“We need to control the children”: Some thoughts on children and punishment in the India of 2023

Samina Mishra

During August 2023 a video of an incident in a school in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh went viral. The principal, also a teacher, asked the students to beat a 7-year-old Muslim boy because he had not learnt his tables. The teacher is physically challenged and so, it appears, did not want to trouble herself with the act of beating. Instead, she sat at her desk, exhorting the boy’s classmates to hit him hard and made pronouncements about Muslims being irresponsible towards their children’s education while this was being done. The incident, not surprisingly, provoked horror but in keeping with the times we live in, it also produced responses that sought to portray it as something that had been misunderstood – a commonplace act in most schools in India that was being given a communal colour. The MP from Muzaffarnagar, Sanjeev Balyan of the BJP, said the opposition was trying to communalize an unfortunate incident between a teacher and a student – “It is a minor issue that has been resolved. Corporal punishment is common in this area. A divyang (person with disability) teacher who is doing social service should not be dragged into it.” In an interview to NDTV, Tripta Tyagi, the teacher, was reported as saying, “I am not ashamed…they have made laws but we need to control the children in schools. This is how we tackle them.”

The incident reflects the polarized times we live in, of course, but it is also significant for the way it demonstrates an understanding of childhood and education, influenced overwhelmingly by the need to control. We know now that childhood as a separate stage in human development is a modern construct, theorized most-famously by Phillipe Aires in his book Centuries of Childhood. Since it became a commonly-accepted idea, children have always been seen as needing to be moulded to be formed into ideal citizens. Adults carry an anxiety about the future and this is enacted on children’s bodies, children’s lives. The burden of futurity rests on children and so in our interactions with them, we manifest our visions for the futures we wish for. In the process, we often deny them agency and think of them as a homogenous block that has to be controlled into an orderly mass. Not very different from what an authoritarian state seeks to do.

The parallels between the state and the school have existed for long. States require that citizens acquire appropriate documents, follow rules and get punished when rules are broken. Schools too work in similar ways and Tripta Tyagi’s actions would appear to be an extension of this, manifesting the need to show who is in authority. The child had not done what was expected of him and so was punished. Even the fact that she made discriminatory comments about Muslims is not a new thing in schools – we know that teachers, as individuals, bring their class, caste, and religious biases into the classroom. There might even have been earlier incidents of classmates being asked to do the beating, incidents that went unrecorded. All of which need to be resisted every time they occur. But despite the long tradition of corporal punishment and discrimination in our schools, this particular incident was deeply disturbing for the way in which it evoked the India of 2023 and the institutionalization of hate. We live in the midst of lynchings, of clothing and food choices being denied, of examples of free speech being seen as subversive acts against the state, of detention centres being constructed for those without documents deemed as correct. In such a time, the personal beliefs of a teacher combined with outdated classroom practices make the trauma of this individual child into one that we should all feel deeply ashamed about. It takes a village to raise a child, we hear often. And something is definitely rotten in the state of this village.

So, what should be the role of adults who are part of that village and reject the rottenness?
Perhaps, our first step can be to take cues from children. In a recent project on children and citizenship, Hum Hindustani, I interacted with small groups of children from Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, a site for the anti-CAA protests; rural Firozpur in Punjab that saw enthusiastic participation in the Farmers’ Protests; and Govandi, an urban redevelopment space in Mumbai where project-affected, working-class Dalit and Muslim families have been resettled. I chose children who were in middle school, some in government schools and some in private, because those are the years in which they are supposed to study the Constitution of India and gain an understanding of the key ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In our interactions, we did poetry-writing and art exercises based on these key constitutional ideas. The children’s articulations fill me with hope and show us that we always have the choice to see what journalist and writer, Krista Tippett, has called “the generative story of our time…that there is also an ordinary and abundant reality of things that are going right at any given time….” One of these from the Hum Hindustani project is the artwork created by a dalit girl in Govandi on the prompt of equality.

Artwork from a workshop in Kitaab Mahal, Govandi as part of the Hum Hindustani project / Photo: Seher Islam

For the exercise, on equality, I asked the children to think about incidents from their lives where they had experienced equality and inequality, and to draw one. A 14-year-old girl in the group chose to draw a scene where girls in hijab are being denied entry into a school. In the discussions, she also spoke of how the controversy over the azaan being played on the loudspeakers was wrong because the faithful need to know when it is time to pray. I was curious why she was speaking about these issues given that she is a dalit and had not faced those herself. When I asked her, she shared that she had grown up living with many Muslims, that her closest friend is a Muslim, in whose house she spends a lot of time. This intertwining of lives and sharing of space – both public and private – had made her aware of other people’s struggles and difficulties. This is the cue that we can take from this child. To live with each other, to share an everyday that makes it possible for us to truly see each other, to find our connections, to respond as human beings and transcend differences. Perhaps, if Tripta Tyagi had had this kind of shared everyday, she may have spent time understanding why the boy had not been able to learn his tables. Perhaps, she would not have reduced his identity to just that of being Muslim. Perhaps, she would have been able to respond with care, like the girl from Govandi, instead of hate.

The Indian state’s approach today, with its strong push towards an authoritarian centralization that is presented as an efficient way of producing order and progress, has little room for the care and compassion reflected in the child’s artwork. The state is working hard to create policy changes, from education to elections, that can realize a centralized, homogenous idea of ‘one nation’. So, it seeks to corral those with imperfect documentation, to censor speech by creating a climate of fear, to define acceptable food and clothing. The state’s response to the chaos of the times, to the churning of desires and aspirations and the structural challenges of class, caste, and gender, is one of striving for order and control, of constructing the ‘ideal citizen’ who can then be deserving of benefits that it chooses to provide. Not unlike Tyagi’s classroom where the child not knowing the multiplication tables means that there is something wrong or disorderly in the home environment, something that must be controlled.

In school, the ‘ideal child’ must produce the correct ID, raise hand for permission to speak, dress in uniform, etc. Like the citizen being forced into the box assigned, the child’s everyday too must fit an expected ‘normal’. But the everyday is messy, it does not fit into neat boxes. Spaces overlap and experiences are shared, showing us the commonality of being human. The stories we tell define us, the philosopher Lata Mani has said. And so, if we have shared stories then our identities too are shared. If we are aware of this, can we look at the world with an othering gaze? Can we look at ourselves as completely separate from another?

India’s diversity comes as an unruly package. It is polyphonic and syncretic. The much-used phrase ‘unity in diversity’ has actually been unable to capture this richness and in fact produces a flattened, sanitized meaning. Language that seems progressive is often used in this way, in the service of ideas that remain superficial. The NEP 2020, for example, talks of child-friendly approaches and of increasing the place for the arts in education – all progressive phrases. But how are these to be translated into the many diverse classrooms that exist across India? In Tripta Tyagi’s classroom and in an elite one? Can a one-size-fits-all approach work? Similarly, when there are multiple childhoods, can there be an “ideal child” or an “an ideal family”? A child growing up in a slum redevelopment and a child growing up in a gated community have different everyday lives and to have uniform expectations of what children must be and become is to impose a stereotype with little connection to multiple realities. As parents, teachers, and caregivers, adults need to be children’s allies and that means recognizing our diverse contexts and adopting an interrogative approach that makes place for care rather than punishment. An interrogative approach prevents a mere passive acceptance of difference and enables a struggle for justice and equity. It is not simply a regurgitation of ‘unity in diversity’ but actually an examination of how there can be equity without sameness.

Questions facilitate an examined life, a reflective life. In both the school and the family, we need to make place for questions that can disrupt the stereotyped order. Both the school and the family are sites where the public and the private intersect, with the child at the centre. Instead of an approach striving for centralized control, we need to accept and celebrate the chaos that a diversity of lived experiences appears to be. It is only by knowing the individual children and their contexts that we can facilitate the possibility for them to dream and to realize those dreams. That knowing begins with questions. So, we need classrooms that are unafraid of questions. We need families that make place for not knowing but discovering together. We need children who walk out into the world thinking critically, celebrating the plurality of the world and looking for more equitable and empathetic possibilities of being and becoming.

The author is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and teacher based in New Delhi, with a special interest in media for and about children. She can be reached at saminamishra@gmail.com.

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