A protest march to demand more teachers in a school led to the local police indiscriminately beating up young students
Jaipur: When 14–year-old Manisha Saini arrived at a press conference in Jaipur on Wednesday, she was still visibly traumatised, though a week had passed since her ordeal. She was finding it difficult to walk due to her injuries in the lower portion of her body. Saini was among the group of girl students who were severely lathi charged by the police in Rajasthan’s Tonk on September 29 for protesting against the lack of teachers in their school.
Saini and four other girls from the group made it to the press conference despite being in pain, where they narrated their horrifying experience. The girls told the audience how they were hit badly with sticks, and more shockingly, were thrown off a 10-foot high bridge when they tried to escape the beatings. Class X student Priyanka Swami said, “The police officer was heavily drunk… He pulled our clothes and abused us.”
However, their ordeal did not end there, as the district hospital where they were admitted discharged them after incomplete treatment. “We were discharged from the hospital on October 2 even though some of us had swollen body-parts”, 16-year-old Gaura Meena of class XI said. Kavita Sain and Priyanka, both 16, and Maina Nagar, 14, all had similar stories to share.
The press meet was organised by about a dozen civil right groups to release a joint fact finding report on the incident. The brutal attack on girl students demanding a better education has sparked widespread outrage among the local rural populace and civil society members in Rajasthan. It was condemned not only by the opposition Congress, but also by the local BJP legislator Rajendra Gurjar.
The incident happened in Chauru, a village located about 40 kms from the district headquarters of Tonk. The school here has just seven teachers, including the Principal, against a sanctioned 22 posts, for teaching 291 students in classes from I to XI. Despite this, the school was “upgraded” from higher secondary to senior secondary at the beginning of this academic year, adding to an already stressful situation.
Manisha of class VIII, one of the girls who were hospitalised, told The Wire, “We had to appear for the last test even though we had no teachers for several subjects. And the next test was due shortly.” The principal Ram Vilas could only give them a verbal assurance that he had taken up the matter with the education department. After three months of broken promises, the students finally decided to take matters into their own hands.
‘Without warning, without questions’
Last Tuesday, nearly 150 girls from class VIII to XI took out a protest demonstration against the authorities’ neglect with a simple demand: post more teachers in their government-run-school. To draw attention to their demand, they decided to block the national highway NH 116, just outside the school premises. The girls say they had to take the lead as the boy students preferred to be in the rear during the protest.
The first to reach the spot was Aligarh station house officer (SHO) Amar Singh, accompanied by three constables who, according to the girls, started caning them indiscriminately, without any warning or even enquiring why they were protesting. Some of the girls fell unconscious, while others ran to the village. As the news about the incident spread, people from surrounding areas gathered at the spot, and allegedly threw stones at the policemen.
The villagers then rushed the injured to the rural hospital in Aligarh town, from where they were referred to the district hospital after first aid. Ten girls were admitted at the district hospitals, and four others the next day as they were in deep shock and pain, Dr S.N. Verma, Principal Medical Officer of the Saadat (district) Hospital, Tonk, told The Wire. They were kept in the Hospital for treatment till October 3, he added.
FIR against the victims
Things calmed down and the roadblock was lifted only after the district collector Rekha Gupta and SP Deepak Kumar arrived and assured the protestors of immediately addressing their demands. The two officials also visited the hospitalised girls.
When SHO Amar Singh, who had reportedly sustained a minor injury in his ear, reached the village hospital, he had to face the wrath of the villagers. According to eyewitnesses, he managed to lock himself in a room and was finally rescued by Prem Singh Nathawat, the SHO of nearby Uniara town, after local leaders pacified the crowd.
However, this did not stop the police from registering an FIR against the students and villagers under various sections of the IPC for rioting, unlawful assembly, deterring public servant from duty, assault or criminal force to deter public servant from duty and damaging public property and the national highway.
Civil society groups take up cause
Meanwhile, the civil rights groups are pressing ahead with a demand for booking the guilty police officials on criminal charges, as transfer or suspension are not real punishments, their statement said. The fact finding committee’s report had accused the police of sexual harassment of the girls during the lathi charge and use of abusive language.
Calling the police action “outrageous,” social activist Aruna Roy pointed out that the Right to Education Act not only makes providing education a fundamental duty of every state, but also states clearly that no child may face any kind of corporal punishment. “The incident has the potential to leave deep psychological scars on the students. At a time when our nation is focussing on retaining girl children in schools to bridge gender disparity in our educational system, such an act by the local police is downright shameful, not to mention illegal,” Roy said.
In a joint memorandum to the chief secretary C.S. Rajan, the various civil rights groups that have taken up the girls’ cause, stated that the “protest should have heartened the district administration and instead of sending the police, the district collector or the district education officer should have gone to the place and dialogued with the girls. They should have been encouraged in their quest for good education and not beaten up”.
Speaking to The Wire, the BJP’s Gurjar, who is the local MLA, said that pending inquiry into the incident, SHO Amar Singh has been suspended and school principal Ram Vilas has been transferred. When questioned about the principal’s transfer, he said that the decision was taken by the education department after an “internal inquiry,” of which he did not have the details. The education department, meanwhile, was making arrangements for posting additional teachers to the school, he added.