Corporal punishments are often seen as a way to discipline children. But it's known to leave deep psychological scars in people, even in their adult lives. Photo: Getty Images
I don’t remember school for anything except triggering extreme anxiety. I remember waking up with anxiety, spending the day with anxiety, and sleeping with anxiety – without even knowing that “anxiety” was the word for what I felt. A lot of it had to do with what happened in school. Sure, education (read: rote learning) was all well and good, but in between were the teachers who seemed like they had PhDs in toxic disciplining tactics.
I remember, as perhaps a 7 or 8-year-old, getting slapped for scoring a zero in mathematics, and the teacher displaying my test results to the rest of class as an example of “a loser.” Ever since, math class has filled me with dread. Even now, I palpitate when I look at numbers. I remember a teacher slapping a classmate of mine so hard across his face that his earring ripped off and he was left in blood and tears. I remember being slapped by a male teacher because I happened to look him in the eye. For context, in the convent school where I was, looking directly into teachers’ eyes was forbidden. We were to “look down,” and not meet them in the eyes at all costs.
Brutal acts of abuse and violence, or corporal punishment, is an outlawed tradition in Indian schools, and yet it thrives even today. While every Indian will probably have their own story to tell, you’ll find way more extreme cases in the news every now and then. Last month, a physics teacher in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu was arrested after a video of him mercilessly beating up a student for skipping class went viral. A few days later, a private school headmaster in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was caught on camera dangling a student from his ankle off the school balcony to “teach him a lesson.” Another teacher slapped a girl student because he “got irritated” with her laugh.
While the idea is to discipline the child, a 2021 study published in the Lancet journal found that corporal punishment makes children’s behaviour worse. Violence and abuse have also led to instances of deaths by suicide. There’s also enough data and anecdotal evidence that marginalised children are more likely to experience corporal punishment. Additionally, casteism practised across schools, often perpetuated by the teachers themselves, leads to massive dropout rates. Then there’s also the everyday acts of sexism that female students have to face. One important thing to note is that this culture of violence and abuse in the name of disciplining doesn’t just end there. It leads to many more years – sometimes even entire lives – of mental health problems. We spoke to a few Indians on how this “rite of passage” continues to mess them up even now.
The one incident that comes to my mind is when I was in an influential private school in Lucknow. A teacher who thought I was talking in class (I wasn’t; it was the guy sitting next to me) tried to take off my pants in front of the whole class. When I resisted, she asked two of my classmates to pin down my arms while she unzipped my pants. It was literally a molestation tactic disguised as punishment. Whenever I think about this, I’m filled with a lot of anger and want to go back in time and beat up those teachers, or at least complain to the headmistress about them.
Tarun*, 24, Lucknow
In the school I attended, corporal punishment was a daily occurrence. I was once slapped about 10-12 times because the teacher was extremely frustrated. Getting our palms whacked by the principal with a heavy stick was normal, too. Most notable was a red-hot slap on my first day of school. Boy, was that a welcome. The long-term impact of this is that I flinch very easily now. Strangely, people who have been beaten in school often embrace it like some badge of honour, and even say that it improved them. I’ve done that a few times, too, because most times, we are so embarrassed by it that embracing it is the only way to dodge that embarrassment.
Raj*, 23, Delhi
I went to a school in which mostly upper-class and non-residential Indian people’s children went, where corporal punishment was taboo but there was psychological torture. When I was in 9th grade, a young romance in our class turned sour. A boy got jealous of a girl who had grown fond of another boy, so one day after class, he threw their notebooks outside the window. The next day, the teacher, instead of talking about teen romance or sex education, was just focused on finding the perpetrator. She interrogated each student for two hours. We were 14 years old, and this fucked me up. Today, I have a complicated relationship with authority figures. I am doing a PhD and my supervisors are wonderful, but I am still scared to approach them because I’ve grown up fearing academic institutions, and don’t look at them as a place to meet more experienced people and learn from them. Luckily, I am unlearning this (I take mental health counselling), but it's still something that is tough to get rid of.
Nickhil Sharma, 29, Norwich (U.K.)
I was in a boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra, where everyone, including the principal, seemed to have a whip or cane ready to beat up the kids. My favourite teacher had a signature knuckle knock to the head. In general, I was a good student so I got away most of the time. But I got caught running away from school once, and was flogged on the backside during the school assembly, so much that I bled. Later, in 10th grade, our entire class was in a permanent state of getting flogged as an example to the rest of the school, which left me scarred for a few years, and I didn't do well academically.
Karim*, 40, Toronto
Later in my life, I tended to be completely anti-authority probably due to the expectation that there'd be some kind of figurative flogging. It led to a lot of conflict at work, too.
Each time I look back to the seven years (classes 4-10) I spent in a well-known residential school in Purulia, West Bengal, I have massive PTSD episodes. For the longest time, I blamed myself, or rather was indoctrinated to blame myself for what I had to endure. I was caned for the tiniest of mistakes. Once, as punishment, a teacher made me put my legs on the window grill, with hands on the ground, and I was upside down for 45 minutes of the class. Abuse about my skin colour was normalised, too. A teacher once told me that if he slapped me, his hands would turn black and he would have to wash them. This, in front of the whole class while other kids laughed. Many teachers just called me “Kali” (black) and probably did not even know my actual name. This experience broke me psychologically. It made me a person with zero confidence, and I developed anxiety disorder and also complex PTSD, for which I am in therapy for quite some time now.
Tathagata Neogi, 36, West Bengal
I grew up in schools in Sangrur and Barnala, in Punjab. Each teacher had different ways of punishment, including slapping and verbal humiliation. One of them was infamous for putting pens and pencils between the gaps of students' fingers, and pressing their fingers together. One time, when I was probably 12, the principal caught me and another guy by the collar, threw us onto the floor, and beat us. Then this other time, another teacher called me and three other students to the front of the class, and slapped each of us multiple times as an example to others. Most of these incidents are still very fresh in my head, even after over two decades. I have big self-confidence issues even in my adult life, and I’m scared to ask questions or express opinions. I've been working out my confidence issues with my therapist for the last few years.
Anil*, 31, New York
I taught a variety of classes in 2005 and 2006 in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, as a part-time job. Most of the children were perfectly okay, but there were two in the 4th grade who had both obviously been punished physically. My teaching method was to help the children understand basic concepts. But every time these two made a mistake, or could not answer, they would physically cringe, once even throwing up their hands before them. It took me months to put them at ease with making mistakes and learning from them. They eventually ended up doing very well in the exams later.But for me, it was shameful. It filled me with self-disgust the first few times to see children respond like this. I almost asked, "What do you expect me to do, hit you?" It took me a little while to build their trust and confidence in me, but a lot longer to help rebuild their confidence in trying to figure out problems on their own.
Omair Ahmad, 46, New Delhi
One incident that stayed with me was how I was slut-shamed throughout middle and high school. As a teen growing up, I had hormonal acne and a voluptuous body. Teachers would comment on how big my boobs and butt are, and it made it super uncomfortable. I remember this one teacher who would pull us girls aside and would make comments like, “You look like a whore,” “You were out on the streets all night wearing the school uniform,” or “Are you dressing this way to attract boys?” Sexualising a child is so unacceptable. As a child, I couldn’t say much but I blamed myself. I developed depression and an eating disorder from all the bullying and low self-esteem. I’m in a toxic pattern of slut-shaming myself, too, and I’m in therapy for it.
Jaishree, 22, New Delhi
My experience in standard 11 and 12 shaped me as an individual. A teacher, who had inexplicably taken a morbid interest in me since day one, used me as a rag doll to explain a concept, pushed and shoved me around, finally pinning me to a table – all this in front of over 60 students. He would often stop mid-lecture, gaze in my direction, and make snide comments about my worth in the class, even blaming me for the academic performance of the whole class. My mental health rapidly deteriorated and I became extremely jumpy, and would often lash out angrily. He would call me emotional and once, pinched me hard while calling me disobedient and an asshole. Ten years later, now, I struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder. Corporal punishment accomplishes nothing and, in fact, makes people even more vulnerable. It destroys a major part of what could have been a joyous and carefree childhood or adolescence. They lose a part of themselves. At least, I feel so. *Names changed on request Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.