For three years after the sexual abuse of her four-year-old daughter in kindergarten, a mother has endured callous responses from the school, a shoddy chargesheet, indifference from commissions set up to protect children and a slow legal grind. The trial has not yet started
New Delhi: "How can I erase my memory? It isn't a blackboard," she said in response to my advice to remember only the good moments and memories in her life and do away with the bad ones as she went about talking in detail about that unfortunate incident in her life. Her reply hit me hard. I agreed with her. Forgetting and forgiving aren't easy.
My seven-year-old daughter has had her share of bad experiences—and quite early in her life. I watched the fear unfold back when she narrated her trauma to me for the first time in the dead of the night of 18 November 2017. She was all of four-and-a-half years old. Even today, three years later, the pain in her voice was palpable.
Earlier, these conversations with her about what happened would leave me rattled and perturbed. Now I try to deal with it differently, with the courage to give her a patient hearing whenever she wants to talk about it.
She tells me how her classmate, a boy, in her kindergarten class had touched her inappropriately, twice, sitting on the last bench of the classroom. He had even inserted a pencil in her private parts. She tried to stop him, but there was no teacher or helper around. She remembers that her regular class teacher was absent that day, and the substitute had stepped out of the class, leaving the helper in charge of this class of four-year-olds.
This grave negligence on the part of the school authorities to leave a kindergarten class without appropriate supervision for those crucial minutes—13 as the CCTV footage would eventually reveal—wreaked havoc on my child, scarring her young mind and teaching her that "boys are bad".
I have watched her relive her trauma time and again. I have been doing the same for these past three years after filing the FIR (first information report) and attending court hearings.
On the last hearing, the court finally took cognizance, first to my objections to the chargesheet, and subsequently to the supplementary chargesheet, and summoned the school chairman and director on 24 February 2021.
A Daughter’s Ordeal
On 17 November 2017, my daughter came home scared but unable to comprehend, let alone articulate, what had happened to her. She was clearly in pain because the boy had touched a sensitive part of her body with “dirty hands” (she explained that he hadn't washed his hands after eating food, and “touched me” is what she later told the magistrate in her statement).
The pain got unbearable and finally on the night of 18 November 2017, a Saturday, she asked me to apply ointment on her private parts because it was hurting. When I saw her condition, I was aghast.
This is when she told me of her ordeal. The school is a child's second home and the safest place. How could something like this happen there?
It was close to midnight, so I sent a message to the class teacher. That night was long and restless for us. The next morning, a Sunday and coincidentally, World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse, I called the class teacher to be told that I could visit the school on Monday and they would look into the matter.
My next call was to the primary school coordinator who said that if it happened on the classroom's last bench, how would the teacher know? I called the school principal. The call went unanswered. I sent her and the school director an email.
Meanwhile, my family doctor asked me to rush my daughter to the nearest hospital for medical care. The doctor there confirmed the assault and informed the police immediately.
It was already past noon on 19 November but the school remained incommunicado. The class teacher called at 12.43 pm and I told her that the doctor had confirmed the assault. The principal was quickly looped in and she finally called me. I had just one question for her: How could something like this happen in school? She had just one response: Come tomorrow and we will meet. I asked her, “If it was your daughter would you wait for Monday?”
The police swung into action and asked me to lodge a complaint at the Dwarka South police station in Sector 9, which is what I did. All this while, the school authorities chose to remain indifferent, insisting that I call the school counsellor and speak to him. They assembled in the school as I had insisted and found nothing amiss. The school coordinator sent me an email asking me to come and meet them the next morning.
At around 9.30 pm, I wrote my complaint and submitted it to the station house officer (SHO) at the police station, blaming the school for gross negligence and putting the onus of my child's safety and security on the school authorities.
But when the police registered an FIR, they filed a case only against the minor boy for rape, letting the school go scot-free. There was no mention of any charge against the teachers, principal or management for its reckless irresponsibility or role in my child's trauma that took place on its premises. Why did the police ignore their role?
The next morning (20 November), the police called me to the district court to register my daughter's statement. When we reached there, the investigating officer asked me to go to the school where he, the SHO and additional commissioner of police were already discussing the matter with the school authorities.
My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter showed the police all the places where she had been on Friday and the path that she took on her way out of the classroom that day. I also met the school's counsellor who warned me of the impact of such an incident on my girl's growing up years, and I cringed all the more.
Then we returned to the court where she recorded her statement before the magistrate, and in the same sequence that it happened. It was clear that she was petrified. She didn't want to go back to school, saying it was a “monster” and all boys are bad. I withdrew her from the school immediately.
On 21 November, late in the evening, I received a call from the school management who was “appreciating my concerns.”
But my child needed to start her life anew. No school here in Dwarka was willing to give her refuge. Some shared the same school management, others said they had no vacancies and still others, I learned later, were told that the “mother is a trouble-maker”. Thanks to one kind soul who stepped in from nowhere and put me in touch with Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia who intervened to get her back on track. Another kind soul, the principal of a leading school in Dwarka, came forward and took my scarred and scared child in her fold.
Who’s To Blame?
After looking at the CCTV footage, I realised that the teacher was missing for a good 13 minutes on that day when this incident happened. I asked the Delhi Commission For Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) to take cognizance of this in its report. I asked the police to do the same. I approached the education department and CBSE to take note of this incident and take some action against the school because its guidelines issued in the wake of the Ryan School murder had been flouted.
But while CBSE kept mum, the education department conducted a probe and found nothing amiss because the so-called investigation was carried by the CBSE nominee of the school, the principal of a government school, and a member of the school's management committee. It sent me a curt mail saying, “Accordingly, the necessary directions have been issued to the school to give effective counselling to students and to act promptly and deal with such sensitive cases with utmost care. The child has got shifted to another school on your request. The matter is still under investigation with police authority/DCPCR.”
The Delhi Commission of Women chief, Swati Maliwal called me to her office and assured me that she would take it up if I sent her an email. On 24 November 2017, the DCW registered a complaint. Unbelievably, it was in the name of my four-year-old daughter (case number 17148880) and she started receiving summons addressed to her to present herself before the Commission even though her name wasn't mentioned anywhere in my email to them.
I kept on requesting the police to book the school for negligence, apart from not informing the authorities on time. A case under section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act, and section 6, 21 of POCSO was filed but with glaring loopholes.
The school director paid an unannounced visit to my place on 8 December 2017 and asked me to withdraw the case. I told her I would fight for justice for my child tooth and nail, come what may.
It was at this point that advocate Anshul Narayan made this battle his own by joining me as the counsel on this case. A shoddy chargesheet ignoring many crucial pieces of evidence, including the director's visit to my house and facts was submitted on 15 January 2018, following which a protest petition was filed by Anshul in April 2018. In response, the police took eight long months to file an equally sloppy supplementary chargesheet in December 2018.
It took another two months for Anshul to receive a copy of this in February 2019, but it was minus the crucial documents submitted by the police to the court. He spent the entire year waiting to get hold of the documents in support of the supplementary chargesheet. Finally, two years and 20 dates later, we got a certified copy on 17 January 2020.
The Covid-19 lockdown brought everything to a grinding halt and the hearing in this matter resumed in July 2020. The court after going through the protest petition filed against the chargesheet and objections filed against the supplementary chargesheet by Anshul and after hearing him at length, has taken cognizance against the chairman and director of the school and has summoned both under Section 75 of the Juvenile Justice Act.
The order that came on 24 December is a victory of sorts because it nails the police's shoddy probe. If only it had been a watertight one, my counsel and I wouldn’t have to drag ourselves like this for so long.
I would like to know why POCSO cases take this long to get on track? Why do schools get away so easily when their role in negligence and a complete dereliction of duty? Why don't we care enough for our children to safeguard their physical, emotional and mental well-being?
My daughter’s emotional and mental scars are not visible to the outside world, but they remain. The trauma of this incident that she bore for no fault of hers is something she will have to live with forever.
In these three years, the only thing that kept me going is the thought of seeking justice for my daughter and other children, most of whom suffer in silence or have parents who either don't report it or give up because the tardy process takes a toll on them.
The battle for us seems unending. In this case, the trial is yet to commence even after three years. That is akin to punishing the ones who are seeking justice for negligence in safeguarding the basic right of a child to seek safety in school premises. That's the real travesty.
As my counsel Anshul says, “Justice can be delayed but not denied.” So it will be.
(*Under the law, the minor child may not be identified, which is why we are concealing the name of the mother.)