Till about a few years ago, conversations around child sexual abuse at average Indian homes were inevitably doused in staggering amounts of disbelief. The eyes-widening, jaw-dropping kind I saw on my mother's face as she narrated with great consternation why many years ago, my junior school 'van kaku (uncle)' was abruptly asked to leave.
Roughly a decade and half after the incident first left her puzzled, many years and attempts of us trying to have conversations about sexual abuse without resorting to confusing euphemisms, disbelief was still the main emotion when she recounted why a school van driver, trusted by the family to ferry me to and back from my school, was sacked.
I have no memory of the incident, but she said I had once made an 'odd' demand of not wanting to take the same van to school. The 'van' was effectively a rickshaw, which I took with another girl, and was driven by a local man. After dropping off my friend, my van driver would often stop the vehicle somewhere relatively isolated and demand to be kissed. He also refused to budge from the spot and take me home till I obliged. My mother added that I told her I never hugged him or kissed him because he constantly chewed tobacco and spat on the road. Nevertheless, the driver kept making the same demands every day, and I kept getting off his van which didn't have locked doors and tried wandering away.
So he had to bring me back. The driver was let go and perhaps warned against working in the neighbourhood again. Following months of a family member escorting me to school, I was enrolled for the school bus service — a decision based on the understanding that the safe space that school was meant to be, was by default extended to the bus that transported us. Fortunately for me, the helper and the driver of the bus were the kindest, most responsible people I knew for the eight years I took the bus. However, not everyone had such luck. Three years back, there were allegations that a school bus driver and helper in GD Birla Centre for Education, Kolkata, had molested a first standard student inside the bus.
So when the same school found itself in the eye of a child sexual assault allegation recently again, I really hoped the intervening years and the access to information they offered, had taught us to ask the right questions, respond in a way that leaves no window for such incidents to occur in not just this school, but any school for that matter.
I often can't help thinking that the idea of what was 'safe' when I was a student at the school was completely built on trust, and not active, logical vigilance. My parents, like many others, acted on what traditional wisdom deigned 'safe' – an expensive private school, a school bus, a man known to them for years to ferry a private van.
In all fairness, in pre-internet, pre-GPS and pre-mobile phone days, there wasn't much apart from their gut feeling that they could to fall back upon anyway. And the idea that children, as young as a nursery student, could be the subject of perverse sexual interest clearly didn't occur to them. The predators, however, were no less in number then, than they are now – every second person I know of my age have narrated incidents of being abused and sexually harassed as a child.
While the accused in the GD Birla case have been arrested and demands to arrest Manjushree Khaitan, the head of the governing body which runs several schools in the city, have picked up steam, social media pages for school alumnus and particularly my timeline have raised an alarming number of 'issues' that, unfortunately, are far removed from the reality of child safety.
As a society we are still incapable of having a coherent conversation about incidents of abuse faced by children.
The nature of these conversations are particularly disheartening because not only are they compromising the scope of having a practical discussion about the best possible way we can compel schools to become accountable for the safety of children, but they are evidence that as a society we are still incapable of having a coherent conversation about incidents of abuse faced by children.
The first wave of reaction that surfaced, the moment the incident hit the headlines, was an exasperated chorus of former students and general observers wondering what business the school had hiring male teachers when the students were predominantly girls. There is hardly anything more myopic than concluding that the best way to make a school safe for girl children would be to not have any male staff.
In a country where patriarchal conditioning jeopardises possibilities of having healthy, guiltless interaction between millions of men and women every minute, a modern, progressive school shouldn't act as a space which encourages children to treat the opposite sex with anxiety, confusion and fear. That apart, in a space where children are quite literally coached to take on a world where human interaction is mostly not mediated by a third responsible party, creating a world without men would be essentially false and counter-productive.
By demanding that a school have no male teacher, one only helps schools take the easy way around actually making their institutions sensitive, alert and evolved.
By demanding that a school have no male teacher, one only helps schools take the easy way around actually making their institutions sensitive, alert and evolved. It is the schools' responsibility to not only take help of available technology and be vigilant, but also sensitise the staff about sexual crimes – a prickly subject even today for most conservative institutions.
Sexual abuse of minors in educational institutions is as real a possibility as a child tripping while running unsupervised in the playground or getting into a fistfight. My mother has been a school teacher for over two decades and the latter are possibilities that schools give serious thoughts while planning everything from a school trip to where the students should be during breaks between classes. But when it comes to sexual abuse of children, schools still struggle to come to terms with the issue, leave alone formulating a foolproof plan to fight it.
Apart from fatuous and unhelpful online petitions demanding death penalty for the accused or comments demanding a callous principal be physically accosted, several alumnus and observers have started petitions demanding the school be shut down immediately or its affiliation cancelled. The shut-down-the-school-to-prevent-assault demand is uncannily similar to the stay-at-home-if-you-don't-want-to-get-raped solution often foisted on women.
Even if we leave aside how that would endanger the future of hundreds of students who'd be left in the lurch mid-term, this demand again excuses schools from making any real effort to be vigilant about the safety of their students. Since it is practically impossible that parents of over 1000 students will agree to the shutting down of a school overnight, suggestions such as these will only divide the people who can hold the school accountable.
Finally, as alumnus, survivors of abuse in other spaces and bystanders, we should demand that schools manage to frame a practical tutorial and empower students to feel safe and reassured enough to report threatening behaviour from the staff to a concerned authority. For example, like very young students learn that they cannot just open their lunchbox in the middle of a lesson and start eating, teachers can make them understand that under any given circumstance a staff member shouldn't be leading them to an isolated spot in the school.
My colleague, mother to a four-year-old son, emphatically says that though her son is has been made aware of good touch-bad touch, dangers lurking in familiar spaces, a child as young as that is capable of exercising just limited caution and distrust. "He'd probably walk into a loo (lured by someone) thinking there maybe a surprise inside," she says.
As educators, schools will then have to formulate a language and rhetoric that helps a child see such overtures as inappropriate, and yet not feel intimidated by the idea of school itself.
As children, we saw our school as the place where we built life-long bonds of friendship and trust. It's a place our nostalgia as adults draws from in moments of solitude. It's tragic when a child's trust in her school is broken because the adults entrusted to keep her safe failed in their duty. It's criminal.
We have to give back our schools to our children, let's start by asking the right questions.