A Landmark Judgment on Child Abuse – B Ranjini

A landmark judgment was issued by Justice K Chandru of the Madras High Court (Madurai Bench) on 7th March, 2012 granting relief to the girl children studying in standards from 5th to 10th in a Government High School at Pothumbu, a village near Madurai who were victims of sexual abuse in school. The judgment came as an outcome of relentless movement by the All India Democratic Women’s organisation(AIDWA)

Judgment – the finesse

The judgment starts with the prologue, “Child Sexual Abuse happens, because the system of silence around the act, perpetuates it”…… “Child Sexual Abuse represses children; the repression of children is unlikely to creating a flourishing society, economically, emotionally, equally or spiritually.” [‘Bitter Chocolate’ – child Abuse in India by Pinky Virani – Penguin Books – 2000]

It also foregrounds the Indian scenario on the subject, a part of which reads thus: “In order to examine the incidence of sexual abuse among child respondents, the questionnaire was administered to 12,247 children belonging to the five different categories including children in family environment, children in schools, children in institutions, children at work and the street children. The study looked into four severe forms of and five other forms of sexual abuse. Out of the total child respondents, 53.22 % reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse and other forms.”

The reports of the Fact finding committee formed at the initiative of the AIDWA and that of the Children Welfare Committee came out with a lot of facts. These reports laid bare the cruelties perpetrated on the children. Going by the report, one could well imagine the mental torture experienced by these girls; in some instances, it is even beyond one’s imagination as to how these girls could have faced such a trauma at this tender age. They arouse the righteous anger against the scoundrel who should be awarded the maximum punishment under law.

The directions

The judgment contains the following directions to the authorities concerned: n The children belonging to SC/ST communities who suffer sexual abuse are entitled to a compensation of Rs.1.2 lakh. The judgment extended this grant to those girls not belonging to these communities. It directed the District Collector to implement this within 8 weeks. This grant covered all those children whose names were given by the fact finding committee; it also directed to find out further names of girls who did not opt to give a complaint in the first instance for whatever reasons, but gave it after the judgment was delivered, and include their names for the grant.

All the teachers who were transferred should not be brought back to the school.

The accused Headmaster Arogiasamy should be suspended from service till the final outcome of the case.

Till such time charge-sheet was filed, the police should not allow Arogiasamy to enter Pothumbu village.

A woman Deputy Superintendent of Police should be assigned with the task of enquiring into the facts, and she should submit her report within two months; the Superintendent of Police should review the progress every 15 days.

The SP should recommend to the government to appoint a special prosecutor for conducting this case.

As directed by the Supreme Court, the judgment said the children should not be subject to further agony and embarrassment in the ensuing process.

The honourable judge paid encomium to the lawyer U. Nirmala Rani, and the Madurai Rural Superintendent of Police Asra Karg who helped in conducting the case effectively.

A person who had been closely watching the proceedings in the Court shared that the Justice told the SP, “You would agree that my children and yours who go to schools must be safe. The police department should handle the case with this spirit.”

What really happened?

Pothumbu is a small village situated in the outskirts of Madurai city in Tamilnadu. This small village made much of news that was shocking to comprehend. The Head master of the Govt. High school at Pothumbu, M.Arogiasamy (54) was alleged to have sexually abused several girls studying in standards from fifth to tenth for several months. Almost all the students are from poor families – mostly Dalit – engaged in agriculture. Most of the victims were not even able to explain as to what had happened to them. All these did not come to light until some of the parents noticed some abnormalities in the behaviour of their children, who refused to go to school. When the concerned parents started sharing this with their neighbours, the ugly things started leaking out, but still in trickles. When the parents realized the gravity of the matter, they approached the AIDWA for help. A formal complaint was given by one of the parents against the Head Master in July 2011.

The unkind bureaucracy

The legal proceedings were not all that easy. Several doors had to be knocked; Protest demonstrations had to be staged. All these were to make the police dept do the simple act of filing an FIR. It was only when Com.Brinda Karat , PB member of the CPI (M) and former Rajya Sabha MP visited Pothumbu village and staged a protest action demanding immediate action against the accused, the FIR was filed. Hemmed in by all sides, the Head master who had been at large till the other day, had to surrender. AIDWA joined the legal process by filing a public interest litigation. Adv. U.Nirmala Rani, argued on behalf of AIDWA before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High court. To meet the expenses of the case, AIDWA approached the LIC women sub-committee of Madurai city. Collecting funds from the LIC employees, mainly women employees who overwhelmingly contributed, Madurai City unit of the AIIEA donated Rs.25000- all in a day’s time.

The traditional lethargy of the Education and the Police department were very much manifested throughout the legal proceedings. In fact, they exhibited the self-same attitude in other similar situations in Virudhunagar, Vilupuram, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts; they were more in favour of the accused. Strangely, the Education department – without any compunction – came out with an order of promotion to the accused headmaster Arogiasamy, even as the case was proceeding. The AIDWA had to intervene to stop it through the Court. The court while ordering against the promotion said that this man should not be posted to any place, where there would be girl children, even after the suspension.

Role of the AIDWA

The role of AIDWA is commendable, with the continuous interaction with the parents of the victims, the demonstrations and public meetings which attracted the attention of the public and the media. There were attempts by the district administration of a psychological warfare on the parents of the victims; there were veiled suggestions that the future of the children would be at stake and their marriage might pose a problem, if their names were included in the list of victims.

A landmark judgment indeed

It was a happy coincidence that this judgment was delivered on 7th March, 2012 – on the eve of International Women’s Day.

The judgment is really a landmark, in the sense that it would be an effective case law for providing relief to the vast number of girl children who suffer many such ignominies and assaults in silence elsewhere in the country.

The judgment – going beyond the instant case – laments over the inordinate delay in forming the State Child Protection Commission in Tamilnadu, despite the National Child Protection Commission having been launched way back in 2005; had it been launched, it could have directly and more effectively intervened in this case.

The judgment graphically deals with the modus operandi in dealing with the minor children in line with the guidelines of the Supreme Court. It defines the basis on which cash relief is to be calculated. It quotes the directives of the Supreme Court with regard to the necessity of appointing a special prosecutor in such cases.

Despite the judgment…

It is more than 2 months since the judgment was handed out. The ‘Report 161’ has been sent by the Police department after identifying the victims of abuse. But the District administration is sitting tight over the report – with the least concern for remedial action.

There are also reports that some from the Revenue department came to the village and made attempts to intimidate the families of the victims. However, the intimidators could not succeed, as the families stood firm, backed by the AIDWA and the CPI (M) in the region.

Madurai Urban and Rural district committees of AIDWA had to organize mass memoranda to the district collector. But nothing has moved so far.

The simple truth that stands out in sharp relief is that it is not enough you get a favourable judicial verdict; unless backed up by mass actions, nothing moves. Yes, it is yet another instance that highlights the importance of mass struggle.

B.Ranjani is the Joint convenor, WW Sub-committee, AIIEA, Madurai

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