ON January 31, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the case of “forced conversion” and the subsequent suicide of a girl student of a Christian missionary-run school near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
It is not unusual for the higher judiciary to intervene and transfer the investigation of cases from one investigating agency to another on the plea of the victims. In 2020, the Madurai Bench transferred the CB-CID (Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department) investigation into the custodial death of a father and son duo in Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district to the CBI. Before doing so, the Bench appointed the jurisdictional magistrate as its inquiry commissioner to assess the situation on the ground and, on the basis of his report, ordered the CBI to take up the investigation.
In the case of the minor girl’s suicide, Justice G.R. Swaminathan, who was hearing the petition of the girl’s father seeking a CB-CID inquiry, modified later into a plea for a CBI inquiry, decided the merits of the case primarily on the basis of a private video recording of the girl besides other materials that were placed before him. But a few observations he made in his order, especially those pertaining to “conversion” and his references to the Bible, have become the subject of a controversy, especially on social media.
In his 34-page order, in which he called the case “posthumous justice—rendering justice to a child who set the criminal law in motion and who is now no more”, Justice Swaminathan expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Thanjavur District Police had conducted the inquiry. The petitioner alleged that his daughter had committed suicide because the school management forced her to convert to Christianity.
The judge held that the “attempt of the police appears to be to derail the investigation”. He came down heavily on the Superintendent of Police (S.P.) of the district for “pre-judging” the case by ruling out the “conversion angle” and the State Minister for School Education for voicing similar views. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that it was a case of “forced conversion” and demanded a CBI inquiry, but the S.P. told the media that preliminary investigation had ruled out the conversion angle.
State Police's investigation
The judge surmised that all this indicated that the State police’s investigation was not impartial. The judge wondered whether the S.P. had forgotten the virtues of silence. “By stating that the conversion angle stood ruled out, the Superintendent of Police had brushed aside the petitioner’s complaint made in writing and backed by the video of the child. I fail to understand why the Thanjavur Superintendent of Police reacted as if she had come in contact with a live electric wire,” he wondered.
The judge said the S.P.’s statement was unwarranted as private video footage of the girl (claiming the conversion angle) had surfaced by then and was in circulation on social media. “Since the parents had alleged that there was an attempt to convert the girl, and the school was run by a congregation, such pre-conceived decisions, should not have been voiced,” he observed.
He said: “I asked the petitioner as to who recorded the video. The petitioner replied that at his instance one Muthuvel [a local Vishwas Hindu Parishad functionary] recorded the video. I wanted to know from the investigation officer if she suspected the authenticity of the video. The investigation officer fairly stated that the voice was very much that of the child. However, for investigation purposes, she needed the original mobile phone and sim card with which the video was recorded. I thereupon directed that Thiru. Muthuvel should appear before the Investigation Officer on 25.01.2022 and hand over the original mobile phone.”
The judge pointed out that the Additional Public Prosecutor (APP) had, in his arguments, called it “a mischievous act on the part of some vested interests”. The APP argued that instead of handing over the privately taken video to the police, an edited version of the recording was circulated on social media. He criticised the conduct of the petitioner and found fault with Muthuvel for not cooperating with the investigation. He claimed that the petitioner and a few communal organisations had alleged that the school management attempted to covert the child to Christianity.
The APP’s core submission was that the court would not be justified in interfering in the case during the investigation stage and that it was not within the court’s purview to micromanage the investigation or issue directions on the line of investigation to be adopted. The province of investigation, the APP pointed out, was reserved for the executive. He said the court should not violate the sacred principle of separation of powers or indulge in judicial overreach. The judge said the AAP told the court to reject the petition being devoid of merit. However, the original narrative, the judge said, was that the girl had died by suicide, unable to bear the treatment meted out to her by the hostel warden (Sister Saghayamary, since arrested). “The statements made in the private video indicated that there was an attempt at conversion. The complaint of the father was that since the girl did not convert, she was harassed. Whether there was truth in the allegation was a matter for investigation and eventually for the court to decide,” he observed.
The order said: “A counternarrative was being built as if the father and the stepmother of the child had been responsible for the suicide. Allegations were being made that Child Line received complaints that the girl was cruelly treated by the stepmother. Such deliberate leaks dented the credibility of the investigation. If the agency [State police] appears to be not able to discharge its functions fairly, then the Court can intervene to effect transfer of investigation.”
In this case, Swaminathan said, there were three dying declarations: one given to the police, one given to the Judicial Magistrate, and one privately recorded by Muthuvel. “It is well settled that there can be more than one dying declaration. The basic legal maxim is that the person who is going to meet the Maker shortly will not utter a lie. Even a conviction can be based solely on a dying declaration,” he opined.
The person who shot the video, the judge ruled, did not commit any offence as such. The subsequent sharing of the video on social media without suppressing the identity of the child victim would be seen as an offence under Section 74 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. But in this case, the video recording was done at the instance of the petitioner, the judge said.
He said: “The school in question is run by a Congregation. The Holy Bible says: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28: 19-20). In Mark 16:14-18, Jesus says; ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’”
“This is called in Christian theological terms as the Great Commission,” the judge remarked.
Quotes from movies
The judge cited a scene in Serious Men , a movie starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, which is about the life of Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit settled in Mumbai. The scene shows the principal of the school where Mani’s son is studying asking Mani if he trusts Christ. Mani says he loves Christ. The principal then says: “Christ loves you too Mr Mani. But if you and Adhi [Mani’s son] will accept him [Christ] formally, as per the school’s policy for financially backward Christians, Adhi will get a special scholarship.”
The judge also drew attention to K. Balachander’s Tamil movie Kalyana Agathigal , whose story about Ammulu, “a devout Hindu girl”, who falls in love with Robert, whose parents are ready to accept her as their daughter-in-law “if she is ready to accept Christ and becomes Emily”. Ammulu refuses to do so. The judge said: “Ammulu in a stirring dialogue proclaimed her loyalty to the religion of her birth and walked out of the relationship. It is beyond dispute that Art reflects life. While movies, particularly Tamil movies, are notorious for melodrama and exaggeration, they do contain a kernel of truth.”
Swaminathan also wanted to find out the original name of the village Michaelpatti where the school in contention was located. “Obviously, it [Michaelpatti] could not have been the original name. There is an interesting discussion [going on] as to how the various areas in Chennai acquired their respective names in V. Sriram’s Chennai . Someone can undertake a similar exercise for Michaelpatti,” he observed.
The judge felt that there was nothing improbable in the allegation that there was an attempt at conversion. “The matter called for an investigation and not outright rejection. This court has a duty to render posthumous justice to the child. Since a high-ranking Hon’ble Minister himself has taken a stand, investigation cannot continue with the State Police. I, therefore, direct the Director, Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi, to assign an officer to take over investigation from the State Police,” his order stated.
The judge said his “favourite deity is Lord Vinayaka”. “Of course, there has been a steady addition to the pantheon. The latest is Lord Mahavira. I offer flowers daily to them. The Ganesha idol, which I worship daily, has been named as Fr Pillaiyar because it was gifted to me by the learned Senior Counsel Dr Fr Xavier Arulraj, who appeared for the Congregation,” he said.
“When the learned Senior Counsel asserted that he does not believe in conversion, I knew that he was speaking from his heart. But the question is whether Sister Saghayamary and Sister Rachel Mary [of Congregation] are made of the same fibre. I hope investigation by the CBI will bring out the truth,” the judgment concluded.