Murder in school

Print edition : March 09, 2012

OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL in Chennai where the teacher Uma Maheshwari (below) was murdered inside a classroom.-S.S. KUMAR OUTSIDE THE SCHOOL in Chennai where the teacher Uma Maheshwari (below) was murdered inside a classroom.

Unless there are enlightened parents who play their roles when their wards are very young, such crimes will recur.

FOR quite some time, there have been signs that India is fast becoming a dangerous place to live in. Far too many homicides and rapes in relatively well-protected urban centres have become a matter of great concern. The incident of February 9, in Chennai, when a schoolteacher was stabbed to death by her student right inside the classroom, took the cake for its utter savagery. Like many places in the rest of India, Chennai has lost its earlier sheen and its image as a placid and conservative city where life was so low-paced that there were few characteristically urban perils.

The following strike me readily as a Chennaiite as reasons for this apparent transformation: growing affluence, with information technology-related jobs nearly wiping out unemployment among the technically qualified youth and casual jobs for the unskilled so easily available; an escalating influx of diverse population, especially from the eastern and north-eastern regions; and a political ambience of unrivalled animosity and bitterness between three or four principal players, none of whom hesitate to use violence at the drop of a hat. Also, Chennai is the seat of Kollywood, which makes a large number of movies each year. Apart from a few exceptions, a majority of them depict sex and violence with abandon. This is a cocktail that can be explosive and lethal. It has indeed proved to be so.

The brutal incident at the Chennai school was only waiting to happen. Why it happened is only partially explainable. Policing standards in the State have no doubt declined somewhat. This is attributable to the utter politicisation of what was once the pride of the Indian police establishment. Still that does not wholly explain the sheer monstrosity of the schoolboy's crime. The teenage offender, now remanded to a juvenile home, is a boy who was generally well behaved, and a recluse by many accounts. That he should be so incensed by a stern teacher who was merely trying to make her students focus on academics without distraction baffles us. Further investigation could throw up facts that might change theories which are normally touted when such a ghastly crime takes place. For now, this is the case of a youngster whose emotions were unattended to and who had to give vent to his fury arising out of his inability to cope with the somewhat stern academic demands.

The incident will certainly demoralise students and teachers alike. Relations between the two groups are likely to be marked by circumspection for a while before they can come back to normal. In these days of quick fixes, every parent and teacher is likely to demand administrative and police action to ensure that such an incident never repeats itself. There are no magic bullets to achieve this. The incident is very much in line with what has been happening periodically on campuses in the United States. There are, however, differences. The weapon used there is invariably a gun that makes the mad adventure more dramatic, one that extracts more number of lives. We must thank our stars that in our country it is less easy to gain access to guns. But, for how long? I have my own fears because international travel has become relatively easy and our borders are distinctly porous, as many acts of terrorism in the recent past have revealed. It requires extraordinary vigilance to curb the flow of weapons from across the border and also the domestic availability of crude firearms. The task is extremely difficult in the context of a political scene that is becoming increasingly volatile. Citizen awareness alone can be effective. We cannot expect a corrupt police force to bring the professionalism that is called for here.

Like many developing countries, India has placed the right accent on mass education. We need at least a modestly educated population and an even more qualified workforce. This brings in huge numbers from a diverse population into our schools and colleges. There is, therefore, an uneven mental make-up and diverse family values. This phenomenon brings its own problem of varied responses to academic rigours. If the Chennai boy was unequal to the demands made on him , it was no fault of his. He may have tried to do better but in vain. This is the tragedy of a nation that wants to gallop to reach standards achieved by the advanced nations in the West, without building a strong foundation in terms of basic education.

Two aspects of the incident call for introspection. They relate respectively to the quality of policing in the country and the efficacy of our juvenile justice system in preventing recidivism among juvenile delinquents. First, will a more honest and professional police force be able to prevent such gory happenings? My answer is in the negative. A police force can hardly prevent individual aberration from manifesting itself as conventional crime. It can at best tackle group violence with some success. Even here the track record of the Indian police is patchy.

Communal clashes in different parts of the country and the apparent lack of objectivity in handling them through quick and impartial responses are a part of the country's history, especially since Independence. There is the obvious issue of making our schools and college campuses more secure. It is preposterous to believe that one or two policemen posted in select institutions prone to violence will keep at bay elements identified as potential mischief mongers in the locality. Even if such deployment is possible, we are talking here of keeping track of the abnormal behaviour of individual students.

The Chennai boy who killed his teacher does not seem to have come to adverse notice prior to the crime. It is doubtful whether psychiatric screening would have revealed anything abnormal about him. The sheer magnitude of the task is forbidding. The idea of providing some fundamental training to students on how to look for aberration in fellow students seems sensible. This may not be a foolproof measure. Yet it is better than the current situation where abnormal behaviour remains unnoticed. Ultimately, therefore, the responsibility is solely that of the family. This is where we are slipping very fast. The slide will continue unless there is enlightenment within the next generation of parents. If they do not play their role at a very young age of their wards, we will have many more episodes similar to the Chennai one.

JUVENILE CRIME SCENE

How grave is the problem of juvenile delinquency in the country? For a broad assessment of the problem, we must turn to Crime in India (CII) 2010 (the official publication of the Ministry of Home Affairs). Altogether, there were about 26,000 cases registered against juveniles in 2010. Of these, 90 per cent were under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The rest were under special and local laws. This would highlight the gravity of the scene, even if the overall figures show a declining trend (2010 saw a 5 per cent fall in IPC cases). Offences committed by juveniles included murder as well as rape. Violations of the Arms Act also came to notice, resulting in more than 150 registered cases. About 30,000 juveniles were arrested during the year. This represented 1 per cent of the total numbers arrested by the police in the whole country. More than 60 per cent of the juveniles arrested in 2010 came from families that earned less than Rs.25,000 a year.

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000, is the principal legislation that aims at prevention of delinquency and treatment of offenders. It contemplates creation of district welfare boards and child welfare committees. Courts in the country, including the Supreme Court, have had occasion to come down heavily on the governments' lack of sensitivity in tending to children who had lapsed into deviance because of a variety of adverse domestic circumstances.

The media have also been faulted several times on this score. The training that policemen receive in the area is at best token, which hardly help build a humane criminal justice system. Without a major change of mindset among all the members of the system, India cannot truthfully claim in international fora that it has a positive perception of the tasks which are mandated to it to ensure that a stray child is handled differently from an adult criminal. There is no doubt a refreshing approach on the part of some non-governmental organisations dedicated to the task. It is anybody's guess, however, as to how far they will be able to bring about a cultural change among their peers. This is where lies the crucial role of enlightened citizens, who need to be innovative and not look to the government for assistance and inspiration.

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