Last week, four Class 11 students committed suicide by jumping into a well near their school at Panapakkam village in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore. They were among 11 students whom the teachers had allegedly threatened to dismiss if they did not bring their parents to school.

On November 23, their entire class had allegedly been made to stand outside the classroom and scolded for “bad behaviour” and being disrespectful to the teachers, The Indian Express reported. The bad behaviour, a local activist said, involved making a “sarcastic song” about the teachers. The students were forced to hold their hands up in the air for over two hours as the teachers hurled abuses at them, calling them dogs, buffaloes and “worse than Mumbai dons”. After school hours, 11 of the students were made to take a special class and told to bring along their parents the next day.

“Teachers had asked them to bring their parents because the students were apparently disturbing the class environment,” said Vellore Superintendent of Police P Paklavan. “The investigation is in the preliminary stage. We have to see if there was any other reason for the suicide.”

The headmistress and a teacher have been suspended. An FIR has been filed for the police to investigate the deaths, but no arrests have been made so far.

Punishable by law

Priyank Kanoong of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights said the suspended teachers are punishable under Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act. It states:

“Whoever having the actual charge of, or control over, a child, assaults, abandons, abuses, exposes or wilfully neglects the a manner likely to cause such child unnecessary mental or physical suffering, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine of one lakh rupees or with both.”  

If such an offence is committed by any person employed by or managing an organisation entrusted with care and protection of the child, the law further states, the punishment may extend up to five years in prison and fine of Rs 5 lakh.

“We will definitely seek a report on this from the local administration,” said Kanoong. “We will also ask them to register an FIR under different sections of the Juvenile Justice Act.”

Shantha Sinha, former head of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, called for an thorough enquiry into the matter by specialists who can speak to the students in confidence without intimidating them. “They should inquire into the relationship between the teachers and students,” Sinha said. “If there has been such a severe reaction from the students, it is probably not a standalone incident. It must be the coming together of many of such kinds of incidents.”

Persistent problem

Activists said the alleged treatment of students at Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Panapakkam, could be classified as corporal punishment, which is banned by law.

A 2007 study, Child Abuse in India, found that psychological aggression, or an attempt to cause a child to experience psychological pain to control or correct their behaviour, was often more pervasive than physical punishment in the country.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ guidelines for eliminating corporal punishment in schools prohibit “all acts leading to insult, humiliation, physical and mental injury”, including standing up for long hours. “It is being noticed that corporal punishment in schools, both government and private, is deeply ingrained as a tool to discipline children and as a normal action,” the report noted. “All forms of corporal punishment are a fundamental breach of human rights.”

In Tamil Nadu, Rule 51 of the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, which allowed for corporal punishment under specified conditions, was removed. Yet, Sinha said, corporal punishment continues. “This is because of the power and authority the teacher enjoys while intimidating the child,” she said.

In the wake of the Panapakkam suicides, child rights expert K Shanmugavelayutham said he has been receiving messages from various teachers’ unions expressing fear and confusion about dealing with students. “For so long, teachers have used only corporal punishment while handling students,” he said. “At the village and town level, they are not trained in any other way of enforcing discipline in the classroom.”

The Right To Education Act tasks school management committees to deal with cases of corporal punishment, but this is mandatory only up to Class 8. And in places where these committees are functional, Sinha said, the incidence of corporal punishment has come down.

There is, however, no data on how widespread corporal punishment remains, Kanoong said. “We are currently in the process of compiling a national report on safe and secure school environment in India,” he added.