Tuesday 28 June 2022
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VHP, BJP ensuring message from death of Lavanya not lost on people

The VHP and BJP are fighting in hostile territory, as the police and bureaucracy of the DMK favour the defence put up by the Christian school

While mainstream media is trying all out to play down the circumstances that led to a teenager’s attempted suicide leading to her eventual death last month in the idyllic, rice and sugarcane-growing Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu, activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are constantly in touch with the grieving family. The image of a 17-year old Lavanya in a hospital bed has now gone viral in the state as much as in the real world, with posters showing her during her last moments plastered everywhere.

Some posters demand ‘Justice for Lavanya’ while other political posters promise her family government jobs if they win the local body elections. The basis of the dispute over Lavanya’s death is a police complaint, two videos, a stepmother, the warden at her convent school and the battle over conversions to Christianity. The video on Twitter clearly had her say the missionary coercion translated to unbearable harassment, due to which she had to take the extreme step. Her father Muruganandam and his wife Saranya now say the truth will finally come out after the Madras High Court ordered transferring the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on 31 January. “Lavanya only took this step because she was being forced to convert. This would not have happened otherwise. My daughter should be the first and last victim of this,” said the grieving father.

Describing Lavanya as a happy, carefree girl, Murguanandam said the management of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School was forcing her to convert to Christianity. She was a Class 12 student in the said school. According to the father, when Lavanya refused to convert, they tortured her and forced her to sweep the floors, cook and clean in an alleged bid to humiliate her. The problem is that Lavanya’s father had not mentioned forceful religious conversion in his initial complaint to the police on 15 January. Now, he vehemently asserts that the school warden had been troubling Lavanya for the past two years, forcing her to convert.

On 20 January, a day after Lavanya succumbed to her suicide attempt injury on 19 January 2022, Muthuvel, the district general secretary of VHP in Ariyalur, recorded two videos featuring the victim in her hospital bed. When asked whether the school was harassing her because of her refusal to convert, she is heard saying that it could be the case. She could be heard naming two of the school wardens, Raquel Mary and Sagay Mary, in the video. She accused Raquel of forcing her to convert and Sagay of making her do extra work. Police in Thanjavur the second suspect but could not get enough evidence against the first.

The VHP district general secretary says he knew the family through a distant relative. He says that he recorded both the videos on 17 January at Lavanya’s stepmother Saranya’s request. That gave the media an excuse to nitpick, asking why the videos were released on not before 20 January. Muthuvel but insists he had submitted the videos soon after her death.

The media is asking also why there are two videos instead of one and why Lavanya did not mention conversion in the second. Muthuvel explains: “She was suffering from shortness of breath so we took a pause and gave her time to relax, therefore there are two videos.”

Then the media asks why Lavanya’s declaration before the judicial magistrate, three days before her death, did not mention religious conversion.

The VHP activist accuses the police of the DMK government of harassing him because of the videos before the Madras High Court. He says his phone was seized after he released the videos online. The police, that led the investigation before the CBI took over, alleges that Muthuvel had not cooperated with them during their probe.

The VHP accuses the DMK government and the police of being partial to Christians by rejecting the religious conversion accusation as its leaders keep visiting the grieving family. “We are not communalising the incident. In this case, someone has tortured her for religious conversion and not allowed her to study here and have induced her to die by suicide and so this is murder,” says Muthuvel, “The police department and the DMK government did not consider the conversion angle. They are supporting Christianity and working for one side.”

Meanwhile, as the police seized Muthuvel’s phone, the VHP has brought in Ashok, their satsang pramukh in Ariyalur, to talk to the media. “I joined the organisation a year and a half ago. My only aim in joining the organisation was to spread the message of Hindutva. We want to increase our membership and have many ideas lined up. For the time being, we are organising a roadblock to demand ‘Justice for Lavanya’,” said Ashok.

When help from no other quarter is arriving since the DMK government assumed office, the VHP is using its network in and around Thanjavur to sensitise the people. A police officer says that due to the support that the organisation gets from the BJP, the VHP has “taken the law into their own hands” (sic) several times and its activists have been “high-handed” towards Islam and Christianity.

In Ariyalur, the VHP is but struggling in its fledgeling state despite the 1,500 odd members it has garnered in the past two and a half years. Lavanya’s father says the VHP has been a constant source of comfort for the family.

Meanwhile, BJP is adding to the efforts of the VHP, making Lavanya’s death a rallying point in the state, demonstrating against the local administration and police in public places. Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai, actively pursuing the case, damned the DMK government as well as their police force for a “cover-up”. On 1 February, a delegation of BJP leaders from Telangana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, comprising Geetha Vivekananda, Sandhya Ray, Vijaysanthi and others, met district collector Ponraj Oliver to ensure Lavanya gets justice.

BJP spokesperson Narayan Thirupathy says his party was fighting against forced conversions in the state, especially in the coastal and southern areas. “There has been a substantial increase in people turning to Christianity and many new churches coming in the last 2-3 decades. These are very clear signs of conversions,” he says.

Thirupathy says the promise of free education and job opportunities were luring individuals into the Christian fold. “ BJP will fight for a law against forced conversion. We need a law for it. Forced conversions is not a fundamental right,” he says.

The DMK, at the opposite end, claims that the BJP is just attempting to “communalise” the issue but failing at it. “They (BJP) only know how to divide people. Whoever investigates this will find there is no mass conversion in Tamil Nadu. The state is a rational-minded society where everyone is equal, this is due to our Dravidian principles,” said DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai.

But a party that had gone crazy with its membership drive seven years ago does have a fair share of black sheep. An unnamed source told ThePrint in a report edited by a Christian journalist, “I have studied in a Christian missionary school myself. Here there is no problem between religions. This is wrong and should not be raised.” Another party worker, ThePrint claims, said the state leadership “had not even consulted the Thanjavur unit to understand the facts of the case before taking on the conversion angle”.

Meanwhile, the management of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School in Thanjavur’s Michaelpatti, situated approximately 50 km away from Ariyalur since its inception 160 years ago, seems to have intimidated its 670 students from classes 6-12 enough to save their skin. Now several classmates of Lavanya and her teachers claim Lavanya chose to end her life because of the “torture” she faced at home from her stepmother. They claim that she usually stayed in school during holidays and refused to return home to her village. “At one point after a long break when she came back to school, I saw marks all over her body and a burn wound on her palm,” says a Christian student called B Florence Gladia, who says she was Lavanya’s classmate for over five years. “She did not like going home and would stay in the hostel even on holidays.”

But Lavanya returned home to her during the Pongal holidays and, on 9 January, consumed poison, says her Christian classmates. Initially, her parents took the symptom of stomach ache for side-effects of the Covid-19 vaccines she had recently been administered. When she could not bear it anymore, the family rushed her to the nearest government hospital where the doctors confirmed poison ingestion. A cop says, “Lavanya did not reveal for six days that she had taken poison. It was only after the doctors said she had ingested it, that she admitted it.”

But it takes more than hostile religions to build a narrative in India or anywhere else in the world. Followers of the native faith help them in ample measure. Lavanya’s batchmate Shereen Priya claims that the victim often complained of her stepmother’s “abuse” in the hostel. “On most holidays, she preferred to stay in the hostel itself and would not go back home. She never complained against the hostel warden.” Priya added that “no religion has ever been forced on us in the school, even my grandmother studied here”.

The family filed the police complaint on 15 January, which accused hostel warden Sagay Mary of harassing Lavanya. Based on this complaint, the warden was on 16 January on charges of abetment to suicide. That very day, Lavanya recorded a statement before the judicial magistrate where she repeated what the world has now heard via Twitter from the video a VHP activist had posted, as mentioned above.

Now, somewhat like Akhilesh Yadav’s rule in Uttar Pradesh where all who mattered in the administration were Yadavs, the district collector, who is supposed to have a stand on a crime where the nature of Christianity is the accused, is a Christian: Ponraj Oliver. He says the investigation involved three officers due to its sensitivity. One of them, according to the Christian collector, noted that the police questioned about 70 odd people over the course of the inquiry, involving students, staff members, relatives, alumni and other locals.

The collector finds two loopholes in the probe. First, the delay in releasing the two videos by the VHP member. Two, as a cop pointed out, why Lavanya did not speak up against abuse at home. But the bureaucrat cites also another policeman who claims two years ago, some relatives of Lavanya had filed a complaint against her stepmother, saying she used to heckle her stepdaughter. As of now, however, the local administration and police cannot divulge further details because of service rules against speaking on matters that are sub judice.

A that is home to about 2,500 people, Michaelpatti is a Hindu-majority backwater but with many churches spread across its terrain. Headmistress of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School Arokai Mary says most students in her school are locals and 70% of them are Hindus.

In the aftermath of Lavanya’s death, there is heavy security deployment in the lane just outside the school building. Sister Arokai Mary says the school is “traumatised” by the arrest of Sagay Mary and hopes the truth will come out soon.

The school has meanwhile fielded another teacher who tells reporters anonymously that the school had never faced any case of forceful conversion in 160 years. “That is not our intention. They can probe as much as they want. We will also help them,” she says.

In a repeat of Ravish Kumar’s “darr ka mahaul hai” credo, which the NDTV journalist uses to project India as Islamophobic, the media is quoting one Christian after another from Michaelpatti who are “fearful of raking up religious discord”.

“Politicians have constructed the issue and it is completely false,” said Raj, who runs a shop right outside the school. Macwin Godson, a 19-year-old alumnus of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School, says that all religions and communities live very peacefully in Michaelpatti. These Christians have reportedly complained formally to District Collector Oliver against “groups with religious connections” without naming these groups. According to the petition, communities have peacefully coexisted in the for over five generations and the villagers also demanded that no “independent committees” must be allowed to be formed by political parties or religious outfits to conduct inquiries in the village.

The collector cites the 2011 census that says Thanjavur has a 5.57% Christians population, numbering nearly 1.3 lakh people, which has remained a steady percentage for the past 11 years. Christians also make 6.12% of the entire population in Tamil Nadu, numbering at about 44.18 lakh, he says.

The police have, meanwhile, disappointed Lavanya’s family. What is ironic, her father Muruganandam was once a member of the DMK but left it because he had reportedly been marginalised. He says that the police did not speak to him, but the police deny the charge.

Lavanya’s father, with a humble earning of Rs 6,000 a month, recalls that Lavanya was a topper in her school and was worried that teachers would put down negative remarks in her report card if she did not listen to the warden. The memory that troubles Muruganandam all the more is the fact that Lavanya’s mother had committed suicide too: in 2013. He married Saranya, with whom he has three sons.

The father of the victim says Lavanya spoke of the harassment she had allegedly suffered because she refused to convert to Christianity when she returned home in January. Saranya echoes him, saying that Lavanya had been going to that school for five years but the harassment began only once she was in Class 10. “I only got to know when she was in Class 11 that she was handling accounts for the warden and had gone to Trichy to submit some accounts. She was even made to clean floors and cook.”

Now villagers gossip, with a section speaking for Lavanya’s family and another against them. A few endorse what her school says in its defence, but a neighbourhood shopkeeper disagrees, saying that Saranya had a pleasant demeanour and would not trouble anybody. There is a neighbour called Thamilselvi who claims she would often hear complaints against Lavanya’s stepmother and had also witnessed the two fighting whenever she was back home. “One does not know what happened. I know there were problems but I also don’t know what happened in the school. The truth should come out.”

Meanwhile, the VHP and BJP are fighting in hostile territory, as the state dispensation are ideologically as well as politically averse to the Sangh Parivar.

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