By Thursday evening, the 11 students of Class 11B at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Panapakkam, a village near Vellore, were exhausted. “I just got up and went home at 5.30 pm after the special class. But I decided I wouldn’t tell my parents about what had happened to us in school,” says one of them.
The 11 girls were allegedly threatened with dismissal from school unless they brought their parents along the next day. On Friday, four of them killed themselves by jumping into a well in the village, about a kilometre away from the school.
On Saturday, as half a dozen students of 11B stood waiting for ambulances from Vellore General Hospital to bring home the bodies of the four girls after their postmortem procedure, the girls shared stories of that harrowing day at school that had left many of them insulted and intimidated.
“Our Tamil teacher was giving out answer sheets of the quarterly exam. My friend Sankari got only half a mark for a two-mark question. She called me from the backbench, where she was sitting, and asked me how much I had got. I said I got full marks for that question. The teacher caught us whispering, got angry and shouted at us. Sankari told the teacher that we were only asking each other’s marks. She called us names, said she would report us to the headmistress and left the room. After that, we went home for lunch and when we came back, the entire class was asked to assemble at the ground,” said the girl.
Sankari’s body was among those fished out from the well on Friday.
The girls told The Sunday Express that the special assembly turned out to be a public trial, where headmistress Rama Mani and the other teachers allegedly picked on students, scolded them and threatened them with action for their “bad behaviour” – talking in the classroom, talking back and being disrespectful to teachers.
“They said we were worse than ‘Mumbai dons’. Another teacher blamed our behaviour on our parents lack of education. We were all shivering and crying as the headmistress threatened to issue us transfer certificates,” said one of the students, talking through her tears. She was among the 11 whom the teachers had singled out.
The girls said the entire class stood in the school ground between 2 pm and 4.30 pm. “The teachers even gave us our botany answersheets while we there. I had got 17, full marks. But the teacher shouted at me too, saying full marks were of no use if I wasn’t disciplined. They told us to continue standing there, both hands raised, our botany sheets in one hand,” she says.
Later, they were made to sit, after which the teachers allegedly singled out 11 students and said they were the worst of the lot. “Every time we tried to explain, they got angrier and hurled insults at us,” says one of the girls.
She says Sankari, Revathi, Manisha and Deepa — the four who committed suicide — were among those who cried throughout this ‘trial’. At 4.30 pm, as the other students left, as punishment, the 11 were sent back to their classes for a special class of one hour.
“We were told to bring our parents the next day. Sankari was scared as her father was very short-tempered. Revathi parents are daily-wage labourers in Chennai and she stayed with her grandmother. We were all scared about how our parents would react,” she said.
“We were all upset that we had been scolded and called names – naai (dog), erumai (buffalo) and so on. Before we left for home, Sankari, who was the most upset, took down all our signatures on a sheet of paper. We didn’t know why she did that. I don’t think she knew either because she tore the paper soon after. Then, she told us to reach school at 8 am on Friday,” says another girl, adding that most of them didn’t tell their parents about the incidents at school. “Even if we had brought our parents, the teachers would have insulted them in front of everyone.”
One of the girls, who was not in school on Thursday, says that on Friday, when she walked into the classroom, “everybody was talking about how Manisha and Sankari were missing, that they had left their bags on the desk”.
By 10 am, news of the missing students reached the headmistress and she summoned some of the students, among them Sankari’s relative in Class 12. “Where are those dogs,” the headmistress allegedly shouted at her. “I told the headmistress what I knew. On Friday, when I reached the school at 8.10 am, I saw Sankari and Manisha cycling out through the gates. They looked sad. I told them to wait till I had parked my cycle inside, but they simply said ‘bye’ and left. The headmistress asked me to take Sankari’s bag to her parents and inform them that she was missing,” the girl says.
By noon, a senior official from the education department reached the school. Sankari’s “best friend” says, “The official asked me about Sankari, if she had boyfriends.”
Meanwhile, some of the students and the families of the missing girls began looking for them. Two of the girls said they were with Manisha’s parents when, at Samathvapuram Anna Nagar village, less than 2 km from the school, they spotted the girls’ bicycles near a well. “We spotted chappals too. When we looked inside the well, we saw one set of chappals floating,” said a student, breaking down.
At their home, Saraswathy, aunt of Revathy, one of the girls who died, is inconsolable, “Her parents are in Chennai and I was taking care of her and her grandmother. What will I tell her parents now?” Nearby, Revathi’s 9-year-old brother is busy preparing for his sister’s funeral.
About 500 metres away, the loud wails at Deepa’s house rise about the din of the powerlooms. Deepa’s cousin Kavitha says Deepa always rode her bicycle to school, with Revathy riding pillion.
“Sankari’s mother is a farm labourer. She usually leaves home at 6 am and comes back at 6.30 pm. Since she has no phone, she didn’t know of the incident until she came home. But by then, they had taken Sankari’s body for the post-mortem procedure and the mother is still waiting,” says Sankari’s neighbour Susheela.
Repeated calls to headmistress Rama Rani went unanswered.
Pradeep Yadav, Principal Secretary, School Education Department, says two teachers, including the headmistress, have been suspended. “I am waiting for a detailed probe report. The teachers found guilty will face severe action,” he said.
Vellore SP P Pakalavan said, “Our probe is on. There have been no arrests so far. It is a case of suicide.”