Policemen in combat gear on the Christ Church school campus. Pictures by Amit Dutta
A combined force of 150 lawkeepers, some in full combat and riot gear, watched 2,000 people break the law with unbridled impunity for almost 10 hours at Christ Church Girls’ High School in Dum Dum on Thursday. Barrackpore City Police was in standby mode that day as guardians and outsiders vandalised the 131-year-old school following the death of a girl because of alleged ragging by seniors.
Senior officers who have handled similar situations in the past told Metro that Barrackpore police could have done better.
If a student dies and there is an allegation of negligence against the school administration, the local authorities should keep an eye on the situation. “The child’s death received widespread media coverage but the police failed to anticipate an attack on the school,” a senior officer said.
| Schoolteachers (left) take cover behind a conference table from broken furniture and glass thrown by vandals. Cops look on as a woman protester wields a piece of wood
An officer of the Barrackpore commissionerate said they were “confident” of no untoward incident on Thursday since the school had declared a holiday and the campus was empty. They were caught off guard when people started gathering outside the school gate in the morning and started shouting slogans, he added.
By the time Dum Dum police station sent personnel to the school, the crowd has turned into a mob and tempers were running high. The police were outnumbered, but officers didn’t send for reinforcement. Though some officers took principal Helen Sircar and her colleagues to the principal’s chamber next to the office room for protection, they couldn’t offer mob-proof cover because the cops at the gate did not stop the marauding crowd from entering the building.
A thin plywood partition separated the schoolteachers and the lynch-mode crowd that launched a full assault to reach the room where the teachers were holed up. The cops twiddled their thumbs as broken furniture and iron chairs were hurled at the plywood wall. “Ideally, the police should have sealed the main gate,” a senior officer said.
The police made a mess trying to pacify the crowd after the office room was vandalised. An officer gave a megaphone to a woman in the mob and she used it to instigate the protesters. Around 12.30pm, a Rapid Action Force contingent pushed the crowd out of the office room and sealed it. But the mob still remained inside the building and threw missiles — broken windowpanes and furniture — through the windows. The police told the teachers to duck under the conference table. Instead of taking action against the vandals, the police announced that Sircar was “ready to apologise” to the crowd.
“The sequence of events reveals there was no senior officer at the spot to take decisions. The police can’t stay passive when the situation foes out of hand. When people were breaking computers and property demanding that the principal be handed over to them, the mob should have been dispersed at any cost,” an officer said.
The “back-up” came an hour later. Forces in combat uniform and armed with lathis took position inside the compound, but didn’t lift a finger as the crowd jeered and clapped. The mob tore through the corridor outside the office room. The vandals fanned out — smashing windows, breaking doors and ransacking the conference hall.
The combat force did what an officer told them to: “No lathi should land on anyone.”
Officers in charge of six police stations were on the spot. One of them was smoking outside. Another was overheard complaining that his pocket has been picked: his wallet and cell phone gone.
Seven hours after the mob comprising many women laid siege to the school, an all-woman contingent reached at 5.30pm. The policewomen simply watched the frenzy.
“A wrong signal goes out when the police allow a mob a free run,” a senior officer said.
The crowd thinned after an officer announced that Sircar had submitted her resignation. The police now took their boldest steps: escorted the terrified teachers out of the building and arrested the principal. No attempt was made to arrest the vandals.
Senior investigators said there was no trigger to arrest the principal since she has no “direct complicity” in the case unless someone states that before the police. “A proper investigation should precede an arrest, not for the sake of pacifying a mob. The accused in this case is a respectable person and unlikely to flee,” an officer said.
“There have been instances... the principal of La Martiniere for Boys was arrested four months after a complaint was lodged against him abetting the suicide of a student. There was immense pressure from all quarters, but the investigators took their time.”
“Not a single policeman tried to stop the crowd, apparently afraid that their role will be marked. But it is always better to face criticism for action rather than for inaction,” an officer said.
Sources said the police were obeying instructions from apparently a minister. “Politicians will visit an area and try to talk out the problem… that’s their job. Police should act independently. If law and order spin out of control, the cop on duty will be held responsible not the political leader,” the officer added.
The charges against the principal were slapped in a hurry. Abetting suicide didn’t stand scrutiny while the other charges fail to justify her alleged role in the child’s death.
The police let the vandals go until news channels ran on the loop footage of the rampage and newspapers published photos of people ransacking the building. The arrests for rioting and damaging property came on Saturday — a good 48 hours for many to evade the long arm of law.