The culture of punishment as spectacle runs deep in our society. The shocking news from a Mirzapur school last week of a child being dangled upside down from the first floor by his principal should trouble all of us.
Although the incident concerns an individual’s action, it is situated in a social life that views exemplary punishments and its public spectacle as a norm. Physical punishment finds easy acceptance in societies that valorises cultures of violence – whether in public or domestic spaces. The unfortunate and unending phenomenon of mob lynching gives life to these cultures of violence.
In India, the scope and scale of lynching have been expanding to include people associated with Dalit and Muslim identity, child-kidnappers, lovers, thieves and right-wing ideologues. Further, police beating ordinary citizens for violations of law in public spaces are some other examples that routinise the spectacle of violence.
My point is that violence has found a socially legitimate space in our bedrooms, living rooms, classrooms, streets, cities and villages. It also traverses through our marketplaces, worksites, police custody and public transport.
Not all these examples constitute the same type of violence and spectacle. Lynching has an accompanying element of public cheering and is usually directed against the social “other” in a given social space.
Discipline and punish
Police beating has an element of frustration and the show-off of unequal power dynamics. Here the public usually turns into a meek spectator. Exemplary punishments of students by teachers have an element of constituting the authority of the teacher.
We all remember specific teachers from our school days who were known for their exemplary and peculiar forms of punishment. In this case, the child-public could watch silently and simultaneously inhabit fear in their personality, as seems to be the case in the Mirzapur incident.
Running through all these forms of punishment, whether state-controlled or non-state violence, is the idea of torture, the cultivation of fear, and the disciplining of the body and social behaviour – all achieved via the exemplary performance of the spectacle.
French philosopher Michel Foucault in his classic work, Discipline and Punish, associated spectacled violence (guillotine, public beating) and excessive bodily torture with the pre-modern society. According to him, the modern societies in the West hid the violence from the public and changed its nature in the 19th century.
First, the public ritual of torture/public execution was replaced by long-term reformative punishments comprising of jail sentences, forced labour, suspension of freedom and other rights. The public punishment itself became a crime and a shameful activity for the state. Second, a change in the method of punishment marked a shift in bodily torture from being a one-time activity to prolonged suffering.
Solitary confinements are extreme examples of this. Colonial and post-colonial India seem to have witnessed this transition in the methods of punishment only half-heartedly. British officials used both the cellular jail of Andaman to punish Indians and shoot them at gunpoint. Lathi-charge and public beating by the colonial police was a frequent phenomenon and has passed on to us as a colonial inheritance.
Besides, the spectacle of caste and community violence coexisted with the public ritual of state violence. Colonial ethnographer official Edgar Thurston while touring the Madras region in the 1910s noted down an exemplary punishment given by Indian teachers.
In the case of a carpenter apprentice child, he noted that the punished child carried a block of a heavy wood through a chain tied to their ankles. An article by a popular Hindi magazine represented a caricature of various forms of punishments given by teachers to students (see illustration above). Unfortunately, many cruel forms of physical punishment carried out by the state agents and the public continue to not only survive but thrive illegally in India.
One could give various logics as to the reasons behind this situation ranging from toothless laws with weak implementation, little respect for individuals’ dignity, assertion of authority by “egoistic” officials and dominant social groups to the social legitimisation of masculine culture in the public sphere through films, conversations and behaviours.
At the heart of all this is the site of school and pedagogy that is supposed to be a transformative experience in a positive sense and yet it becomes a mixed, and often a negative experience, depending on the social profile of the kid, rural and urban location of the school, private and government nature of the school. Foucault maintains that in modern Western societies, schools came to be part of a set of institutions that produced a docile and disciplined body.
Like prisons, army and infirmary, the school trained students in time and body discipline and the schoolmaster had not just a pedagogic role but also the task of surveillance – watching over the body, behaviour and discipline-learning of the student.
In the Mirzapur incident, the student was allegedly found biting other students for which he was given an exemplary punishment. The recurring nature of violence, an absence of a system that tracks the progress of a case and the perpetrator of violence and the social legitimisation of public violence as a pompous show of masculine assertion enables our society to internalise violence as a routine affair. Apparently, the father of the child stated that the teacher did commit a wrong but “he did it out of love”.
Violence begets violence
Although much of violence is a direct result of unequal socio-economic and power relations in our society and require systematic interventions to ensure equity, social justice and the dignity of an individual. There are various ways to halt this naturalisation and easy acceptance of violence in our society, especially the one directed against female, children and marginalised social groups.
Local institutions such as schools, police stations, workspaces and transport authorities must ensure that complaints of violence are not only registered hassle-free but are also followed. Perhaps a greater degree of sensitisation is needed over the mental health impacts of physical punishment on the individual body and mind, especially of the young child.
Violence impacts and transforms all those for a lifetime who experience it, commit it and witness it. Teacher training, school textbooks, vigorous media campaigns are a good places to start. A practice that I found in the United Kingdom very helpful are notices in bold letters at counters and in institutions reminding both the staff and visitors that violent behaviours and bullying from any side is unacceptable and easy to report.
However, this collective consciousness has a meaning only when the state and its agencies are willing to take transformative and people-friendly steps. It is only an irony that a country that gave the mantra of Gandhian non-violence to the world has such a widespread problem of public violence. As Martin Luther said: “Hate begets hate, violence begets violence and toughness begets a greater toughness.”
Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor in British Imperial, Colonial and Post-Colonial History at Nottingham University. His Twitter handle is @arun_historian.