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Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu suicide case: Politics over a tragedy

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
The National Commission  for Protection of Child Rights meeting officials as part of an inquiry into the girl’s suicide, at Thanjavur on January 31.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights meeting officials as part of an inquiry into the girl’s suicide, at Thanjavur on January 31.

K. Annamalai,  BJP State president. He tweeted a video in which the girl says that a ‘sister’ asked her parents if she could be converted to Christianity.

K. Annamalai, BJP State president. He tweeted a video in which the girl says that a ‘sister’ asked her parents if she could be converted to Christianity.

The Sangh Parivar goes all out to whip up communal frenzy in Tamil Nadu alleging that a minor girl’s suicide is the result of an attempt at forced religious conversion.

A few weeks before the urban local body elections in Tamil Nadu on February 19, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking to turn a minor girl’s suicide in a small town in central Tamil Nadu into a major controversy in a bid to bolster its image as a protector of Hindus in the State—a strategy that has failed despite it taking up in the recent past issues such as reclaiming temple lands and organising a ‘Vel Yatra’ to mobilise Hindus.

In a carefully curated move, the BJP and other Sangh parivar outfits claimed that forced religious conversion was the cause for the 17-year-old girl’s suicide. They circulated a video of the girl complaining that the school authorities had harassed her for refusing to convert to Christianity. However, denying a religious angle to the death, Ravali Priya, Thanjavur Superintendent of Police (S.P.), said: “There is no evidence to indicate that the girl was forced to convert.”

The student, who hails from Ariyalur district, attended a Christian residential school in Michealpatti near Tirukattupalli in Thanjavur district. According to reports, she ingested ‘poison’ on January 9 and sought treatment at local clinics. When her pain worsened on January 15, she was taken to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital.

The Thanjavur police registered a first information report on January 16 (Crime Number 40 of 2022) under Sections 305 (abetment of suicide of child), and 511 (offences punishable with the imprisonment for life or other imprisonments) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 75 (cruelty to child) and Section 82 (1) (on corporal punishment) of the Juvenile Justice Act.

On the same day, the police and later the judicial magistrate recorded the girl’s statement. In these statements, talking about her impulsive step, she makes no mention of religious conversion or any attempt by the school to persuade her to forsake her religion. Neither did her stepmother nor family speak of any attempt at religious conversion until her death on January 19. The police later arrested the warden of the hostel.

On January 20, a day after the student’s death, K. Annamalai, State BJP president, tweeted: “What more proof is needed? 1. There is a videographed confession statement of the girl. Did the S.P. come to the conclusion it’s fake? If yes, how? 2. When the parents & all the near relatives have given a clear statement, [the] S.P. is alleging her parents are liars?”

The video he refers to was recorded on January 17 but released on January 20, only after the girl’s death. State government officials question the motive behind shooting the video and holding back its release until the girl’s death.

In fact, there are two videos, one of which was shot by Muthuvel, an office-bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). In an edited version of this video, which was tweeted by Annamalai, the girl clearly says that a ‘sister’ asked her parents if she could be converted to Christianity. A male voice, not in the picture, asks when this incident took place. To this the girl responds, “two years ago”. The male voice goes on: “So, since you did not convert, they did this [rest unclear].” The girl nods in agreement.

Annamalai’s January 20 tweet goes on: “Very sad day to see @tnpoliceoffl losing all its hard-earned reputation by its irresponsible statements. When there is a clear video testimony by the girl of forced conversion, the local police is hell-bent on changing the course [of] the case.”

A day after Annamalai released the controversial video, another video surfaced, in which the girl makes no mention of conversion. In this video, she can be heard saying her name and the names of her parents. In the video she says that she was asked to keep accounts of the hostel even though she did not understand the subject because she preferred to stay in the school rather than go home.

She goes on to say in the video that the tasks given to her by the hostel authorities made it difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. When asked if she was prevented from wearing a bindi on her forehead, the girl states that she was not.

Following the allegation that a student was forced to convert to Christianity at the Michaelpatti school, the State’s School Education Department ordered an inquiry. According to the Thanjavur District Education Officer’s (DEO) report, the Chief Educational Officer (CEO) and the DEO had inspected the school 16 times in the past decade and had never received a complaint about any forced conversion. The report notes that from 2013 to 2022, as many as 5,270 Hindu students, 2,290 Christian students and 179 Muslim students had passed out of the school.

The report also reveals that when all educational institutions remained closed as a result of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the girl preferred to stay back in the school hostel and refused to go home. She spent 70 days in the hostel. When the closure appeared to be indefinite and she was forced to head home, she did not attend the online classes, the report says.

The right wing takes over

Soon after, the BJP got involved in the case of the girl’s death, alleging religious conversion as the cause for the suicide. On January 27, Arun Singh, its national general secretary and headquarters in charge, issued a statement naming four persons as the investigators of the case. It said the BJP “has expressed its deep concern and sorrow on the suicide committed by the girl due to harassment and coercion to get converted by school management in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The party national president Shri J.P. Nadda has constituted a four-member committee to visit the place of incident and submit its report to him at the earliest. The members of the committee are: Sandhya Ray, MP (Madhya Pradesh), Vijayashanti (Telengana), Chitra Tai Wagh (Maharashtra) and Geetha Vivekananda (Karnataka).”

A delegation of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) too descended on Tamil Nadu and began its “investigation”. Despite multiple agencies in the State insisting that the girl’s suicide was because of her poor grades and the treatment meted out to her by her family, the NCPCR, which has in the past seven years taken up cases only where the BJP has alleged religious conversion, claimed that the State government was not cooperating with it in the case.

Just before coming to Tamil Nadu, in a press release issued on January 28, the NCPCR claimed that it had received a complaint stating that the girl was “coerced to convert to Christianity”. According to it, when she opposed this, the administration forced her to do menial jobs in the institution. According to the complaint, the NCPCR said, her grades suffered, forcing her to take the extreme step.

K. Balakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that the NCPCR’s involvement and role in the case raised suspicion. He said: “The appointment of its chairperson Priyank Kanoongo itself was unlawful. When the State council for child protection has taken up an inquiry in the matter, the involvement of the NCPCR is disconcerting.”

As seen from the BJP’s press release, its national leadership had already decided, despite the lack of evidence, that this was a suicide because of ‘forced conversion’. Its State president Annamalai has taken this line and claimed that the police probe was flawed. In an interview to The Hindu on January 31, he said “the girl did not completely disclose what had happened. Only after eight days did her mother come to know that she had consumed poison. Then the school authorities came and tried to pay money to her to shift her to another hospital. The first accused was the harasser, and she was arrested. Later, the issue of conversion cropped up. The problem is that the police are not bothering about investigating the angle of conversion and why the girl was harassed.”

However, P. David, the BJP’s district minority wing president and resident of Michaelpatti village, told a news channel that there was no truth in the conversion allegation.

Representations to Collector

Realising that the case was taking a communal turn, the school’s parent-teacher association and local citizens demanded, in separate representations to the Thanjavur District Collector on January 28, that independent committees formed by political parties should not be allowed to visit the school or the village. The reference was to the BJP-appointed committee.

Representatives of both Hindus and Muslims from Michaelpatti and surrounding villages told the Collector that all religious communities had lived in the village in harmony for “five generations” and that there was no communal tension among them. They alleged that a political party was trying to foment trouble by politicising the girl’s death. The parent-teacher association saw it as an attempt to “defame the school”, which has given education for the depressed classes for more than a century, and asked the Collector to ensure that the school was adequately protected.

The girl’s father, too, filed a complaint with the Collector. In this, he claimed that the school had taken the girl to a church in Tiruchi and that some unidentified persons had asked her to convert. Since she resisted, she was asked to do menial jobs at the hostel. The father claimed that the school authorities had treated her harshly and asked her to end her life if she did not want to carry out the non-academic works allocated to her.

Amid the petitions and counter-petitions, the police investigation into the girl’s death revealed that a relative of the deceased girl had called the child protection helpline number alleging that the girl’s stepmother was harassing her. It was later found that the caller was the girl’s grandaunt Saraswati. The police recorded her statement. In a video that is widely circulated on social media, Saraswati says that the girl’s family had forbidden her to speak to the girl.

On January 24, Anbil Mahesh, the School Education Minister, said that the police had ruled out any pressure on the girl to convert to Christianity as the reason for her suicide. In an interview with The Hindu , when asked if the School Education Department had ordered an inquiry into the death of the schoolgirl in Thanjavur, he said: “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.”

All of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s allies who sent representatives to look into the matter arrived at the same conclusion: that there was no religious conversion angle to the suicide. On January 31, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered the transfer of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the grounds that the State police’s investigation was not proceeding on the right lines. The State government has said that it will file a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against it.

Political reactions

K. Balakrishnan urged the people of Tamil Nadu to fight the efforts of right-wing elements to create communal tensions in the State. He said the conclusion of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court about the State police investigation was not acceptable because it was done even before the police had concluded its investigation. The court’s verdict questioning the credibility of the State Police and the government was regrettable, he said.

Balakrishnan went on to say that the court, which transferred the investigation to the CBI, did not raise any question as to why Muthuvel did not hand over the video to the police. He also wanted to know why the video was not released until the girl died. K.S. Alagiri, Pradesh Congress Committee president, accused the BJP of politicising the girl’s death. “The BJP will burn its fingers by add-ing a communal colour to the incident,” he told the media on January 25.

How Sangh Parivar works

The BJP, realising that the girl’s parents had not treated the child with respect or care, resorted to the recent Modi-era strategy of co-opting the parents into its scheme of things. The new scheme also involved multiple agencies—the BJP, other Sangh Parivar elements in Tamil Nadu, the NCPCR, and so on—saying the same thing (in this case, religious conversion), creating an atmosphere of lack of trust in the State police and building up a case for transfer of the case to a Central investigating agency.

The transfer of the case to the CBI is the BJP’s only ‘victory’ to date. Given the record of the school and the people of Michaelpatti’s refusal to be drawn into a Hindu–Christian controversy, it appears that the BJP has barked up the wrong tree.

Right-wing watchers say that this is not the case. It does not matter what happens in Michealpatti or Thanjavur. The material (doctored video, for example) has immense potential in the digital world. This would be translated into different languages and sent to gullible people across the country in order to reinforce the Modi regime’s overarching theme, “Hindu Khatre mein hein” (Hindus are in danger). A Malayalam version of this propaganda video has already been widely circulated.

Typically, the BJP’s success lies in converting a non-issue into the talk of the town and diverting the real issues affecting people’s lives.