Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the death of a student: Punishment, discipline and school

On the 20th of July 2010, Roshni Rego, hurrying across the railway crossing at Comba in Margao, was hit by an oncoming train, dragged by the engine, and subsequently died from this encounter. Roshni was a student in Grade XII and the horrific manner of her death has quite naturally shocked the State.

In the aftermath, there have been a number of voices raised in protest. Given the feeling of a lack of misgovernance in the State, the Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, and his political establishment has emerged as one of the top favourites in the list of those responsible for this tragedy. There are however, other claimants for this role. There is the fact that the subway that should have been used by the rickshaw that normally dropped Roshni to school was flooded by rainwater. A case of bad and negligent design. There is the fact that the rickshaw driver ought to have dropped his load of school children directly at the school, and not left them to their own devices. There is the fact that the railway crossing across which Roshni ran was not manned and ought to have been.

A question that appears to have not been asked is; why was Roshni running across the railway tracks in the first place? Why not wait, peaceably, for the train to pass, and then casually walk to school? The answer, as per some of the newspaper reports, indicate that Roshni was in a hurry to get to school on time. A case of an unusually diligent and conscientious student? I think not.

I am unaware of the disciplinary practices that are favoured at the Damodar Science Higher Secondary School, and the practices of this particular school are not the target of this column. Rather, it is the disciplinary practices of schools across the State in particular, and India in general that I would like to focus on. I recollect the days when I was a student of a school in Panjim town. The school had a peculiar practice for those students who arrived at school once the morning assembly was over. They were made to kneel down for a period of time. And if these late comings were repeated, they were then sent to detention, after school.

This particular practice never made sense to me. Let us ignore the fact that one is humiliating a child for a fact that may be beyond his or her control. As children, we are dropped to school, by our parents, by hired drivers, or we come to school by public transport. Most of these situations are beyond the control of the student. In which case, why punish the child? Perhaps a word with the parents, where we try to understand the reason for this delay?

The method of punishment that this particular school, that I use as example, adopted was particularly amusing and indicative of what exactly was going on. Granted that the student was late. But if punctuality to ensure that one does not miss the precious drops of wisdom that are being dispensed in the classroom is the point, why hold the child back longer? The point perhaps is that disciplinary practices in school are not about gaining knowledge, but about training students for life once they leave school. Just as a dog is trained with some harsh treatment as a puppy, we train children for life in general while at school. It becomes necessary then, to run schools as if they were military camps, where we churn out robots for the market.

The suicide of a student in Calcutta, after she was caned by her teacher, had segments of the country up in arms about corporal punishment in schools. I would argue that we need to go a step further and add a ban on humiliation to that list. We would also need to rethink our policies on students who arrive late to school. While there is a point to be made that students should be encouraged to arrive in time to school, surely there is no point in punishing students for things they have no control over? Especially when they are reliant on adults; especially when a parent racing through traffic to reach their child to school on time is courting disaster?

Tragedies are always a time when one reflects on the past that brought us to the present condition. While offering a prayer for the soul of Roshni, perhaps we could also ensure a dialogue that prevents schools from being the reasons for the death of innocents?

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 28 July 2010)

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