An uneasy calm prevails at Kaniyamoor village on the Salem-Chennai national highway in Kallakurichi district. Only a few shops remain open on the busy highway with police pickets deployed on either side, from Chinnasalem till Kallakurichi, the district headquarters.
The signs of violence are apparent from the highway itself — shattered glass, burnt and blackened classrooms, damaged furniture and torched vehicles, including buses, tractor-trailers and two-wheelers, on the sprawling campus of Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School. The school witnessed a riot on an unprecedented scale on July 17 following the death of a Class XII girl student on the school premises on July 13.
Hailing from a neighbouring district, the girl, who was a hostelite, was found dead on the ground floor. Her room in the hostel was on the third floor, and the initial theory doing the rounds, thanks to the police, was that it was most likely a suicide. The police said a school watchman had found the girl lying motionless on the ground around 5.30 a.m. The body was sent for an autopsy to the Kallakurichi Government Medical College and Hospital.
The then Kallakurichi Superintendent of Police, S. Selvakumar, on July 19, read out the suicide note, said to have been written by the girl, to the protesters, in front of the media. This was an attempt to stick to the theory of suicide. He said that in the suicide note, the girl had accused two of her teachers of humiliating her in front of her classmates for not concentrating on studies and hence she was depressed.
However, the girl’s mother refused to accept that she had died by suicide and alleged foul play in her death. She said the handwriting on the suicide note was not her daughter’s. She said she had received a call from the school on July 13 around 6.30 a.m. She was informed that her daughter had sustained injuries from a fall and had been rushed to the Kallakurichi Government Medical College and Hospital. The mother said she received another call in half-an-hour from the same person who informed her that her daughter was dead.
“The doctors at the government hospital said my daughter had been brought dead. However, when I went to the hostel there were no traces of any blood stain on the ground where she was found after her fall,” she said.
Blaming the school administration for the girl’s death and demanding action against it, the parents, accompanied by family members and relatives, resorted to a protest on July 13 in front of the school. The family had refused to accept her body after post-mortem on July 14.
The post-mortem report, however, said the victim had died of haemorrhage and shock due to multiple injuries. “All injuries are ante-mortem and fresh in nature. However, the final opinion has been reserved, pending a report of chemical analysis of viscera,” the report said.
Though the Chinna Salem police initially registered a case under Section 174 (unnatural death) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr. PC), they subsequently added Section 305 (abetment to suicide of child) of the Indian Penal Code; Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000; and Section 4 (B), (ii) of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women (Amendment) Act, 2002. The case was later transferred to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID), while the government constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the riots on instructions from the Madras High Court.
Lack of coordination
Meanwhile, the protests that had been building up over four days bared a lack of understanding and coordination between the Revenue Department and the police.
A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Intelligence Wing had, in fact, alerted the district police to people planning to obstruct traffic on the highway. “However, the local police did not take it seriously. A sort of laid-back attitude was palpable among senior officers. Tension mounted, with the family of the girl persisting with their demand for arresting two members of the school management and two teachers, besides an impartial probe into the incident. The administration had failed to address the lack of trust among the protesters in it,” he said.
The pent-up fury and frustration that had been building up among the parents and the protesters owing to the insensitive handling of the probe had culminated in the July 17 violence, which caught the government on the wrong foot.
The State resorted to quick damage-control measures, transferring Collector P.N. Sridhar (replaced by Shravan Kumar Jatavath) and wait-listing the Superintendent of Police, who was replaced by P. Pakalavan. Director-General of Police C. Sylendra Babu made a spot visit to the school on the day of violence itself and transferred the probe into the girl’s death to the CB-CID.
Acting on the directions of the High Court, the government constituted an SIT, led by Salem Range Deputy Inspector-General of Police Praveen Kumar Abhinavu, to unearth the conspiracy behind the incident and identify those who had formed WhatsApp groups that resulted in mass mobilisation and eventually the riots.
In fact, the trouble started brewing after the girl’s mother posted a video on WhatsApp on July 16 and said she was fighting for justice for her daughter. The video went viral and sparked outrage on social media with the hashtag #justice for the victim# trending on Twitter.
A number of WhatsApp groups were formed, and they invited people to join a mass protest against the school on July 17. The district police seemed oblivious to the sudden development, though some others also indicated a caste angle to the issue. But it maintained its theory that it was a suicide. Meanwhile, a lot of misinformation and fake messages on social media had aggravated the situation.
Residents living in the vicinity of the school campus said the massive violence and rioting seemed to have been pre-planned. “We don’t know who did this. They [the rioters] arrived in groups on two-wheelers with bags filled with stones. I could not recognise any of them; they seemed to be outsiders. They started damaging everything they could lay their hands on and we watched in fear from our farmhouse. I thought the mob would come to my house, too,” says an elderly woman.
Eyewitnesses said that while locals and students from the district, too, participated in the protests, outsiders infiltrated them and wreaked havoc. They came with cutters and hammers and even broke the walls of the offices at the school entrance. Though the police tried to control them, they were easily outnumbered as the number of protesters kept increasing.
According to a police officer, “Adequate security arrangements were made in front of the school on Sunday last. A large number of youths from Kallakurichi and neighbouring districts had gathered at the protest site. Though the police exercised restraint, they had to resort to caning as the mob turned unruly and breached the police cordon with the intention of damaging the school properties. Following this, additional reinforcements were rushed from neighbouring districts to defuse the tension.”
While the police force deployed in front of the main gate of the school tried to prevent the huge crowd of protesters, another section of protesters scaled the compound wall to enter the premises.
The mob split into groups and ransacked everything that came their way. They set fire to the institution’s buses, tractor-trailers and two-wheelers. The mob made away with furniture, air-conditioners, water purifiers and livestock tethered to a shed behind the school.
As many as 96 vehicles — 61 police and government vehicles and 35 vehicles belonging to the institution — were gutted, according to officials. About 108 police personnel, including Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Villupuram Range) M. Pandian, were injured.
In the wake of the large-scale violence, Revenue Divisional Officer S. Pavithra imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Cr. PC in Kallakurichi taluk and Chinnasalem and Nainarpalayam regions. They would be in force till July 31.
A man running a tyre services shop near the school said, “My shop would normally remain open on Sundays, but I closed it on the day of the violence as the protests had been intensifying and I left for my native town. I came to know about the rioting only after watching news channels. I rushed to see whether my shop had been damaged.”
Buried after last rites
Meanwhile, the parents approached the High Court for a fresh post-mortem, pleading that doctors of their choice be allowed during the procedure. However, the court formed its own team of doctors for the fresh post-mortem which was conducted on July 19. The court has also asked for medical experts to go into the results of the second post-mortem. The parents of the girl received her body from the Kallakurichi Government Medical College and Hospital around 7 a.m. Saturday. The body was brought to the girl’s residence in a neighbouring district at 8.30 a.m. and buried after last rites.
According to an official of the Education Department, “Though the victim had studied from Class VI to XI in the school, she left it without obtaining her transfer certificate and joined another institution in a neighbouring district. However, the girl returned to the same school and joined on July 1. The reason for her return is yet to be ascertained.”
The management ran two schools — Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School, which was started in 1997-98, and Sakthi ECR International School — on the same campus, where the hostel is housed.
A parent who had shifted his son to another private school in Kallakurichi said he had to run from pillar to post to get the transfer certificate. The matriculation school has a strength of 2,500 students; many of them are from surrounding taluks. The school forces parents to come to school and children are denied entry into classes for non-payment of fees, he said.
Meanwhile, chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Saraswathi Rangasamy, who visited Kallakurichi on Thursday, told reporters that the school’s hostel had been running without the mandatory permission of the government. Though the district administration had directed all institutions equipped with hostels to apply for licences, the school did not follow the rule, she said.
A team of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights will inspect the school on Wednesday next.
It is the fervent hope of the family that the true reason for their daughter’s death would be revealed in the probes being conducted by multiple agencies. The special classes, being conducted by schools until late at night (forcing even day-scholars to opt for hostel accommodation), should be re-evaluated by school associations and the government itself.
(Assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts is available on the State’s health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050)