‘Save the children’. Rather unexpectedly, that phrase has become pertinent for Mumbai as the tally of student suicides here keeps increasing. At the time of writing this piece, there were newspaper reports of 14 children, who’d taken their own lives during the first three weeks of January. But as family members and the larger community try to figure out what’s happening and why, schools and already overworked teachers have become easy targets for blame. On 21 January, an FIR was registered against the principal and clerk of Swami Vivekanand School in Trombay, a northeastern suburb in the city, for abetting the suicide of 13-year-old Khalid Abdulla Shaikh.
According to the police, Khalid killed himself after being punished with a week’s suspension for getting into a bloody fight with a classmate. Khalid’s uncle, who lodged the complaint, believes his nephew would not have hung himself had he not been suspended. In response to the family’s claim, several dial-a-quote psychiatrists in the city have said that suspension is too strict a form of punishment. But, then, what is left?
Anyone who’s ever attempted to talk sense to rowdy young boys knows it takes a pretty big bogeyman to scare them into listening. Suspension may be a strict form of punishment, but isn’t a threat of some form of retribution an essential part of administering discipline? Over the years, our concerns have whittled down the arsenal that schools have to combat bad behaviour. Corporal punishment is rightly not an option any longer but if we take away non-violent actions like suspension, then what remains?
For families, the search for answers shouldn’t begin with blaming someone else. Schools already have a lot on their hands. If anyone other than students understands the trauma of our overcrowded education system, it’s teachers and administrators. And we are being too optimistic to assume that in the midst of everything else, the latter could possibly pick up the signs of hopelessness in our children. They neither can nor are paying that much attention to their jobs. In several parts of the country, especially in the public school system, it is not unusual for a schoolteacher to do everything from serve the midday meal to raise funds to finance a school bus. Then there are the sheer numbers. Even in Mumbai’s most elite schools, a teacher often deals with up to 54 students in a class.
It’s possible that eight-grader Khalid may not have taken such a drastic step if he’d not been punished, but it cannot have been the fundamental cause of his action. The only place where anyone stood the slightest chance of identifying the cause of his stress was at home. The home is the pivot that holds together a child’s personality. Heck, it’s the only place where he or she is not in competition with 40 others for attention. That’s where Khalid’s family should be looking for answers. That’s where we should all look.