The Madras High Court has directed transfer of investigation in the Thanjavur minor’s suicide case from the State police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) while casting aspertion over the manner in which the police were proceeding. The court’s order came in response to a petition filed by the father of the deceased girl who stated that he had lost confidence in the state police’s investigation after the school was exonerated by the state’s Education Department of allegations of attempted forcible conversion and the Superintendent of Police (SP) ruled out angle of conversion in the initial phase of the investigation.
In a detailed order, the single bench of Justice GR Swaminathan looked at the facts and circumstances that led to the suicide and the developments thereafter and deemed that the investigation must be transferred to the CBI. However, while having reached this finding, the court made several observations that suggest the court’s alleged prejudice with respect to the religious conversion angle in the case.
The court has made some unwarranted and problematic observations in the order which reflect the court’s alleged prejudices, and even though the court has asked the CBI to not take the court’s observations into account, it has definitely steered public perception towards the case.
The court’s observations range from making comments about the name of the village being “Michealpatti” to make it seems that conversion angle is probable, to quoting from popular culture references to show how characters in movies defied attempts at religious conversion, to casting aspersions on the SP that she wanted to divert attention from the conversion angle in the case.
In this background it is pertinent to note that the case has caused a major political row with the involvement of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader who recorded the statement of the minor girl. On January 28, a petition was submitted to Thanjavur district collector by residents of Michaelpatti village stating that “unidentified persons are coming to their village and trying to create communal disharmony.” According to reports, the villagers told officials that they “are being asked to speak against the school where the class 12 student was studying.” They added that their own children have studied in the school and there is no question of forced conversions.
The deceased was a Class 12 student of a school in Michealpatti and was living in the hostel. On January 9, she consumed pesticide and started vomiting and when was taken home, she had not informed anyone that she had consumed pesticide and she was given treatment for stomach pain. When she was taken to the hospital, the doctor found out the actual cause and informed the police station and then a trainee Senior Inspector recorded her statement and offences under sections 305 and 511 of IPC and Sections 75 and 82(1) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 were registered. Her statement was also recorded by Judicial Magistrate No.I, Thanjavur. A few hours later, she passed away.
On the next day, a video of the child alleging that the correspondent of the school spoke to her parents about conversion to Christianity was circulated in the social media. The petitioner, the father of the girl, also submitted a complaint by enclosing the said video to the Superintendent of Police, Thanjavur District. The SP then held a press conference stating that the preliminary investigation conducted by the police ruled out the conversion angle hence, the petitioner filed this petition under Section 482 of Cr.P.C. seeking transfer of investigation.
This court directed that the statements of the parents be recorded under section 164 of CrPC and after receiving the same in a sealed cover, the same was handed over to the IO. The original phone on which the video of the deceased girl was recorded was directed to be handed over to the IO.
On January 28, the petitioner submitted before the court that he had completely lost faith in the State Police since a high ranking Minister had given a public interview absolving the school authorities of the charge of conversion as also, the Education Department had conducted a departmental enquiry and gave clean chit to the school administration. This plea was opposed by the state police stating that the investigation was proceeding on the right lines.
The petitioner also alleged that the girl’s dying declaration was leaked by the police to the media to build a counter narrative, since she had not mentioned about conversion therein.
Submissions of the Police
The Additional Public Prosecutor submitted on behalf of the police that instead of handing over the video of the girl to the police, an edited version was circulated, thus generating controversy. It was also submitted that the petitioner, allegedly under the influence of certain communal organisations, did not cooperate for inquest and postmortem. Since certain communal organisations had taken over the stage, the District Superintendent of Police thought it fit to hold a press conference to dispel the misgivings. The Prosecutor just stated that all directions of the court were duly followed and all investigation was going as per procedure.
The court observed that the prosecutor faulted the conduct of the petitioner and Mr. Muthuvel who had recorded the video for not cooperating with the investigation. The court held that it would be unfair to prejudge the issue.
About the facts and circumstances of the case, the court noted that the petitioner and a few communal organisations have made an allegation that the school management attempted to convert the child to Christianity and since the move was rebuffed, the child was harassed by the hostel warden in a variety of ways as a result of which the child took the extreme step. The court also noted that the classmates who were examined stated that there was no pressure or even suggestion to them to convert to Christianity and the local residents concurred with the same. The classmates stated that the girl was staying in the hostel to escape the tortures of her step mother and had even refused to go home in holidays.
Intervention by School
The School also intervened and submitted that the child was being mistreated by her step mother and that the child helpline had received complaints and the officials had also conducted enquiry in this regard. The counsel for the school submitted that the domestic situation of the child must have been so depressing that she was pushed to committing suicide. He further submitted that the so-called dying declaration was engineered by the stepmother to implicate Sister Saghayamary who was not only taking care of the child but was also paying her school and hostel fees. Further, Muthuvel who had recorded the video is a hate monger who has cases against him for spreading communal trouble.
The court noted that in the police statement as well as in the statement before the judicial magistrate, the child had directly and in unambiguous terms accused that the hostel warden had burdened her by assigning her nonacademic chores and, unable to bear the same, she consumed the pesticide. Which is why the warden was arrested.
The court commented on the comments of the SP in the press conferences and said,
“The Superintendent of Police probably forgot the virtues of silence. To a question from a news reporter, she asserted that in the preliminary enquiry, the conversion angle was not made out. Such a statement was unwarranted because by then the private video was already in circulation and the parents of the child have given a complaint alleging that there was an attempt to convert the child to Christianity. By stating that the conversion angle stood ruled out, the Superintendent of Police had brushed aside the petitioner’s complaint made in writing and backed by the video of the child. Therefore, the petitioner was justified in entertaining an impression that if the investigation continued by the District Police, it will be biased.”
Problematic references in the order
Steering away from the facts and points of law in the case, where the court was only required to decide whether the petition made a case for transfer of investigation from the State police to CBI, the court made a few references in the order which were not only unwarranted but gave the impression that the court had taken into account one side of the submissions and made up its mind.
The court quoted from the Bible as follows:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
The court then went on to quote from a movie “Serious Men” where the Principal of the school urges a parent to accept Christianity in order to get the school’s scholarship. Then the court also made a reference to a Tamil movie “Kalyana Agathigal” where a Hindu girl is asked to convert to Christianity if she wishes to marry her Christian lover.
The Court even questioned these references made by it, “One may wonder if in a judgment of a constitutional court, there should be references to popular culture. I will not stop with a rhetorical – Why Not?” The court also stated that art reflects life.
On points of law
The court then cited the Supreme Court’s judgement in Rev. Stainislaus V. State of Madhya Pradesh and Ors. (1977) 1 SCC 677 whereby the court held that the expression “propagate” used in Article 25(1) would not encompass the right to convert and there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s own religion.
“If one reads the views expressed by some of the Christian members of the Constituent Assembly, one would note that some of them had even batted for the right to convert even minor children,” this court pointed out.
Reference to the village name
The court seemed to have drawn aspersions to the name of the village as well and made an observation that “Michealpatti could not have been the original name”! The court even went out on a limb to reach a conjecture that “there is nothing inherently improbable in the allegation that there was an attempt at conversion.” The court tried to save this comment by saying, “It could be true or false.” The court further said, “The matter called for investigation and not outright rejection. But the District Superintendent instead directing the jurisdictional police to conduct investigation chose to proclaim that the preliminary investigation has ruled out the conversion angle…Instead of ordering the investigation officer to take the additional materials to account, the S.P directed the local police to register an FIR against the person who had taken the video.”
The court noted that while the invoking of section 74 of Juvenile Justice Act was warranted, the other offences under sections 153, 504, 505(1)(b) and 505(2) of IPC was indicative that the SP “wanted to silence any discussion regarding the conversion angle.” It further said, “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 S.P virtually threatened the person who shot the video. Instead, she should have goaded the investigation to take the religious angle into account.”
Doubting credibility of the State Police
The court noted that the I.T wing of the ruling party released portions of the private video that appear to exonerate the school authorities thus casting doubts on the credibility and impartiality of the investigation made by the state police. Whether there is truth in the allegation is a matter for investigation and eventually for the Court to decide. But a counter narrative is being built as if the father and the step mother of the child are responsible for the suicide. In the social media, an allegation has been made that the CHILDLINE received complaints some two years ago that the child in question was being cruelly treated by the step mother. Such deliberate leaks dent the credibility of the investigation.
The court noted that the girl in her video statement as well as in her dying declaration made no mention of any harassment by her step mother. “The attempt of the police appears to be to derail the investigation…. It is too early in the day for the police or the politicians to jump to conclusions. But they have done so. That is why, the petitioner is apprehensive that if the investigation continues to remain in the hands of the State police, he will not get justice. His apprehension is justified,” the court observed.
The court agreed with the petitioner’s contention that the police sent summons to the girl’s maternal grandparents and instead of finding out the truth of the allegations made by the deceased victim, have been trying to bolster the counter narrative.
Order of transfer of investigation
The court said thus,
“This Court has a duty to render posthumous justice to the child. The foregoing circumstances cumulatively taken will definitely create an impression that the investigation is not proceeding on the right lines. Since a high ranking Hon’ble Minister himself has taken a stand, investigation cannot continue with the State Police.”
The court ordered thus,
“I therefore direct the Director, Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi to assign an officer to take over investigation from the State Police. The criminal original petition is allowed on these terms… CBI will undertake an independent investigation and shall not take into account any of the observations made in this order. Since contentions were advanced on either side, this Court had to deal with them. Nothing set out in this order shall be construed as opinion on the merits of the matter. They have been made only for the purpose of disposing of this transfer petition.”
The complete order may be read here: