Last month, amidst the religiously-driven incidents of bloodshed in Delhi’s Northeast, I came across a video on Twitter about a nine-year-old Australian boy named Quaden. In the video, he was seen to be crying after he was targeted at school for his dwarfism. His mother had posted the clip, saying, “This is what bullying does.” Her son wanted to end his life. I felt sorry for the kid and shared the message. In a few hours, the whole world was talking about #STOPBULLYING.
On Friday evening, my young cousin brother, Ngurang Paro, who was studying in Class VI at the VKV Sher, Kimin, Arunachal Pradesh, was found hanging in the school’s washroom. The news of their young son shook the family. My cousin’s body had severe black and blue marks and bruises all over his face and body. Strangulation marks and dragged bruises were seen too, as if he had been subjected to torture. He even had some bite marks on him.
I am hurt that my young cousin brother is dead, and I empathise with his family’s pain right now. I know what it feels to lose someone to a tragic death: a part of us dies with them. I am also alarmed to learn about the cause of his death and the culture of bullying and assaults linked to his death. He was the youngest child to his parents, so kind and innocent; he didn’t deserve to die like this.
Paro’s elder sister, Anam, recounts today that “a couple of months back, on his last visit home, he said that he didn’t want to go back to hostel anymore. He said he wanted to change his school. But he never told us anything about the assaults that he was enduring. There was a wound mark on his hand. He said he fell; now I know he was lying.” If only Anam’s brother had shared with his family the truth then! The family had heeded his request of changing school and suggested that he finish his pending final exams first, which was to take place this month.
The school authorities are also responsible for Paro’s death
At around 6:13 pm, there was a message on WhatsApp group, ‘VKV SHER FAMILY’. The message read: “Dear Parents, please come and receive your wards from hostel immediately as some accident happened in the hostel. Regards.” The message was sent twice, reflecting the urgency. Then again at 6:49 pm, another message from the school authorities said, “Dear Parents, please note that your wards are alright. Don’t be tensed.” These messages were soon followed by a causal update on the forthcoming examination.
Anam, Paro’s elder sister, told me that her brother was brought dead to the Kimin government hospital, which is 12 kilometres from his school. She also told me that the authorities left the hospital, leaving her brother’s mortal remains lying alone on a hospital bed. They didn’t care to contact the family members. The family members were informed very late only by the Kimin hospitals’ staff. Since the family resides in Kimin, everyone knew who Paro’s parents were.
Later, the family learnt from some of the students who were eyewitnesses that Paro had been beaten with sticks for hours by two of his classmates before his death. While he was dragged and beaten in one of the corridors towards the end of the hostel, there were a few others who were by the door, keeping the authorities away. All these happened in the afternoon, during the recess time.
Accusing Paro of stealing their soft drinks, two of the minors repeatedly beat Paro, taking turns when exhausted.
Later, when two of Paro’s friends went to the washroom for their needs, they saw Paro hanging by the pillar. During the funeral, they told the family that they together rushed to loosen the rope around his neck. There was no support or base on the floor, therefore they were struggling. But he said they managed to lift him up and bring him down. Paro’s friend said that once they removed the rope, Paro took his long last breath and died. He stopped breathing right after that. Paro’s friends confirmed this at the funeral, that Paro died at the school.
It is reported that the school authorities released most of the hostel students before proceeding of any investigation and interrogation. With the WhatsApp messages going out urgently, it was clear that they were in a rush to wash their hands off Paro’s death. But one look at the boy’s body and face will make you cry with pain; the little boy had been tortured severely. The mark on his neck is a clear sign of strangulation. As told by Paro’s friends, he was beaten for hours. He sure would have lacked the energy to hang himself. The marks around Paro’s neck tell that the rope was tied tightly. He couldn’t have done that to himself after all the beating he had received.
Paro’s death happened in the school premises, and the authorities must be answerable. Why were the children left alone during the recess time? After the recess period, there was a big gap of time. Why wasn’t the family contacted? There is a clear institutional failure of the school and the authorities. Describing the murder of Paro as just an ‘incident’ in the WhatsApp group reveals the true character of the school’s ethos and values. A school is a temple of knowledge, not a prison where students are tortured and killed. VKV Sher, Kimin, must be held accountable along with the two minors for the murder of my cousin Ngurang Paro.
The infamous VKV stories
VKV Sher, a privately-aided school, was established in 1977. It is located in my hometown, Kimin, in Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh. Growing up in Kimin, I was used to the ‘glorious’ stories about VKV boys: repeated brawls and fights among boys, breaking laws and ransacking the school’s properties, etc, were almost seasonal news. A lot of my male relatives had either passed out or dropped out from the school. Somehow their notorious deeds were made to sound heroic or aspirational, at least for the young boys. Naughty boys always sounded cooler than girls – at least that’s what I was told. How often did we hear of girls running away from schools or ransacking school properties?
But last year, in September, there were numerous complaints and allegations against several students (boys) of Classes IX and X who were caught sodomising some junior students. And when the junior boys complained, several of them were reportedly beaten up by the same seniors.
According to The Arunachal Times, dated 5 September, 2019, “After the school authority decided to rusticate the said student for seven days, the student’s parents came and withdrew the school transfer certificate. The rustication of the said student had provoked the rest of the students, who tried to defend him and later turned unruly, the VKV Sher authority claimed.” The school authority also expressed their failures and limitations, stating that whenever they tried to find and punish the culprits, the students and parents got together.
I published a post on Facebook, stating my hurt and expressing my opinion on the discourse on Bully and Paro’s death. Many seem to endorse my views and we might have started a small conversation online. I reached out to a few former students of the same school (their identities have been kept anonymous for safety reasons). One of them, who had spent 11 years there, informed that he and many of his friends were bullied too. He said, “I had been through similar torture in the past and I can relate with the pain and trauma the boy must have gone through.”
Condemning such inhumane activities practised in educational institutions, he also shared that VKV Sher has a rather long, ignominious culture of sexual assaults and violence. He recollected that the seniors usually operated in groups, and usually the soft-looking and timid kind were their targets. Preferably the cute and fair ones, who were often termed ‘maal’. And their dirty deeds would often take place at midnight, when the lights were off. Some boys were targeted almost every night. Even bathrooms were not safe. He lamented that, during his time, he and his friends also had no knowledge as to how to address the issue. “We were labelled ‘test kardia or chaklia’, and the same trend carries on when the juniors become seniors; the cycle just carried on. He thinks early intervention from the administration could have controlled the situation.
Another former student expressed his anger over the continuing violent culture. He said he was shocked that this was still happening. He revealed that most of his friends endured severe injuries when they were forced to wrestle with one another. Many of them were locked inside dark rooms as punishment by seniors. He wrote, “To be honest, it was more like the survival of the fittest.”
One parent of a student who had earlier wished to enroll his son at the VKV iin Shergaon, West Kameng district, shared with me that he had to withdraw his child two years back because of the same issue. He said he had informed the school authorities (both the principal and the hostel warden), but they did not take his complaint seriously.
The culture of bullying across Indian educational institutions
I know how a bully looks and I know for sure how severely bullying can hurt. I was bullied too. And I reckon even the bullies got bullied. A bully is ‘a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable.’ Such people will grow up to be violent and may even be responsible for others’ death. I was bullied when I was studying in Himachal for my high school. There were a few seniors who terrorised and harassed us throughout the year. It was during one of the dinner times that this senior along with her ‘entourage’ demanded that my friends and I vacate our dinner table for them. We were halfway though our dinner, but she was adamant – she wanted our seats. My friends and I froze with fear; we stopped eating. This fear was of an unfamiliar kind. My friends obediently gave their seats, but I didn’t move an inch. One of them, supposedly the gang leader, screamed at me, “You fresher, you will pay for your actions! With a shaky voice, one of my friends bent towards me and whispered, “Reena, please don’t fight back, please give your seat, they will trouble us at night.”I had endured enough and I couldn’t contain myself any more! I raised myself up, fuming in anger, and screamed: “No! I will not give my seat!” and I threw my wooden chair a metre away, crying my way to my dorm. My little act of defiance had caught the attention of the mess warden and the others. I called up my father and said I wished to return home. I remember going to bed angry and hungry.
I woke up the next day to learn that my father had put in a complaint with the school principal and the seniors were reprimanded for their behaviour. But unfortunately, the assaults continued and my friends stopped talking to me because I had resisted. Resistance meant that I was an over-smart, stupid girl and alone now. But this was not the first time that my friends and I were subjected to absurd cruelty.
Since the time we joined the school in early 2007, we had endured terrible physical and mental assaults. We ‘freshers’ were summoned any time of the day as the seniors pleased, mostly at mid-night. It was an girls-only college and we were often called to ‘perform’ for and ‘entertain’ our seniors, sometimes as nasty as stripping clothes, seducing chairs and tube lights and many other forms of undignified acts. By the end of the year, more than 50 percent of my batch mates left the school, including me.
Now I cannot claim absolutely that all those who left the school left for the same reason, but I know certainly that continuous bullying was one of the primary reasons for many of us to leave. I also remember a girl from first year collapse due to anxiety while she was being ragged.
In colleges and universities across India, ragging is considered a rite of passage, where juniors are ‘advised’ to comply with the seniors’ orders. In the name of ‘healthy interaction’, many students endure humiliation indignity. But such culture has resulted in many fatalities where many students have either committed suicide or have displayed signs of irregularities in their behaviour.
Understanding the severity of the issue, the Raghavan Committee report was published in 2007. The report listed different kinds of recommendations/suggestions to curb ragging and bullying in schools and colleges. Anti-bullying committees were set up in various CBSE schools in 2015, where for the first time ragging was categorised as a human rights issue. Various methods, such as suspension, and in extreme cases rustication/expulsion of the bullies, were mentioned.
Masculinity, femininity and weakness
The view that masculine and feminine traits are inherently bipolar opposites has dominated the writings of social and behavioural scientists for the longest time, claim scholars like Janet T Spence and Robert L Helmreich. While attributes such as “dominance, sexual prowess, athleticism and aggression” are ideally the accepted attributes of a man, according to one of the American men who author Peggy Orenstein interviewed for her new book, Boys & Sex. That would simply mean that the presence of so-called ‘feminine’ attributes such as emotions, kindness, sympathy, etc, would preclude a man from becoming masculine, and vice versa.
We all tell our girls, “Behave like a woman, close your legs, don’t talk, don’t eat much!” We understand how patriarchy and gender roles operate. Since the day we are born we have been subjected to socially constructed identities and any deviance from that is deemed unnatural and inconceivable. We have gendered all spaces of our lives –both private and public – toys, clothes, dreams, professions, health, desire, food, you name it! We don’t realise how every day we perpetuate the stereotypical gender roles; we fail to understand that we encourage the damaging conventional pressures on our children, in this case male, to be tough when they are not meant to be.
The culture of bullying is intrinsically linked to the idea of gender and masculinity. “Boys are tough, boys are strong, boys fight, boys wrestle, boys play with cars and guns!” Have we not heard or say them to our boys? Someone responded to my Facebook post: “Toxic masculinity is a plague.” I couldn’t agree more. Another kind man, who is the father of a son, wrote on my post, “Our society with its ‘Ladka hai jhagra badmash karega hi’ attitude further perpetuates the culture of violence. “My brother was kind and soft; he never harmed anyone,” says Anam, It is tragic that Anam’s brother had to die like this. He was so young and had just begun his life. He was a normal kid, but I guess sometimes normal is the abnormal.
Institutional failure and normalisation of violence
Often, the victims of bullying carry scars of their trauma throughout their lives, or worse, they commit suicide. But most importantly, a bully will harm others, no doubt, but he will harm himself consequentially. These young minors who killed Paro – how have they become so violent? These young boys will grow up to be destructive men who will resort to violence at every occasion. They will breed hatred and anger and will crush anyone who they perceive to be weak. Violence will be their end and means, violence will be the only language that they will understand.
Friends, it is our failure, as friends, families, schools and society that we are indifferent towards such serious crimes. Bullying is an act of crime – a crime that destroys home and society. Today it has killed Paro; tomorrow it will kill many more. It is our responsibility as parents that we instill good moral values in our children. We don’t realise that children imitate elders. Our children’s behaviour often reflects our parents’ attitude. When our fathers beat our mothers at home, our young boys normalise violence. They grow up familiarising violence to the extent that they think they are right when the beat others.
We must reassess our behaviours at home to make the first changes. A good parent-children relationship is the key to a creating a good society – one that allows positive growth and development. We must learn to talk to our children; just providing their school fees and fulfilling their educational requirements don’t make us good parents. We must be their friends, we must be their confidantes.
As I write this, I wonder what Paro’s last thoughts must have been? Did he ask his friends to show mercy to him? Did he call out for his parents? Did he call out to his friends who were outside the door? The biggest evil is when you choose to look away from evil. I think Paro could have been saved.
Paro’s life could have been saved today, had the school authorities taken cognizance of such complaints in the past or had his friends shown come courage and protected him, or his parents talked to him. This is also a message to the former students of VKV Sher who never stood for each other. It is because of your prolonged silence that Paro is dead today. An act of courage could save lives; you should have fought back. We can point fingers at everyone, but you know what could have actually saved Paro’s life today? If those two minors had been brought up well by their parents at home; if they were raised to be humans and not just boys; if they were taught to be humane. Remember, there is value in your fight, in your act of courage. And we cannot create anything of value without fear.
(The author is a writer, human rights activist and research scholar at JNU, New Delhi. Views expressed are her own)