In the context of the cruel thrashing and consequent death of a small boy, Aslam Ansari, in a Betul school in Madhya Pradesh at the hands of his teachers, Prof. Krishna Kumar’s analysis (The Hindu, editorial page, “The death of a small boy,” December 18, 2012), of the unsettled social location and poor hierarchical status of primary school teachers, is impeccable and succinct. But, I fail to understand the precise and immediate link between the merciless beating and consequent death of the hapless boy on the one hand and the poor training and salaries of the teachers who allegedly killed him on the other. The kind of cause-and-effect relationship that he has tried to establish in this incident certainly does not exist.

It is unequivocally clear to every citizen of the country that under the legal framework in place, no individual can cause bodily harm to any other individual. If we still persist with such an argument, we run the risk of shifting the culpability of the individuals involved in the crimes, often of a very serious nature, off their heads simply because the accused are primary school teachers who have not been given proper training and are ill-paid.

In recent years, whenever such an incident has happened in our schools and then the resultant outcry, there has been an almost knee-jerk sentimental reaction from various quarters suggesting that primary school teachers alone should not be blamed as they have also been wronged by the system. This argument in the favour of the displacement of anger often serves to brush aside the complex processes at work in the schools of a stratified society like ours.

In search of a source of the teachers’ anger, commentators have often, and rightly so, found the larger system or the state as the main or equally serious culprit. But the diagnosis should not and does not end here.

To pursue the diagnosis of the problem further, let’s go back to a very pertinent question that Prof. Krishna Kumar has asked: Who has given teachers unhindered and complete access to the children’s mind and body in a school setting? He suggests that this authority over children’s lives vested in the teachers has been delegated to them by the state. However, it can be argued that the state is not the only entity that has delegated this authority to the teachers. We need to look for the other source of this authority too.

Parental indifference

The admission process for the new academic session in various schools is about to begin. One wonders whether the parents of prospective students would be interested in knowing and ensuring whether the school concerned has the right policies and practices in place to tackle the problem of corporal punishment.

In fact, for the majority of parents, the concern for the safety of their wards has a flip side to it — the stricter the school, the better it is for the future of the child. Philippe Ariès in his wonderfully researched book The Centuries of Childhood, tells us that a couple of centuries ago, children were considered as infirms requiring “greater discipline and stricter principles.” I doubt if popular perceptions about childhood in many societies have changed in any significant way.

The belief that strict discipline has beneficial effects for growing children seems to rest on a seriously faulty assumption. The assumption is that children are by nature problematic and therefore need strict disciplining; unless such disciplining is exercised, the child is sure to be spoiled. It suggests that many parents themselves don’t have faith in the essential goodness of their children. This distrust results in the breakdown of communication between the child and parents.

We don’t need to go far in search of evidence of this lack of communication between them. It has been documented repeatedly that children, when faced with difficult situations in school, don’t share their agony with their parents. Most parents come to know of the actual magnitude of the problem only when something unexpected has happened to their child.

Hence, alongside the state, this breakdown of communication between the parents and their children also contributes to the sustenance of absolute control of teachers over the mind and body of the children they are teaching. They become, in loco parentis.

Another important source of teachers’ uncontested authority over the affairs of the school and the lives of the children has to be found in larger debates about the state of education.

In our country, there is a profoundly influential social and policy discourse which has conveniently chosen to either ignore or make children’s voices invisible from the public domain. There is no dearth of ceremonial holding of events such as children’s parliament, or children’s summits and so on, self-indulgently claiming to represent children’s voices. However if we try to look for a more sincere and realistic presence of children’s voices in the discussions on education and the general state of schools, in most cases we are sure to draw a blank.

This discussion is decisively shaped by a number of survey-based studies such as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), District Information System for Education (DISE), etc. Most of these national survey studies are held every year. Their most prominent claim is that they are tracking the health of education in the country.

Unfortunately, none of the above and many other such surveys don’t have even one indicator or even a word in their reports, often running into several hundred pages, on the issue of corporal punishment in particular and children’s physical and emotional well-being in schools in general. Apparently, children’s voices and well-being are not important enough concerns for the analysts and the surveyors who design and implement these surveys.

According to the study titled “Child Abuse in India-2007” commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, “every two out of three school children reported facing corporal punishment.” In such a situation, it is not difficult to imagine the mental agony that the surveyors going into the schools must be going through on a daily basis. When an investigator armed with socially sensitive and cutting edge survey tools goes in a school and tries to take stock of the growth in the reading and arithmetic abilities of children, she must be engaged in an intense personal battle to keep her eyes shut to the grim and widespread reality of corporal punishment. In the din of achievement assessments, her survey design deliberately mutes children’s day-to-day experiences of authority in the school.

The result being we don’t have enough number of credible studies about the changes that might have come in the children’s perception and experiences of authority in schools since the 2007 report. No statistics are available to prove that the situation has improved or has worsened.

Socio-cultural dimensions

Since we don’t have a comprehensive assessment of the problem, we also don’t have a clear idea of the socio-economic and cultural dimensions of it either. Socially and economically, who are the children who face such cruel treatment the most? Hazarding a guess is not difficult — there is documented evidence of it in the form of Dalits, tribals, minorities and women’s experiences — but this question requires a much more detailed treatment. For the moment, it is enough to flag it to suggest that the diagnosis of the problem of corporal punishment in the schools and the quest for the sources of teachers’ authority must also proceed in this direction.

In conclusion, there is no denying the fact that for a proper discharge of duties entrusted to the teachers, a respectable salary with safety of tenure, and above all, good training of sufficient duration and intensity is a non-negotiable must. Their training and preparation should have the components of respect for the rights and the individuality of a child. Such training can inculcate in them a critical outlook towards the social sanctions that have made the ill-treatment of children possible. On the basis of such training they can be expected to transform into agents of change and stop being stooges of a system based on sheer inequality and violence that has served them no good either.

But, if such a package is not offered to them they have no valid reason to turn their anger and frustration towards children. And whenever they do, we must not forget that alongside the state, the parents, the academia and the civil society — through their selective phases of silence, through acts of externalising one’s guilt and by not being alert and/or interested parties — are also complicit in their crimes to a significant degree.

(Yogender Dutt is an editor working with The Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education, Delhi University, and a student of education at TISS, Mumbai.)

Krishna Kumar responds

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