Amid claims that a Class XII girl in Thanjavur had died by suicide after she was forced to do domestic chores at her hostel this month and her parents were asked to convert her to Christianity two years ago, School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi denied the allegations. He said the warden [since arrested] had paid the fees for the girl. In an interview on Sunday, he, however, made it clear, “we will not tolerate any discrimination on the basis of caste, religion and politics in classrooms.” Excerpts:
Did the School Education Department order any inquiry into the death of a schoolgirl in Thanjavur?
The Chief Educational Officer immediately conducted an inquiry. We also collected information from the Collector and the police. The police have recorded the girl’s statement [when she was in hospital] and told us that it would be submitted in court. They have made it clear that pressure to convert was not the cause. I would appeal not to divert the issue. Though it is alleged the warden caused the girl mental agony, it is the warden who had paid her fees. Other issues will be known during the trial. We took action [the arrest of the warden] because the girl was agonised and forced to take the extreme step. We understand the pain of her parents and the sentiments of members of the public.
The BJP, citing a video clip of the girl, is claiming there was an attempt to convert the girl to Christianity...
It was wrong. They should not have recorded the girl’s statement. They had questioned her in a provocative manner and she had not given any clear-cut answer. But a life has been lost, and whoever is responsible for it will be punished.
Some BJP leaders are demanding that the school be shut down...
We have recorded statements from over 30 students. None of them alleged any pressure to convert to Christianity. In fact, more number of Hindu students are studying there. Christian institutions in that area accord priority to education. They have not made use of the opportunity to convert students to Christianity. Truth will come out only after a thorough inquiry.
Was there any lapse on the part of the school management in informing the parents that the girl had attempted to end her life on January 9?
From what we gathered from the CEO and others, there was no delay. Even after the earlier incidents, we had asked the schools not to suppress issues of suicide to protect themselves. We have made it clear that they should not make light of the complaints of students. They should respect the sentiments of students and report to their parents when there are complaints. The schools can win the confidence of parents if they attend to the grievances of students. I reiterate that schools focus on these issues.
The girl had complained that the hostel warden had forced her to do domestic chores...
It is not acceptable. When a school teacher in Nagapattinam district cleaned toilets, I advised him not to do it. He would have done it out of his love for his school and students. I, however, explained to him that there were people appointed to do the work. He said there was no one to clear the toilets. I told him that he could file a complaint with the CEO. When we do not want even teachers to do non-teaching work, will we allow students to do the cleaning? When we received such complaints, we issued warnings to the headmasters. As far as this incident is concerned, the truth will be known once the inquiry is over.
There are claims that some teachers in Christian institutions induce students to convert to Christianity. How do you propose to tackle such complaints?
We are particular that there should not be any discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and politics in classrooms. I expressed my opinion when a teacher in Thiruvannamalai chided a student for wearing a rudraksha . It was not the business of a teacher to decide what a student should wear. They come to school only to study. A student can be a Hindu, Christian or Muslim. The teacher’s duty is to keep him in a classroom and teach. When we recruit volunteers for ‘Illam Thedi Kalvi’, we conduct a test and assess them through the school management committee. A volunteer is recruited after a few layers of screening. The programme is not to eulogise any political leader or a government. Our object is to teach the students. When we pay so much attention to the recruitment of volunteers, you can understand our priority. If students come across complaints of conversion, they can use the helplines and bring the issue to the notice of the authorities.
Has your Department taken any action against a couple of schools in Chennai where teachers were accused of sexually harassing students during online and offline classes?
We organised a training programme with the help of Tulir [a voluntary organisation] on November 19, the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse. The aim is to create awareness and educate the teachers and the non-teaching staff on what is being expected of them. It is about their conduct, the kind of questions that can be asked in the classrooms and the limit on any conversation with students. It is being conducted in batches. Teachers who attend the programmes have been asked to address other teachers, non-teaching staff members and students to create awareness. Instructions have been issued to display the helpline numbers 14417 and 1098 in every classroom. The numbers are also on display at all 1,20,000 centres that have been created for ‘Illam thedi Kalvi’ to bridge the learning loss. We have asked the teachers and volunteers to explain the purpose of these helpline numbers to students because awareness in rural areas is not adequate. The government is very particular about the enrolment of girl students and we do not want such incidents to prevent them from going to school. The Chief Minister himself spoke in the Assembly about speedy delivery of justice in a case filed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. It will always remain a warning.
The State has been witnessing suicides by students, either owing to harassment on campus or because they are unable to cope with academic challenges, including the need to clear NEET. Does your Department have any plan to deal with it?
Today, students need to have emotional intelligence, too. We are working with Tulir, and more organisations are coming forward to work with us. Health Minister Ma. Subramanian organised a conference to help students face the challenges posed by NEET. There is a need to offer psychological counselling to students. The Chief Minister has advised us to involve parents in training programmes since half the pressure comes from parents themselves. We are preparing a career guidance programme, which will be ready in a month. It will include motivational ideas.
(Assistance for overcoming suicidal thoughts is available on the State’s health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050.)