Representational image.
Representational image.

In Chennai’s schools, the MeToo movement arrives

The city police have received close to 100 complaints in the past week even as anonymous complaints rapidly accelerate on social media. Eight students have filed formal complaints that has led to the arrest of three teachers
By Divya Chandrababu
UPDATED ON JUN 03, 2021 03:48 PM IST

In what is now being termed as Chennai schools’ #metoomovement, there is an outpouring of students and alumni recounting sexual abuse they faced inside classrooms, on the sports field and during online classes conducted due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the city’s schools.

The city police have received close to 100 complaints in the past week even as anonymous complaints rapidly accelerate on social media. Eight students have filed formal complaints that has led to the arrest of three teachers on serious charges, including attempt to rape. The state commission for protection of child rights (SCPCR) has summoned the management of six top schools to appear for enquiry on different dates from June 4 to 10.

These schools include the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB), St. George’s Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in Shenoy Nagar, Chettinad Vidyashram, Kendriya Vidyalaya- CLRI, Maharishi Vidya Mandir and Sushil Hari International Residential School, said SCPCR chairperson, Saraswathi Rangaswamy. “We inspected each of these schools and they have confirmed that they have received complaints from multiple students,” she added.

This has created a cascading effect where students from across Tamil Nadu have begun calling out their teachers for sexual abuse and approaching the SCPCR and police with complaints.

The beginning of the movement

It started just a week ago, when M Kripali, a Mumbai-based alumna from a Chennai school, PSBB, began to share screenshots on Instagram stories of juniors from her school sharing sexual abuse they faced from G Rajagopalan, their commerce teacher.

“A student at PSBB reached out to me on Instagram asking me if I or anyone I know went through it while we were studying,” says Kripali, who was not sexually abuse at school. “But I was bullied, and slut shamed by the teachers. Regarding this case, I’ve witnessed him (Rajagopalan) cracking inappropriate jokes, which was normalised by our teachers so we students didn’t do much. I asked the student if she wanted me to post what she said on my stories and get more evidence against him since she had mentioned she wanted to take legal action. That one story of mine brought forward many.”

Kripali has also been summoned by the SCPCR and has been facing backlash—supporters of Rajagopalan, and people from other schools are circulating her pictures and posting nasty comments on social media. “I can’t stop them. Neither can they stop me. My only goal was to help the students in any way possible.”

Also Read | Kuwait’s MeToo moment: Women denounce harassment, violence

The allegations against Rajagopalan, 59, outlined how he had asked a student out for a movie, sent a porn link to a class group, showed up to an online class wearing just a towel wrapped around his waist, touched girls and regularly passed sexual innuendos. More than a 1,000 alumni from the school wrote to the management demanding action against him. The school dismissed charges that they had not acted on previous complaints against Rajagopalan, who had taught there for two decades. School authorities said they had received no complaints, but suspended him.

The issue escalated with political leaders calling for action. The school education department also swung into action and chief minister chief minister MK Stalin has ordered a committee to be formed to frame guidelines for the conduct of online classes and directed that online classes be recorded and reviewed regularly.

The city’s crimes against women and children wing arrested Rajagopalan on May 24. He was booked under under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Indian Penal Code’s Sections 354 A (sexual harassment) and 509 (insulting modesty of a woman) as well as provisions of the Information Technology Act related to publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form and that containing sexually explicit act.

The domino effect

The action against him emboldened students to share their experience of abuse.

On Monday, a martial arts instructor, E Kebi Raj, 41 was arrested following a complaint by a college student. He is booked under sections 376 r/w 511 (attempt to rape), 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Woman Act.

A day before that, an athletic coach and superintendent in the GST Commissionerate in Chennai, P Nagarajan, 59, was arrested after an athlete complained that he had touched her inappropriately while administering physiotherapy.

Since the complaints came up on social media, the police approached several of the complainants and counselled them to register a formal complaint to proceed with the case. “Third parties were helping the victims by highlighting the complaints and predicament through forums. At times, we had no knowledge of the complainant so it was a laborious process to filter through the social media posts and identify victims,” said Shankar Jiwal, Commissioner, Greater Chennai City Police.

Social media was also agog with instances of abuse of which students had heard. So the personal number of H Jayalakshmi, deputy commissioner, crime against women and children, was released so victims could call her directly and their identity would be protected as mandated by law. “That yielded good results. Her task was cut out,” Jiwal said.

The investigation processes

It took a lot of convincing before a victim became the first person to register a formal complaint against Rajagopalan. Now, at least five victims have lodged complaints against him, including a man.

After receiving a complaint, police maintain that the identity of the complainant is protected. In some cases, in plain clothes, they meet the victims in their homes or any other place of their comfort and timing to take their statements as required by POCSO Act.

After verifying complaints, they immediately inform the division officer to register a case. Police have seized Rajagopalan’s phone and laptop as he had left behind a digital footprint, an officer on condition of anonymity said. “In cases registered so far, we have been able to gather prima facie evidence quickly because a lot of team members were pressed into service,” said Jiwal.

The team has drawn up a plan of action post arrest. “We want the cases to reach their logical end through speedy investigation and by way of filing a charge sheet at the earliest. If investigation against the accused is proven, we want him to be brought to justice as soon as possible. It shouldn’t stop with registering an FIR.”

Complaints have also been made about sexual abuse that victims were subject to many years ago. “But these are serious offences and there have been case laws to investigate and enquire,” said Jiwal adding said that they are following a Delhi court’s order in February 2021 on the acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani against former Indian minister MJ Akhbar who filed a defamation case against her. The ruling had crucially noted that a “woman has the right to put her grievance even after decades.”

The complainants

Twenty-two former students of Kendriya Vidyalaya, CLRI in Chennai complained to the school’s management of sexual abuse by a Hindi teacher who still teaches there. The complaints span students from several batches that span over 18 years.The former students recalled that the Hindi teacher held their waist, touched their backs and often in front of other students. Several of them also said that they switched to Sanskrit to avoid this Hindi teacher.

A former student shared that on her 14th birthday, she had gone to a class to distribute chocolates where he grabbed her buttocks. Her friend saw this and asked her what it was. “I was embarrassed. That’s how I remember feeling,” said one of the complainants. “The PSBB incident is what triggered me to complain. My motivation is that children should no longer be exposed to this man.”

The school management has asked the complainants on June 1 to come to Chennai for an internal enquiry slated for June 2. Several of them aren’t in the city and given the pandemic-induced lockdown, they wouldn’t be able to travel either. They have requested for virtual conduct of the enquiry. “I don’t have faith in the management, they are making this difficult for us and don’t seem to be invested in finding the truth,” said one of the complainants. The school has set up a four-member committee for enquiry.

Failure of multiple stakeholders

The due process or the system that has dissuaded children from reporting sexual abuse has led to them taking to social media.

“This episode shows that the entire system has failed,” says Andrew Sesuraj, state convener, Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch who is also helping connect police and victims. “It shows that parents never gave their children the confidence that they can share this with them. The schools didn’t have a safe space for children to speak up and those who spoke were silenced. None of the children seem to have contacted the 1098 Childline.” He proposes that the state should make a child protection mechanism that is child-friendly, transparent and accountable mandatory in every school, wherein every teacher and staff member is made to sign an undertaking against child sexual abuse. This committee should include children and parent representatives and child rights activists

Vidya Reddy of Tulir- Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse reiterates an aspect that several victims have shared that they do not want to file a police complaint. The POCSO Act mandates reporting sexual crime against a child under Section 19(1) and failure to do so is a punishable offence under Section 21 of the Act.

“It’s either going to the police for criminal action or no other recourse, which I find problematic when you’re dealing with children,” says Reddy. “We have to understand that not all adults who have been abused as children and those who are now posting on social media may want to be entangled in the criminal justice system. We must also offer a space which provides acknowledgement and retribution by keeping a victim’s best interest in mind.”

Reddy cites the examples of the US and UK, where they involve child protective services and educational services to evaluate and assess a child sexual abuse complaint. They respond appropriately and involve the criminal system, if required.

“India has blindly imported mandatory reporting without certain structures and processes accompanying it,” says Reddy. “This has become counterproductive to what was originally envisioned. It has driven down reporting. Children who are victims of sexual violence and require abortions do not go to hospitals because of mandatory reporting. So in the case of sexual abuse in schools where only punitive action is considered, it is detrimental to the child’s wellbeing.”

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