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Dealing with corporal punishment

The suicide of a child in Tamil Nadu, who was beaten at school by his teacher, has raised the issue of corporal punishment in schools across India and the steps taken by the various state governments

The recent suicide of a 16-year-old student in Chennai has once again focused attention on the question of corporal punishment in schools. The State Human Rights Commission of Tamil Nadu has ordered an investigation after Ram Abhinav hanged himself on June 12 after being brutally beaten and humiliated by a teacher.

Child protection groups are concerned at the increasing number of complaints about corporal punishment in schools. In February 2003, a week after her teacher beat her with a bulky notebook, 17-year-old Caroline T Daffadil found it hard to move her swollen neck and lift her face.

Corporal punishment continues in Tamil Nadu's schools, even though, in 2000, the state government set up an expert panel to put an end to such incidents.

Abhinav's parents have appealed to President A P J Abdul Kalam for a ban on corporal punishment in educational institutions. Parents whose children study at Abhinav's school allege that all the children are beaten with canes, sticks, rulers and also with the shoes worn by teachers. They claim the students are made to kneel even if they exchange stationery.

A recent study, conducted by Save the Children (UK), in eight Indian states found that more than half the school children below the seventh standard planned to run away from school because they were afraid of being beaten up by their teachers. Over the last two years, the NGO has conducted roughly 100 workshops where children have spoken their mind on a number of issues. The study revealed that the deep-rooted fear of being punished at school cuts across the rural-urban divide and applies to children in both government and private schools.

Corporal punishment in Tamil Nadu

The Supreme Court may have banned corporal punishment, but teachers in Tamil Nadu continue to think up innovative ways to teach their students a painful lesson. In fact, teachers in this state vehemently opposed the removal of `corporal punishment' from the Tamil Nadu Education Rules.

In December 2000, a committee was set up to look into the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, which, despite being updated till 1998, remain absurd. Till recently, corporal punishment was considered legal by exception. Rule 51 specified: "Corporal punishment shall not be inflicted, except in a case of moral delinquency such as deliberate lying, obscenity of word or act or flagrant insubordination, and it shall be limited to six cuts on the hand and administered only by or under the supervision of the headmaster." Thus, a headmaster could `legally' beat a student merely by quoting the circumstances specified under Rule 51.

Likewise, some rules do not even recognise advances in medicine. According to them, smallpox exists and leprosy is `contagious'. Rule 27 (a) states: "No pupil who is found to be suffering from venereal disease or leprosy in contagious form or from smallpox or from any other serious contagious or infectious disease shall be permitted to attend school." The next clause -- 27 (b) states: "The presence of pupils unprotected from smallpox may be regarded as sufficient cause for withdrawal of recognition." And, more than 55 years after colonial reign ended, Rule 50 specifies: "No pupil shall be allowed to sit in class with his shoes on, unless they are shoes of an English pattern and unless socks also are worn."

Thankfully, in most cases, these rules were not followed to the letter.

Delhi High Court ruling

Other states have been more progressive. In December 2000, following a PIL filed on the matter, the Delhi High Court ruled that the capital's school children would no longer be caned or slapped by their teachers.

The court ruled that corporal punishment violated their fundamental right to equality before the law and to life and personal liberty, as well the directive principles of state policy of the Constitution. It further said that studies had shown that the beating of children had undesirable effects -- they became withdrawn and exhibited anti-social behaviour. The bench struck down Rule 37 of the Delhi School Education Rules (DSER), 1973, which allowed physical punishment of school children by a school principal. The UN Convention, to which India is a signatory, and the National Policy on Education are both against corporal punishment and call for its eradication from schools.

Two years later, in 2002, a study conducted by the Committee on Improvement of Quality Education in Delhi government schools stated that in view of the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, a new system of imposing heavy fines on students for indiscipline should be introduced. The committee felt that the present primitive system of imposing a five-paise fine for indiscipline needed to be reformed and made more stringent, in line with the present circumstances.

Revised education rules in Tamil Nadu

On June 19, a week after Abhinav's death, a set of revised Tamil Nadu Education Rules was submitted to the Tamil Nadu government. But, although it calls for a ban on corporal punishment certain discriminatory clauses remain part of the revised rules, which will guide the state's educational policies in the years to come.

Rule 51, that gave legal sanction to corporal punishment, has been replaced with a section that recommends that every child be given an opportunity to learn the error of his/her ways through `corrective' measures. While making it clear that the school could not inflict mental and physical pain on a child, certain corrective measures have been suggested, such as `imposition' and `suspension from class'. The new set of draft rules calls for maintaining a cumulative record of every act of indiscipline by `problem students'.

Child rights consultants say it is natural to make mistakes in the classroom and that teachers should not be encouraged to look at children as problem elements.

Source : Anu Kumar, Infochange News & Features, June 2003