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Saturday, May 21, 2022

TN: Pressurised to convert, school girl takes her own life; Police threaten to book those who shared her dying declaration

Unable to bear the pressure to embrace Christianity, a 17 year old girl has committed suicide in Tamil Nadu. The girl is said to have lost her mother and was enrolled in a government-aided Christian school with boarding facility when she was 13 years old. The girl had refused to convert to Christianity as a result of which she was reportedly made to clean toilets and hostel rooms. The warden has been arrested but police have denied any conversion angle in the incident and threatened to book those who share her dying declaration.

The video of Lavanya, a 17 year old girl, revealing her ordeal while on her deathbed has gone viral in social media. The poor girl can be heard saying that “sisters of the school” especially one “Racheline Mary” asked her parents to convert her to Christianity 2 years ago. They promised to sponsor her education if done so. But as neither the parents nor the child agreed to their “deal” Lavanya was made to stay in the hostel even during holidays, forced to clean rooms, toilets and cook.

Unable to bear the harassment, the girl consumed pesticide and was admitted to hospital on January 15. Before that, the girl had been vomiting and was taken to a local hospital by the school staff. She hadn’t told anyone about consuming pesticide then. Only when she was admitted to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital did she reveal to the doctors that she had consumed the poisonous substance. She also told them that she was made to clean toilets and distressed by which she took the extreme measure.

She didn’t respond to the treatment and is said to have declared in her deathbed about the “sisters” attempt to convert her and the punishment given to her when she refused to comply. As her confession went viral in social media Hindu organisations and BJP came to her support and staged protests demanding action against the concerned persons and the school. 

TNBJP chief K.Annamalai, an ex-IPS officer, had tweeted that religious conversion is a toxic creeper that hurts the poor and is spreading at a fast pace in TN. Demanding justice for the victim, he called for the state government to strictly enforce anti-forced conversion laws. But sadly the victim’s parents and the protestors were arrested by the police.

What is more, the Superintendent of Police, Thanjavur had informed the media through a press meet that “no forced conversion angle could be found in the primary investigation” and that “those who revealed the identity of the victim will be booked under POCSO”. Victim’s relatives claim that she was a bright student who came first in her school in 10th standard. They also claim that she had written “I don’t want to live..I’m going to end my life” in her notebook. 

They allege that the girl’s dream to study well and score high marks in 12th standard was scuttled by the warden Sahaya Mary who made her do all the chores. She was also continuously pressurised to accept Christianity with the promise of a bright future. The school management claims that the deceased girl used to lament that her step mother tortured her and her dad didn’t pay attention to her. They claim that she was distressed and wouldn’t even go to her family during holidays. But the girl confessed that she was made to stay and do chores in the home.

Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School located in Michaelpatti near Thirukattupalli in Thanjavur is the school where the victim studied. It is a government-aided, RTE-exempted minority institution. This is not the first time government-aided, RTE-exempted educational institutions are in the news for such issues.

  • In October 2021, two boys were beaten by a Christian teacher in a government-aided RTE-exempted Christian school for wearing the sacred ash and rudraksha. The teacher said “only rowdies and misfits wear Rudraksh” and those who wear the sacred Shaivite symbols are immoral.
  • In November 2021, another government -aided RTE-exempted Christian school was in news for harassing a Hindu girl for wearing the sacred ash. Hindu organisations are trying to get the offenders punished to this day
  • In December 2021, another government-aided, RTE-exempted Christian school’s principal was booked for sexually harassing girl students through social media.
  • In the same month another government-aided, RTE-exempted Christian school principal and his wife were arrested for sexually abusing a girl student and hushing it up respectively.

Recently in Andhra a student who received Ayyappa deeksha was punished for wearing attire prescribed for the 41 day vrata by the Christian school principal. Most of the schools listed above operate an “orphanage” in parallel which doubles up as a hostel. In fact, many missionaries open schools to accommodate the “orphans” in their so-called “homes”.

In the current incident as well the victim was staying at St Michael’s Home for Children, as per media reports. This so-called “home” is run by the Catholic Diocese of Kumbakonam and is classified as an “orphanage” by United Christian News, a catholic mouthpiece. Why was a child who has parents enrolled in an “orphanage”? Media would generally ask “Why would the child be enrolled in an orphanage if he/she has parents?”.

But as Christian “homes” aka “orphanages” have a reputation for taking in children with parents and “showing” them as orphans to bed for funds from foreign countries, we are predisposed to ask “Why was a child who has parents enrolled in an “orphanage”?”. It is not a secret that Christian organisations promise fine clothes, food, education and shelter for poor children in exchange to be admitted to their “homes”. Poor parents seeing a better future for their children readily agree thinking that they’ll be better off in such “homes”.

There are questions, doubts in fact, being raised by Dravidianists worried about the incident marring DMK rule, on why Hindu parents didn’t shift her to Hindu school if she was forced to convert. Do the innocent, poor, at most times uneducated, parents know that such forces that demand religious conversion in the name of social service exist? In their efforts to save their government’s face, such doubting Thomases defile the memory of Lavanya who refused to sell her soul.

Why it matters whether it is “government-aided”?

Because with the frequency of child abuse, sexual harassment and religious hatred and conversion in these schools, it means the government is aiding all these crimes by continuing to provide monetary support. It is to be noted that it is not just the schools but the “homes” aka “orphanages” also receive government aid through the department of social justice and women and child welfare. Many of them also receive foreign aid through FCRA as well (not in St Michael’s Home for Children as far as we know).

There is a scheme from the central government, IDMI through which minority institutions can avail Rs.50 lakh or 75% of the total estimate if they want to expand the infrastructure. All this money, a large chunk of it from Hindu taxpayers, goes toward converting Hindu children or snatching their lives when they refuse to, like Lavanya.

What’s the concern if it is RTE exempted?

The RTE Act has stringent rules about safety in schools laying out the standards in detail. Many a time the “non-minority” are harassed for deviating even slightly from these standards some of which are impractical and frivolous. But minority institutions mainly run by Christians are exempted from following these rules. If the rules are for children’s safety shouldn’t it apply to all schools?

The RTE Act has specified rules for the redressal system notified by every state which involves School Management Committees(SMC). Section 21 of the RTE Act mandates the formation of School Management Committees. But minority schools even if they receive government aid are exempted from following these standards. Has it emboldened them to freely proselytise and violate other rules as well? Is it time RTE immunity is rolled back to make them accountable and responsible?

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights(NCPCR) has taken cognizance and issued notice to the DGP to take necessary action immediately as it found that there is prima facie contravention of Art 25 & 28(3) of Indian Constitution, provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 and various provisions under IPC. Legal Rights Protection Forum which wrote to NCPCR informed through Twitter that the commission has sought FIR to be registered under relevant sections and to submit a report within 7 days.

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