Coimbatore school sexual abuse case shows how survivors are gaslighted into silence

Leaked screenshots of WhatsApp chats and a call recording reveal how the accused attempted to manipulate her into not reporting the sexual abuse.
Student standing in a corridor at a school
Student standing in a corridor at a school
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“The choice of your words is very hurting (sic),” he tells her when she calls his actions “abuse”. “The only place where I slipped is in your case. […] It won’t happen [again]. It was completely accidental. It was not my intention to poke you, and not your intention to poke me (sic).” These words were spoken purportedly by Mithun Chakravarthy, a teacher at the prominent Chinmaya Vidyalaya school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, to a class 12 student he had allegedly sexually assaulted. The student – a 17-year-old girl – died by suicide on November 11. Her parents and a friend alleged that apart from the sexual assault, she was also harassed by the teacher over a period of six months. 

On November 13, screenshots of WhatsApp chats alleged to be between her and “Mithun sir” and a call recording – included by the police as a part of the evidence in the case – were leaked. In the call, a man’s voice, believed to be that of Mithun, seemed to be nudging the girl to believe that what happened between them was consensual; and that she should keep mum about the same. In fact, when she says in the recording that she wants to report the incident to school authorities, he asks her why she “intends to ruin everything.”

Screenshots of WhatsApp chats, allegedly between Mithun and the victim, show a similar pattern of conversation: the girl expressing her emotional distress and discomfort with what has happened, and him saying that it is “hurtful” that she sees it as abuse. “Virginity is not just for girls but boys too,” Mithun responds in one of the screenshots. At one point, the girl even says that it is because of him feeling “hurt” that the situation has reached this point, apparently referring to the alleged cover up.

While the veracity of these chats and call recording could not be independently verified by TNM, let us get a few things right to begin with. Assuming the chats are legitimate, the accused in this case is a 31-year-old man. It is irrelevant if he believes that the alleged sexual assault was consensual, accidental, or a mere “mistake”; sexual relations with a child are a crime under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The victim was absolutely right in calling what happened “abuse”. And what the accused teacher was doing in these conversations with her was emotional blackmail and gaslighting in order to legitimise the abuse, make her feel as though she was complicit, and silence her.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation where the abuser tries to twist the narrative, makes the victim doubt and distrust their reality or version of events, and attempts to posture themselves as victims over the actual victim. In the present case, there are plenty of examples of the same in the purported call recording and chats. For instance, he attempts to dismiss and shame the victim when she asks him if he was talking like this with another student too, by telling her “don’t talk like a loosu.” He also tries to make her believe that the alleged sexual assault was a “slip up”, and not an “intentional” act. He tries to shirk off responsibility of the alleged incident by saying he is hurt by her calling it abuse, and is “facing hardships” such as losing sleep, thereby trying to position himself as a victim, when she asks him why he cannot see it from her perspective.  

Though it is true that the POCSO Act does not make room for consensual sexual relations between adolescents, the Coimbatore case cannot be written away as consensual given that the victim was 17 and the subsequent age difference between her and her alleged abuser. Hence, it is very likely that sexual grooming was involved. In child sexual abuse cases, this is a process by which an adult builds a relationship, gains a child’s trust, with the intent to sexually abuse them. The process is manipulative and often continuously escalating, where the perpetrator slowly sexualises the relationship. For instance, beginning with seemingly benign touches like brushing the child’s hair, then slowly and covertly pushing a child’s boundaries until it becomes sexual, over a period of time. Grooming is a significant part of many cases of child sexual abuse by a known perpetrator, and this manipulation and breach of trust are often why survivors find themselves ashamed and confused – they are made to believe that they were complicit in the abuse — that they “allowed” it to happen.

Often, the perpetrator also maintains control on the victim by way of threats – either direct or to their loved ones, such as saying that if they disclose the abuse, they will be seen as liars, as unlovable or dirty, or that their disclosure would result in hurt and disappointment to a loved one. The perpetrator also ensures secrecy by withholding affection, telling the victim that disclosing abuse will land them and the perpetrator in trouble. In the Coimbatore case, we see the alleged victim being guilted into not reporting the matter initially, with the accused teacher saying in the alleged communication between them that she intends to “ruin everything” and he is “hurt”. 

The Coimbatore sexual abuse case sheds light on many aspects of how sexual violence survivors are compelled into silence, especially when the perpetrator is known to the survivor. Gaslighting and victim blaming add to the stigma and trauma of the abuse itself. Worth noting is that gaslighting is also a social phenomenon, not just one that plays on psychological dynamics, as pointed out in a 2019 paper, ‘The Sociology of Gaslighting’. “Specifically, gaslighting is effective when it is rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships. When perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes, structural inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims with whom they are in an intimate relationship, gaslighting becomes not only effective, but devastating,” it states.

Patriarchal social conditioning ensures that girls and women are not encouraged to say “no”, but rather, to prioritise submissiveness on the pretext of politeness. This is common in sexual abuse cases, especially when the perpetrator holds a position of authority over the survivor – the abuser has the power to impact the survivor’s life by way of denying them opportunities, setting them back in their work, performance or career, or by using their influence to badmouth the survivor for refusing to comply to their demands. This makes it harder for victims to draw boundaries during instances of abuse of power, and call it out as such. In this case, the victim reportedly said that she tried “avoiding” the assault by avoiding eye contact with him, coming late to tuitions etc. However, she felt powerless as she did not know how to stop the teacher “without coming across as rude.” 

Further, the victim’s parents alleged that the school principal knew about the incident but covered it up. She was also made to undergo counselling, where she was allegedly told to brush off the abuse, further dismissing her trauma. In light of these, the principal was booked under the POCSO Act when Mithun was arrested on November 13.

Institutional dismissal and cover ups of sexual violence are not new – we saw plenty of examples during the 2017 and 2018 Me Too movements in India, and in other parts of the world. In another case also from Coimbatore that emerged last month, an Air Force lieutenant accused the authorities at the Air Force College she was in of intimidation and harassment to dissuade her from formally complaining about sexual assault by a colleague. She and her friend – who was a witness – recounted harrowing instances of being allegedly yelled at, being coerced into modifying their statements, among other things. The survivor also alleged a larger culture of slut shaming and moral policing at the college, which, like elsewhere in the society, crucifies the survivor for speaking up rather than holding the perpetrator accountable.

Social prejudices as well as emotional blackmail and other forms of manipulation by the abuser make it incredibly hard for survivors of sexual violence to report it, and even more so when the perpetrator is known to them. It is important to understand that in a lot of cases, sexual abuse does not necessarily result in immediate hatred for the perpetrator, but rather, in fear and conflicting emotions in the survivor towards their abuser, which further prevents them from disclosure. The situation is worsened by fear of being disbelieved – though a majority of cases of sexual abuse world over are documented to be perpetrated by persons known to the survivors, we tend to believe that most cases of sexual violence are perpetrated by strangers.

“People need to understand that sexual abuse does not always happen in a secluded spot — it could even happen at the last bench of a classroom, while a lecture is happening. Acceptance of the possibility of abuse is the first step,” Vidya Reddy of Chennai-based Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai had told TNM in the aftermath of the Chennai schools #MeToo, in June this year. When incidents such as these happen, there is often an overwhelming, but short-lived, clamour to hold people accountable – the man, the institution, the individuals involved in that particular case – without the perspective that these instances are symptoms and casualties of a much more insidious rot. It is a failure of the society, system and all of us to adequately acknowledge and address sexual violence, that a 17-year-old girl is no longer alive to tell her story in her own words.

Geetika Mantri is an editor at The News Minute and has reported extensively on gender, child sexual abuse and mental health.

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