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Schools offer degrees of humiliation as education

All of us do need to ask ourselves whether we are okay about the things that are done to us in classrooms, all for our supposed good

Our school system is one that oppresses and discriminates.
Our school system is one that oppresses and discriminates. (iStockphoto)

Tripta Tyagi is the kind of name you would find in a reality show—it just rolls off your tongue. Unfortunately, the reality show Triptaji has appeared in is the kind of episode that most of us would wish we hadn’t seen. No one really wants to see footage of a seven-year-old being hit by the rest of his classmates while his teacher urges them to hit harder.

As I write this, Tyagi, the teacher and owner of Neha Public School in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, is still grouchily defending herself, the centre of a national and local storm. Here are some of the convoluted justifications marshalled by Tyagi and others. She had a disability, so she couldn’t get up to hit the child herself. The child hadn’t learnt his multiplication tables. He had been asked to learn them a month ago. The child’s uncle had asked for him to be disciplined. Children need to be controlled. In a later video, Tyagi talks about the first video having been manipulated; on what front, she doesn’t make clear since she doesn’t deny organising the daisy chain of hitting.

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But almost all the voices involved are trying to establish whether the incident had a “communal flavour”. As a clan member of Tyagi’s told the Article-14 website: “This was such a small matter. We all were beaten in schools. It is common for teachers to punish kids in schools when they make mistakes. Nothing wrong and big in that.”

And this is the thought I have been struggling with. Why is “simple” hitting and a range of complex tortures so normalised in our classrooms? A close friend in his 30s told me the story of the Bengaluru school he went to when he was four. At that age, when you are barely hatched from the egg, as my family used to say, he had to participate in some psychodrama he has never forgotten. The teacher asked questions and the child who answered a question correctly was asked to hit the child who didn’t answer a question correctly. It didn’t matter that he didn’t want to do it. It went on for a whole year, while his parents tried to put him in another school. Teachers such as this and their “methods” like this are never isolated acts, as he pointed out.

Into his school’s overall air of repressive control, other teachers brought their own special sauce. One brought those old-fashioned blue bottles of glue and threatened to pour it into children’s mouths. Again, think of the last four-year-old you met or what you remember of being four. They weigh around 15kg. Now think of the things that happened to you in primary school.

Neha Public School has been closed and now authorities have noticed that its government affiliation lapsed last year. They say they will move the 50 or so children in the school to the local government school and promise to ease their transfer. But here is the thing. Neha Public School did have affiliation for three years. Despite its…limitations. An official who requested anonymity told the India Today magazine: “It’s an under-construction building and the teacher taught the students at her home. There were no fans or lights for the children. There were no sections for classes 1 to 5. We have sealed it for now.”

When Tyagi and supporters can argue (despite video evidence) that organising the beating up of a seven-year-old has no communal flavour, that it’s just what is done in classrooms, they are also talking about a larger truth. All education in India has a communal flavour. Of course, formal education means social mobility, so it’s highly controlled in a country that adores hierarchy. The history of modern education in India has been a combination of the struggle of oppressed communities to either rise or to oppress a rising community. For every educational initiative set up in India as a public good that a historically oppressed group can access, a million octopuses appear to take them away. The emancipation of Dalits, Muslims, women, people with disabilities is so viscerally terrifying that whole systems appear to shut them down. That is our education system—one that works hard to ensure no one thinks they are so smart, okay? A system created to oppress everyone doesn’t suddenly slip and become “don’t worry, beta” in classrooms. It is a system that discriminates, of course, but no one really gets away without being twisted into a monster version of their tiny four-year-old self.

In this particular story from Muzaffarnagar, the parents of the child are the only ones I have seen quoted saying it didn’t matter what the teacher’s intentions were, their child shouldn’t have been hit. And that seems to be a hard one for people raised in our education system to keep in mind. By that, I don’t mean CBSE or state board or ICSE or other alphabet soups. I mean a whole universe in which you are supposed to be grateful, abjectly so, that you have an education. Instead of being grossly, ridiculously, happily entitled. Instead of being enraged if your child gets anything less than a world-class, Moon-landing education.

Even in the few days since the Muzaffarnagar incident, the news is full of terrifying reports of classroom violence, particularly against children from oppressed communities. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If a child has not been hospitalised by an adult or pushed to suicide, we will never read about it. But day in and day out, children in Indian classrooms are offered many degrees of humiliation as education. We do not need one more national law but all of us do need to ask ourselves whether we are okay about the things that are done to us in classrooms, all for our supposed good.

Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.

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