New Delhi: Pulling up the police for outright rejecting the charges of illegal conversion against a missionary school in the case of a Class 12 girl’s suicide, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court Monday directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the probe.
In his 32-page order, Justice G.R. Swaminathan quoted lines from the Bible and referenced two movies to observe that there “is nothing inherently improbable in the allegation that there was an attempt at conversion”. He said the allegations required investigation and not outright rejection.
The bench accepted the girl’s father’s contention that instead of uncovering the truth, the police had been trying to bolster a counter-narrative to defame the parents, especially the stepmother. The court said the police had been trying to “derail the probe”. Their subsequent actions, it noted, gave an impression that the investigation was “not proceeding on the right lines”.
Public statements made by the Tamil Nadu school education minister and two other high-ranking ministers, exonerating the school management, further added to the apprehension, the court noted. It added that the father’s doubts over the nature of the police probe were justified.
The order came on a petition filed by the father, who had approached the high court for a free and fair investigation into his daughter’s suicide two days after she died on 19 January. A student of Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School, Michaelpatti, the girl had consumed a pesticide at her school hostel on 9 January.
Conversion angle denied by police, ministers
The father had taken the girl home after she took the pesticide, and had her admitted to Thanjavur Medical College Hospital on 15 January when her condition worsened. A day later, the girl’s statement — in which she accused the hostel warden of harassing her — was recorded in the presence of a judicial magistrate. The warden, Sister Saghayamary, has been arrested.
The girl died on 19 January, and a video of her went viral the following day. In it, she is seen alleging that Sister Rachel Mary, the correspondent of her school, had spoken to her parents about converting her to Christianity.
As this revealed the girl’s identity, the police registered a case against the maker of the video.
The girl’s father moved the high court on 21 January, seeking its intervention for a fair probe in the case. But before the court could hold a detailed hearing in the matter, three state ministers issued public statements appearing to dismiss the conversion claims.
Ravali Priya Gandhapuneni, superintendent of police (SP), Thanjavur, held a press conference on 21 January where she denied any conversion angle.
On 24 January, school education minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi promised an “unbiased probe” into the girl’s suicide and “impartial action” against those responsible, but said the allegation of forced conversion “appears to be remote”, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which has held several protests over the matter — of politicising the issue.
These subsequent events prompted the father to demand a CBI enquiry into his daughter’s death. He alleged that the police had selectively leaked information to build a counter-narrative.
The public prosecutor opposed the plea and claimed that the video was a “mischievous act” to generate controversy. The father, he added, was under the influence of certain communal organisations, and it would not be justified for the court to interfere at the investigation stage.
The school “vehemently” denied the allegations of conversion, and claimed the accusations were intended to besmirch its reputation. Its lawyer put the blame on the girl’s father and stepmother for allegedly being cruel to her.
As for the video, the school claimed it was recorded by a “hate monger,” who is facing criminal cases for fomenting communal trouble in the past.
In its order, the court severely criticised the police for forgetting the “virtues of silence” and questioned them for reaching conclusions before conducting a detailed enquiry.
The judge frowned upon the SP, Thanjavur, for holding a press conference where she asserted that no conversion angle was made out.
“Such a statement was unwarranted because by then the private video was already in circulation and the parents of the child had given a complaint alleging that there was an attempt to convert the child to Christianity,” the court observed.
With her statement, the SP had brushed aside the petitioner’s complaint, which is backed by the child’s video, the court observed. The SP, in the judge’s words, reacted as if she had come in “contact with a live electric wire” when the allegations of conversion surfaced.
The court also admonished the police for registering an FIR under sections that were not relevant to the alleged offence after the video went viral. These sections were related to rioting, for insulting someone and for committing an act likely to incite a community.
According to the judge, the sections were included because the police wanted to silence any discussion regarding the conversion angle.
“The person who shot the video did not commit any offence as such. It was only the subsequent sharing on social media without suppressing the identity of the child victim which attracts the offence under Section 74 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. But in this case, the shooting was done at the instance of the petitioner, the father of the child. The authenticity of the video has now been admitted,” the court observed.
The SP, the court added, knew the video was authentic. Editing it and omitting parts did not make the video less authentic, it said.
“Yet, she (SP) virtually threatened the person who shot the video. Instead, she should have goaded the investigation to take the religious angle into account,” the court noted.
Regarding the allegations of conversion, the court said it could be true or false. The order records that the school in question is run by a Congregation. It went on to quote two lines from the Bible:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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,” and, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned”.
Further, the judge quoted dialogue from the 2020 Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Serious Men to describe how conversion is carried out. The order also narrated the storyline of a 1985 Tamil movie, Kalyana Agathigal, in which a Hindu girl refuses to marry a Christian boy when he asks her to convert.
“It is beyond dispute that Art reflects life,” the judge said in justification of the references to “popular culture”. “While movies, particularly Tamil movies, are notorious for melodrama and exaggeration, they do contain a kernel of truth,” he added.
The judge also wondered whether Michaelpatti, where the school is located, is the original name of the place, and observed: “There is an interesting discussion as to how the various areas in Chennai acquired their respective names in V. Sriram’s Chennai [the 2021 book Chennai: A Biography] . Someone can undertake a similar exercise for Michaelpatti also.”
Therefore, he concluded, there is nothing “inherently improbable in the allegation that there was an attempt at conversion.”
In his parting lines, the judge praised the lawyers who had appeared for the school, calling them genuine ambassadors of inter-faith fraternity, given that they had gifted him an idol of Ganesha. The judge said he knew one of the lawyers had spoken from his heart when he asserted that he did not believe in conversion.
“But the question is whether Sister Saghayamary and Sister Rachel Mary are made of the same fibre. I hope investigation by the CBI will bring out the truth,” the judge said.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)