16-year-old Anjana* is tied to a chair, with her hands tied behind her back. Her mouth is covered with plaster, so that the pitiful screams she utters when she is repeatedly beaten on her feet and legs with a cane.
Anjana’s father Namboothiri, a resident of Alappuzha district in Kerala, has thought so often about the beatings that Anjana told him about that he can vividly see them in his mind.
Anjana is a child with intellectual disability. With 70% Mental Retardation (MR), Anjana, once a cheerful child, now withdraws into a corner at the slightest provocation and weeps at length. Her hands and legs bear an alarming collection of cuts, scars and bruises.
For 16 years of her life, Anjana had never lived away from her parents. But when the special school she used to go to closed its doors on her when she turned 16, Anjana's parents had no other option but to send their child to a residential school some 20km away from their home.
However, alleges Namboothiri, within 10 days of being admitted to Mizpah – a school and home for children with intellectual disabilities in Kayamkulam – she began to be subjected to brutal torture by the school’s Principal, Shobha, and the hostel warden, Joseph.
"They have made my child behave like a mental patient. Now she starts crying all of a sudden and wakes up in the middle of the night, weeping to herself. She mumbles in her sleep, pleading not to be beaten up," says Namboothiri.
According to Anjana’s parents, while Principal Shobha repeatedly beat up the child during class hours, hostel warden Joseph often locked Anjana all alone in a room and beat her up at night. The repeated beatings that Anjana received at the hands of officials of the special school, Namboothiri says, have left an indelible scar on her mind.
"After taking admission to this residential facility earlier this month, we sent her there on June 5. We were made to believe that our child was safe. If only we had known about the kind of treatment she was subjected to. When we used to make calls to the hostel asking to speak to her every day, the warden would refuse to let us speak. One day, he told us that the teacher had mildly punished Anjana for trying to tear off her clothes," Namboothiri says.
Anjana has the tendency to tear off her clothes when under pressure, Namboothiri explains. However, the condition has become worse since she was admitted to the special school, the family alleges.
"We had clearly told the school officials that her tendency would increase if she is punished or put under severe stress. Let alone pressurising her, they have in fact physically tortured my child. During the nights, this warden Joseph would ask all the other children to step out of the room, lock up the room and beat up my child," Namboothiri rues.
Mizpah was started in 2003 by Pastor Saji Baby, and has over 100 children with disabilities enrolled there. Of these, 25 boys and 2 girls (between the ages of six and 45 years) stay in the school hostel.
The incident came to light when Anjana's parents went to the school on June 16 to take their child home for the weekend. On reaching home, they noticed that Anjana had bruises on her body.
"That is when she told us about the torture. We did suspect that something was wrong when the warden once refused to let us speak to her over the phone. Her mother heard Anjana's cries in the background and heard her complaining that she had been beaten up," Namboothiri says.
Action against school
An aggrieved Namboothiri approached school officials on June 17. However, he says, with both the Principal and the hostel warden absent from school then, he decided to seek legal recourse.
On the same day, he filed a complaint with the Kayamkulam police station against the Principal and the warden. The family has filed complaints with the Alappuzha SP, the Alappuzha District Collector, the State Human Rights Commission and the State Child Rights Commission.
The Kayamkulam SI told TNM that the two accused have been charged under Section 24 of the IPC and Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act.
"We have taken the statements of the girl and her parents. And after the preliminary enquiry, we understand that the girl was indeed abused. The accused Principal and warden Joseph are however, absconding," the SI says.
When TNM reached out to Shobha over the phone, she flatly denied that Anjana had been subjected to assaults of any kind.
Admitting that she had been advised by the Director of the school to "leave the place for sometime," Shobha argues:
"The allegation that we beat her up is absolutely wrong. Also, how can warden Joseph abuse her? He is the warden of the boys' wing. The boys live on the first floor and the two girls including Anjana live on the ground floor. There are three lady staff members who dedicatedly look after the girl children and even sleep in the same room as them. Then, on what basis can the parents level such allegations on this reputed school?"
Namboothiri, on the other hand, alleges that this is not the first time a student has been abused in the school.
"My child, at least, conveyed to us about the torture. What about the other kids who are not as healthy as her? They would have been silently putting up with the abuse for all these years. We met one parent recently, who had sent their child to this school in 2012. The parent told us that his child had been beaten up at the time. This is not an isolated case, but none of the parents are ready to speak up against it, mainly because children with disabilities are seen as a burden. What if the school tells them to take their child away? Where else will they send their child to? That's the fear that is stopping other parents from speaking up," Namboothiri says.
Sandhya Raju, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network, said that the full extent of the abuse suffered by Anjana may not yet have been revealed since the child has not yet been given counselling. She said that the risk of a child also being sexually abused in such scenarios is higher.
"I spoke to the parent and he says that this male warden used to lock the child up in a room and beat her up. This could have been a prelude to sexual abuse too, we never know. This is alarming and needs to be addressed," said Sandhya.
Sandhya said that a petition has already been filed in the Kerala High Court by the advocacy group Together We Can, asking for strict regulations governing the functioning of centres for disabled children, including those in the private sector. Anjana’s case would also be appended to this campaign, she said.
*TNM has withheld the real identity of the minor girl.