On Both Sides of St. Thomas

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“But before we face experience, that miserable enemy, let us have some more innocence, just for a while.”

― Martin Amis, Experience: A Memoir

When St. Thomas School in Trivandrum decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings that they would take all the way to the High Court, all because an amorous teenage couple decided to hug in public, they became the enemy of both innocence and experience. The previous sentence, as pompous and unforgiving as it may sound, should have led you to a conclusion: the school is the enemy and the students are hapless victims who are being prosecuted by a philistine, loveless and humourless administration for the unforgivable sin of a chaste hug.

If you thought that, you would be wrong. While I do believe that the administration at St. Thomas is humourless, loveless, vindictive, and philistine, they are acting neither illegally nor incorrectly. Schools have the authority to establish rules that they believe necessary. They reserve the right to suspend students who are in violation of these rules. They reserve the right, upon grievous violation or obscenity, to expel those students.

Most schools, however, are not St. Thomas. This is a good thing. Most schools would have let this slide. Most schools would have let the boy off with a warning, after extracting a profuse, pathetic apology. After extracting such an apology, St. Thomas School, like the devil welcoming a newcomer to an eternity of Hell, said: “We’re only getting started.

The school began and kept going: From Disciplinary hearings, public shaming, and violations of privacy to suspension, expulsion, and a High Court case. At every point where the average school would have been understanding, merciful, and savvy, St. Thomas decided to be unyielding, vindictive, and cruel.

Background

The High Court opinion is probably the best account of what happened. If you haven’t yet read Justice Chaly’s judgement, do so now. I can find no fault with it(logical, readable, clear) except evasion and judicial cowardice. Regardless, most of you will be loath to read an arcane judicial opinion. I have tried to summarise the case below with some brief commentary.

Disclaimer: Please note that I refer only to the judicial opinion and the affidavits provided by both parties as quoted in the opinion. I make no comment on the veracity of the claims. I doubt any substantial falsehood by the parties, in the affidavits would affect the outcome of the case, or change my opinion on the issue.

The boy hugged the girl in public, in front of a few teachers and friends. When a sentence starts this way, it seems fairy-tale like. You also know that romantic teenage fairy-tales, in Kerala, cannot end well. A teacher reported them. In a letter to the court and the disciplinary committee, the teacher states that “she was shocked to see the incident, and that she has not experienced any such public display of affection.” From her tone, it’s quite obvious that the teacher is not likely to have ever witnessed or been subject to a private display of affection either.

The teachers summoned the parents, reprimanded the students, and constituted a disciplinary committee. A few days later, using the Indian schoolteacher's equivalent of espionage, they discovered(read: obtained) compromising photographs of them on their private Instagram account(which were also put on record both in the disciplinary committee and the High Court. This was probably illegal and certainly unethical.)

The boy was expelled. The school was then served with an interim order from the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights(KESCPCR) instructing the school to readmit the boy. St. Thomas, instead of quietly readmitting a student who had done nothing uncharacteristic of an adolescent boy, took the matter to the High Court of Kerala. Notwithstanding the vindictiveness they displayed in the matter, the school had a strong case. They contended that the statutory powers of the KESCPCR did not extend to issuing interim orders.

How, then, did the boy defend himself?

First, the girl was his friend and had just completed her recital of a song. The hug was apparently out of sheer humility, respect, and congratulatory elation. (Please note that I’m paraphrasing and simplifying the counter-affidavit presented by the boy’s father, and not autopsying a hug of my own accord. ) In addition, there was no ‘evil’ intention or other design on his part.

Second, they had immediately apologised and promised not to repeat their behaviour. The class teacher did not budge, which seems characteristic of a grudge against the boy.

Third, the boy’s parents had gone through the ‘ignominius’ disciplinary proceedings, because they didn’t want a protracted fight with the school authorities, and anticipating that he would be allowed to attend classes after the Onam examinations.

Justice Chaly uses the phrase ‘the fag end’ here to convey that the boy is nearing the end of his school life. Ironically, in an environment as closeted, segregated, and unnatural as St. Thomas, fagging and buggery might just end up to be the student’s last resort. But it didn’t end there.

They were again summoned, to be shown images of their son and the girl in question, in various compromising positions. These photos were obtained, after taxing efforts by the teachers, from his private Instagram account. He also contends that the school had obtained the photographs illegally, after a schoolteacher's version of what passes for hacking. He further contends that there was nothing obscene in the images themselves. He also accused the school of taking screenshots of the image and using them to blackmail and tarnish him in the school and the society. Regardless, the school has decided to expel him.

It is with admirable dexterity that Justice Chaly decided on a verdict. Bypassing the issue of how the images were obtained, not bothering to set standards for what may pass as obscenity in similar cases or create a precedent in case law for the disciplinary standards of institutions, and subtly dodging the matter of how the Instagram images were obtained and if that was legal, the Justice’s solution is to narrowly focus on this case and this case alone.

He ruled that, after a thorough reading of the statute, the KESCPCR did not have the authority to issue interim orders, and that its powers were only recommendatory in nature. In addition, he states that the Principal of the school is the “guardian of the school, who is vested with powers to take necessary action to maintain the discipline and morality in the school, which cannot be interfered or tinkered with…” One recommendation to the Justice, if I may be so bold. In a matter where a student has hugged another, the Hon'ble Justice should try to refrain from citing cases where a college student beat up a teacher, and in another, cheated during an examination. Someone might think you’re going a bit overboard. He also recommends that the school, while in his opinion is absolutely absolved of any wrongdoing so far, be merciful towards the student and perhaps readmit him to the school after paying a fine of some sort. He quashed the interim order, and ruled in favour of St. Thomas, on the basis of his interpretation of the powers of the KESCPCR, and not on a moral ground. He did the right thing.

This judgement does not seem correct, on its face. It also ignores a number of things. There are additional allegations by both students which aren’t discussed in sufficient detail, but which have made no difference to the outcome of the case. Both students have outlined these allegations in an interview to The News Minute(names changed in all quotes).

Speaking to TNM, Rahul’s father described his experience: “We were taken to the secretary’s room and I was shocked at the way he behaved with my son. He abused him and accused me of not knowing how to bring up a boy.”

“He called my son a ‘Vithukala’ (bull in heat), many other abusive words were showered on him. He told me to kill my son rather than bringing him up this way,” recalled the father.

According to the father, the secretary also said that Rahul should be punished like a godman who had recently been in the news. (He was alluding to the seer who was castrated in Thiruvananthapuram.)

In a comment, St. Thomas clarified its stance:

Rajan Varghese, Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, told TNM, “Such undisciplined actions will not be allowed in a prestigious institution like ours. Boys and girls are not allowed to hug in the school premises, it is against the discipline and decorum of our institution. What about discipline? No colleges or schools in Kerala would allow such actions not just our institution,” said Rajan.

The girl spoke to TNW as well, and made a number of allegations.

“He spoke badly of my family for bringing me up the way I am. The Secretary asked me how I could behave this way being a girl. I do not find the pictures objectionable or obscene the way they do, a lot of teenagers like me have such pictures on social media. They don’t understand our generation. And the pictures were on my private account, how could they hack my account?” asks Gayatri.

The Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, Gayatri claims, asked her to speak against Rahul to save herself.

“The Secretary asked me to write a letter against Rahul, and promised I could get myself out of this tangle if I did. He made me write that Rahul forced the hug on me, and that it wasn’t mutual. He told me that if I did so, I could avoid expulsion and get back to school,” Gayatri alleges.

Now, the thing does appear to be slightly more nuanced. There seems to be wrongdoing on the part of the school, simply beyond the usual stick-up-the-butt. I find some aspects of this testimony more believable than others, and I also disregard the grand statements in TNM’s article about how the girl is a model student and wishes to help society. None of this is relevant. None of this is at issue.

What is visible in the testimony, if it is believable, is a moral stand; not a legal one. Two students are beseeching their communities, their school, and the courts to do what is right, what is just, what is progressive, and what is human. To forgive and to forget.

But the right thing in law is not always just or progressive or even remotely human. As Justice Scalia remarked in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.' What such a procedure is to medicine, the Court's opinion in this case is to law.” That is how it is supposed to work. The fault here lies not in the courts for its judgement, or in the students involved (though they have hardly been paragons of decorum), but the humourless stance of the school in persisting ad nauseam to the detriment of its students, its city, and its state. I do not blame the teacher for reporting a violation of school rules, but the administration and the rest of the faculty for not knowing when to stop. Knowing when and where to stop is something both St. Thomas and its much-maligned students would do well to learn.

In this seven-course-meal of unyielding ignorance, the most remarkable part of the entire controversy is not — though they are quite remarkable, in their own right — that a school would expel a boy for hugging a girl, or that it would unethically trawl through a private Instagram account to gather evidence of amorous(or evil, in the judicial parlance) history between them, or even that a school would go to the High Court of Kerala just for the right to expel the boy in question.

No, The most remarkable part is the response of the students from STCS. I cannot speak for the school, nor of the entire studentry, but the general impression seems to be that the students of St. Thomas are not rebelling against the establishment, nor condemning the decision, nor remaining silent, as you might expect from students afraid of further disciplinary action. They seem to be wholly in support of the school and the odious, vengeful, egoistic manner in which it has conducted itself. In the manner of monarchists and establishment-supporting nonagenarians everywhere, the students of St. Thomas stand by their school.

I spoke to some of these students. I’ll also try to refrain from using any personal information from the insidious networks of gossip that circulate in St. Thomas(children can be inexplicably mean.) You may have heard the things I have: the students involved were obviously dating; their actions were not as quite as chaste as a congratulatory hug, and closer to a back-cellar snogfest; the Instagram account in question was pretty obscene.

If you’re going to fall for any of this, or think that it changes things in the slightest, you would be exactly as intelligent and discerning as a student at St. Thomas, and that is not a compliment. None of this would make the slightest difference to the case or to the manner in which the school has pursued its old-testament policy of egoistic, unyielding, short-sighted, petty, vindictive action against students who had tendered apologies for what would be in most schools, quietly ignored or brushed under the rug. What St. Thomas lacked in this instance is exactly what they accuse their suspended students of not having: shame.