By Joyeeta Dey
Toward the end of August, the Education Minister of Chattisgarh, Kedar Kashyap, justified corporal punishment for students. This piece is a response to his views.
One common way of punishing children in schools in India is by putting a pencil between the child’s fingers and pressing them together. Another is not allowing the child to visit the toilet for the length of the school day. These imaginative cruelties make it no surprise to learn that “A woman member of a parents-teachers association … in Andhra Pradesh confessed in all seriousness that she (and other women she knew) thrash children out of no particular reason.” The rates of arbitrary violence against children seem to diminish as the child grows up . Perhaps some growing children begin to ask: “Why are you hitting me?”
Sometimes the reasons are structural. In government school contexts, too often, an under-resourced teacher is in charge of an unwieldy number of students who are inattentive from undernourishment . This makes imposing a minimum level of discipline in the classroom so much harder. The unnerving loss of power over students that teachers claim to experience with the RTE dictum of compulsory promotion till the eight standard has increased their need to discipline through other means. While the long-term benefits of corporal punishment have long been discounted, one cannot dismiss its seductive short term (if counterproductive) efficacy.
In homes, similarly, overtired and unfulfilled mothers, often victims of brutality themselves, strengthen the argument that “corporal punishment is often an outlet for pent-up feelings of adults rather than an attempt to educate children.” The home-school nexus with the parent assumed as the ‘owner’ of the child, with rights to go with it, which they often willingly hand over to the teacher (seen as quasi parent) compounds the social sanction of this practice. With the corporal punishment ban in the RTE targeting only schools, the argument came up that countries that have succeeded in abolishing CP did so only by disallowing it in all spheres. This apparently conjures for some an Orwellian society of intrusive state control, where children report on parents. Others simply dismiss the prospect of ever completely doing away with CP in Indian society with a – this is all very well, but we are not Sweden.
In India, the network of factors contributing to this ubiquitous practice ensures that it does not remain purely a class or gender issue, though in part it is both. Women (in performing the larger share of parental responsibilities) are as violent, if not more, to children and as recipients of this violence girls are almost at par with boys . Not just in rural government schools, caning is commonplace even in elite boarding schools, where it is easy to see it as a vestigial practice of the West. When facing the overwhelming odds of overcoming what seems so deeply culturally embedded, it is empowering to realise that this practice was as pervasive in societies which have now abandoned it.
The dilemma presented by good intentions delayed the legal ban for a long time. While there is no ambiguity in condemnation when CP leads to deaths or suicide (as it often does), an ambiguity in perception exists over lower grades of CP. The strongest version of this challenge were the teachers or parents who inflicted low degrees of physical pain on children as a deterrent against certain actions, because they believed their children would benefit from this short term harm. The law dithered on whether even this form of CP would merit criminalizing and permitted the well intentioned variety until 2000 when it was banned. The standard arguments of permanent physical damage and enduring mental trauma from humiliation did not hold here, the last because it’s too commonplace for the child to feel uniquely ashamed. Does it then emerge that it is not the nature of punishment itself but the degree, the intent and the effects that makes it wrong? Should the courts then examine each case with its specificities before convicting someone? One’s personal position on whether violence can sometimes be justified is an intricate philosophical question which needs to be worked out individually. Some speak of the logistical difficulty of investigating each occurrence seeing the blanket ban as a necessary extreme. But to me the clinching argument in favour of a blanket ban is that this is violence of the more powerful against the vulnerable. That power differentials are reinforced through corporal punishment becomes evident once we look at the research on which group gets punished most frequently and brutally in our classrooms: children of lower castes.
Children’s rights activists with their wealth of data condemning the efficacy of CP (that it teaches the child nothing, perpetuates violence in later life, and leads to lower academic performance) reach an impasse when faced with adults who vouch for it based on their own experience. While one may try to dismiss this as nostalgic idealizing of one’s childhood it is much more important to realize the irrelevance of trying to answer whether it ‘works’ or not. For one, the critique of this practice has been intensely constructive and has provided detailed, more civilized methods of disciplining (Positive Punishment), which can allay fears of ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’. If one finds that these do not work, perhaps the solution does not lie in punishment at all. To my mind the greatest danger of the practice is that it makes it too easy to overlook the cause behind the child’s misbehaviour, whether it is poor teaching, unhealthy diets or cognitive deficits. Far from being the tougher choice, corporal punishment makes both parenting and teaching lighter work than it can afford to be.
Joyeeta Dey is currently working with a non-profit organization. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London and Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Joyeeta most enjoys contemporary poetry and modern art.
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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).