Kapil Sibal loves the United Kingdom, which is why he ensured that those he loves pursued their education there and in other high-priced external locations rather than in India. Indeed, London has become the refuge of choice for much of India’s political class, who feel relaxed in an atmosphere uncluttered by the “mango people,” who lack the money needed for stays in that super-expensive city. During the period when he was the Human Resource Development Minister, Sibal sought to ensure that schoolchildren in India have the same freedom from punishment as their counterparts in the UK. That there are differences between students in the UK and those in India, differences in living standards and in acculturation, is a small point omitted by Kapil Sibal when he issued decrees that teachers in India ought to adopt a “turn the other cheek” approach towards their wards, even while the latter were themselves free with their slaps and worse.
Another of Sibal’s gifts to the student community was to seek to remove the fear of examinations from the mind of the schoolgoer, at least till the final (Board) exam. So, not only are teachers to abjure such barbaric acts as caning or scolding even the most recalcitrant of students, they are unable to force them to do at least some reading through the fear that a class would get repeated. In places such as Kolkata, teachers were sent to prison — where they still are — because a child committed suicide. Was it because of hazing and worse by seniors, as usually happens in schools to students regarded as physically attractive to their seniors? Was it because of over-expectation of achievement by the family and harsh words said after under-achievement? None of these possibilities were even considered by the media or by the police in that city. Instead, a barrage of media reports that painted them as devils was followed by a speedy trial and sentencing. After witnessing such a fate, it would be a foolhardy schoolteacher, who would dare to chastise a student, even if the youth were guilty of behaviour that would be frowned upon in the genteel atmosphere of the Sibal home.
Even before Kapil Sibal entered the ring, there existed a class of students, who were immune from any form of punishment. These were the student leaders belonging to major political parties. Determined to set a good example to their peers, such worthies often miss class and bully others. Because of the fear that the political parties to which such elements belong would exact retribution, teachers cower before these budding politicians, indulging them whenever feasible. Post Sibal, this Exempted Category has grown to include the entire student body.
Even before Kapil Sibal entered the ring, there existed a class of students, who were immune from any form of punishment.
Now that the stick has been taken away from teachers, at last in locations where television cameras lurk, it is small wonder that acts of indiscipline have multiplied in many schools. Obedience to Sibal’s commandment to spare not only the rod but any form of remonstration at unruly behaviour has made teachers helpless before students, even those who prey on younger ones. In such a context, to form a phalanx demanding prison and worse for an individual simply because she is unfortunate enough to be the headmistress of a school where rowdies rag freshers is hardly likely to boost the morale of a profession that is crucial to building the future of the country.
In the Kolkata case, certainly, the tormentors of the 11-year-old need to be identified and brought to justice. Of course, looking at the lenient treatment given to a presumed juvenile, who showed no compunction in violating a young woman in a miscellany of ways and with force sufficient to cause death, it is not likely that those actually responsible for this crime will get the quantum of punishment they deserve. However, arresting and afterwards subjecting the headmistress of the school to a prison sentence will hardly meet the ends of any other than mob justice.
Given the paucity of means at their disposal to check abuse and violence on the part of their wards, it is a cruel irony to send to jail individuals who have been made powerless by the Sibal reform of our school system, policies that have made classrooms less safe and the product of school education less likely to emerge as citizens with the drive and discipline needed for excellence.