On 21 August this year, Prasun Kumar Panda, a 12-year-old schoolboy in Std. VIII in Contai High School, West Bengal lost his power of speech after being struck on the head with a cane by his life science teacher Anupam Mudi, for failing to answer a question correctly in class. A diagnosis by doctors of Bangur Institute of Neurology revealed "sudden onset of aphasia following (corporal) punishment by the teacher." Aphasia is an acquired speech or language disorder that can be triggered by physical or psychological trauma.

Dr. Apurba Ghosh, Director of the Institute of Child Health, where Prasun underwent an MRI scan, confirmed that there was no nerve damage. Neurologist Trishit Kumar Roy who examined the boy on 31 August, said "extreme phobia" was as potent as physical injury. "That is why he is suffering from a functional loss of speech," he said.

A teacher of St.Helen's School in Kalighat, Kolkata was arrested last month after Mohammad Sajjir Khan, a class XII student, tried to commit suicide in school accusing his teacher Nabanita Nag, a Hindi teacher of mental torture. Another teacher found him in one of the school's toilets in a semi-conscious state. Sajjid's mother was informed of the incident and rushed to the school to fetch her son. When he confessed to have taken four sleeping pills, she took him to CMRI hospital where he was saved after a stomach wash.

His parents found a note in his school diary where he had noted that Nag would pull him up regularly in class and insult him in front of the girls, which Sajjir found humiliating. Though the said teacher was arrested following a complaint lodged by his parents with Kalighat police station, she was later granted bail. The Khans have also accused the school of negligence for not having shifted Sajjir to a hospital.

In 3 Idiots, a scathing indictment on the numbers-chasing, grades-grabbing rigid education system, a talented young man, Joy, hangs himself in his room because the Principal of the hi-fi engineering college refuses to accept his invention of an innovative project as part of his assignment. The wall behind is filled with two words scribbled in large letters - I QUIT.

This was a film. Reality is brutal, merciless and irreversible. It comes in various shapes and sizes of children, schools and teachers, unfolding stories cruel enough to sign the death warrant of a vulnerable child in the prime of his/her life. But it needs a high-profile, elitist school like La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata, established in 1836 in memory of Claude Martin, a soldier who fought to impose imperialism in India. It needs a suicide by a young teenager Rouwanjit Rawla, belonging to an affluent, influential and elite family to make it to newspaper headlines and television news flashes round the clock. Similar and sometimes worse cases of brutality in schools fail to make headlines because the victims are anonymous and the schools are not high profile, or both, even when some of these incidents lead to the tragic death of the victims.

Corporal punishment of children is a worldwide phenomenon. Children are physically punished in almost all societies. The two key features that define corporal punishment are - physical violence against children, and the notion of punishment in response to wrong-doing. Other than clear cases of antisocial behaviour that goes against the simple moral rules of childhood, 'wrong-doing' is a subjective assessment, whose determination differs from teacher to teacher and from school to school.

The legal moorings for eliminating corporal punishment are strong and deep. Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires States to protect children from "all forms of physical or mental violence" while in the care of parents, teachers, and others. In India, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 under Clause 17 specifies that no child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment. Whoever contravenes this should be liable to disciplinary action under the service rules applicable to such persons. The National Education Policy, 1992 clearly states that corporal punishment should be firmly excluded from the education system.

The Supreme Court has also, by ruling, banned corporal punishment for children, but only six states have undertaken efforts to follow the order. Three have completely banned corporal punishment [Delhi (2000), Andhra Pradesh (2002), and Goa (2003)], while three other states have sought prohibition on corporal punishment: Chandigarh (1990), West Bengal (2000), and Tamilnadu (2003).

The two key features that define corporal punishment are physical violence against children, and the notion of punishment in response to wrong-doing.

 •  HC steps in against punishment

Despite all this, there continues to be a steady stream of reports about corporal punishment. And even these are an under-report, with many instances of milder impacts not being reported or uncovered at all. All of this, says Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, who works with HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, reflects a broader problem. "Despite Constitutional guarantees of opportunity and civil rights, millions of children face wide-spread deprivation and discrimination. A large part of this stems from being seen through the lens of adults who make decisions for them, and who prefer to address their welfare rather than their rights," says Thukral.

Many justice systems have banned beatings as punishment. But beatings are still administered for breaches of rules at school and home. There are behaviour theorists who question the validity of any punishment as a tool for learning, recommending instead systems of reward for positive behaviour. When parents and teachers equate "discipline" with "punishment" and couple this with violence, the consequences for children can be catastrophic. Sometimes, children who are brought up in an environment of violence in the form of corporal punishment learn to accept it as normal in the process of growing up. When they become parents and/or teachers themselves, they see nothing wrong in using corporal punishment on their children and students.

The Impact of Corporal Punishment in Schools

In May 2006, Saath Charitable Trust released a research study, The Impact of Corporal Punishment in Schools supported by Plan International India, New Delhi. The report looked at the incidence and the extent of corporal punishment on school children and the impact it inflicts on them. The study was carried out in one district each in four states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Using participatory research tools and methods, the study covered 41 schools. The research team interacted with 1591 children, and also members of various children's organisations. Among its main findings, the report outlined the following:

  • Corporal punishment is an accepted way of life in schools and at homes. In all the 41 schools and surrounding communities the team visited, corporal punishment stood out as a common theme.

  • Almost all teachers and parents had no hesitation in accepting that they punish children physically. Many argued the children cannot be disciplined without punishment.

  • In more than 20 schools the team visited, the students actually showed or pointed out the stick with which they are beaten.

  • The team intermittently came across more severe forms of punishment meted out to children, such as: kicking them severely, making them starve (at home), tying them (with rope) to chairs/poles followed by beatings, assigning physically strenuous work both at home and outside (usually in the fields) etc.

  • A child often faces a series of punishment for the same/single "offence". The sequence of punishments starts with the teacher; the same child is then punished by the head teacher for having "invited" the punishment; another punishment - generally, beating - awaits the same child at home if the parents learn about the punishment at school.

  • Teachers across the four states, especially UP, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh, revealed that there were just too many students for them to handle.

This report, like several others, shows there is a long way to go, before children become free of physical punishment in schools. As a result, it is quite often the victims themselves who take it upon themselves to sustain the demand for change. At the Junior 8 Summit that ran alongside the G8 Meet in Italy in 2009, Samuel Viswanathan, a teenager, screened a ten-minute film on corporal punishment. Mercilessly beaten in school, this boy from Shoolagiri, a small village in Tamilnadu, wanted his film to sensitise teachers and parents. "I have gone through it, and do not want my fellow students to face the ordeal," said the boy who now studies visual communication at Loyola College, Chennai.