the child’s mind. As an adult, the teacher gets this physical access on account of the role in which he or she is placed. Let us ask therefore: “Who places the teacher in this role?” Such a question will allow us to go deeper in our appreciation of culpability for the crime suffered by the child.
The last two decades have witnessed a dramatic change in the public profile and status of primary school teachers. While the RTE has improved children’s status and the government’s image, the person responsible for the child’s wellbeing and development at school remains a poor, lowly civil servant. In the specific case of Madhya Pradesh, teachers’ economic and social status has undergone a major change as a result of prolonged administrative manoeuvres. It has little to do with shifts in political power and ideology. A series of so-called policy reforms initiated during the Congress regime (1993-2003) has been sustained by the BJP which rules the State at present. The history of change in teachers’ lives is intertwined with the larger policy and programme scenario at the national level.
During the 1990s, the government chose to restructure the system of education by allowing local groups to start primary schools and by delegating the task of recruiting teachers to the village panchayat. Cadre management policies were changed to accommodate different types of contractual, ‘para’ appointments. The state decided to treat its existing pool of teachers as a ‘dying cadre,’ implying that no new appointments would be made at the older scales. New teachers were given nominal training and pittance in the name of emoluments. As the demand for regularising these contractual appointees acquired political profitability, new pay scales were created that were radically lower than the older ones. While other north Indian States acknowledged that there were problems with para-teachers, Madhya Pradesh instead recognised them as full-fledged ‘teachers’. Initially, it was alone in this remarkable feat of governance; of late Bihar has emulated it, by replacing existing teachers as they retire with this new, low-paid breed.
Kaun banega teacher?
This brief introduction to a complex history should suffice to indicate that, over the last two decades, a primary school teacher’s job has lost what little covetability it had acquired since independence. It is no more an attractive career for someone who has modest financial ambition and the urge to work with children, together with the aptitude to do so. The selection procedure does not involve the search for necessary attributes and talent, as it is based entirely on credentials which indicate precious little about the person and his or her capacities. Training courses that make a person eligible for recruitment have scant academic or practical worth in terms of the experience they provide. A vast majority of institutions licensed to offer this training are bogus. A commission chaired by Justice J.S. Verma, which was appointed by the Supreme Court, found that only 44 out of the 300 institutions in Maharashtra providing a Diploma in Education were qualified to run the course. Such instances can be found in other States as well. The minimum qualification to enter this 2-year diploma course for primary level teaching is Class XII.
Apparently, no emotional or intellectual maturity is demanded of the person who will look after and teach 6 to 11 year olds. In the name of training, young people are required to go through pathetic rituals, in many cases by means of correspondence or distance teaching. Among the courses available for elementary school teacher training, there is just one exception that offers depth of academic and practical experience. This is the 4-year Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed.) course offered in eight colleges of Delhi University. This remarkable programme deserves expansion and replication, but instead, Delhi University is reportedly planning to start a 2-year diploma kind of course to produce primary school teachers. I wish the university had noticed that such a short duration is just not sufficient to enable trainees to link theory with practice, let alone question their own beliefs and values.
Let us now return to the Betul story. When the legal machinery receives all the evidence it needs to decide culpability in the case of the boy who has died, can we hope that the state’s responsibility will also be examined? His teachers who brutally hit him got access to his body because they were recruited to serve as teachers. The court must ask on what grounds did the state satisfy itself that such persons could look after the welfare and rights of a small boy. The court must also ask what kind of professional training they were given to perform their role as teachers. Their criminal failure to serve as teachers deserves an explanation. A major part of that explanation lies in the casual approach that the state — as the custodian of children and the nation’s human resource — has adopted towards the job of teaching the young. This approach is incompatible with the lofty ideals of the RTE and the Constitution.
(The writer is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)