A collection of essays by former Judge at the Madras High Court, this book is a phenomenal testament to the individual and collective grit and resolve against the patriarchal-brahminical social orders. We meet women in this book who fight legal battles for themselves and the future. The legal battles recounted here reinforce the possibility of justice earned by those who rise from the margins and challenge the status quo.
The women we meet in this collection are brave, as writer Githa Hariharan notes in her introduction, “because the process of going to court is hard; even harder when the woman is without financial or emotional support from family, custom, or the present reading of the law.” Bravely, these women bring their grievances to the courts for remedy in a wide range of matters, from family or community disputes to sexual or marital violence, with a firm belief that justice and equality is their fundamental right, paving the way ahead.
Here is an extract from the book. A story from the Pothumbu village which came together to protest the sexual harassment of schoolgirls by the headmaster of the government high school, ensuring a thorough inquiry, as well as a High Court judgment that addressed caste, and also the treatment of survivors.
When the first prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was asked which of his government’s achievements he considered the foremost, he replied that it was women’s education. He was one of the national leaders who believed that India would progress only if women were educated. We now see many women in educational institutions, and in fact the women perform much better than men.
Given these facts, it shocked everyone when, in 2011, the villagers of Pothumbu near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, said that they would not send their girl children to school anymore. The reason was even more shocking. It was because of the bestial conduct of the headmaster of the Pothumbu Government High School. Over his three years at the school, he had sexually abused more than a hundred girls in his care. When the little girls began to share their horror stories with parents, the entire village shuddered. They staged a protest.
On receiving the information, Ms. Brinda Karat, the president of All-India Democratic Women’s Association, conducted a direct enquiry and found that the complaints were true. Ponnuthai, the district secretary of AIDWA in the Madurai Rural District, and the parents of the affected students lodged a complaint in the police station, but to no effect. A relative of the headmaster was a teacher at the same school. Other relatives were teachers in nearby schools. They threatened the complainants and verbally abused the affected students. A fact-finding committee headed by U. Nirmala Rani, a Madurai-based advocate, went to the village next. Some of the students had completed their school education by then. Some had even got married. And some were afraid that if they gave evidence, they might face problems. The fact-finding committee tried its best and conducted an inquiry among the students, parents and teachers. It was this committee’s report that first brought to light the full extent of the horrors committed by the headmaster. It listed the sexual harassment and violence inflicted by him. He would ask sick students to come to his room and, telling them he was going to pray for their recovery, he would touch their breasts as if marking them with the sign of the cross. He would call students in private and hug them. Under the excuse of looking for something he would insert his hand under their clothes. He also forced some of the children to hold his penis. He would ask the younger girls to sit on his lap, and do unspeakable things to them. Getting students to sweep the floor, he took pictures of them bent over. It is sickening to list these horrible acts.
Veerasamy, father of one of the affected girls, filed a case with the Madurai bench of Madras High Court. He requested that a special investigating team be constituted to investigate this history of sexual abuse and award compensation to his daughter. AIDWA impleaded itself in this petition. As a first step the court directed the involvement of the Child Welfare Committee, under the Protection of Child Rights Act, and directed this committee to file a report. The Child Welfare Committee’s report corroborated the charges filed by the fact-finding committee headed by U. Nirmala Rani. The High court was not happy when it examined the records submitted by the police department in respect of the inquiry conducted by them.
It ordered the Madurai district police superintendent to appear in person. Accordingly, Mr. Asra Garg, the superintendent of police, appeared in court. In the meantime, the education department temporarily suspended the headmaster. The police arrested him. Since nobody opposed the grant of bail strongly, he was let out. A relative and a friend who had assisted him were transferred to far-off schools.
The High Court found that a number of the abused children belonged to the SC (Scheduled Castes) community. It ordered that the matter be registered under the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Further, that a woman officer of the rank of assistant superintendent should be appointed, that the government appoint a woman special public prosecutor, and an inquiry be conducted under the direct supervision of the district police superintendent. The court stated:
In this case, admittedly, [a] number of school children [who] belonged to SC community were sexually exploited by the headmaster of the school. Admittedly, the complaints of the children and their parents, if proved, would attract Section 3(1)(xi) and (xii) of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Therefore, in such circumstances, the investigation can be done by an officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police. . . . In this case, it should be done by a woman police officer who is not below the rank of the Deputy Superintendent of Police.
The High Court ordered that protection be given to the affected girls and care taken that they should not feel threatened when their statements were recorded. The court directed that the girls be given counselling and, whether they were SC or non-SC, the district collector should offer them a compensation of Rs. 1,20,000 each, without waiting for the end of the trial. As soon as the case is registered, the special court should take into account the nature of the case and conclude it expeditiously. The recording of evidence with the girls must be done with sensitivity, the accused teachers must be transferred to far-off schools and on no account should they return to the Pothumbu school.
The court recorded the widespread child sexual abuse and that steps should be taken to remove it. It also stated that:
[T]he District Collector, Madurai is hereby directed to identify the number of girls from out of the three reports, i.e. fact finding team report headed by Ms. U. Nirmal [sic] Rani, . . . report given by the Child Welfare Committee . . . and statements given by the children and their parents to the then Investigating Officer and prepare the [initial] report of those names.
Even after the judgment the inquiry continued; the twenty four students who complained were given Rs. 28,80,000 as compensation in the first stage. Yet, many students feared the stigma that would be attached to them if they were identified, and did not come forward to make a complaint. The court ordered:
There may be other children who have not come forward to make a complaint. In such a case, if any complaint is made directly to the District Collector, even those complaints can be entertained by him to award compensation after finding the veracity of the complaints and if there is any prima facie case, not only should the District Collector grant compensation, but also refer those complaints for further investigation by the Investigating Officer.
The High Court directed that if students came forward to complain even at a later date, they should be given compensation after verification. The government paid a total of Rs. 66 lakhs as compensation. Since the judgment, the Pothumbu Government High School has returned to normalcy. The girls now go there to study. Nehru’s dream must come true.
- Veerasamy vs. State of Tamil Nadu, 2012 (3) CTC 641