In a shocking case of alleged intimidation and misuse of power, three minor survivors of sexual abuse have accused the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) of the Sivaganga Mahila Court of colluding with their abuser and forcing them to turn hostile in court. The girls were amongst six students from a Panchayat Union Primary School in the district, who alleged that their headmaster, Murugan, had sexually abused them in 2015.
The SPP Indira Gandhi allegedly instructed the girls who were aged 10 when the case came to court in 2016 that they must deny any abuse by the headmaster in court and instructed them to make false statements in court. What’s more shocking is that the girls have alleged that a female government lawyer made them meet Murugan in court, and allowed him to coerce them. One of the girls has named SPP Indira Gandhi in her complaint and said, “Indira Gandhi lawyer only forced me to say what I said in front of court about Murugan teacher. I realised this only after I became a big girl.”
Though all six victims turned hostile while deposing to the court in 2016, the case came to light when Superintendent of Police (SP) Rohith Nathan took charge of Sivaganga district in 2019.
"We were reviewing cases pending in court last year based on the SP's instructions and found that this case was heading towards an acquittal despite all the evidence being in our favor," a senior police official in the district tells TNM. "When we contacted the families of the survivors they confessed that they were being threatened by both the headmaster and the Special Public Prosecutor," he alleges.
The police were initially hesitant to file a complaint against the SPP as it would involve making the survivors recall their trauma. Instead, the SP wrote to the District Collector on November 22, 2019. He requested that the SPP be replaced by Sivasankaran, Deputy Director of Prosecution, Sivagana, in the interest of justice and successful prosecution of the case.
"In this case there are six innocent girls who are victims and their ages are between 9 and 10 years...I further submit that the Special Public Prosecutor who is conducting this case is not satisfied with us and if she continued the prosecution in this case, the accused will definitely escape from the clutches of the law. The offence alleged against the accused is not only against the children but also against the society at large and the crime is heinous in nature," the SP has argued in his letter.
The Collector, J Jayakanthan in turn, submitted the police's concerns to the Additional Chief Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government, seeking action.
"But the SPP colluded with the accused and tried to get a stay on the case. She was using legal technicalities to ensure that we couldn't remove her," alleges the senior police official. "With no option left, we recorded the complaint given by the survivors," he adds.
While six girls had initially come forward with complaints of coercion, only three were willing to formally register their allegations against the SPP. They had initially reported the alleged intimidation in November 2019 but an FIR was finally filed in the matter on February 8, 2020. Based on the complaint of the three survivors, an FIR was filed naming Murugan as an known accused in the case. Police told TNM that they will consider naming the SPP in the FIR after further investigation.
Amongst the complainants was Lakshmi*, whose family was the first to report to the police about the alleged sexual abuse by the headmaster. While she had alleged rape by Murugan in the school bathroom, the other five girls had accused him of varying forms of sexual abuse.
In her complaint, the survivor says, "Police told us that we have to appear in court to give our statement on April 25, 2016. Knowing this, headmaster Murugan and his wife came to our house. They said if we testify, he will lose his job and that the whole family will have to kill themselves. They fell at our legs and cried. Murugan also said that he will help our family monetarily."
Lakshmi and her grandmother, who is her guardian, however still went to court to expose the headmaster.
"When we went to court, Murugan sir took me and my grandmother to a female government advocate. There, she told me that if they ask what happened in the school bathroom, I should say nothing happened and Murugan sir did not do anything. I got scared after she threatened me and said nothing happened in court," she reveals.
The second survivor, Sita*, told the police that when she went to court in 2016, the advocate introduced herself as a Public Prosecutor.
"She said she was representing us in the case. Murugan sir (the headmaster) was also with her. She said I have to repeat whatever she says. She threatened me to say what she was saying. I got scared and didn't talk," she says in her complaint letter.
And finally the third survivor, Varsha*, in her complaint states, "I wanted to talk about the abuse in court. Murugan master took me to the room of the female government advocate. He apologised to me and said that he made a mistake unknowingly. The advocate madam threatened me to repeat whatever she told me. I got scared and never said what I came to say. Murugan also called my mother and troubled her."
Based on these complaints, the police have now launched an investigation into the case.
"The Public Prosecutor has been acting as a liaison agent between the accused and the survivors. We suspect that she has been taking money from the accused to carry out this role and that she has sabotaged several cases in the mahila court this way," alleges the senior police official. "The girls in this case are from very impoverished families and two of them are Dalits. When the headmaster and even the Public Prosecutor constantly badgered and threatened them, they feared that they will not get justice. They were forced to turn hostile," he further alleges.
When TNM contacted SPP Indira Gandhi however, she denied the allegations and claimed she doesn't recall even meeting Murugan.
"I don't know why these girls turned hostile. It is their choice. They are small children, we don't know what goes on in their minds," she says. "I never instructed her to say anything, the police are with them all the time," she adds.
The trauma they faced
According to police investigation, the sexual abuse of the six students had been underway for months, before it came to light in July 2015. The students, who were from poor households, were studying in the panchayat school while they stayed at a private hostel for underprivileged children in the district.
In July, one of the survivors, a Dalit, went home to stay with her grandmother after she contracted chicken pox. When she constantly cried because of pain in her private parts when she urinated, her grandmother sat her down to ask what happened. It was then that the 9-year-old Lakshmi*, who was in class 4, shared her trauma.
According to her statement to the police, she was asked by Murugan to clean a toilet in the school in April 2015 and another classmate of hers named Varsha* was instructed to clear some plants near the school compound.
Murugan then allegedly followed her into the bathroom, disrobed the minor and proceeded to sexually assaulted her. When Lakshmi screamed, she alleges that the headmaster cupped her mouth with his hands. He was forced to stop when stones were flung at him from outside the bathroom.
"The headmaster asked Varsha, who was outside, about the stones. He then pinched her thigh and threatened her till she admitted that she and two other classmates - Nandhini* and Hasini* had flung the stones. He then hit her on the head and told them to go back to class. He threatened them saying that if they told anyone he would stop their education," said Lakshmi in her complaint.
Afraid of repercussions and of her education being discontinued, Lakshmi did not inform any adults about the abuse immediately.
"However, when I went to use the bathroom I experienced pain and kept crying. That is when Varsha, Nandhini, Hasini, Shruthi and Sita asked me why I was crying," she reveals.
When Lakshmi explained her situation, the other girls then allegedly told her that they too had been sexually abused by the headmaster. The girls alleged that the headmaster had lifted their skirts and rubbed their thighs and genitals as well.
On hearing Lakshmi's account, her grandmother immediately approached the police in Sivaganga to file a complaint. The police conducted enquiries with the other survivors as well and Murugan was booked under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offence Act (POCSO).
"The accused Murugan knew that these girls were poor, that the families were struggling to educate them and he used this to his advantage," says the senior police official. "If he is acquitted it will set a dangerous precedent and also put more minors at risk of abuse."
*Names of all survivors changed to protect identity