Ground Report: Body of a 13-year-old Dalit Girl Was Found Hanging in a Bihar School, Family Alleges Murder
Shakuntala's family says the police is trying to shield the accused by terming the death a 'suicide'.
March 22. Friday afternoon in Semraon village of Bhojpur district, Bihar. Satyanarayan Ram’s house is situated towards the end of the Dalit tola. Upon reaching the house, the family members invite me to sit on the charpai. They say that the last rites of thirteen-year-old daughter would be performed today.
Satyanarayan Ram (50) belongs to the chamar caste and works as a raj mistri. He tells NewsCentral24x7, “This is about the truth. Why would my thirteen-year-old daughter commit suicide? If there was a love affair, she could have eloped. The incident happened at around midnight and the security guard informs me in the morning at around 10.30. He did not even tell me exactly what had happened. He just said ‘your daughter is serious’. When I went there (to the school), I saw that my daughter was hanging with a noose around her neck.”
He adds, “A boy wrote a letter addressed to another girl. What does it have to do my with my daughter? But the administration is using the letter to make this an issue of a love affair.”
On March 15, the body of Satyanarayan’s daughter Shakuntala Kumari was found hanging in the toilet of her school, Kasturba Gandhi Aavasiya Balika Vidyalaya (Charpokhri, Bhojpur). The school administration alleges that she committed suicide due to a ‘love affair’. He family on the other hand, claims that she was murdered. The matter is currently under investigation.
In 2004, Government of India had started the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) initiative in order to provide education to girls of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes in remote areas of the country. Several such residential schools are being operated in Bihar and in other parts of the country.
In block Charpokhri, this residential school is situated merely 3 kms from Semraon village. Shakuntala’s family says that despite the small distance, the school administration did not inform them of her death in time.
Shakuntala was studying in grade VIII. Till grade V, she had studied at the school in the village. After that, her parents admitted her to the KGBV.
When asked about the last time she had spoken to Shakuntala, Chinta Devi (45), her mother, tells NewsCentral24x7, “Last Sunday (March 10), I had gone to visit her. She was running out of essential items and had asked me to buy soap-detergent. She had asked for a cream also.”
She added, “Earlier, she had complained regarding the food (at the school). She had told me that she had complained to superiors about Poonam didi (Hostel warden Poonam Devi).”
Chinta Devi recalls the conversation she had with Shakuntala two weeks ago. “That day, according to the menu list, eggs were to be served. Hence, Shakuntala had asked Poonam didi if eggs would be cooked. To this, Poonam Devi had said, ‘Will we do everything you say? You’re so sharp that you have complained to the higher-ups?”
Chinta Devi further says, “Shakuntala would often say that food is not cooked according to the menu and that didi gets the students’ signatures and prepares the bills.”
“Because of Shakuntala’s complaint, the hostel denied her food-water for three days. They called me to the school and said that your daughter speaks to someone on the phone. I told them that she does not have a phone. ‘She steals my phone and talks’, alleged Poonam didi,” Chinta Devi says.
Dalit students at the school allegedly made to cook, sweep and clean bathrooms
Six-seven other girls from the same community in Semraon vllage also study at the school. They told NewsCentral24x7 that they are made to do sweeping-cleaning in the hostel and each of them have even been allotted separate days.
Visibly shaken, they are reluctant to speak. One of the girls said that they are made to do, “jhadoo, ponchha and chapakal (run the handpump)”
Shakuntala’s elder sister Seema told NewsCentral24x7 that the girls are made to cook food and clean the bathrooms as well.
Murder or Suicide?
Shambhuram, Satyanarayan’s cousin, told NewsCentral24x7, “When we reached the school, the police was doing paperwork. They called me and Satyanarayan and asked us to sign on some papers. The daroga said ‘what is the need to read this, just put your signature down.'”
He adds, “The police showed us two papers. On one, eight-ten mobile numbers had been jotted down and on the second, there was a letter addressed to a girl named Madhu. This is the paper that the police is using to save the accused.”
Locals are enraged at the incident. They are convinced that the matter would be suppressed by framing it as that of a love affair gone bad. Many locals say that they have seen the girls being made to apply cow dung outside the school.
A local CPI-ML leader, Kailash Pathak, told NewsCentral24x7, “the mobile numbers were written down on the paper precisely to make the incident appear as that of a love affair. Even the school in-charge confirms that the girls are not allowed to keep mobile phones in the school.”
He adds, “The child was bright and had raised her voice regarding irregularities with the food. She was beaten up after she had registered a complaint. Her food was stopped, and two days later, there was news of her suicide.”
Regarding keeping mobile phones at the school, a grade VI student, Chanda Kumari says, “No one in the hostel had a mobile. Even while going from and coming to the school and the hostel, Shakuntala did not speak to any boys.”
She adds, “Shakuntala was a good girl, she was happy.” When asked if she thought Shakuntala could commit suicide, she says “No”.
Family given empty assurances of arrests, compensation
According to NCRB statistics, Bihar has the second-highest number of cases of atrocities against Dalits, after Uttar Pradesh. In 2016, 5,701 such cases had been registered in the state.
Semraon village and surrounding areas has a large population of Dalits and backward classes. Following the incident, people had staged protests but the news was buried in the middle pages of local newspapers.
Santyanarayan says, “When we blocked the roads after the post-mortem, senior police officials came and told us that there would be arrests and that we would also get compensation. Leave arrests, the hostel warden Poonam Devi has been sent on leave. We haven’t received any compensation either.”
Shambhuram adds, “When we met Aarah Public Welfare officer, he said ‘a case of murder has not been registered, how would a compensation be given. You should speak to the SP.’”
Semraon village falls under the Agiaon assembly constituency. Prabhunath Ram of the JD(U) is the sitting MLA from here. When contacted by NewsCentral24x7, he said that he had met the family two days ago (March 20) and that he is taking care of the legal process.
Regarding the help received by the MLA, Shambhulal says, “Prabhunath Ram belongs to our caste and we have studied together. Bhavdi (a local custom of invitation) runs between our families. However, he has not visited the village yet.”
Even though almost ten days have passed since the incident, police authorities have not reached any conclusion. Piro sub-divisional officer, Dr Sunil Kumar told NewsCentral24x7, “The truth is a matter of investigation. An FIR has been registered. A team led by by the Special District Magistrate has also conducted an inquiry.”
Regarding what was found during the investigation, Kumar only says, “It will become clear only after the investigation is complete. The girl was found hanging so it does not necessarily mean that it is a case of suicide.. and similarly, it is does not necessarily mean that it is a case of murder either.”
Piro Sub-divisional Police Officer Ashok Kumar Azad told NewsCentral24x7, “An inquiry committee headed by the SDM has been set up. You can ask the committee.”
Locals are dissatisfied with the action take by the police. They say that no arrests have been made even several days after the incident. Pathak, the CPI-ML leader says, “The police here wants to deny justice to a Dalit girl. This incident clearly shows that it is a failure of the Nitish Kumar government.”
This report was written in Hindi and has been translated by Mitali Agrawal. You can read the original Hindi report here.