Over the last fortnight, we have seen a lot of comment in media about the La Martiniere tragedy where a student committed suicide days after being caned. Enough has been said about the incident itself, so it might be more profitable to look at some of the nature of the coverage and other related issues that emerge from this controversy. That a child should be driven to take this extreme step because of an archaic institution like caning is certainly a matter of great concern and thus it is only fitting that that the issue has received the attention it has. However, a lot of the comment carried a personal note with eminent columnists weighing in with their personal accounts of the school. The extent of coverage was intriguing; after all a school of this kind was hardly representative of the larger issue of corporal punishment in India.
This raises some interesting questions. Had the school not been La Martiniere, would the same kind of coverage have taken place? Is there a strong class bias in what we choose to favour with significance and meaning when it comes to identifying issues that need comment? Every time someone sneezes at St Stephens, a large number of commentators start taking flu shots. We seem to be obsessed with what happens in our premier institutions, and find it easier to fulminate about events like these rather than for instance, about the high dropout rates in schools across India.
But perhaps that’s where the La Martiniere tragedy becomes significant for it points to the growing irrelevance of this kind of institution in the India of today. The laments of commentators are in part an acknowledgement of the passing of an era. The problem with the caning is not in the action itself, for it was very much a part of the nostalgic legacy that drives the educated elite today (something that also explains the ambivalence in the comments made about the caning), but in its appropriateness in today’s times . In our time, it was done fairly and in a civilised way, the argument goes, but times have changed and the school is just not what it used to be. This kind of nostalgic clutching at a fading past is a common pattern, and rare are those who believe that their school/college/company is better today than in their times.
In this case of course, there is reason to feel nostalgic. For the venerable boarding school, with its emphasis on gentlemanly behaviour and arcane traditions, is no longer at the heart of the education discourse today. It is still revered in some quarters, but it no longer dominates either the bureaucracy or the top echelons of business and multinationals as it once did. It finds itself out of tune with two new education narratives that have emerged. It is neither as singularly focused on academic performance as some of the newer schools are, nor does it have the experimental openness of the new-age institutions that talk about harnessing the child’s curiosity and creativity. It is locked in a time warp when the role of the public school was to create a sub-class that explicitly stood apart from the rest of India, and lived in its own little universe sustained by preceding members of this cosy club. Like any sub-group that shows strong coherence, the public school types were bound by a code of behaviour and a worldview marked by a respect for people like themselves. Explicitly and implicitly, this class, while disavowing any such intention, promoted its own interest and believed that its own values were worth aspiring to by everyone else.
The last decade or so, has been unkind to this group. Greater democratisation of money and political influence has made the rest of India more socially and economically mobile. As a language that acted as a curtain separating one class, from another, English no longer contains the same potency. Why, even film stars speak it fluently now, and mofussil achievers like Harbhajan & Dhoni pick it up before our eyes without any sense of social discomfort. The celebrity has replaced the educated bureaucrat as the role model as far as careers go. Professions like advertising, which were the bastion of the class that spoke in Wodehousian English is now overrun with those from small towns. And even the news is no longer brought to us by the daunting baritone of Barun Haldar.
When a La Martiniere canes its students it is flogging the dead carcass of a tradition whose time has passed. Caning was an act of imprinting culture on the seat of our pants; that culture is longer of great value today. The La Martiniere incident is not really about the inappropriateness of caning, it is about the growing irrelevance of institutions like the La Martiniere.