The vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati thinks that the warden of his girls’ hostel was not just being vindictive.
She didn’t just force the ten-year-old to lick her own urine-sodden bed sheets as punishment for wetting her bed. According to the Hindustan Times he thinks she was using a traditional method of curing bed-wetting according to the media.
Is this what Rabindranath Tagore was thinking when he set up Visva-Bharati as a place “to realize in a common fellowship of study the meeting of East and West”? When Uma Poddar, the warden of Karabi hostel forced the ten-year-old to lick her own urine was she just following the venerable traditions of the East? And even if the warden was following an old wives tale is that in any way excusable in any school, let alone one set up as an alternative to authoritarianism and rote learning?
Now the vice-chancellor has been forced to condemn the incident more unequivocally. He has said it cannot be "condoned" and such a "medieval practice" has no place in a "modern university" and must be condemned. Under tremendous pressure he has held a press conference. That's welcome, if a little late in the day. On Monday he had said, “According to our inquiry committee report, the warden did ask the girl to drink her own urine, but she did not force her. Medical reports also confirm that the girl is normal.”
In his 1916 essay, My School, Tagore talked about the idea of his dream school as a place of "where the truth of the spiritual world is not obscured by a crowd of necessities assuming artificial importance; where life is simple, surrounded by fullness of leisure, by ample space and pure air and profound peace of nature, and where men live with a perfect faith in the eternal life before them".
That does not sound like the Karabi hostel at Visva-Bharati.
Tagore died in 1941. It’s ridiculous to judge everything now with the yardstick of what would Tagore think. Visva-Bharati has gone through its own ups and downs as a university and struggled to hold on to Tagore’s ideals in today’s world. "It is very sad that such incident has happened that too in an institute where Rabindranath Tagore lived," a spokesman for the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) told the press.
But let us not be shocked that this happened in Tagore’s school.
Let us be shocked that it be happened at all.
Let us be shocked that the warden was merely booked for “a malignant act that could spread infection” and not under the Juvenile Justice Act. The angry parents were, on the other hand, charged with criminal trespass and intimidation.
Let us be shocked that in 2012, a vice-chancellor of a university offers up an old wives tale as even the semblance of an excuse for this unconscionable act. Turmeric with a cup of warm milk to treat a cold is tradition. How can someone, let alone a physicist, even dignify the sprinkling salt on urine soaked sheets and licking them as “traditional method”? Should he not have said that a person who believes something like that has no place as the warden of young girls at his hostel?
The warden has been put on leave. As a vice-chancellor he should not head a lynch mob. He needs to hear all sides of the story and not jump to any conclusions. But protecting the child is always his greater duty and responsibility. That is the reason the warden is there. That is the reason he is there.
When the child says she does not want to ever go back to the school again because she is too traumatised it’s a failure of everything any institution should stand for.
In this case the furore has had immediate effect. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has swung into action. The additional chief judicial magistrate pulled up the police and expressed its dismay over how Visva-Bharati has handled the incident. The case has now gone all the way to the PMO’s office since the Prime Minister is the Chancellor of the university. It’s so horrific that it cannot be ignored.
But once this hullabaloo is over let’s not forget the larger questions it raises.
The child’s parents didn’t take this quietly. And Visva-Bharati is a famous school. That combination pushed the story into our front pages and shocked us over our morning tea. But is it that surprising? This comes on the heels of the warden at an institute for the mentally challenged allegedly sodomising his ward in Haryana. That came on the heels of the scandal involving torture, abuse and sexual exploitation of children by those who were meant to protect them at Apna Ghar in Rohtak. In that case even the police were involved in the horrors.
The power of the warden is huge and the scope for abuse is scary. In most cases the wardens just get away with it because the children are scared into silence, the parents are far away and too busy struggling to eke out a living to take on the school, the police and the court system.
Should we treat the urine scandal of Visva-Bharati as just a terrible exception? Or should we wonder if this happens at Visva-Bharati what’s happening at lesser known schools tucked away out of sight, far away from our headline news?