My three-year-old son came home from a private preschool recently and told me that his teacher had hit him for not being able to color properly. I was shocked and angry. The next morning, however, I discovered that my anger could be funneled into a wider controversy. I read in the local newspapers about Shanno Khan, 11, a Delhi schoolgirl had allegedly been punished at school but did not survive. Shanno's sisters, who attend the same government school, say that her teacher forced her to stand in the scorching sun for two hours until she fainted. She reportedly slipped into a coma and died in the hospital.
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which governs a large part of the area around India's capital, and a pro bono lawyer for Shanno's family are investigating the case. The teacher has denied doing anything wrong, saying that she did not punish her and that Shanno was epileptic, a claim her father denies. So far no action has been taken against the teacher. But her death has renewed calls to stop corporal punishment in schools; the issue is explosive because in India physical abuse in schools is widespread. According to a 2007 joint study by UNICEF, Save the Children and the Indian government, 65% of school-going children have faced corporal punishment. Ayub Khan, Shanno's father, a waiter without a regular job, says in an interview with TIME that he is determined "to get justice for his daughter." (See pictures of India's tempestuous Nehru dynasty.)
Khan gets emotional as he describes Shanno's last hours. "She kept on asking for water but the teacher ignored her," Ayub describes what he says as his daughter's suffering. Her two sisters, Saima and Sehnaz, say that Shanno pleaded with the teacher that she would learn her alphabet properly after lunch, but was ignored. (The parents of several other children at the same school say their children describe the incident in similar terms.) Shanno's sisters Saima and Sehnaz then ran to get their mother. "We thought our sister was dead," Saima said. When their mother arrived, she found Shanno lying on the ground, Khan says, and by the time Shanno was taken home she had slipped into a coma. He breaks down while relating Shanno's last words to her mother: "I never want to go to school again." Shanno died the next day, on April 17.
Deep Mathur, a spokesman for the MCD, says the agency has interviewed everyone who was present in school that day, including the students. During the inquiry, the principal and the other teachers backed the accused teacher's claim that she did not force Shanno to stand in the sun. If the MCD finds that the teacher was at fault, the case will be handed over to the police. India's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights will make its own recommendations regarding action in this case in the next few days.
Teachers say they resort to physical punishment because of the inherent problems of India's public education system, specifically, the immense challenge of maintaining control of huge classes of unruly children. "Most children in my school are criminal-minded," says Dr. S.C. Sharma, the principal of a government school in South Delhi. "We have caught them stealing fans from classrooms and even the iron grills from the windows. How do you discipline such kids?" In Sharma's school the teacher-student ratio is 1:63, compared with a recommended ratio of 1:35. (Read "How India's Young and Restless Are Changing Its Politics.")
Shanno's death, furthermore, highlights the gap between legislation and implementation in India's efforts to protect children. India's Right to Education bill, which guarantees universal education and bans corporal punishment from schools, has been waiting to become a full-fledged law for more than a decade. The Supreme Court ordered a ban on corporal punishment in 2000. But enforcement is weak and it has been implemented in only 17 of 28 states. According to the 2007 report, Delhi was one of four states in India where corporal punishment is most common.
More than anything, Shanno's death is a wake-up call to parents to speak up for their own children. Many are afraid to. Indu Bhandari, mother of a five-year-old, says her son often complains about being hit on the head with a pencil by his teacher. "If I complain, she might ill-treat my son more," Bhandari says. At my son's school, I raised the matter for discussion in the parents' forum. We decided to watch how all the children in his school are treated much more closely. For now, that's all we can do.