Monday, June 13, 2011

Remembering Shanno Khatun and the need for non-violent schools

I've taken the past couple of weeks off to visit my Mrs. Batti's side of the family and to think about the future of the Dhaba. During that time, all kinds of corruption and abuse of power have been in the news-- a telecom minister stealing phone lines for his brother's business, a religious figure threatening to train thousands of 'nationalist' (read: RSS) youth in how to beat up the police , and of course the police tear gassing thousands of peaceful protesters. Where to start? I'm not even going to try.  Instead, I'm going to write about a story that wasn't in the news these past few weeks. 


Two years have passed since eleven year old Shanno Khatun died in an MCD school after allegedly being abused by her teacher. A month or two back, a blogger I respect suggested I write about the case, and the fact that it seemed to be going no place fast. I agreed, but found it hard to know where to start. 


For those who don't recall the details of the story, here's an excerpt from 2009 article in the Times of India:
Shanno was allegedly made to stand out in the sun for more than an hour after she failed to recite the English alphabets properly. The teacher had allegedly made her squat like a hen and put bricks on her shoulders. The girl had started vomiting and was rushed to a hospital, where she slipped into a coma and died two days later. 
Here's something from a piece in Time:
[Shanno's father, Ayub Khan] gets emotional as he describes Shanno's last hours. "She kept on asking for water but the teacher ignored her," Ayub describes what he says as his daughter's suffering. Her two sisters, Saima and Sehnaz, say that Shanno pleaded with the teacher that she would learn her alphabet properly after lunch, but was ignored. (The parents of several other children at the same school say their children describe the incident in similar terms.) Shanno's sisters Saima and Sehnaz then ran to get their mother. "We thought our sister was dead," Saima said. When their mother arrived, she found Shanno lying on the ground, Khan says, and by the time Shanno was taken home she had slipped into a coma. He breaks down while relating Shanno's last words to her mother: "I never want to go to school again." Shanno died the next day, on April 17. 
Shanno's teacher denied any wrong doing.  In July, 2009, the police found that Shanno died of epilepsy, though there was a dissenting opinion given by the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.  Shanno's parents have denied she even had epilepsy. Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy is something that very rarely happens in childhood; it is typically something adults with severe epilepsy worry about. Children, on the other hand, are more vulnerable than adults to heat stroke, especially in the kind of weather we find during April in Delhi. . 

In May, the Delhi High Court finally took up the matter, demanding, among other things, that the Delhi government and MCD explain why corporal punishment is widespread, in spite of it being banned. Where it will go from here, I don't know. I'm neither a legal expert nor a doctor. I do hope justice is done in this case, because to deny justice to the weakest among us sends a powerfully toxic message. 


But I also hope a larger point is not lost in the heat generated by this case. Corporal punishment in schools is not bad only because it can be, on rare occasions, deadly. It's bad because in almost every case, it undermines learning. 


A year after Shanno's teacher was cleared, Outlook ran this piece by an MCD school teacher who argued that, "a slap or two doesn't hurt." It is a defense of corporal punishment, but you can tell it is written by someone who is conflicted about the issue, because there is frustration and ambivalence throughout:
...the children who come to study here are from an economic strata where the parents double up as domestic help or daily-wage labourers. And they have only one desire—to make their children literate...We occasionally have to slap them so that they can understand the importance of coming to school on time. It is for their welfare that we have to resort to such disciplinary measures, otherwise they won’t study at all. I know slapping is not a solution, but how else do you ensure some discipline in their lives?
The job of the MCD teacher, the job of our schools in general, is extraordinarily difficult.  But this teacher is right about one thing: slapping is not a solution. If we are only able to motivate children to come to school on time by slapping them, then I suggest we agree to let them come late until teachers, parents, and community members can collectively think of an approach that does not require violence.


I know many of us can point to an effective teacher who resorted to the occasional slap. But in almost every case, I would guess that the teacher was actually effective for reasons other than violence. Knowledge, and the desire and ability to think, are simply not things we can beat into children. Respect nurtures learning and thinking; fear spoils it. 


No slapping allowed!
How to make our schools truly effective will take a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion--and probably a lot more resources. It will be worth the effort, because the environmental crisis looming in India--falling water tables-rising fuel prices-deteriorating farmland-changing climate and extreme weather--could easily lead to widespread famine and social breakdown if we do not see some very impressive problem solving over the next few generations. 


We need to train a generation of students--in all our our schools--who know how to think well and understand the problems we all face. It won't be easy. But making real the courts' ban on violence in our schools is a good place to start.



41 comments:

  1. I do remember Shanno's case. Thanks for bringing it up again. I've met so many children from the underprivileged background the teacher mentions who have stopped going to school because their teachers are so harsh, not only physically but with their words too. I think teachers who cannot cope with children ought not to be teaching in the first place. I do hope the courts' ban on violence in schools comes through.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Hari for putting the whole tragic murder of this child in perspective. Our schools don't seem to be safe spaces for the children of the poor.

    Yesterday, a child here got killed in her playground [http://www.deccanherald.com/content/175839/eight-year-old-girl-electrocuted.html]. And another got severely beaten by the teacher. [http://www.deccanherald.com/content/175817/teacher-beats-up-eight-year.html].

    Conditions in our govt/slum schools will never improve unless middle class children also go there although Im not sure if such integration will make things any better or worse for the poor kids. [http://judesessions.blogspot.com/2011/06/that-such-decision-should-even-be-news.html]

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