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West Bengal: Caning lesson

EducationWorld October 12 | Education News EducationWorld

A criminal indictment and trial which had hung like a malevolent cloud over Kolkata’s bhadralok (English literate middle class) — who pride themselves if their children are admitted into the elite La Martiniere for Boys School (LMB, estb. 1836) — was lifted on September 21. Delivering a 11-page written judgement, Judge Madhuchanda Bose, additional district and sessions judge of the third fast track court, Kolkata, absolved Sunirmal Chakravarthi, principal of La Martiniere for Boys, of the charge of abetting the suicide of class VIII student Rouvanjit Rawla in early 2010. The court also cleared teachers L.J. Gunnion, David Royan and Partha Dutta of related charges.

“No prima facie case has been made out against the accused. There is no evidence that the deceased was deliberately punished in school. There is no material on record that would make conviction a reasonable possibility. The statements of witnesses reveal no torture on the student. Under the circumstances, there is no ground to proceed against the accused,’’ said Judge Bose, adding that punishment for indiscipline is part of a normal student-teacher relationship.

On February 12, 2010, Rouvanjit (12), a class VIII student of LMB was found hanging in his south Kolkata residence, four days after he was formally caned for misbehaviour and disobedience by principal Chakravarthi. An English and sociology alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and JNU, Delhi, Chakravarthi had taught at the very pucca St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling for almost two decades (1987-2006), where formal caning (“six of the best’’) is an age-old tradition, before he was appointed principal of LMB in 2006, where caning was also not unknown.

Four months after the boy’s suicide, his father Ajay Rawla filed a police complaint after he found some notes written by Rouvanjit expressing deep anguish about the caning and disgracing in school. The filing of the complaint prompted nationwide media attention, and sustained coverage by television news channels. Yet despite severe pressure to resign —  after he received the full backing of LMB’s parent and teacher communities — Chakravarthi continued to discharge his duties as principal claiming that mild formal caning was an LMB tradition, and that during the four-day gap between the punishment and Rouvanjit’s suicide, the boy had attended class normally and therefore the tragedy was unrelated to the caning.

The trial of Chakravarthi and the three teachers which began on December 14, 2010 deeply divided Kolkata society. While parents and teachers accepted the defence argument that the four-day gap between Rouvanjit’s suicide pointed towards domestic discord or other causes, cadres and activists of the then ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) lost no opportunity to pillory Chakravarthi and condemn the traditions of the “elitist’’ LMB.

Almost two years after his trial on abetment of suicide charges began, Chakravarthi is reported to be “hugely relieved’’ by Judge Bose’s September 21 ruling. Unfortunately he was travelling when this news report was written and not available for comment. However according to LMB sources, all types of corporal punishment are now officially banned in the school.

Meanwhile, Chakravarthi’s courage under fire and resilience has impressed not only LMB’s parent and teacher communities which were a bedrock of support, but educators beyond the school’s communities. “A lesser man would have wilted under the incredible pressure and humiliation that went on relentlessly for months,’’ says Debi Kar, director of Modern High School for Girls, ranked Kolkata’s premier day school in the EducationWorld India School Rankings 2012.

According to Kar, the trial and tribulation of Chakravarthi should prompt all teachers to cease and desist from administering corporal punishment. “Many of the old school still champion the practice of caning with the rider that it should be administered ‘properly’. Others romanticise caning because it worked wonders in their time. However, chastisement and punishment can be as effectively delivered by stern words and sarcasm,’’ she advises.

That’s good advice that all teachers should carefully heed in their own interest.

Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

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