Step out of your house in India and you must prepare to be accosted by, navigate through, or just plain avoid a million mindsets in every shade, from modern to medieval.

You become used to being on guard in India, used to being policed by everyone, from the kindly aunty who tells you your bra strap is showing, to the boys on motorbikes swerving at you as you run to show you whom the road belongs to.

The years teach you what you can and cannot do, say and wear, and how to be or not be here or there, and with whom. Thus indoctrinated, you become somewhat adept at gauging the milieu and adjusting the personality you project. The manoeuvring manifests in ways you will be familiar with – a dupatta worn over your T-shirt and jeans for the commute, keeping your feminist mouth shut at the school gate, studiously avoiding comment in conversations that veer toward religious (or moral) disgusts.

Unsurprisingly, your map of safe spaces becomes sharply defined. This is where I can smoke my cigarette in public. This is a person of the opposite gender I can hug with warm affection. This is a sub-community that harbours no disgusts.

And so, naturally, when you have children, you desperately look for the school that will be their safe space – not just corporally, but ideologically. A partner to your own parenting, we all look for the institution where they will spend seven hours a day for at least 10 years being educated, but also socialised, treated with the sort of wisdom and kindness that engenders faith in authority, respect for and responsibility to society and ultimately confidence in their own autonomy.

The Kerala case

And then you have schools like Thiruvananthapuram’s St Thomas Central School. In August, the school suspended two teenage students for hugging during a school festival. On December 16, the Kerala High Court upheld the school’s decision while quashing an order by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights asking it to revoke the suspension.

On the face of it, the school certainly has its objectives on point. The Principal, Sebastian T Joseph, is quoted on the school’s website as saying:

“The school of my dreams will impart an education that gives thrust on developing all the dimensions of a child’s personality – intellectual, moral, emotional, social, psychological, cultural and spiritual. Here, we impart an education that creates a community of lifelong learners, happy, contented, positive, balanced, confident, independent and humane individuals who can divine the purpose of their existence and lead a purposeful life and in the process contribute their might in creating a balanced society.”

He does not specify that St Thomas Central School is, in fact, the school of his dreams. But the school itself has listed its objectives, among which are to create awareness of social realities in the world around (the students) and to train them to be responsible citizens.

The school sounds exactly the sort of place to which you would entrust the privilege and responsibility of educating your children. But you’d be alarmed to know that the school snoops on kids’ private Instagram accounts, taking screenshots of them in allegedly compromising positions. It also slut-shamed a teenage girl and called a teenage boy “a bull in heat”.

It gets worse. The Instagram photographs were described by school authorities as “indecent, scandalous and appealing to prurient interest”, a fact especially ironic given that the personal photos, on a private Instagram account, were accessed without permission and with zero respect for the two children and their privacy. The fact that the secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society tried to coerce the girl into falsely accusing the boy of hugging her against her will is also vile. In a society where the definition of consent is still up for debate, where rape victims are still shamed, here is someone in charge of educating future adults encouraging a girl to falsely accuse a boy of molestation.

Medieval mindsets

As a woman, I am disgusted. But as a mother, I am horrified by the school’s hysterical reaction, the Mar Thoma Educational Society’s cynicism, and I empathise deeply with the children and their parents who seem supportive and intelligent if at grievous odds with their reading of their milieu. But could you blame them?

You would think that a co-educational school, established in 1990, with a much touted staff of experienced teachers in charge of teaching, cultural festivals, sports meetings (and something called a “Fun Streak”) would have some experience in dealing with…well, kids. Surely the school knows exactly what to do if a child gets a fever? They would have a plan to deal with someone being bullied or someone having problems at home. They would surely know what to do if they found a student struggling with Maths, or with one who formed a deep friendship with a fellow student of the opposite sex? Or would all these everyday, absolutely natural life occurrences be treated with prudish panic and arguably perverse invasions of privacy?

The Kerala High Court upheld the school’s decision to expel the students though the judge did suggest that the school acquire a more inclusive outlook to adolescent behaviour. Still, it falls terribly short of an adequate or fair response and it is heartbreaking for the children who are in danger of losing an academic year.

There are several parallels to be found between what is happening in our general milieu and this incident.

The idea of appropriate behaviour – instead of being relative to the environment and open to clarification, negotiation and evolution – is a hypocritical authoritarian diktat. The school could have warned the kids and reaffirmed their stand on interaction between the genders instead of turning this into an ugly, humiliating affair for both sides.

The idea of consent and respect for privacy is clearly a privilege only those in authority can expect. For the rest, including young children, you will be policed, you may be accused of something you did not do.

The idea of a safe space – whether it is for ideologies, progressive thought, challenging the status quo or just expressing affection – is a mirage. Even in institutions in charge of moulding the generation meant to take this country forward, medieval mindsets are masquerading as modern.

The incident has made me painfully aware that the schools my own children go to are exemplary in their attitudes to the optimal, all-round development of kids. But I worry that St Thomas Central School will be increasingly the norm rather than the exception.