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Kallakurichi: Death and rioting in a school

Print edition : Aug 05, 2022 T+T-

Kallakurichi: Death and rioting in a school

A mob vandalising Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem following the death of a class 12 girl student on July 17.

A mob vandalising Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem following the death of a class 12 girl student on July 17. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

While the death raises concerns, the systematic rampage seems politically motivated.

The death of a 17-year-old schoolgirl in mysterious circumstances in Tamil Nadu’s Kallakurichi district in mid-July has put the spotlight once again on the burning issue of academic pressure on students, while the protests that followed and culminated in arson and looting of the school have raised questions about the motives of the perpetrators.

Even in a State with a long history of violent incidents against schools, mostly by the families of students who have died by suicide or under unexplained circumstances, the latest episode stood out sharply.

The violence did not occur spontaneously after the death but some days later, and appeared premeditated.

It was characterised by systematic and targeted destruction of the school’s infrastructure and property. And it appeared to have been led by people with no connection to the girl.

According to Tamil Nadu’s Public Works Department Minister, E.V. Velu, more than 108 persons sustained injuries during the protests and the police arrested 278 persons in connection with the rioting.

The student’s death

The victim was a class 12 student of Sakthi Matriculation Higher Secondary School at Kaniyamoor near Chinnasalem, about 250 kilometres south of Chennai. The girl reportedly jumped to her death in the early hours of July 13 from the third floor of a building on the school premises. The floor reportedly housed the student hostel. The watchman found her lying on the ground and informed the management, who rushed her to Kallakurichi Government Hospital, where she was declared dead on arrival.

The girl’s parents, Selvi and Ramalingam, lodged a complaint with the Chinnasalem police, saying they suspected foul play. They sought action against the school but the police did not do anything. Between July 14 and 16, the girl’s parents and members of her extended family organised more than seven road blockade agitations and many sit-in protests, which the Kallakurichi district administration confirms. Then, on July 17, large-scale mob violence broke out, taking the administration by surprise. The mob vandalised the school, burning buses and destroying furniture.

Groups of protesters gathered outside the school on July 17.
Groups of protesters gathered outside the school on July 17. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Between July 14 and 16, the demands for an investigation had grown louder, but the district police did not go beyond registering a case under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which covers suicide and death under suspicious circumstances. The police subsequently added Section 305 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act, read with Section 4 (B) (II) of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 2002. The district administration, on its part, allowed the school to continue functioning despite the continuing protests.

Many of the girl’s relatives and friends, from their native village of Periya Nesalur near Veppur in Cuddalore district, had also joined the protests from July 14.

Many youths from neighbouring areas belonging to the family’s Agamudaiyar caste also joined the agitation. “We urged the police to arrest the top three people in the school, the correspondent Ravikumar, the school secretary (Ravikumar’s wife) Shanthi, and the Principal Shiva Sankaran immediately. But we only got a cold and bored response,” said a relative from the girl’s family.

The Kallakurichi police seem to have clearly missed gauging the enormity of the discontent and the extent of social media mobilisation that is possible today.

Official inaction

While their reluctance to initiate quick action against the school management is inexplicable, the District Collector’s decision to declare Section 144 (which prohibits crowds and gatherings) only on July 17, after the riots broke out, is equally strange. Both actions point to a huge gap in communication and coordination between the district police and the district administration.

On July 17, the DMK government initiated a series of measures to restore normalcy, beginning by replacing District Collector P.N. Sridhar with Sravan Kumar Jatavath, and Superintendent of Police S. Selvakumar with P. Pakalavan. Later, the police announced that all stolen school property must be returned. By July 22, benches and tables were returned.

Tamil Nadu Labour Minister C.V. Ganesan and Thol Thirumavalavan, the leader of VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), also called on the girl’s parents and promised to help them.

A CB-CID team led by Superintendent of Police Ziaul Haque inspected the school and the damage on July 20.
A CB-CID team led by Superintendent of Police Ziaul Haque inspected the school and the damage on July 20. | Photo Credit: KUMAR SS

Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who was recovering from a COVID-19 infection at the time, reviewed the situation via a videoconference on July 19. He asked Director General of Police C. Sylendra Babu and Home Secretary K. Phanindra Reddy to immediately leave for Chinnasalem.

The DGP announced the arrest of Ravikumar, the school correspondent, Shanthi Ravikumar, the secretary, and Shiva Sankaran, the Principal, along with two teachers who are alleged to have scolded the girl for scoring low marks in a couple of subjects.

He also transferred the case to the CB-CID, which, led by Superintendent of Police Ziaul Haque, started an investigation. Meanwhile, a case had also been filed in the Madras High Court, and the court directed the DGP to form a five-member Special Investigation Team led by Deputy Inspector General of Police (Salem range) Praveen Kumar Abhinapu, to “conduct an in-depth investigation into the rioting and arson” and “unearth the entire conspiracy”.

Genesis of violence

The seeds of the violence appear to have been sown on July 16, when Selvi posted a video on WhatsApp in which she tearfully sought justice for her daughter’s tragic death and requested the public to support her struggle. The video went viral. The topic began to trend on Twitter. WhatsApp groups sprouted under various names. Calls were sent out for mass mobilisation against the school on July 17. Soon, a mob had gathered and a violent protest was triggered that ended in arson and looting. Rumours and misinformation were shared and spread like wildfire, worsening an already tense atmosphere.

Through all this, the police maintained that the girl’s death was a suicide. The former Kallakurichi SP, Selvakumar, read out a suicide note purportedly written by the girl which claimed that she could no longer “take pressure” from her teachers. It said that she was insulted in the classroom when teachers, particularly those who taught chemistry and mathematics, pointed out her poor performance. She allegedly requested the school secretary to refund her fees to her parents.

It appears that the girl, a student of this school since class 6, had joined another institution near Veppur in Cuddalore district earlier this year. For reasons that could not be ascertained, she returned to her former school on July 1, just two weeks before her death. Her younger brother was also a student here.

After the rioting, the school management released a WhatsApp video in which Shanthi Ravikumar spoke of how the watchman found the body early on July 13 and alerted them, and how she and her husband rushed the girl to Kallakurichi Government Hospital in the school’s emergency van, which Ravikumar drove. She expressed regret for not informing the parents immediately, claiming she had been under extreme stress.

The girl’s parents, however, said the school management “suppressed the truth”. Her mother Selvi said, “Despite repeated requests they did not give any concrete information about my child. After a delay of one and a half hours, they told us to come to the hospital, where we were told our daughter had committed suicide.”

Speaking to Frontline, Selvi said that when she visited the site where her daughter was reportedly found, it was clean and had no bloodstains. “Not even a tiny stain of blood. How could that be when they say she jumped from the third floor,” she asked. The first post-mortem report, dated July 14, notes that the girl died due to “haemorrhage and shock”. The left side of her body bore multiple wounds, “all ante-mortem”. The girl’s family refused to accept the body and approached the Madras High Court seeking a second post-mortem. The court granted the request and a second post-mortem was performed on July 19, but the court refused the parents’ plea to have doctors of their choice present at the post-mortem. The parents approached the Supreme Court, which refused to intervene.

Unexpected violence

Police sources told Frontline that not one person from the mob involved in the rioting had been earlier involved even in a minor incident of violence anywhere else. They said the district police had been warned by State intelligence authorities that a mass mobilisation and possible agitations were likely to happen near the school on July 17. “But we thought that since conciliatory talks with MLAs, party leaders, and higher officials were going on, the deadlock would be sorted out by July 17,” said a police officer, who was injured by a stone thrown during the rioting.

Kallakurichi is a comparatively new and predominantly rural district that has been suffering from infrastructure and manpower inadequacies since it was carved out of Villupuram district in 2019 by the then AIADMK government. The district police, according to sources, have just 600-odd personnel on their rolls. The mob that attacked the school was about 3,000-strong, which left the already ill-prepared force vastly outnumbered.

The DIG of Villupuram range, M. Pandian, was present during the riots but was injured himself. He had to be taken to hospital on a motorcycle since police vans were attacked and damaged by the mob. The police, in fact, fired in the air three times and used the baton on rioters but it did not abate the mob’s fury.

There are rumours that the district officials had been told by their superiors to show maximum restraint. “There were apprehensions of a repeat of the Thoothukudi episode,” an official said. (In 2018, police opened fire on a protest rally against Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi, resulting in the death of 13 citizens.) “We had no choice. Nearly 30 per cent of our men sustained injuries,” he said. The situation was brought under control only after additional forces from the neighbouring districts of Cuddalore, Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai, and Salem arrived.

On the morning of July 17, protesters began to arrive on motorbikes, three or four to a vehicle. After the riot, the police seized more than 50 abandoned and damaged two-wheelers from near the school.

An eyewitness told Frontline that hundreds of youths broke through the police cordon around the school and began looting and destroying school property. “Several groups came through the back entrance. Many were seen scaling the compound walls. Many wore masks,” he said. The mob set fire to school buses, ransacked classrooms, broke windows, vandalised laboratories and, as Shanthi Ravikumar claimed in a WhatsApp video, destroyed “certificates of almost all 2,500 students, besides burning several important documents”. A local businessman said that air conditioners, chairs, benches, and even the cows maintained by the school were stolen. There is a rumour that an outside mob might have mingled with genuine protesters who had assembled to seek justice for the girl. “A genuine case was usurped by some elements. Many of us who came to show solidarity with the girl’s family stayed away after the protest turned violent,” said a former student.

The school

The school began in 1998 as a nursery and primary school with just seven students. It enjoyed a phenomenal surge in the last 10 years when the AIADMK was in power. It started a matriculation stream and an international school, all within two decades. Both the matriculation and international schools operate from the same building, which also houses the girls’ hostel on the third floor.

Protesters indulging in violence outside the school.
Protesters indulging in violence outside the school. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Ravikumar, the correspondent, belongs to the Kongu Vellalar caste, a minority community in this region. The father of a student said that the correspondent “is a BJP functionary; the school hosted RSS shakhas every year.” Other parents told the media that the school management did not permit students to leave the school. “They harassed families; they would either refuse or inordinately delay transfer certificates to any student who leaves,” said one parent.

There were also allegations that students were under enormous pressure to score high marks. “Money is the major criterion. If the school gets good results, it attracts more students, which means more and more money,” the parent said. A police officer added that many persons who took part in the July 17 protest were former students who came from as far away as Bengaluru.

There have been other such attacks on schools in Tamil Nadu, among which the November 18, 2006, incident, when an angry mob ransacked the Fatima Girls Matriculation Higher Secondary School at Omalur in Salem district, is prominent. The decomposed body of a hostel student had been found then too, inside a well on the campus.