The student’s death in Tamil Nadu is being used by politicians to score points against rivals.
Seventeen-year-old Lavanya died on January 19, in Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, 10 days after having attempted suicide. Since then, the question of what drove Lavanya to take her own life has become the topic of a political battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is currently governing Tamil Nadu.
Did Lavanya face harassment and abuse because she had refused to convert to Christianity, as BJP and its associates have alleged? Or was the Tamil Nadu police on the right track when it probed claims that Lavanya was being mistreated by her family?
When the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court said thenTamil Nadu police had derailed the investigation into Lavanya’s death by not investigating the allegations of forced conversion, it seemed to add credibility to the BJP’s allegations.
However, on February 3, the state government moved the Supreme Court, challenging the high court’s interim order that transferred Lavanya’s case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Lavanya’s father has also filed a caveat, requesting the SC to not pass any order without hearing him out.
Trial by media?
Although the case is still underway, the coverage that it received on some English news channels made it seem as though the Madras High Court’s interim order was in fact a final verdict.
On the January 27 edition of the show The Newshour on Times Now, anchor Padmaja Joshi vocally agreed with BJP spokesperson Sanju Verma’s assertion that “the entire focus of the Tamil Nadu police was to deflect, to divert, to derail and to completely debunk the conversion angle and to actually malign the victim and malign the victim’s parents”.
Similarly, the January 24 edition of anchor Anand Narasimhan’s show The Right Stand on CNN-News18 identified Lavanya as a “conversion victim”.
However, another show on a CNN-News18 channel seemed less certain that religious conversion was at the root of Lavanya’s tragic death.
Kallathin Kural, on CNN-News18’s Tamil news channel also discussed Lavanya’s case on January 24 with a panel that had DMK member CVMP Ezhilarasan; Aloor Shah Nawaz of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi; and political commentators Sriram Seshadri and PR Sreenivasan.
While Seshadri raised the question of why the police had not investigated the allegations against the nuns who run Lavanya’s school, Ezhilarasan pointed out that the video evidence of forced conversion was not conclusive. The anchor of the show, Tamilisaran, questioned the motives of BJP members who have been actively sharing the aforementioned video on social media. “Why is BJP only focusing on the communal angle,” asked Tamilisaran, “and is the issue [of forced conversion] an attack on Christians?”
Thanthi TV’s show Aayutha Ezhuthu, anchored by Ashokha Varshini, also questioned the BJP’s insistence that Lavanya’s death was related to forced conversion. “Why did the BJP president mention just the conversion angle and not other angles such as harassment in his tweet?” said Varshini.
The question of why a promising young student like Lavanya died by suicide has been taken up by the BJP and right-wing Hindu organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad, which insist she was driven to take the drastic step because she was being harassed by Christian missionaries. They have also implied that the DMK-run government is turning a blind eye to the issue of forced conversion.
Meanwhile the Tamil Nadu police has maintained that it did not include the allegations of a forced conversion in its first information report because these concerns were not raised until after Lavanya passed away.
Why does the FIR not mention conversion?
So what happened to Lavanya, a Class 12 student of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School in Michealpatti, in Thanjavur district?
According to the Tamil Nadu police, Lavanya was admitted to Thanjavur Medical College Hospital on January 15, after she complained of a persistent stomach ache four days after consuming poison on January 9.
On January 16, the Tamil Nadu police lodged an FIR that said Lavanya had been driven to suicide because she had been physically abused and exploited by school authorities.
A case was registered under sections 305 (abetment of a child’s suicide), 511 (attempt to commit offenses punishable with imprisonment for life) and other relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code. Forced conversion is not mentioned in the FIR.
A senior police officer who is familiar with the case said on condition of anonymity, “The FIR was filed based on the complaint by Lavanya’s father who mentioned nothing about conversion. It was only after the 44-second video surfaced on the internet that the police were blamed.”
The video in question was recorded on January 17, by Muthuvel, the VHP’s district secretary in Ariyalur. According to the police, Muthuvel became involved in the case after he was introduced to the girl’s stepmother – who was identified as Lavanya’s mother in CNN-News 18’s The Right Stand – by another relative.
In a video that’s 44 seconds long, Lavanya is heard saying that two years ago, in the presence of her parents, a nun from her school had asked Lavanya to convert to Christianity. She said the nun’s name was Raquel Mary. When she was asked if she thought her refusal to convert had led to her being abused, Lavanya said that may be the case.
This is one of four videos of Lavanya that would eventually circulate online. In the other three videos, there is no mention of religious conversion. In one, she identifies herself by giving her personal details. In another, she describes the chores she was forced to perform in school and she speaks about her stepmother in the other video.
On January 18, based on a declaration previously submitted by Lavanya, the Thirukattupalli police arrested hostel warden of Sacred Hearts Higher Secondary School, Sister Sagaya Mary, and charged her with abetting suicide.
A day later, Lavanya passed away. After her death, on January 20, the 44-second video was released online by the president of BJP’s Tamil Nadu chapter, K Annamalai.
The second video (which is two minutes and 24 seconds long) would be leaked later. In it, Lavanya said, “I joined the school a little late this year. The boarding school’s sister [Sister Sagaya Mary] would ask me to open the gate and turn on the motor. Even if I did Maths problems right, the sister would say it is incorrect and make me sit for an hour. I was getting lower grades.”
By this time, Sister Sagaya Mary had already been arrested by the Thanjavur police.
A staff member of Sacred Hearts, also requesting anonymity, said Lavanya and Sister Sagaya Mary had shared “a cordial relationship” and the school’s physical training teacher had been paying Lavanya’s school fees for the past two years.
On January 21, Lavanya’s parents approached the police and requested the police probe the conversion angle. They later said the police dismissed their concerns. The police deny this.
The question of evidence
Forced conversion is a serious issue in Tamil Nadu, which passed the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act in 2002 and then repealed it in 2006. “Many studies indicated that conversion is an individual choice and that it helped victims of caste oppression to lead a dignified life. The act created a furore among the state’s minority groups pushing the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] government to repeal it in 2006,” said advocate Sree Harsha.
The Thanjavur police, which was investigating Lavanya’s sucide until January 31 (when the case was transferred to the CBI by the Madras High Court), maintain the case is being misrepresented by those who are pointing to conversion as a mitigating factor.
After conducting an analysis of Muthuvel’s phone, the police have raised questions about the videos.
“It is learnt that many videos were recorded and deleted on the same day. Despite multiple attempts, the girl was not certain about conversion. She only says ‘maybe’ when asked if the school management harassed her for not converting to Christianity,” said a senior police official, on condition of anonymity.
Another police officer pointed out, “The video recorded on January 17 was released on January 20, a day after Lavanya died. If it was released earlier, we would have asked the magistrate to record another statement.”
The Thanjavur police said it spoke to 30 students from Sacred Hearts and recorded statements of six members of the school’s parents’ teachers’ association. None of them mentioned allegations of religious conversion.
Jeyaraj, former president of Michealpatti, told Newslaundry, “This is the first ever allegation of forced conversion in the 163-year-old school. Sixty percent of the school’s strength are Hindus and Michealpatti is a Hindu-dominated village.”
Newslaundry independently spoke to six residents of Michealpatti and all of them said they had not encountered any attempts at religious conversion at Sacred Hearts. Two parents said they had found the school supportive and helpful.
“The school management was considerate even when I paid her fees late,” said a parent whose daughter graduated from the school last year. Another parent said, “The school management never restricted my daughter from wearing a hijab.”
Allegations against Lavanya’s family
A Chennai-based reporter who spent time in Michealpatti to cover the story said forced religious conversion was not a topic of concern for locals.
“Even random villagers we spoke to didn't agree to it [allegations of forced conversion by Sacred Hearts]. In contrast to the claims on these debates [on English news channels], villagers from Michealpatti actually accuse Lavanya’s stepmother for ill-treating her,” said the reporter.
Lavanya’s parents said they no longer wanted to speak to the media, but other relatives did speak to Newslaundry. They pointed fingers at Lavanya’s stepmother, alleging she mistreated Lavanya.
One relative, requesting anonymity, said when Lavanya came home from boarding school, she was kept at a distance from the rest of the family and made to eat from a plate and glass that were assigned as only hers.
A member of Sacred Hearts’ staff told Newslaundry that Lavanya had preferred to stay in the boarding school during vacations.
A political journalist who has been following the case pointed out that while BJP members had circulated the video of Lavanya on her deathbed, they had “sidestepped” any discussion of Lavanya’s stepmother’s role in her suicide.
“Annamalai and BJP have been very careful to not mention the stepmother angle and the stress the girl underwent. They completely sidestepped the issue and focussed on religious conversion. Why didn’t he hand over the video to the police earlier? Why was the video kept under wraps for three days? BJP found a fertile ground to politicise and so they changed the narrative,” said the journalist, requesting anonymity.
Last year, Lavanya’s great-aunt had called a helpline to complain that Lavanya was being harassed by her stepmother. According to the police investigation, Lavanya was “not forthcoming” when officials questioned her in the presence of her parents, following her great-aunt’s complaint.
The mother of a student who knew Lavanya said that it was common knowledge that Lavanya’s stepmother mistreated her. “Lavanya shared the tales of harassment with her friends and school management,” she said.
The Tamil Nadu police says it was probing the allegations of harassment at school; the allegations of forced religious conversion; and complaints of ill-treatment by Lavanya’s stepmother.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, we urge you to seek help. Please call one of the helpline numbers listed here or contact a mental health professional.
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