The recent case at Gwalior’s Scindia School shows that bullying, once indulgently called a rite of passage, is still a part of the boarding school ethos. Life in the dorms, say boarders, can get pretty brutal even now

I was called out after prep time when the housemasters and dormitory in-charges are asleep and roughed up quite badly. I had to be carried back to the dorm by classmates. My fault: I had my hands in my pocket while talking to Class XII boys.”

“No normal human being could perform a PD (punishment drill which includes dozens of rounds of the field, frog-hops and duck-walks, push-ups) without muscle failure setting in. When it did, you were punished more. I grew to fear the sensation of my body giving way.”

These are some of the milder stories from former boarders at prestigious residential schools in Dehradun and Darjeeling. They date back to the early 1990s. But it is clear from the recent case of ragging that drove an eighth-grader at Scindia School in Gwalior to attempt suicide that not much has changed in the interceding years.

Some years ago, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in a painful firstperson account in a news magazine, spoke of his traumatizing years as a bullied — and sexually abused — boarder at Scindia. “Scindia was hell for me,” he wrote. “The sexual abuse continued there for years. I hated myself. I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me. I was often picked out, beaten, then taken to the toilets. To save myself from the beatings, I’d give in to the abuse. Once I saw a senior abuse another junior. I spoke up about it. The repercussion was terrible. When I was in Class VII, I felt suicidal.”

Despite a slew of measures to stop incidents like these, boarders will tell you that being thrashed by seniors for perceived disrespect is quite common even today. “What happens in dormitories after lights out is common knowledge, even if it is not as overt as it was. A couple of years ago the entire Class XII batch descended upon the Class IX dorm and thrashed every single boy for making fun of the school captain,” says a student recently promoted to Class XII in a Dehradun boarding school.

Another student from a Shimla residential school says there are now more inventive ways to escape detection: “Sometimes they put a bar of soap in a sock and hit with it. That doesn’t leave a single bruise on the body ,” he says. Housemasters are often guilty of looking the other way. “Most of the time, they choose to ignore what is happening till it gets really serious. And complaining is just not acceptable in our fraternity,” he says. Kabir Mustafi, eminent educationist and former principal of Bishop Cotton’s School, Shimla who has also studied and taught at St Paul’s, Darjeeling, agrees that the tradition of bullying is far from over. “It took a major incident at Scindia to bring the issue into focus -and outrageous instances of barbarism like these only prove that several smaller episodes like these keep happening. The first thing that school authorities should do is tell the students that `it happened to me, so I will dish out the same’ attitude is just not right. This rite of passage business must end.”

And it’s not that bullying doesn’t happen in day schools. But young children in boarding schools are more vulnerable since they have few support systems, points out Mumbai educationist Archana Joshi. “Snitches are ostracized and bullied even more by peers and seniors,” she says.

An alumnus of Mayo College, Ajmer, in the early ’90s, Abhinav Singh says that ragging was a rite of passage. “Seniors, especially the prefects, had enormous powers. They could batter you with hockey sticks and give you PD for small mistakes. And we faced it every single year of senior school until we got to Class XII. I was more scared of the prefects that I was of the teachers or my housemaster.”

Many believe that the strict senior-junior hierarchy and the `prefectorial system’ in boarding schools are partly to blame. “The school captain and prefects are basically children ruling ruthlessly over other children. Are teenagers ready for this sort of power?” asks a teacher who has served at Welham Boys, Dehradun.

Just how did residential schools evolve into institutions that promoted aggressive autocracy? Fagging, explains Mustafi, arrived in India along with the British. “There it was practised mainly in the army and public schools,” he says. “It was pretty mild and good-humoured until the early ’70s, but it kept getting worse until the turn of the century, when most of these boarding schools woke up to the dwindling numbers of students and made efforts to deal with the issue.”

Teachers and former students of these residential schools maintain that the menace has been more or less controlled over the years. Pratap Roy, former principal of Dr Graham’s Home, Kalimpong, says that until 15 years ago, prestigious residential schools in India followed outdated British traditions. “Today, a senior would have to face serious repercussions for hitting a junior,” he says.

Reverend Joy Halder, rector of St Paul’s School, Darjeeling, says his school “abolished” PD and asked students from different classes to live in the same dorms. “These days, prefects mostly give lines to erring students,” he says.

Boarding schools which once kept parents strictly at arm’s length -all they were allowed was a monthly letter from their kids -today allow them to be in constant touch. “The faculty is now required to regularly communicate with parents, usually via email and text,” says a teacher, who has been with several boarding schools

Prefects too are being groomed to drop their cliched role as despots. Rev Halder says prefects are regularly reminded of their responsibilities during leadership workshops.

There is a perception that institutions end up condoning bullying because they brush it under the carpet. Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar was taken to court by his almamater, The Doon School, who alleged that his film Dazed in Doon, a coming-of-age story that had a scene of bullying in it, damaged the school’s reputation. The film was withdrawn and finally destroyed by the school. “You can’t have a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying without first acknowledging that it exists,” he says.

Boarding school bullies are obviously far from extinct. A note posted on Mayo College website says that five Class XII boys “have been asked to leave school immediately” for manhandling a Class XI student early this month. It’s how the school deals with them that makes the difference.


Source: Times of India

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