‘He broke dreams, shattered spirits’: Madurai child sexual abuse survivor speaks out on horror

“One girl had wanted to become a police officer. She told the judge that her whole life had been spoilt."
‘He broke dreams, shattered spirits’: Madurai child sexual abuse survivor speaks out on horror
‘He broke dreams, shattered spirits’: Madurai child sexual abuse survivor speaks out on horror
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It’s been six years since a small village near Madurai woke up to the horrors that had been unfolding at its Government High School. At least 91 children – boys and girls – were suspected to have been sexually abused in a span of three years by a man, who was trusted and revered. 

Headmaster S Arockiasamy was on Tuesday sentenced by a special court in Madurai to 55 years imprisonment for sexually abusing 20 girl students – and was punished under the Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act for sexually abusing Dalit children.

And while the news brought relief to many of the students, who had found the courage to stand up to their sexual tormentor, the road to securing justice was far from easy.  

Feared going to the Headmaster’s room

For Radhika*, Class 8 was a living nightmare. At the age of 13, she lived in perpetual fear of being called to the Headmaster’s room. It was then and there that that the sexual abuse began.  “The headmaster would call me to his room asking me to clean his vessels. He would then start sexually abusing me. It went on for a month before I told one of my relatives about it,” recounts Radhika, who is now 20 years old.

It was in July 2011 that the first case was registered by a parent alleging that her daughter, who was studying in Class 7, had been sexually abused by Headmaster Arockiasamy. That first complaint brought to light the rampant sexual abuse that had been taking place at the Government High School for three years. More children, including Radhika, came forward to narrate their own horror stories of sexual abuse.

Reacting to the special court’s verdict on Tuesday, Radhika says, “We are very happy about the judgement. We have been through a lot in the last seven years.”

Reliving the trauma

Radhika recalls the trauma she and other survivors were put through when the case was first investigated by the local police. They had to relive the harrowing experience every time they narrated the sexual abuse to an officer. “In the beginning when the police began investigating the case, they would question us anywhere. Even when we went out, if they saw us they would stop us and ask us what happened. They also used to keep coming home for questioning,” she narrates, adding that her parents lived in constant fear that someone would harm them because of the case.

It was then that AIDWA came forward to help the survivors and their parents.

Ponuthai, State Secretary of AIDWA, observes that the local police lacked the sensitivity to handle such a case and did not bother following the protocols involved when it came to child sexual abuse.

“Police used to go to the house of the children and then call them to the police station. They used to question them in uniform. That is when we filed two petitions in the Madras High Court stating that a special investigation team must be formed and second, protection must be provided to these children,” she says.

They also demanded that a woman investigating officer and public prosecutor be appointed in the case.  “It becomes easier for the students to speak to them, they could freely tell them everything,” says Ponuthai.

In November 2011, the Madras High Court ordered the case be transferred to a special investigating team led by a “gender sensitive female police officer”.

“Only after Madras High Court asked the police to follow the protocol while questioning the students and a special investigating officer headed by a woman officer was formed, things started becoming better,” she points out.

Broken dreams and shattered spirit

While Radhika is now in second-year of college, she admits that many of her friends were pushed into marriage soon after the case was filed. Their parents, she says, feared that their children would be branded by society as victims of child sexual abuse for life.     

The survivor says, “Many of my friends went ahead and got married at the age of 16 and 17. Today, some of them have their own children.”

The repeated sexual abuse that many girls in their early teens underwent, broke not just their dreams and ambitions but also shattered their spirit.  

“One girl wanted to become a police officer.  She told the judge that her whole life was spoilt because of this incident and today she has two children,” says Amrithavalli, an AIDWA member.

Threats and bribes

Amrithavalli notes that when the headmaster’s crimes came to light, the village did not all come out in support of the children who were sexually abused by Arockiasamy. They were some, who chose to support Headmaster Arockiasamy, even going to the extent of pasting posters across the village claiming that he had done great things like buy stationery and clothes for children.  

Ponuthai recalls that many students were threatened by the headmaster’s supporters, who also attempted to bribe the families of the survivors.

“The headmaster always targeted students who came from very poor families, who would not be able to voice out the problems. He also threatened them that if they told someone about it, he would throw them out of the school,” says Amrithavalli.

It took five months for the police to take the headmaster into custody, recounts Nirmala Rani, a Madras High Court advocate and the counsel for the survivors.

“First the parents took to the streets and conducted a road roko demanding that the police file an FIR against the headmaster. After which, the police filed an FIR but later, parents started backing out fearing that their children will not be able to get married. We had to convince them not to go for child marriage and ask them to be part of the case,” says Nirmala Rani.

Why only 20 girls came forward as witnesses

Despite the threats, many children and their parents decided to stand up to the headmaster and report his crimes. After the first complaint was reported, a fact-finding team that included AIDWA was constituted to look into the sexual abuse at the Government High School.

“About 90 students came up and informed us that they were sexually abused by the headmaster. But later, when we asked them to give their names and other information, most of them got scared that their photos will be flashed on TV channels and they will be asked to get medical tests done. Only 30 students provided their names and other information and were ready to be witnesses in the case,” recalls Ponuthai.

When the trial began, only 20 girl students had the courage to come forward as witnesses.

Conviction without a child sexual abuse law

Nirmala, the counsel for the survivors, observes that when the case was registered in 2011, the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was yet to be passed by Parliament. This threw up a number of legal challenges, as a result.

“Because there was no POCSO Act, the students were not provided any protection from the government, AIDWA had to take care of that,” the advocate says.

She also notes that in the absence of POCSO, the prosecution had to prove that the headmaster was guilty, adding “If POCSO was there, the headmaster would have needed to prove that he was not guilty.”

Arockiasamy was charged and later convicted under IPC Section 354 (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 506 (1) (Punishment for criminal intimidation), Section 4 of Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act (Penalty for harassment of women) and Sections under the SC/ST Act.  

And although the headmaster was sentenced to 55 years in jail by the special court, Nirmala points out that sections that he was booked under were archaic, with no space for child rights.

“Section 354 of IPC, it says intent to outrage modesty of a woman, how can such a section be added to students in this case. The judges were favourable and sensitive. That is one of the reasons the headmaster was convicted,” says Nirmala.

While the court found Arockiasamy guilty of sexually abusing 20 girl students, the three teachers, who were accused of aiding and abetting the headmaster in the crime, were acquitted.

“We will be appealing to the Madras High Court against acquittal of the three teachers,” says Ponuthai.

*Name changed

Edited by Anna Isaac

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