In accordance with the POSCO Act, The Better India cannot reveal the names of the school, victims or the Principal. The Better India has reached out to the Principal for the following account.
It was April 2013, when three girls who had cleared their class 10, walked into her cabin after their farewell party. The girls began telling the 48-year-old principal how much they respected her and how her leadership had transformed the school.
Little did the principal think the conversation would take the dramatic turn it did. “Iss school mein sab accha hai. Lekin ek baat hai joh aapke kaano mein nahi padegi. Hum toh jaa rahe hai. Lekin sirf aap hi baaki students ko bacha sakte ho.”
Clueless at what the girls were hinting at, the principal coerced them to abandon their fears and come out clean. To her horror, the girls described how their Algebra teacher had been sexually harassing them. It started as inappropriate touching and went to the extent of them being sent pornographic clips. “They told me, how in an open classroom, he would sit next to them, put his hands on their thighs, move it. Put his arms around their shoulder, move it towards their breasts. I was horrified.”
When she told them to write the allegations down and send their parents to her, the girls refused, worried about their safety. They asked her to promise them that she wouldn’t tell anybody. When the principal said she would have to take up the matter with their class teacher, the students revealed that the matter was addressed to the class teacher and the Vice Principal as well (both women), but nothing was done. Instead, it backfired on to them when the women asked them how they dare to accuse a male teacher of such “disgusting” behaviour.
It was difficult for the principal to believe, as the class teacher had been of great help since she joined the school in 2008. She had to look at the situation objectively and look after the welfare of both teachers and students. So she decided to speak to the teacher anyway.
“It was the biggest blunder I made,” confesses the Principal, speaking to The Better India.
“When the teacher asked me for the names of the students who had spoken about the matter, I refused to tell her. But she got the names out from the peon who guards my cabin. The same night at 9:10 pm, I got a call from one of the girls, who had told me about the issue.
“‘I trusted and respected you, Ma’am. But you ruined everything for me. I hate you. I hate you.’ I still remember her sobbing voice. Speaking to their class teacher was the biggest mistake of my life. The girl told me that the class teacher had called her landline when her mother picked up and started hurling abuses at the girl and character-assassinating her. That girl did not speak to me until the High Court verdict came in. It was at that time that I realised that nobody would back me until I had solid proof. But that was only the beginning of a five-year-long struggle.”
As the new academic year began, another class teacher addressed similar concerns to the principal. She said that some students had complained, and the matter was taken to the VP, but nothing happened.
The Principal spoke to the VP and said that warnings had to be given to the teacher. But his behaviour failed to change.
By December 2013, over 39 girl students made similar kinds of complaints against the teacher. This time, the principal ensured that these complaints were documented. There was no going back now.
She headed to the DN Nagar Police Station with all the notes, where the police scrutinised the documents for over five hours.
“A child or women-friendly station is a myth,” the whistleblower Principal tells The Better India. “I was alone in that place. I had never been to a police station for such a thing in my entire life. I was scared and exhausted. Despite reading the copies of the students, they asked, ‘Kaisa haath lagaya, kahan haath lagaya, kis tarah se kiya.’ I told them to read the copies and guide me about the next steps. It felt like criminals were safer in these police stations than complainants.
“It took them five hours to even start the process of filing the FIR. They took all the original copies from me. But I ensured I took photocopies of all and took a receipt where they signed the cover letter. One of them even told me, ‘Abhi aapko naukri se haath dhona padega, Madam’.”
When the internal inquiry of the school on the case began, the management tried to say that the principal had not alerted them. But she refuted the claims, saying, “The same evening the FIR was filed, I took a copy and the photocopied documents and submitted to the CEO in the school.”
The torture began right from the day she filed the FIR. The principal had filed a police complaint under the POCSO Act. Little did she know that the repercussions of it would be her sacking.
The school management who have had fights in the past with her about the closure of the school, turned against her and instead started supporting the teacher. It terminated her services on July 14, 2014, and reinstated the teacher in November of the same year after an internal inquiry found him ‘not guilty’.
They accused her of spreading lies about the teacher. And while one may think she would give up the fight after losing so much, she didn’t.
Though her dues weren’t cleared by the school since July 2014, she struggled day in and out, to make ends meet. Sometimes with the help of her former students who paid for her daily expenses and EMIs.
At the time when she was fighting the case in the Supreme Court, she made it through by staying at gurudwaras, churches, and at friends’ homes, because she could not afford hotels.
NGO Mass India also extended their support to the principal. Its Mumbai President Shibu George spoke to The Better India revealing how he attended 43 of the hearings related to the case.
When the struggle began, both the Schools Tribunal as well as the Bombay High Court maintained that the principal’s sacking was wrong. However, it wasn’t until the Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that she was reinstated with immediate effect. The apex court also directed the school to clear her dues and pay her the full wages.
“When I won the High Court case, the same girl who refused to speak to me, texted me on Facebook. I was overwhelmed as she wrote, “Ma’am, I have great respect for the trouble you endured. I will never forget you’.”
And while she heaved a sigh of relief at getting her job back, the struggle to get justice for her students ensued. It only came to an end on August 13, 2018, after a special POCSO court sentenced the Algebra teacher to three years of rigorous imprisonment.
The first information report that was filed against the teacher mentioned the three girls. He was found guilty of sexually harassing them. The basis for conviction was the statements of three students recorded under Section 164 of the CrPC. It was supported by corroborative statements by their classmates who mentioned how they poured water on their benches and used their bags to shield themselves and avoid the teacher from sitting next to them.
He was convicted by the court under Section 12 of the POCSO Act for sexual harassment, but found “not guilty” of sexual assault, outraging modesty, and criminal intimidation. He has been ordered to pay Rs 25,000 to each of the three students.
The unfortunate fact of it all is, despite being convicted, the man is out on bail. He even has the option of moving the High Court against the order.
Amidst all this, the principal chooses to see the light. She concludes, “My students can now live freely. I am glad they got justice. I was tortured mentally on an everyday basis. They used money power, muscle power, and everything else they could think of to prove I was wrong. But an inner force continued to work through me, that helped me endure everything. I stand vindicated now.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)