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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Sep 2023  Patralekha Chatterjee | Confronting bigotry and violence in the classroom

Patralekha Chatterjee | Confronting bigotry and violence in the classroom

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Sep 2, 2023, 12:25 am IST
Updated : Sep 2, 2023, 12:25 am IST

Many teachers see nothing wrong in using violence to teach a lesson to a child, though corporal punishment is strictly prohibited by law.

 Many incidents go unreported. All these instances point to the horrific situation within many classrooms in India. (Photo: AP)
  Many incidents go unreported. All these instances point to the horrific situation within many classrooms in India. (Photo: AP)

Every Indian has every reason to celebrate the spectacularly successful mission of Chandrayaan-3. But being over the moon should not mean taking our eyes off terrestrial issues. Or the growing challenges and contradictions on the ground. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) makes India look good. It is just as important to pay attention to what does not make India look good.

In recent days, three widely reported incidents in different parts of the country point to a shameful reality. India’s youngest continue to be subjected to brutality and bigotry within the classroom. And sometimes, those tasked to expand their minds see nothing wrong in using violence to make their point within what should be a safe space, the classroom. This is happening at a time when the country is getting increasingly polarised. The victims are typically the weakest and lack the power to confront bigotry and brutality head-on.

In Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, a teacher ordered her students to slap their classmate, a seven-year-old Muslim boy. The video clips of the incident, which went viral in the social media, made clear that the boy’s religion was flagged. The teacher, Tripta Tyagi, who also owns the school, denies using a communal slur and claims it was punishment for not doing homework, but has no cogent explanation as to why she had to mention his religion. The boy’s family has taken him out of the school and is looking for an alternative.  A case has been registered but the charges, based on a complaint from the boy's family under IPC sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), are non-cognisable offenses and bailable. Ms Tyagi has not been arrested at the time of writing.

What is truly disturbing is the teacher’s justification of her brutality and her defence -- she says that since she was handicapped, she had no choice but to ask other children to punish the Muslim boy. Which is tantamount to making a case for corporal punishment and its outsourced variant.

The second incident took place in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. Farooq Ahmad, a teacher, brutally assaulted a Hindu student, because he had written “Jai Shri Ram” on the blackboard, according to media reports. The student had to be rushed to a hospital. The teacher has been arrested.

A third incident, which has got much less play in the media, involves a 15-year-old Dalit student in Rajasthan who allegedly had been facing casteist slurs from his teachers. Unable to cope with persistent humiliation, he had approached his principal and vice-principal for help. No support came his way. He died by suicide. Two teachers have been suspended.

The three incidents were reported and have triggered a joust between sharply contrasting narratives. Many incidents go unreported. All these instances point to the horrific situation within many classrooms in India.

Many teachers see nothing wrong in using violence to teach a lesson to a child, though corporal punishment and mental harassment are strictly prohibited by law. These are the youngest Indians and the three incidents point to children being traumatised and scarred for life. 

It also points to the many faces of vulnerability, powerlessness, and despair in India as socio-religious fault lines deepen. Dying by suicide is the extreme; living in chronic despair, being subjected to persistent humiliation and abuse is almost as bad.

The incidents raise two critical issues. One, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 explicitly prohibits “physical punishment” and “mental harassment” under Section 17(1) and makes it a punishable offence under Section 17(2). But in practice, corporal punishment -- the use of violence to “teach” a child a lesson -- continues in many parts of the country. How long are we going to let this continue under one pretext or the other? Two, corporal punishment risks being used as a ruse to mask bigotry in a fractured political landscape. The victims are typically the weakest and powerless.

Whichever way you slice it or dice it, brutality, be it physical or mental, is unacceptable within the classroom. We empower the bigots if we do not confront brutality within the classroom and safe spaces. Whomsoever seeks to rationalise it needs to think how she or he would react if the child was their own.

A recent report by Unesco posed a simple question: “Can you learn when you are afraid?” The report titled “Ending corporal punishment in schools to transform education for all children” (May 2023) poses extremely important questions: “Can you experience the transformative power of education when your teacher beats you? How can you learn the skills for later employment if school is a dangerous place?”

“Evidence”, the report notes, “tells us repeatedly that violence -- and the fear, anger, and humiliation it creates -- stops children from learning. As well as causing physical and psychological harm, it affects children’s brain and cognitive development, leads to lower educational achievement, prevents them from building healthy relationships, and causes school drop-out”.

It goes on to reference a major 2016 meta-analysis of 75 studies published over 50 years which found “an association between experience of corporal punishment (in any setting) and impaired cognitive ability”. Many other studies, says Unesco, have found a similar connection, “linking corporal punishment with lower IQ scores, smaller vocabularies, poorer cognitive abilities, less ability to pay attention, hyperactivity, and slower cognitive development”.

Today, corporal punishment is banned in schools in 136 countries. But unfortunately, despite the long list of known negative effects, violent punishment of children in schools continues in many places.

The bottom line -- you cannot bulldoze a child into learning multiplication tables or doing homework. Brutality has no positive benefits in the classroom. In fact, it is a hindrance to learning and leads to lower academic achievement, and school dropouts.

At a time when India is seeking to position itself as a twenty-first-century knowledge hub, what is the story we want to tell our children who will shape this country and its future? What is the story we want to tell the world we seek to inspire?

Rationalising violence against children in the classroom in the name of “teaching them a lesson” will be used to target the weakest in a polarised milieu. It will be used as a cover for communal and casteist acts.

Even as we celebrate India’s triumphs -- be it in sports or science -- we ignore this at great risk.

Tags: patralekha chatterjee column, corporal punishment, mental harassment