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INDIA: Indian Schools Will Spare the Rod, and the Child

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Oct 5 2010 (IPS) - Child rights activists hope that the arrest of the principal of one of India’s elite public schools for caning a student and possibly abetting his suicide will serve to put an end to the widespread practice of corporeal punishment in this country’s educational institutions.

Principal Sunirmal Chakravarti and three teachers of the prestigious La Martiniere school in Kolkata city were arrested on Monday, seven months after their pupil, 13-year-old Rouvanjit Rawla, hanged himself to death. All four were able to secure bail.

Chakravarti publicly defended his action in caning Rouvanjit, an accepted custom in ‘public’ schools set up during British colonial in India. His open defiance of modern laws designed to protect children against physical punishment may compound the charges against him by the police.

La Martiniere for Boys, established in 1836 in memory of Claude Martin, a stalwart of the British Raj in India, boasts a distinguished alumni that includes Shashi Tharoor, former undersecretary in the United Nations and now an Indian lawmaker.

The school backed Chakrvarti after administering a mild rap on his knuckles. But the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) was not amused. After conducting an inquiry it recommended Chakravarti’s suspension signaling that the government was determined to stamp out corporeal punishment in schools.

The NCPCR, set up in March 2007 as a statutory body under the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act of 2005 to protect, promote and defend child rights has the powers of a civil court.

”We cannot comment on the police action against Chakravarti in Kolkata, but nevertheless we hope that it will send a message across the country that physical punishment is not acceptable,” Kiran Bhatti, national coordinator at the NCPCR and head of the Right to Education department told IPS.

”We fail to understand how someone of Chakravarti’s standing could have violated the rules and conventions concerning child rights,” Bhatti said. ”We are determined that stern action will be taken against anyone willfully violating these rights.

”India’s Right to Education Act, which came into force from April 1, 2010, clearly states that children cannot be subjected to physical punishment, but we are inundated with complaints by parents about beatings and abuse of their wards,” she said.

Bhatti said the NCPCR was working to change social mindsets which continue to see physical violence as a natural way to discipline children, without realising that this could be indirectly for reinforcing a culture of violence.

”It is time that school managements and teachers begin to internalise child rights laws and ensure that they work,” Bhatti said. ”There can be no justification for brutality against children.”

Severe beatings of schoolchildren regularly figure in Indian newspapers. In August Prasun Kumar Panda, a 12-year-old schoolboy attending the Contai High School in West Bengal state was reported to have lost his power of speech after being struck on the head with a cane by his life sciences teacher.

And late September Laxmi, a 13-year-old Dalit (formerly untouchable caste) hanged herself after allegedly being humiliated by her teacher and forced to clean the toilet of her school in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh state.

Other children have died as a result of abuse by tyrannical teachers. In April 2009, Shanno Khan, an 11-year-old girl collapsed and died after a teacher in the municipal school she attended made her stand in the sun and denied her water to drink. Formal studies of corporeal punishment in Indian schools have revealed it to be a deep-rooted problem. The central government’s Department of Women and Child Welfare in its 2007 ‘Study on Child Abuse’, reported that 65 percent of Indian schoolchildren have suffered beatings at the hands of their teachers.

A study carried out by the Saath Charitable Trust (SCT) based in the western Indian city Ahmedabad in 2006 involving 41 schools in the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh found most teachers and parents accepting corporeal punishment as normal.

The SCT study, funded by the non-government organisation Plan International-India, said canes were often displayed in classrooms and many of 1,591 children interviewed readily pointed to the instruments with which they were beaten.

”A child may face a series of beatings for a single offence, first by the class teacher, then by the principal and finally by the parents,” said Chinmay Desai, who participated in the SCT study.

Desai said the SCT, which is involved in implementing the Right to Education Act in about 140 villages in Gujarat, encourages teachers and parents to find alternative ways to deal with student indiscipline. ”This is besides making them aware of the illegality of corporeal punishment,” she said.

Keren Nazareth, co-director of the Saath Foundation, told IPS that the best results appear to be coming from making the children aware of their rights. ”Eliminating physical punishment is a long haul but we can certainly depend on the victims to sustain the demand for change,” she said.

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