Millennium Post

Happiest days of our lives, really?

Boarding schools are in news again. It is unfortunate that the only time these schools seem to make it to the papers is when the news is bad. This time, reports from a prestigious boarding school in Nainital – prestigious one supposes because Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Amitabh Bachchan studied there – have described the attempted molestation of an eight-year-old boy by a security guard employed by the school. The attempted molestation took place twice, first on the night of 6 October and then again in the early hours of the following morning.

Thankfully, for once, the police have been called in and a criminal case has been registered against the alleged perpetrator(s) – although the papers note that the description of the guard given to the police does not match that of any person employed by the school – and one can only hope that the law will follow its course.

However, a closer reading of the papers provides an even more worrisome version. The guards accused of the crime allege that they were illegally confined by the school authorities, beaten and forced to confess to a crime that they had not committed. They also add that the police were unwilling to file an FIR reporting the guards’ version of events because of ‘pressure from the school administration’ and only did so when the guards’ relatives protested inside the police station. That FIR charges two of the school’s officials and two unnamed persons with abduction, intimidation, and physical assault.

What the guards are in effect saying is that a crime committed by somebody else inside the school is being fobbed off on to them. And yet, this is not terribly new. While I was schooling at this very same institution, something very similar  happened. After years of perpetrating abuse, a junior school teacher had been caught out. The discovery, like always, had been accidental. The latest boy the teacher had got to had an elder brother in senior school, who he told, and word spread upwards to the school authorities from there.

The teacher was asked to pack his bags, some instant justice was reportedly meted out by the senior boys, and no more was heard of the teacher. But the police were never called in, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

The reasoning followed probably had something to do with the warped idea that the good name of the school must not be sullied, and that the ‘reputation of the institution was more important than the well-being of a single child’.

Similar stories of nightmare emanate from all the other boarding schools that dot the countryside.
There is also a stark link between this form of violence and the vicious cycle of corporal punishment that pervades – or at least pervaded – these institutions. The corporal punishment is administered by the prefects (they’re 17 years old) that school authorities appoint each year and the ensuring of discipline (a highly-prized notion in these places) is left in their hands. The process co-opts everybody and in time the junior boys who had been at the receiving end of the stick become prefects themselves, and go on to dole out the same sort of discipline that was meted out to them.

You’re expected to shut up – in other words hush up what has been done to you yourself  – and ‘take it like a man’, with the popular reasoning being that ‘it toughens you up, makes you a man’. Of course that’s a load of rubbish. It does nothing of the sort, all it leads to is speech defects, unexplainable cold sweats, and an absolute hatred of authority figures – in adult life. But if you teach a child long enough to keep quiet about a beating, that it’s actually good for him, then he will in time also learn how to keep quiet about other forms of abuse.

Don’t misunderstand me completely. The boarding schools can be and are wonderful places to grow up in, and I certainly cherish every single minute of the time that I spent there. And it is memories of those days that often give me the fortitude to face the vicissitudes of the nebulous, modern-day lives that so many of us seem to be forced into living nowadays.

But so long as this culture of violence and of hushing it up continues, these schools are bound to repeat the follies that they have already committed and the corporal punishment (which is nothing but physical abuse) and instances of sexual abuse will continue.

One can therefore only hope that in this case, the police – and NOT the school authorities, for it is possible that they might have a vested interest in limiting the damage already done to them – will get to the bottom of what exactly happened on the night of 6 October, and the following morning, and who by.

As for the ludicrous idea that the ‘reputation of a school is more important than the well-being of a child’, any child, I certainly have no wish to continue my membership to any institution that might believe that. And from the outrage expressed over what has happened in Nainital, nor does it seem do any of the thousands of boys and girls whom I went to boarding school – any boarding school – with.

The author is correspondent at Millennium Post
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