The students have returned, to classes in the open, held below trees in the school field. The attendance, at 80 per cent, has limped back to near normal for this 60-year-old primary and middle government school of 400-odd students. Only one routine has changed: before the mid-day meal is served, the principal says, he tastes it. Says a 14-year-old student of Class 8, surrounded by giggling friends, “Our parents were scared others might attempt what she did.”
‘She’ is a 13-year-old girl, of a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria district, accused of poisoning the school’s mid-day meal. Located in the lower reaches of the Himalayan Terai, the village is part of a picture postcard gram panchayat settlement, comprising 50 per cent OBCs, 30 per cent in the general category and 20 per cent Scheduled Castes. To the Gond Dalit family to which the girl, a student of Class 8, belongs, that scenic beauty hides a caste divide, and the 13-year-old’s story is the story of that rift. To the other side, it’s a straightforward case of an elder sister trying to avenge the death of her brother during a scuffle with a Yadav boy.
On July 21, an additional sessions judge gave the 13-year-old bail, noting that the only evidence against her was that she was found “standing next to” a pot containing dal for the mid-day meal, that had mysteriously turned black.
A sample of the dal, sent to the Ramnagar Forensic Science Lab in Varanasi for tests, later tested positive for aluminium phosphide, a toxic compound. But, says SHO, Bankata Police Station, Devender Singh Yadav, “We are still left with the question of who added poison to it. The principal’s complaint is very vague, there is no solid eyewitness account and the cooks seem to be giving tutored answers. It is also strange the dal was ‘poisoned’ only after all the children had finished eating. The court gave the girl bail taking these aspects into consideration.”
The food for the mid-day meal is incidentally supplied from the house of the pradhan, a Yadav.
The news of a schoolgirl involved in an alleged diabolical plot to poison her school had made it to the local newspapers. As she was led away by police, the reports claimed, the girl said she would have poisoned the water tank of the village next.
The people here are agreed that an incident of “this magnitude” has never happened in their gram panchayat, which comprises five villages.
The details tumble out in a breathless rush. It all began with another midday meal, they say. On April 3, an 8-year-old Yadav boy pushed a 6-year-old Gond girl out of the queue at lunch-time. The miffed girl walked up to her 11-year-old brother. The brother demanded an explanation from the 8-year-old, and a fight broke out. In the scuffle, the Yadav boy allegedly picked up a brick and threw it at the Gond student’s head. The 11-year-old fell to the ground, unconscious. He was declared brought dead at the district hospital, 40 km away, where he was taken.
The principal admits he did not reveal the details of the incident to the boy’s parents at first, telling them he had succumbed to an epileptic attack. “Should I have saved the child’s life or told them the truth and started a fight between the families? I lied to pacify the parents,” the 40-year-old says.
The 8-year-old accused of assault was eventually detained on charges of culpable homicide and under the SC/ST Act (offence punishable with up to 10 years). He is currently lodged in a juvenile home in Gorakhpur.
According to the case made out against the 13-year-old Gond girl, she waited three months to carry out an elaborate revenge for the death of her brother. On July 17, she was reportedly found standing next to the kitchen where the pot of now suspect dal was kept.
Says the cook in-charge of the mid-day meal that day, “The 13-year-old had insisted on eating her meal in the kitchen that day, and not with her classmates. Suddenly I noticed the changed colour of the dal.”
Asked if she saw the girl put anything in, the cook, 36, says, “No, but I saw her quickly rinse her hands. The water turned black too.” Another staff member says that a day earlier also, the girl had wanted to eat in the kitchen. The school authorities assert she may have been trying to poison the dal then too.
The news of the ‘poisoned’ food spread fast as students rushed back home, and angry parents in turn came to the school. The pradhan’s son, Jitendra Yadav, says a mob of a thousand people demanded that the girl be handed over to them. “The teachers saved her by locking her up in a classroom till police and my father reached.”
The girl was charged with “attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life”, and sent to a juvenile home in Mirzapur district, over 200 km away.
At both homes, there is disbelief at what happened. The mother of the 8-year-old Yadav boy, who met the Express on the school premises, doesn’t argue back as others talk about her son’s aggressive nature. Later, she says quietly, his father’s frequent beatings had left him angry and violent.
The principal, teachers and the pradhan’s family say they tried to mediate, offering compensation to the Gond family, but the latter didn’t budge. Noting that the Gonds sat with the 11-year-old’s body for three days till a police report was lodged, the mother of the Yadav boy says she didn’t think an apology would help. “They were so angry they would have killed us.”
The Gond family lives in a ramshackle hut in a neighbouring village, that has a mixed population. Breaking down frequently, the parents bring out court documents and other papers. “They killed our child, and lied to us… Why have the teachers and principal not been arrested?” asks the father.
The mother accuses the pradhan of siding with the Yadavs, and claims he has been trying to grab the land their house stands on. “Our house is on prime property. I bought this from a Pandit, who later sold the land for a higher rate to the pradhan. We are locked in a court case over this,” the father says.
The 55-year-old pradhan, Indrasan Yadav, denies the land dispute had anything to do with the incident. “That is a separate matter. All I know is the school administration saw the girl poison the food.” Incidentally, his recollection of the dal is different. “It was a strange whitish colour,” he says.
The 13-year-old, who returned home after staying in the juvenile home for four days, speaks up only after a lot of persuasion. Denying she poisoned the dal, she sobs, “Why would I do that? I had gone back to study at the school after my brother’s death despite my parents asking me not to. I begged that it was a matter of only one year before I would move to another school for matriculation.”
Including her, there are eight siblings now, the eldest 20 and the youngest a pair of twins aged 5. None has been going to school since the July 17 incident. The family says they are afraid of the children being harassed. “We will admit them now to another government school where news of the incident has not reached,” the father says.
Struggling to support the family by selling snacks off a pushcart — he hasn’t gone to work for days now, doing rounds of the court — the 52-year-old hopes his children will continue to study. The boy who died helped out as a ragpicker.
Education also means more than jobs for the community. The Gonds are viewed as trouble-makers and thieves by the Yadavs, and have several police cases against them. Pradeep Arya, a fellow Gond who has been helping out the girl’s family, says he too faced cases, and that many like him have found a place in the thriving Bhojpuri entertainment industry. He is a Bhojpuri singer and DJ, having dropped his Gond surname along the way. “I am a big name. Google it,” he smiles.
Arya adds that he has arranged for the 13-year-old to continue schooling at a nearby English-medium private school.
The principal says the school could take her back “if she is found innocent”. However, he makes a distinction between the Yadav boy’s hand in the death of the Gond schoolmate, and what the Gond girl reportedly did. “The first incident was an accident and must be forgiven. But the second, of her taking revenge, was premeditated and cannot be forgiven if she is really guilty.”
Arya recites mythology to explain what is happening here. Once, he says, Lord Shiva and Parvati were building a hearth and needed bricks. There were two wells nearby, one well-built, the other old and weak. When Parvati fetched a brick from the newer one, Shiva disapproved, saying we must break from that which is already broken.
“They break that which is broken,” Arya says. “No one touches the big man.”