The tragic death of a teenager, Hunain Bilal, caused by physical violence by his teacher in a private Lahore school, has left people in shock. One can only imagine the pain of the parents: having happily seen off their child to school in the morning and attending a phone call from the principal containing the horrific news of Bilal’s death.
Bilal’s fault, as narrated by his class fellows, was that he had not learnt his lesson by heart despite repeated warnings. This had infuriated his teacher, Kamran Shafiq, who reportedly smashed his head into the wall several times, after he had slapped him in the face and boxed him.
After resisting for some time and trying to break loose, Bilal became motionless. Shafiq went into a frenzy shouting at the top of his voice and apparently had no idea of what he had done. Initially, he did not believe that Bilal was actually unconscious, and instead thought that the student was putting on an act to avoid further punishment. Reality eventually dawned on him and the boy’s body was taken to the principal’s office.
The incident is reflective of the environment in which a large number of children go to public as well as private schools and become victims of corporal punishment at the hands of their teachers. Evidence of this is available in the form of videos that are often shared on social media where teachers can be seen beating their students with impunity and without remorse. In a video recorded somewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a private school teacher was filmed beating his students with a truncheon while they were gathering in the school ground for the general assembly.
In Bilal’s case, the Punjab government has acted and in a standard response by ordering the arrest of the accused teacher and the principal. Its representatives have also visited the house of the victim to offer condolences and promise exemplary punishment to the culprits. But the question that arises here is why the government fails to control corporal punishment despite having a law to address the issue. Are there lacunae in the law, problems with its implementation or is there just a general disregard of child rights in the society?
Hafiz Shahid, a Lahore-based lawyer, points out that the case against the teacher and the principal has been registered under Section 302 and Section 34 of Pakistan Penal Code. These sections, he says, relate to murder and committal of a crime by several people with a common intention. This shows that there is no clause in the law against corporal punishment that can be invoked here.
Shahid refers to Section 16 (4) of The Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act 2014, which holds the teacher or a school in-charge responsible for ensuring that a child studying in school is not subjected to corporal punishment or harassment. Under a sub-section of the same section, “a person who contravenes any provision of this section shall be guilty of gross misconduct and shall be liable to disciplinary action under the law or contract of service of such person.” In the absence of a clear-cut punishment prescribed in this law, he says, the culprits are liable to get this punishment.
Shahid adds that Section 89 of PPC has been used as a defence against charges of corporal punishment and needs to rationalised. The said section states: “Nothing which is done in good faith for the benefit of a person under twelve years of age, or of unsound mind or by consent, either express or implied, of the guardian or other person having lawful charge of that person, is an offence by reason of any harm which it may cause, or be intended by the doer to cause or be known by the doer to be likely to cause to that person.”
No doubt lacunae in the law do allow the acts of corporal punishment go unnoticed and only those of the severest nature come into public knowledge mainly due to the media hype they attract. But, there is another angle that remains ignored.
“A significant number of private school teachers are under stress and work in highly uncongenial environments. They are underpaid, have to work long hours and get reprimanded quite often,” says Khalid Mahmood, director of Labour Education Forum. This, he adds, takes a toll on their mental health which leads to aggressive behavior towards their students and such incidents.
He says there should be a mechanism to ensure decent wages and work environment for private school teachers so that they remain calm and composed at work. He suggests making it compulsory for employers to transfer salaries of the staff through a bank so that the practice of paying ridiculously low salaries – sometimes even below the minimum wages set by the government – can be curbed.
Despite repeated efforts and legislations by different governments, corporal punishment is a widespread practice and has been identified as a major reason behind school drop-outs. According to a survey report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, around 35,000 students drop out of high school every year because of corporal punishment.
Kashif Mirza, president of Pakistan Private Schools Federation disagrees with the assertion that private school teachers are generally stressed. He says the impression is based on some isolated incidents that have been brought people’s notice. He says his organisation has suggested that the government issue licences to private school teachers after appropriate scrutiny and give psychological tests to students on a regular basis. Mirza says The Sindh Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Act 2016, is a relatively better law in that it protects children from corporal punishment in schools, seminaries, childcare centres, shelters, workplaces, rehabilitation centres and so on. “The law”, he says, “also prescribes punishment for teachers in terms of promotion and demotion, suspension, dismissal and a complaint system to address offences by private institutions.”
Dr Intezar Hussain Butt, an assistant professor and director of education and outreach at University of Education, Lahore tells TNS that they have a zero tolerance policy regarding corporal punishment cases. He says their work also focuses on psychological punishment such as abuse, threat of punishment, humiliation in front of other students etc. He says he is looking after the affairs of 90 schools that were given under the control of Punjab Education Foundation. “Whenever there is a complaint, our office holds an investigation, issues a warning if the allegation is found to be true and fires the teacher if the offence is repeated,” he says. Butt is of the view that there should be a system of regular inspections and social audits of physical and psychological punishments where one does not have to wait for a complaint or a tragic incident to happen before one acts.