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KOLKATA, India — A heavy silence has crept into the Rawla residence on Penn Road in India’s Eastern city of Kolkata.
Sheena Rawla, who hasn’t left her home in several weeks, draws comfort from reading religious verses throughout the day. Her husband, Ajay Rawla, who runs a jute business, finds little solace in going to his office, but prefers instead, to look through cherished family photographs to alleviate his pain. Their two teenage children spend the day quietly reading or visiting friend’s homes to seek temporary refuge from the emptiness that has gripped their lives.
Five months ago, on a seemingly innocuous Friday afternoon, Ajay and Sheena’s youngest son hanged himself in the terrace room of his Kolkata home. Rouvanjit Rawla was a month shy of turning 13. Too young to understand the complexities of a modern world, yet traumatized enough to not want to belong to it anymore.
Rouwanjit committed suicide four days after he was caned by the principal of his school, La Martiniere, a prestigious private school in Kolkata, over disciplinary issues.
On that fateful Friday, Rouvanjit took stink bombs to school and was made to stand outside the classroom. Investigations by India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) reveal that Rouvanjit allegedly suffered humiliation and abuse at the hands of the principal and three teachers over several months.
“The principal confessed to me he broke the cane on Rouvan’s back,” said Ajay Rawla, eyes filling with tears. “He showed no remorse.”
In June, Rawla filed a police complaint against the school’s principal and three teachers. “They say the heaviest burden on earth is the weight of the coffin of a child on his father’s shoulders. I have been that unlucky father.”
Rouvanjit’s death has sent shock waves across the country and has become a lightning rod for the issue of corporal punishment in Indian schools. The case has grabbed national attention because it involved a middle-class family and happened at one of the country’s most elite schools, a formidable 170-year-old institution with illustrious alumni.
India’s Supreme Court has banned corporal punishment in schools. Yet, as is often the case in India, there is a wide gap between the law and its implementation. Reports show children in India are routinely beaten in schools.
A 2007 national study by India’s Ministry of Women and Child Welfare Development reveals two out of three children across India’s 13 states have suffered physical abuse in schools, the most common form includes hitting with hands and stick, pulling hair and ears, kicking and making children stand for long periods of time in various positions.
UNICEF India, which calls corporal punishment invariably degrading, says this crime is rampant in every school district across the country. According to its reports, most children do not confide about the matter to anyone and suffer silently. The NCPCR, which is calling for the suspension of the principal, echoes UNICEF’s findings.
“Unfortunately, even the most reputed schools, we have a history and culture of this kind of abuse that’s meted out and widely accepted,” said Lov Verma, secretary of NCPCR in a phone interview. “We have the laws in place, but we need to change the mind sets.”
Sunirmal Chakravarthi, the principal of La Martinere has refused to resign. While he has apologized for the incident, Charaborty says the caning and the suicide are not related. He told the Indian Express newspaper: “Why should I resign? I am a teacher, not a criminal.”
In a largely conservative society, traditional values will take time to change, as reflected by the old guard which believes in the merits of disciplining children through some form of corporal punishment.
In newspaper columns and TV shows, eminent Indians have expressed this sentiment, referring to their own school days with a twist of nostalgia. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a former chief minister of the state of Bengal, writes about how caning was part of growing up. “I learned to wear three or four pairs of shorts as protection [from caning,]” he wrote in a leading Indian newspaper.
Meanwhile, Rouvanjit’s suicide death has sparked a nationwide debate about improving communication between parents, teachers and kids.
Given the fierce competition to secure a spot in schools, starting from kindergarten, many parents are afraid to interfere with school authorities, reluctant to complain for fear of expulsion.
“If we complain, the teachers will take it out on our children,” said Manju Poddar, a housewife in Ludhiana, a mid-size city in the northern state of Punjab. “No one wants to take such a risk.”
Says Sankhya Reddy, a 6th grader in the southern city of Hyderabad, who didn’t want to name her school. “Teachers slap us on the cheek or hit us with a ruler if we are naughty. It’s very common, so we are used to it.”
With class sizes averaging 60 to 70 students, teachers in India are under a lot of stress. Says Ms. Ahmad, an 8th grade social sciences teacher at Step by Step, a private school in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi: “Classes are very large and the pressure on teachers is very great. However, in the interest of both students and teachers, schools need to devise a way of helping teachers handle this. Teachers also need to be empowered to express their point of view without fear.”
In the meantime, as the Rawla family awaits the police and the NCPCR’s final reports, their anguish seems to grow with each passing day. At the Rawla home, Rouvanjit’s presence can be felt everywhere, especially his room, a constant reminder to the family of his vivacious and spirited personality. His guitar sits on the top bunk of his double decker bed, Power Rangers action figures rest on the book shelf along with his favorite Percy Jackson series and his clothes line the cupboard.
“Rouvan was full of life, he was free with hugs to everyone,” said Anu Navlakha, Rouvanjit’s aunt, looking at the life-size photograph of Rouvanjit in the living room. “Several teachers spent several months breaking his spirit and he bore it stoically. He was no push-over, but he was sensitive. He didn’t want to hurt us, so he didn’t tell us anything. Our entire family is devastated by this loss.”
She shares a poem written by Rouvanjit’s friend on a Facebook site dedicated to her nephew, which has attracted hundreds of members.
Where have you gone
We grieve, we cry
We wipe our tears
The cut is deep
No balm can ease the pain
Life’s betrayal is complete