The Lede delves into how the Kinathukidavu case was sought to be suppressed by the police & administration
A little over 50 kilometres from the bustling city of Coimbatore, the concrete fades away. Coconut trees wave lazily in the breeze. These groves have as their neighbours, banana plantations and sprawling farms of avarai (flat beans) and mochakottai (a variety of beans).
On the road between Tiruppur and Pollachi lies a village, tucked away, nondescript. This quiet village has a population of around 2800. At one end of the village lies the Dalit ‘colony’ as is the norm in Tamil Nadu’s rural areas. Here live the Arunthathiyars (Scheduled Caste sub-sect), or Sakkiliyar as they are locally called.
Farm labourers by profession and most below the poverty line, they are dependent on the dominant OBC (Other Backward Classes) land owning Gounder caste for their livelihood.
Tensions have been high since Sunday in this little village. 11 girls studying in the fourth and fifth standard at the Panchayat Union Primary School here came home and told their parents that their headmaster had sexually harassed them. He had touched them in “unwanted places”, they said. Of the 11, at least seven children belonged to the Scheduled Caste community.
On the night of February 12, the headmaster was arrested under the POCSO Act (The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) of 2012.
The FIR was filed based on the complaint of the District Child Protection Officer of Coimbatore, Sandhamani. In her complaint she stated – “It is learnt that accused is working as Head Master in Panchayath Union Primary School at XXX for the past 10 years and complainant is working as Child Protection Office at Coimbatore.
On 12.2.2020 complainant received information and went to SOC and enquired with the kids. She came to know that accused was often sexually harassing the girl children in the school. During the enquiry 3 kids have revealed that the headmaster have touched them in unwanted places. Based on this information complainant lodged a complaint in the police station Negamam PS.” (SOC refers to Scene of Crime)
The headmaster was arrested under Section 9(f), (1), (m) read with Section 10 of the POSCO Act.
As per the Act, Section 9 (f) relates to “Whoever being on the management or on the staff of an educational institution or religious institution, commits sexual assault on a child of that institution (which)
(i) Physically incapacitates the child or causes the child to become mentally ill as defined under clause (l) of section 2 of the Mental Health Act, 1987 or causes impairment of any kind so as to render the child unable to perform regular tasks temporarily or permanently.
(m) Whoever commits sexual assault on a child below twelve years.”
And Section 10 relates to the punishment – “Whoever, commits aggravated sexual assault shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
But the story is not over yet. Many unanswered questions hang in the air. As per the complaint by the District Child Protection Officer, only three students had spoken up about sexual advances by the headmaster.
Also, no provisions under the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been added in the FIR. And while the district authorities refused to speak on the matter, the inevitable conclusion is that the minor girls belonging to the Arunthathiyar families in the village were told to hush up, probably by their parents themselves.
This bears out from The Lede’s investigation into what actually happened on that fateful night of February 10.
When their daughters came home and told their parents about the harassment, the parents went to the school on the morning of February 10 to question the headmaster. He was away on “medical leave” they were told. They demanded justice. But school authorities asked them to file a “proper complaint” and “follow due process”.
Livid, they went on a flash road roko that same night. The police arrived and detained the parents as well as the Vice President of the panchayat for protesting without permission.
The next morning the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) staged a protest outside the office of the Superintendent of Police, Coimbatore. They submitted a petition demanding legal action.
AIDWA member Rajalakshmi told mediapersons that Coimbatore SP Sujith Kumar had informed her that they “would take action if someone came forward to complain.”
Later that day, copies of notarised affidavits surfaced – in these, parents had signed off stating that they had “mistakenly believed the words of someone else” and that the “headmaster was a good man”. They also stated that “the headmaster was only scolding our children for not studying well” and finished it by promising “not to complain in any court”.
The Lede decided to find out why the parents had done a sudden u-turn when just the previous night they had come out in protest against the headmaster.
The Lede visited the village to find out the truth behind the curious turn of events.
Villagers were loath to speak – for one, they are naturally suspicious of outsiders and now doubly so, since this incident.
A school stood about a kilometre from the bus stand. It was surrounded by large banyan and neem trees.
There was only one teacher at the school and she disappeared inside quickly. The Lede pursued her and queried her about the incident. “This is not the school you are referring to. That school is on the opposite side of the road,” she said.
There are around 40 students in all the Panchayat Union Primary schools here on average. Each school has one teacher, if lucky they have two.
When The Lede went to the other school, it was indeed the one where the incident had occurred. A male teacher was teaching a class of students in the fourth standard near the entry.
Not wanting to disturb the class, The Lede went in search of the office room but it was empty. The school was neat and clean. The teacher came out and enquired as we left the office.
“I do not know anything about this, please speak to the AO (Assistant Officer in the district education department) for any details,” said the teacher.
Further enquiries in the village showed that the accused headmaster and the male teacher have been serving in the school for the past ten years. Another female teacher who is usually at the school had gone on training recently. She was not present at the school when The Lede visited.
“It is distressing that such an incident took place in this school,” said a source who did not wish to be named.
The source told The Lede that the male teacher had asked for leave for Thaipoosam (a festival) on Saturday to the headmaster. "The headmaster said that he would ask higher ups and revert. The male teacher found out that such a big incident had taken place only when he came back to work on Monday morning,” said the source.
“The teacher is very troubled. He feels he should take 10 days off and come back. In a place where they should treat students as their own children, he is disgusted by what has happened.”
The Lede proceeded to the Arunthathiyar side of the village. There was deathly silence here. No one came out of their homes. No one was willing to speak.
Following this The Lede visited the residence of the Panchayat President but he was not available. Next stop was the residence of the Vice President of the Panchayat, Giridharan. Giridharan is a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the opposition party in Tamil Nadu.
Giridharan told The Lede that the parents of the victims were unwilling to take the issue further and he asked us too to drop it. “Let us not talk about it anymore,” he said. After a while, he reluctantly opened up.
“Just for staging the road roko, the police is asking me to give an explanation as to why I organised the protest. They are saying that I am responsible for the protest. The parents of the victims came up to the police station but after that they are not willing to file a complaint.
They have instead given affidavits stating that they don’t have any problem with the headmaster and they have returned. They are all frightened. If we try to help them, our names get spoilt. So we cannot go forward and rely on these parents,” he said.
Giridharan then showed The Lede photocopies of the affidavits – seven in all – that parents of the victims had signed off on.
He then showed a copy of the CSR (Community Service Register) which was filed in the police station against the headmaster – it stated that the headmaster had “forced the children to study” and that the complainant wanted an enquiry into the same.
There was no mention of the sexual harassment in the CSR.
While we were speaking, Giridharan received a call from the Negamam police station, asking him to be present at the school for an enquiry by the State Commission for Child Rights. He was also asked to bring the victims and their parents with him when he came.
“There is a lot of politics involved in this,” said Giridharan as he prepared to leave. “When the protest was happening, the rival political party (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) workers informed the headmaster that he should not come as he would get beaten up. That is why he has not come since then,” he alleged.
The Lede could not independently verify this claim.
By around 11.30 am on February 12, the 5-member team from the Commission had arrived. Everyone trooped to the school to join the enquiry, parents, victims and the Vice President.
A policeman in mufti stopped The Lede from entering the school.
A villager suddenly asked – “Now that these people have given those notarised affidavits, what will happen if the headmaster files a case against them tomorrow? Can he do that?”
So what actually happened on the night of February 10 after the road roko? A villager, S Vignesh, was at the police station when the crucial scene ensued.
“They detained all of us,” said Vignesh. “When we went to the police station, there were a number of policemen there. SI Saravanan was there and the Inspector as well as a few constables. I do not remember the name of the Inspector,” he said.
He went on to describe how events unfolded that night. “The parents wanted to file a complaint against the headmaster. The Inspector told them that they could file a complaint but that it would become a problem for their children – the kids would have to go to GH (Government Hospital) for examination, then they would have to go to and from the courts and police station. Were they ready to do that, he asked.”
The parents of the victims once again insisted on filing a complaint. “To this, the Inspector said – your child’s future will get spoilt, everyone will know their names and they will not be able to go to school or show themselves outside again. Is that what you want?”
At this, the parents took a step back. “The Inspector then told the parents that they should give an affidavit stating that they did not wish to pursue this matter and then they could go home. The parents got scared, it was basically a threat by the police. Seven of them signed notarised affidavits stating that they had made a mistake and that the headmaster was only scolding the children and that they would not go to court over this again. All of us went home after that,” said Vignesh.
The Lede then visited the Negamam police station. Sub Inspector Saravanan was available, while the Inspector was not at the station.
“There is nothing we can do about this case, sir,” said Saravanan. “The parents came and gave affidavits denying the charges. In any case we have informed the child protection agencies. So I have nothing to do with this. I have made my enquiries to the best of my ability. I have tried my best to convince the parents to give a complaint. I promised them I will do the needful. But the parents said that the future of their children would get affected and they left. Different organisations are confusing them and the issue. As a result, the parents are getting dragged in all directions,” he added.
When queried about whether the police had forced the parents to file the affidavits, Saravanan denied the charge.
“Action can be taken against the policemen who forced the parents to sign affidavits under the POCSO Act,” A Devaneyan, Director of Thozhamai, a partner organisation with UNICEF, told The Lede.
“Action can also be taken against the lawyer who notarised it. The police has no authority to decide whether a complaint is genuine or fake. That is for the courts to decide. How can they ask the parents to give affidavits? As for the notary public, how did he sign off on the affidavit when he knew it was illegal? He cannot say he did not know the law, that will never stand up in court. Action needs to be taken against all these people,” he said.
A senior police officer told The Lede that this was "false news." "We have already registered a case and the accused is already remanded," he said.
When queried about the notarised affidavits, he termed them as "baseless allegations." "Who has prepared it and for what reason we don’t know. Police never asked for that," he said.
Back at the school, the enquiry was ongoing. A lady was selling tender coconut by the roadside.
She told The Lede that she was working as a sweeper or Aayamma in the school. “The headmaster will touch the children when he talks to them, we have all seen that,” she said. “But no one expected that things will go this level. Parents should have called the headmaster on Monday morning to the school and questioned him about this issue instead of doing the road roko. All of us ladies would have beaten the headmaster ourselves. I would have surely done it. But because they did the road roko, it has become a big problem now. Someone has instigated the parents to do the road roko,” she said.
At the bus stand, a villager told The Lede, “No one even knew the name of our village. People only know about Tiruppur and Pollachi. But now everyone is talking about our village. We are feeling very upset about this,” he said.
The father of one of the victims, an autorickshaw driver, was nearby, a picture of despondence. “Sir, please leave it, it is all over. Please do not make this into a big issue. We ourselves have decided to let it go. Our children’s names are getting spoilt. I have decided to take a TC (Transfer Certificate) for my daughter and send her back to our native place and put her in a school there. I don’t want my child to grow up with the trauma of this incident. So I will shift my family to our native place so that she can grow up peacefully without reliving this,” he said.
Victim blaming had already begun, just a day after the crime, and the Dalit Arunthathiyars had succumbed to social pressure.
C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, told The Lede that there is an insidious casteism that runs as an undercurrent through the western belt of Tamil Nadu.
“The entire Kongu region is the most casteist place, I call it professional casteism,” said Lakshmanan. “Even if they commit atrocities and there are crimes against vulnerable Scheduled Caste sections, with the support of police, politicians and local powers, they are all hand in glove to suppress the facts. This is constantly exhibited in the Kongu region.
Recent examples are the murder of Gokulraj (2015), the accused Yuvaraj’s WhatsApp challenges to the police and the welcome by thousands of people when he surrendered. The police did not arrest him, he surrendered. And he was given a red carpet welcome when he surrendered. All this is live testimony of how the administration, “upper” caste and politicians are hand in glove in suppressing facts.
At least now the administration has come forward to do damage control. But this is not enough.
Scheduled Castes in the Kongu region particularly in Coimbatore, Erode, Namakkal and Tiruppur, are mostly from the Arunthathiyar. Their land holding is very minimal, almost nil. Those who have houses were given to them by the government.
There are hardly any graduates or post-graduates. Hardly any of them are in government jobs except as manual scavengers. This region is said to be very progressive and industrialised but the condition of the Scheduled Castes here is pathetic. They do not have education, land or wealth. The “upper” caste on the other hand, have land, political power and money. Therefore it is easy for them to suppress the Scheduled Caste community systematically,” he said.
The headmaster may have been arrested and remanded as of now. But whether justice has indeed been done to the families of the victims is debatable.
(Names of the village, the headmaster, parents, victims and locals have been withheld in order to protect identity of the victims.)
(This article has been modified to include the reaction of a senior police officer who did not wish to be named.)