Itishree death ignites protests

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By SHILPI SAMPAD AND SANDIP BAL
  • Published 2.11.13
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Bhubaneswar, Nov. 1: The state government today ordered a crime branch probe into the death of Itishree Pradhan, a 28-year-old teacher from Rayagada, who was set ablaze on October 27 for refusing to withdraw sexual harassment allegations against a sub-inspector of schools.

Itishree today succumbed to injuries at a hospital in Vizag, where she was battling for life with over 90 per cent burns.

Chief minister Naveen Patnaik ordered for trial of the case in a fast-track court and announced an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh for the victim’s family even as the school and mass education department drafted guidelines on sexual harassment on campuses.

Opposition parties blamed the state government for failing to protect women and demanded an impartial inquiry into the death of Itishree, who was set on fire in the hostel of Tikiri Upper Primary School, Rayagada, where she was posted as a siksha sahayak since July 2011.

She had alleged that from day one, sub-inspector of schools Netranand Dandasena, who was headmaster then, had been sexually harassing her. When it became unbearable, she informed the police in July this year. But they did not take any action. It was only when she approached the Rayagada district collector S.P. Padhi in August that a case was registered.

Since then, Dandasena had been absconding and indirectly putting pressure on her to withdraw the complaint. When she refused to give in, he hatched a plan to kill her, Itishree had said in her statement before a magistrate after she was set on fire.

The state government suspended Dandasena, who was arrested on Wednesday from Icchapuram in Andhra Pradesh and has been brought on a three-day remand for interrogation. “He admitted that they shared a bitter relationship. We know that he is involved, but want him to tell us about his accomplices, who set the teacher on fire,” said Rayagada sub-divisional police officer, Y. Jagannath Rao.

While the Rayagada police chief suspended the inspector-in-charge and a sub-inspector of Tikiri police station for inaction, district inspector of schools Dharanidhar Pradhan was dismissed from service for failing to act against his subordinate despite orders from the district collector in September.

“After the district social welfare officer inquired into the allegations, the collector asked the district of schools to take immediate action against Dandasena. However, he did not comply with the orders. I feel guilty that the system failed to take care of things,” said secretary of school and mass education department Usha Padhee.

She said though the Supreme Court had issued guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace, the department had no specific provisions for handling such cases. “Our grievance redress cell is supposed to dispose of such cases on an urgency basis. But the laxity of our officials cost an innocent teacher her life,” said Padhee.

“We have now drafted guidelines so that all incidents of sexual harassment are brought to the department’s notice. The officer in-charge of state student helpline and a grievance redress officer will be entrusted with the responsibility of responding to such cases. The draft proposal would be sent for the minister’s approval in a day or two,” she added.

Itishree’s family has demanded exemplary punishment for Dandasena and his accomplices. “How do dubious people get appointed as school teachers? Is my sister’s life just worth Rs 10 lakh? We want the government to give jobs to all members of our family,” said the victim’s brother.

Her death sparked angry reactions across the state, especially from the Opposition parties.

“The incident took place in collusion with police, government officials and members of the ruling party. Otherwise how did the accused, a sexual offender, get a promotion when he was absconding?” questioned senior BJP leader Bijoy Mohapatra.

Congress leader and former law minister Narasingh Mishra called for an impartial inquiry. “I squarely blame the chief minister, school and mass education minister, district collector and the police for their failure to protect the teacher,” he said.

Social activist and former chairperson of State Commission for Women Namrata Chadha also blamed the state administration.

“It takes a lot of courage for a woman to stand up for herself but this incident has exposed the gross absence of a mechanism to protect women. The society is not concerned and officials are busy passing the buck. I appeal to all conscious citizens not to celebrate Diwali as evil has triumphed over good once again,” said Chadha.