Ariyalur: The mystery and politics surrounding a teenager’s suicide in early January have ruptured the quiet, sleepy rice and sugarcane-growing Ariyalur village in Tamil Nadu. The image of 17-year old Lavanya on a hospital bed is now ubiquitous. The posters are plastered everywhere. Some promise ‘Justice for Lavanya’ while other political posters promise her family government jobs if they win the local body elections. And busybody Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party members move in and out of the home of her grieving family.
At the heart of the swirling controversy surrounding Lavanya’s suicide is a police complaint, two videos, a stepmother, the warden at her convent school and the battle over religious conversions. Did she suicide after being harassed to convert to Christianity? Her father Muruganandam and his wife Saranya now say the truth will finally come out after the Madras High Court ordered transferring the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on 31 January.
“Lavanya only took this step because she was being forced to convert. This would not have happened otherwise. My daughter should be the first and last victim of this,” said Muruganandam.
Describing her as a happy, carefree girl, Murguanandam said she was being forced to convert to Christianity at the Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School, where she was studying in Class 12. According to him, when Lavanya refused to convert, they started torturing her and forced her to sweep the floors, cook and clean.
But in his initial complaint to the police on 15 January, Lavanya’s father did not mention forceful religious conversion. Now, he vehemently asserts that the school warden had been troubling Lavanya for the past two years, forcing her to convert.
Tale of two videos
The mainstay of the religious conversion angle surrounding Lavanya’s death are two videos that emerged a day after she passed away on 19 January 2022. Recorded by Muthuvel, district general secretary of VHP in Ariyalur, the videos feature Lavanya in her hospital bed. In one of the videos, when asked if she was being harassed because of her refusal to convert, she purportedly replied that it could be the case. She also named two of her wardens — Raquel Mary and Sagay Mary — in the videos and accused them of forceful conversion and making her do extra work, respectively. The latter has been arrested by the Thanjavur Police but enough evidence could not be garnered against the former.
However, the two videos have become the subject of much speculation for the police. Muthuvel, who revealed that he knew the family through a distant relative, said that both the videos were taken on 17 January, and were recorded on stepmother Saranya’s request. However, the videos were released on social media only on 20 January, even though he claims that he had submitted the videos soon after her death.
The fact that there are two videos instead of one has also raised questions, especially since Lavanya does not mention conversion in the second video. But the VHP secretary chalks this up to her health issues. “She was suffering from shortness of breath so we took a pause and gave her time to relax, therefore there are two videos.” A declaration made by Lavanya before the judicial magistrate, three days before her death, also does not mention religious conversion.
Muthuvel accused the police of harassing him because of the videos before the Madras HC, adding that his phone was seized after he released the videos online. However, the Thanjavur Police, which was leading the investigation before the CBI took over, alleged that Muthuvel had not cooperated with them during their probe.
The VHP nexus
The VHP has capitalised on this case to accuse the ruling DMK government and the police of only supporting Christians by rejecting the religious conversion angle. Several of its leaders have also been visiting the grieving family.
“We are not communalising the incident. In this case, someone has tortured her for religious conversion and not allowed her to study here and have induced her to die by suicide and so this is murder,” said Muthuvel. “The police department and the DMK government did not consider the conversion angle. They are supporting Christianity and working for one side,” he added.
Most of the communication regarding Lavanya’s case with the media and members within the VHP has been routed through Ashok, the ‘Satsang Pramukh’ of the VHP in Ariyalur, after Muthuvel’s phone was seized. “I joined the organisation 1.5 years back. My main and sole aim in joining the organisation was to spread the message of Hindutva. We want to increase our membership and have many ideas lined up. For the time being, we are organising a roadblock to demand ‘Justice for Lavanya’,” said Ashok.
The VHP has been slowly and steadily growing in and around Thanjavur and stabilising their presence, according to one of the former investigating officers of the case. The officer explained that due to the support the organisation receives from the BJP, its members have “taken the law into their own hands” several times and have been “high-handed” towards other religions such as Islam and Christianity.
In Ariyalur, however, the VHP is still a relatively new presence. But in two and a half years, the organisation has managed to recruit over 1,500 members. And according to Lavanya’s father, the VHP has been a constant source of comfort for the family.
Tamil Nadu BJP’s rallying cry
The efforts of the VHP have also been bolstered by the Tamil Nadu BJP, which has made Lavanya’s suicide a rallying point in the state, carrying out multiple protests against the administration and investigation by the police. K. Annamalai, BJP chief of the Tamil Nadu unit, who has been actively pursuing the case, lashed out at the DMK government as well as the Tamil Nadu police for covering it up. On 1 February, a delegation of BJP leaders from Telangana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, which included Geetha Vivekananda, Sandhya Ray and Vijaysanthi, also met district collector Ponraj Oliver regarding the case.
According to Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson Narayan Thirupathy, the party was fighting against the forced conversions taking place in the state, especially in the coastal areas and southern Tamil Nadu. “There has been a substantial increase in people turning to Christianity and many new churches coming in the last 2-3 decades. These are very clear signs of conversions,” he said, adding that the promise of free education and job opportunities were luring individuals into the Christian fold. “Tamil Nadu BJP will fight for a law against forced conversion. We need a law for it. Forced conversions is not a fundamental right.”
The DMK, however, has claimed the BJP is just attempting to communalise the issue but failing at it. “They (BJP) only know how to divide people. Whoever investigates this will find there is no mass conversion in Tamil Nadu. The state is a rational-minded society where everyone is equal, this is due to our Dravidian principles,” said DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai.
But it’s not smooth sailing for the BJP either. A seed of discord has been sown within the party itself with the local BJP unit unhappy with how the state leadership has taken up the issue. A BJP member from Thanjavur, who wished to remain unnamed, said there was no issue of religious conversion in the suicide case. However, he said the issue of the warden abusing Lavanya must be probed.
“I have studied in a Christian missionary school myself. Here there is no problem between religions. This is wrong and should not be raised,” said the senior BJP leader in Thanjavur. Another party worker said the state leadership had not even consulted the Thanjavur unit to understand the facts of the case before taking on the conversion angle.
‘Torture’ faced at home
The plot, however, thickens as one ventures into the Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School in Thanjavur’s Michaelpatti. Located approximately 50 kilometres away from Ariyalur, the school is run by nuns and was established over 160 years ago. Over 670 students from classes 6-12 study and reside in the school. Lavanya was one of them.
According to her classmates and teachers, Lavanya chose to suicide because of the “torture” she faced at home from her stepmother. They added that she usually stayed in school during holidays and refused to return home to her village. “One time, after a long break when she came back to school I saw marks all over her body and a burn wound on her palm,” said 17-year-old B. Florence Gladia, Lavanya’s classmate for over five years. “She did not like going home and would stay in the hostel even on holidays.”
But Lavanya returned home to her village during the Pongal holidays and on 9 January, consumed poison. Initially, her parents believed that she was suffering from side-effects of the Covid-19 vaccines after she complained of a stomach ache. However, the pain intensified soon after and she was rushed to the nearest government hospital where the doctors confirmed poison ingestion. According to an investigating officer, “Lavanya did not reveal for six days that she had taken poison. It was only after the doctors said she had ingested it, that she admitted it.”
A police complaint was filed by the family on 15 January, which accused hostel warden Sagay Mary of harassing Lavanya. Based on this complaint, the warden was arrested on 16 January on charges of abetment to suicide and on the same day Lavanya recorded a statement before the judicial magistrate reiterating her complaint.
But the students and faculty of the Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School are unconvinced by the turn of events. Describing Lavanya as a reserved but brilliant student, her classmate Shereen Priya claimed that she often complained about her stepmother’s abuse in the hostel. “On most holidays, she preferred to stay in the hostel itself and would not go back home. She never complained against the hostel warden.” Priya added that “no religion has ever been forced on us in the school, even my grandmother studied here”.
While he refused to divulge details of the case since it’s sub-judice, District Collector Oliver said the investigation involved three officers due to its sensitivity. One of the officers noted that close to 60-70 people had been questioned over the course of the inquiry, which included students, staff members, relatives, alumni as well as local people.
According to the officer, there were two prominent gaps in the investigation — one, the delay in releasing the two videos by the VHP member and two, if Lavanya was tortured at home, why didn’t she speak up about it. Another officer also revealed that two years prior, a complaint was filed against Lavanya’s stepmother by her relatives for troubling her stepdaughter. The police refused to reveal any further detail as the case was under investigation. But with the case now transferred to the CBI, there is no further clarity on how these gaps will be resolved.
A school mired in controversy
With a population of just about 2,500 people, Michaelpatti is dominated by the Hindu community but also has multiple churches spread across its terrain. According to Sister Arokai Mary, headmistress of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School, most students in the school belonged to nearby villages and 70 per cent of them were Hindus.
However, the school has now been facing the ramifications of the controversy that has erupted after Lavanya’s death — as evidenced by the heavy security deployment in the lane just outside its building. And if anyone manages to enter the premises, there is a prevalent atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Hesitant to reveal details about the case, Sister Arokai Mary further noted the school was traumatised by the arrest of Sagay Mary and hoped the truth will come out soon.
A teacher at the school, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the school had never faced any case of forceful conversion in 160 years. “That is not our intention. They can probe as much as they want. We will also help them,” she said.
It’s not just school faculty, a deep-rooted suspicion regarding outsiders can be found across Michaelpatti. Not many are willing to speak to an outsider about the case, fearful of raking up religious discord. “The issue is being constructed by politicians and is completely false,” said Raj, who runs a shop right outside the school. Macwin Godson, a 19-year-old alumnus of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School, noted that all religions and communities live very peacefully in Michaelpatti.
About 800 people from the villagers also signed and submitted a petition with District Collector Oliver, which stated that the internal peace of the village was being harmed by groups with religious connections, without naming any of the groups. According to the petition, communities have peacefully coexisted in the village for over five generations and the villagers also demanded that no “independent committees” should be allowed to be formed by political parties or religious outfits to conduct inquiries in the village.
According to the 2011 census, out of Thanjavur’s total population, 5.57 per cent were Christians — close to 1.3 lakh people. Oliver noted that the trend has remained the same for the past 11 years. Christians also make 6.12 per cent of the entire population in Tamil Nadu, numbering at about 44.18 lakh.
A family wracked with grief
Lavanya’s family, meanwhile, has been disillusioned by the police investigation. Her father, 43-year old Muruganandam, was previously a member of the DMK but left it after he claimed that no one from the party reached out to him. He also said that even the police did not speak to him, a claim that has been denied by the police.
According to Muruganandam, who is barely able to earn Rs 6,000 a month, Lavanya was a topper in her school and was worried that she would get bad remarks in her report card if she did not listen to the warden. Muruganandam’s first wife, Lavanya’s mother, also died by suicide in 2013. Shortly after, he married Saranya and with whom he has three sons. He added that he was apprised of the harassment his daughter suffered, allegedly to convert her to Christianity, only when she returned home in January.
His wife Saranya also concurred and said that Lavanya had been studying in the school for five years but the harassment began only when she was in Class 10. “I only got to know when she was in class 11 that she was handling accounts for the warden and had gone to Trichy to submit some accounts. She was even made to clean floors and cook.”
The public verdict on the family, however, is divided. What was once the placid village of Ariyalur, has now become a raging ground of opinions and counter-opinions. Close neighbours of the family claim that there were problems between Lavanya and her stepmother. But a nearby shopkeeper disagreed and said that Saranya had a pleasant demeanour and would not trouble anybody.
Thamilselvi, a neighbour of the family, said she would often hear complaints against Lavanya’s stepmother and had also witnessed the two fighting whenever she was back home. “One does not know what happened. I know there were problems but I also don’t know what happened in the school. The truth should come out.”
(Edited by Rachel John)