Corporal Punishment: Time to jail the teacher?

Corporal punishment is at an all time high in Indian schools. But is a rumoured proposal to jail teachers desirable -- or even feasible.

Pallavi Polanki June 28, 2012 19:52:39 IST
Corporal Punishment: Time to jail the teacher?

“Call for law to jail teachers who cane” reads a recent headline in a national daily. According to the news report the Women and Child Development Ministry has proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act to penalize those guilty of corporal punishment – which includes verbal abuse - with jail terms extending up to seven years.

While there is no statutory definition of corporal punishment under Indian law, as per the Right to Education Act (which prohibits it), corporal punishment includes physical punishment, mental harassment and discrimination.

Corporal Punishment Time to jail the teacher

The Women and Child Development Ministry has proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act.

The guidelines issued by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) on eliminating corporal punishment in schools, elaborating the RTE’s classification, defines corporal punishment not only as physical punishment but also mental harassment (defined as ‘non-physical treatment that is detrimental to the academic and psychological well-being of a child’ such as sarcasm, ridicule, calling names, derogatory remarks and so on) and discrimination (defined as prejudiced views and behaviour towards any child because of gender/caste/class)

(Read full definition here.)

The Women and Child Development Ministry, however, is refusing to divulge at this point any details of its plans for amending the Juvenile Justice Act. Dismissing media reports, a senior official said: “No amendments have been proposed as yet. After a month, perhaps, a picture will emerge.”

Nonetheless, a debate has already begun in the media with strong reactions coming in from parents and teachers on the implications of such a move by the government.

Roomy Naqvy, an assistant professor at Jamia Milia Islamia, in a column for Tehelka titled ‘Minus fear factor, will students learn?’ has questioned the rationale for the quantum of punishment being proposed and the impact harsh punitive measures against teachers could have on the education system.

Speaking to Firstpost, Naqvy says: “The government has a no-detention policy and every child passes automatically till Class 8. Now, the child also knows very well that the teacher cannot scold the child to make him or her study in class. So, if you couple the proposed provisions to the Juvenile Justice Act with the changes in the education system, we have a dangerous combination.”

While I am not stating, adds Naqvy, that the only way the child will learn is when the teacher beats him or abuses him. “But if you take everything away from the teacher, then how does the teaching-learning process take place?”

At a time when aggression among school children, especially in urban schools, has become a serious concern, some teachers are apprehensive that a law that can be perceived as undermining the authority of teachers could worsen the situation.

“It is good that the government wants to be pro-students. But then why become anti-teachers? If I scold a student, will that amount to harassment? If I ask a student to do his homework, will he consider it mental harassment?” asks Swati Kaushik, a secondary school teacher in a government school in Ghaziabad.

It is very important to make a clear distinction between maintaining discipline and harassment, says Swati. “I fully agree that physical punishment should be prohibited. But the teacher should have the freedom to give strict instructions to the child to do his work and to be able to check him without the fear of being accused of harassment.”

But who decides where being strict ends and harassment begins. The figures on corporal punishment in India read like an endless tale of horror.

The practice of abusing children verbally by attacking their psyche occupies the top rank in the list of punishments in school. As many as 81.2 per cent of the children were subjected to outright rejection by being told that they are not capable of learning, reports a recent study ‘Eliminating Corporal Punishment in Schools’ by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The study surveyed 6,632 students across seven states.

Three out of five school children, in the 3-5 age group – that’s how early it starts - were beaten with a cane as a form of corporal punishment. An alarming 99 per cent had experienced some of corporal punishment – the four most common forms of physical punishment being beaten by cane, being hit on the back, getting boxed on the ears and being slapped. Read full report here.

There is no doubt that the violence against children in schools has reached unacceptable levels. And despite the regular guidelines against corporal punishment by the government, court judgments declaring it illegal, constitutional provisions that protect children, sections under the IPC relating to physical harm and intimidation that can be used against offenders, the RTE Act – corporal punishment continues to be an accepted practice in India and is often shrugged off as part of growing up.

Is jail term to offenders then a long overdue measure that is needed to protect children from the daily onslaught of violence?

A strong law is necessary, says Vimala Ramachandran, Chairperson of ‘Eliminating Corporal Punishment in Schools Committee formed by the NCPCR.

“Strict penal action would indeed be a deterrent and is needed. However, we cannot only focus on the teachers who use corporal punishment against children. We also need to make sure that educational administration enables teachers to develop skills to deal with different situations without resorting to punishment.

“Yes, it would be good to specify the maximum punishment that could be given under the ambit of the specific law. Corporal punishment that leads to suicide or death would in any case be covered under the concerned IPC. What would be important is to have a provision whereby a teacher who is hauled up for repeated offenses (beating, abuse...) should lose his or her job,” says Ramachandran, Director, Education Resource Unit, a research and consulting group.

But how practical is the legal route? Will a new law help fight corporal punishment any better?

Kusum Jain, president of Parent’s Forum for Meaningful Education, who has fought multiple legal battles against corporal punishment, knows all too well the toll they take.

When Jain went to court to fight for Rakesh, a class VI student who dropped out of school after he was paraded naked by the vice-principal, she didn’t bargain for a ten-year long wait for justice.

Finally, in 2007, a Delhi court awarded a two-year jail term to the vice-principal. “We believed that the judgment in Rakesh’s case would set an example for other teachers. But that has not happened. It took ten years to prove Rakesh’s case. How many people will have the time and energy. I am all for creating deterrent by awarding a strong punishment, but just making a law will not help.”

Training of teachers, says Jain, is an absolute must to check corporal punishment. “It is not our wish to see teachers being hoarded into jails. How many will you put in jail? Train them. And if they are not capable of teaching children with sensitivity, don’t hire them. But please don’t impose them on our children,” says Jain.

Given how rampant corporal punishment is in Indian schools, the number of cases registered against teachers could just go through the roof. Is the government ready to tackle a situation like that?

Says Ramachandran, “That is why we need at least three parallel systems to work in tandem. One, an ombudsman or a child helpline number that can immediately respond and scale up visibility and summary suspension of the perpetrator. Two, the legal process - we just have to book cases and fight one.

“Three, we need to hold workshops in schools so that teachers and administrators know what the law says and how they could deal with routine issues in a child-friendly and humane manner.”

But shouldn’t the government first put the school system – high student teacher ratio, poor infrastructure – in order before it starts rounding up teachers?

“I have always argued against taking a sequential approach. We need to do them simultaneously. We have to fix student-teacher ratios, we need to improve infrastructure and also orient and train teachers to treat children with dignity and care. We cannot say lets first fix TPR (teacher to pupil ratio) and then worry about classrooms. The two just have to go together,” says Ramachandran.

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