The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court has pulled up the Tamil Nadu state police for ‘jumping to conclusions’ along with politicians on the suicide of 17-year-old Lavanya in Thanjavur. The court ordered the transfer of the case to CBI on Monday, January 31. A bench of Justice GR Swaminathan passed the orders after hearing the plea of Lavanya’s father seeking a CB-CID inquiry into his daughter’s death.
Lavanya’s death on January 19 stirred a controversy in the state, after a video of the dying girl went viral. The initial FIR in the case said that Lavanya attempted suicide owing to physical abuse and exploitative work forced out of her by her hostel warden Sagaya Mary. In the video meanwhile, Lavanya said that one of the nuns at the school, Raquel Mary, had asked her to convert to Christianity two years back, in the presence of her parents. When the person shooting the video asked if her refusal to convert was why she was abused, Lavanya said in the video that that could be the case.
Since then, the BJP in Tamil Nadu has been running a campaign against forced conversion. The police meanwhile have claimed Lavanya made a call to the childline sometime back alleging mistreatment by her stepmother; they have also said that there were three videos of Lavanya shot at the same time, and one of her stepmother. The other videos do not mention conversion, they said.
While passing the orders, the judge observed that ‘the attempt of the police appears to be to derail the investigation’, stating that the girl did not put forth any allegation regarding her step mother, neither in the police statement nor in her dying declaration. She was seen speaking only about the warden.
He observed that while the statements of the girl point towards the unfair treatment of the hostel warden Sagaya Mary, there was also an attempt at conversion to Christianity and that ‘a counter narrative is being built as if the father and the step mother of the child are responsible for the suicide.’ The information circulating on social media regarding her calls to childline, ‘dent the credibility of the investigation’ he said.
The order also heavily criticised Thanjavur SP Ravali Priya for holding a press conference, stating that the SP ‘probably forgot the virtues of silence’. He further added that she had stated that the conversion angle was not made out, adding that such a statement was unwarranted. He also added that ‘by stating that the conversion angle stood ruled out, the SP had brushed aside the petitioner's complaint made in writing and backed by the video of the child’. He asserted that the petitioner was justified in thinking that the investigation will be biased if it is continued by the district police.
He also questioned why the SP chose ‘to react as if she (Lavanya) had come in contact with a live electric wire.'
“After all an allegation has been made that there was an attempt to convert," the judge said and made a few references, including to the Bible, literary reviews, Hindi film Serious Men and Tamil film Kalyana Agathigal, on portrayals related to ‘conversions to Christianity’ and said that “while movies, particularly, Tamil movies are notorious for melodrama and exaggeration, they do contain a kernel of truth."
He also suggested that someone could undertake an exercise into how the area ‘Michaelpatti’ acquired its name, citing V Sriram’s book Chennai.
“The place where the school is situated is known as Michaelpatti. Obviously it could not have been the original name. There is an interesting discussion 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 also."
The judge said that nothing was ‘inherently improbable in the allegation that there was an attempt at conversion’. The matter should be investigated and not outrightly rejected, he said and pulled up the SP for choosing to ‘proclaim’ that "the conversion angle was ruled out, instead of directing the jurisdictional police to conduct investigation."
The judge also questioned the SP for wanting ‘to silence any discussion regarding the conversion angle’. The judge further noted that ‘the person who shot the video did not commit any offence as such, but it was only the subsequent sharing on the social media without suppressing the identity of the child victim which attracts the offence under Section 74 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015’.
Saying that the video is authentic as the shooting was done at the instance of the petitioner (the father of the child), the judge stated, “with her experience, the SP obviously knew that the video was authentic. The video footage circulated in the social media was truncated. The earlier and the later portions had been omitted. But that will not make the video any less authentic. The SP virtually threatened the person who shot the video. Instead, she should have goaded the investigation to take the religious angle into account."
Stating that the IT wing of the ruling party in Tamil Nadu had ‘released portions of the private video that appear to exonerate the school authorities’, after Muthuvel’s phone was handed over to the investigation officer, he said that it raises considerable doubts about the credibility and impartiality of the investigation made by the state police.
The judge also drew an analogy between ‘sexual harassment at workplaces’ and the current scenario, as pointed by the petitioner’s counsel. “The victim employee who rebuffs the sexual advances of her superior will find that she is burdened with extra and difficult work. The work ambience will be made unbearable. The offender will not be sexually harassing the victim every day. This is the standard modus operandi. The petitioner's counsel wants me to draw a similar analogy. The correspondent wanted the child to convert to Christianity. The offer was made to the parents. The parents rejected the proposal. As a consequence, through the warden, hostel life was made unbearable and suffocating for the child,” he said.
Pointing out the interview given by ministers to the media, including School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi, the judge stated, “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”.
If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584
Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222
Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.
State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200
SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 and 7 pm)
Aasara offers support to inidviduals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726
Click here for working helplines across India.