| A woman who claimed to be a parent finds a weapon in a piece of furniture at Christ Church Girls’ Higher Secondary School in Dum Dum on Thursday. Some parents, not that of the girl who died, and other protesters smashed furniture, tore up files and held cowering teachers hostage through the day
| Principal Helen Sarkar apologises over a megaphone from the terrace of the 131-year-old school. She was later forced to write a resignation letter — the first was not “acceptable” to the mob because it was on plain paper; so another was written on a letterhead. In the evening, the lady was arrested
|Two students of the school respond in the same manner the country reacts after a victory on the cricket field. The students, whose identity is being masked because they are minors, were reacting to the news that their principal had been made to resign and was arrested.
Pictures by Amit Datta and Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Calcutta, Sept. 12: This is what happened in a city that is part of a civilisation that taught generations to chant mata, pita, guru, deva.
First they wanted her to step out and speak. If she had summoned the suicidal courage to crawl out from under the furniture where she and the others were cowering, no one knows what the mob would have done.
Then they wanted her to apologise. She went to the terrace, folded her hands and apologised over a megaphone.
Then they wanted her to resign. She did so, first on plain paper and then on a letterhead.
Then they wanted her to be arrested. She was arrested in the evening.
Then some girls shrieked in celebration, pumping fists in the air. “This is our victory. We dedicate it to Oindrilla.”
“She” was the principal of a 131-year-old school in Dum Dum.
“They” were a group of guardians protesting the tragic death of a child. Ten-year-old Oindrilla Das had died yesterday, eight days after she was locked up in the school toilet by three suspected seniors.
The “girls who shrieked” were students of the school.
Oindrilla’s parents had said she had been traumatised since her confinement. Her grandfather lodged a police complaint after she died, accusing the school of “unprecedented irresponsibility”.
A “neuro-psychiatrist” who had seen Oindrilla on Tuesday had injected an anti-depressant and, according to her parents, she sank after that.
The body of the girl has been sent for a post-mortem. It will undergo a pathological autopsy, which aims to determine the medical diagnosis that remained unknown.
The known facts of the case stand here. An investigation involving the police and medical examiners alone will determine the cause of the death and if the school had any role. Even if anyone in the school is found responsible, a legal course of action is in place.
But law-enforcement caved in before the might of the mob.
Sections of the police conceded that the officers of the Barrackpore commissionerate played to the gallery and not by the book when they allowed the principal as well as other teachers to be held hostage and the school to be vandalised.
Worse, kangaroo court-like proceedings were allowed to be conducted in what became a television spectacle.
A principal, who was apparently trying to enforce discipline and may have ruffled many feathers, was humiliated in a manner Calcutta has never seen before.
“The teachers torture our children by conducting exams four times a year and setting very tough question papers,” said a mother. Other complaints ranged from expensive canteen food, seating away from ceiling fans and a bar on mobile phones.
Given the explosive turns confrontations had taken elsewhere in the state, some officers said the police held their nerve. Officers did ensure that enough personnel, including policewomen, were at hand through the day so that no physical harm befell the teachers who hid behind tables.
But the charges slapped on the teacher suggest that it was the mob, not the law, that dictated the police’s actions.
Principal Helen Sarkar was charged with wrongful confinement (Section 342 of the IPC), voluntarily causing hurt (Section 323), criminal intimidation (Section 506), extortion (Section 384) and common intent (Section 34).
“If she was not present at the scene of crime and the police have not been able to find evidence that she had instructed that the girl be locked up, on what basis has she been charged with wrongful confinement?” wondered an officer not part of the probe.
So far, no one has accused Sarkar of beating up or even touching Oindrilla. But the principal has been charged with voluntarily causing hurt.
“Did the principal threaten the girl? Until such a charge or evidence crops up, criminal intimidation cannot be slapped,” said an officer. If at all anyone can be accused of criminal intimidation, it is the senior girls who had allegedly locked Oindrilla up and threatened a more severe punishment if she revealed their identities, according to lawyers. The girls apparently wanted Rs 100 from the child.
A section of the guardians alleged that the school was collecting money for a Teachers’ Day programme. The school has denied the charge. It is not clear if the police have charged Sarkar with extortion on the basis of this charge, in which case it would suggest the principal asked the girls to coax the money out of the child.
This section deals with common intent, which suggests the principal had known of the intimidation and the confinement from the time it had been plotted.
According to information available till now, Oindrilla did not tell anyone about the harassment till Sunday, when she told child specialist Dwaipayan Ghatak about the harassment. “Please don’t tell my parents that the senior students had locked me in the toilet,” Ghatak had yesterday quoted her as saying.
Oindrilla was admitted to a nursing home on Monday night after she complained of pain in the abdomen. When she was discharged the next day, doctors told her parents to go for counselling.
On Tuesday evening, neuro-psychiatrist Partha Sarathi Biswas gave a shot of lorazepam.
Oindrilla fell unconscious on Wednesday morning and was rushed to a private hospital along the Bypass, where doctors declared her “brought dead”.
“Lorazepam does not have any side effects. It’s a sedative whose effect lasts only two-and-a-half hours. I administered the shot around 6.30pm and she died in the morning,” said Biswas, adding that he was not to blame.
He said the girl was suffering from anxiety. “The anxiety was evident. Her pulse rate was 110, while the normal is 72. I also saw the blood reports from the nursing home. TLC (the count of white blood cells) was 20,000 per cubic millimetre while the normal is 4,000 to 11,000 and of this, neurophils made up 80 per cent, which indicates a bacterial infection,” Biswas said.
Police officers said that in the absence of confirmatory medical evidence, the most crucial pieces in the puzzle were the accused students.
“The police should have first tried to talk to the girls who allegedly locked her up and the sweeper who found her. They jumped the gun by arresting the principal without conducting any investigation,” one officer said.
The arrest, several officers on the ground said, was made to pacify the mob baying for the principal’s scalp.
Teachers across the city said they found the humiliation and vulnerability of the principal and her colleagues “alarming”.
“As principals, we always find our backs to the wall. The principal should have been given enough time to investigate and get to the bottom of things rather than be arrested,” said Terence Ireland, principal of St. James’ School. “A principal is helpless when it comes to monitoring things that are beyond his or her control.”
Malini Bhagat, a former principal of Mahadevi Birla, said: “A mob mentality is dangerous and belies all reasoning. It should not have been allowed to reach this level. If people take the law into their own hands, laws will cease to exist.”
One principal objected to the manner in which Sarkar apologised with folded hands. “If she was not wrong, she shouldn’t have apologised. It conveyed a sense of weakness and gave the impression that she was relenting.”
Sources said Sarkar had agreed to offer the public apology in the face of raised shoes and demands for her ears to be boxed. The police, too, had told her an apology would ease the tension.
Oindrilla’s father did not agree with the manner of the protests. “The parents and guardians had their resentment and they protested but I feel that they shouldn’t have damaged the school. It shouldn’t have been like this, so aggressive (ugro),” said Santanu Das, who has a business of supplying paper cartons.
He added that none of his family members was part of the protest in the school today.
The school authorities lodged a complaint against the mob for ransacking the premises, wrongfully confining teachers and non-teaching staff, committing theft and criminal intimidation, and outraging the modesty of teachers.
None from the mob was arrested till late tonight, though the rampage had been captured on cameras and many of the attackers stayed put on the campus till evening.