'If teacher had sexual intent, he would have gone further': how police diluted a POCSO case

  • A Class 1 student of a top school in Kasaragod alleged her Arabic teacher repeatedly fondled her.
  • Police concluded the girl misunderstood the teacher's affectionate touch
Child abuse
Representational image: Canva

Kasaragod: On January 31, when a sexual abuse case of a six-year-old girl came up before the Additional Sessions Court I for framing of charges against her Arabic teacher, the judge expressed his disapproval of the investigation in the open court.

In the final report, submitted by the then investigating officer - Inspector Babu Peringeth, the grave charges of aggravated sexual assault against Arabic teacher Abdul Hameed K (53) were dropped, and a lesser charge of cruelty under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, popularly called JJ Act was introduced. "This is like abusing the system," the Additional Sessions Judge said in the open court. A case registered under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (PoCSO) Act is shifted to JJ Act, he said. The charges were not framed against the accused that day, and the next hearing is scheduled for March 23.

The case file shows that the police never arrested the accused -- an Arabic teacher of one of the biggest government-funded schools in Kasaragod -- though his petitions for anticipatory bail were rejected thrice, twice by the sessions court and once by the High Court of Kerala. He also moved the High Court to quash the FIR in January 2017 but withdrew it in August 2017. Later, his wife filed a petition in the High Court expressing unhappiness with the police investigation. It was also dismissed in February 2018. "The accused was clearly resorting to legal manoeuvring to evade arrest and prolong the investigation," said a court official privy to the case.

But the girl's fight for justice was dealt a body blow when Babu Peringeth, now a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP), dropped the sexual assault charges despite her giving consistent statements to the police twice and to the judicial magistrate once.

Once the charges were downgraded, Abdul Hameed moved the court for the fourth time for anticipatory bail, and the Sessions Court granted it on April 26, 2018.

According to the Class I student's statements given to police back then, the Arabic teacher molested her repeatedly since she joined the school in June till August 2016. "There is a 'bedak' (bad) master in our school. I am fed up of going to school," she told police in her statement.

The girl also told the police that the teacher used to hold her back and only checked her notes after he inappropriately touched her.

When contacted, her mother still sounded furious about how the school handled her daughter's complaint. "At night, she would run a high fever, and the mention of school made her shudder in fear," her mother told Onmanorama. "I was confused because my kid was bright in studies," she said.

According to the girl's statements to the police, she first opened up to her class teacher, who ignored her complaint. Only after that, she told her mother. "I wanted to chop off his hands. I took up the matter with the school and then with the police," she said.

More than seven years on, Abdul Hameed is teaching in the same school. The girl, now in class VIII, is in a private school.

Representational image
Representational image.

'Girl misunderstood teacher's loving touch'
The case was first investigated by Vidyanagar sub-inspector Raju K. After taking the statements of the girl, her mother, and other teachers of the school in the first week of September 2016, the sub-inspector pressed three counts of aggravated sexual assault against Abdul Hameed. The officer invoked Sections 9 (f), (m), and (l) of the PoCSO Act against Abdul Hameed for repeatedly sexually assaulting a girl under 12 years by a teacher. If convicted, the accused would have to serve five to seven years in prison.

In December 2016, more than three months after the alleged incident was reported, the then Vidyanagar Station House Office - Inspector Babu Peringeth took over the investigation.

The same month, around 82 teachers and non-teaching staff members of the school submitted a mass petition to the then District Police Chief S Surendran, vouching for Abdul Hameed's character and debunking the complaint. To be sure, the school with 6,000 students has more than 150 teachers.

However, the management of the school said it was not submitted on its bidding. The school management does not interfere or intervene when teachers are accused of a crime, said a top official. "Sometimes, police complaints are filed against teachers for resorting to corporal punishment. They have to face the complaints on their own because if we intervene, that may send a wrong signal to teachers," he said.

Nevertheless, investigating officer Peringeth took the statements of the teachers only eight months later in August 2017. He took the girl's statement in December 2017. "My girl gave the same statement though they were recorded more than a year apart," said the mother.

All these months, Abdul Hameed was engaged in "legal manoeuvring". Once, after rejecting his anticipatory bail petition, High Court Judge Sunil Thomas ruled on June 22, 2017: "I feel that the benefit of pre-arrest bail may hamper the proper investigation. Hence I am not inclined to grant bail." But there was no attempt to arrest the teacher.

On March 25, 2018, investigating officer Babu Peringeth submitted his final report that concluded that the allegation that the teacher's touch had sexual intent "did not seem logical".

"The girl said the teacher touched her from chest to stomach. If there was any sexual intent, he would have gone further," according to the report, found Onmanorama investigation.

The report cited another reason, too. "The accused is a primary school teacher who teaches students from Class I to IV. But there are no such complaints from students from higher classes," it said.

"The teacher behaved with love and care. The teacher's affectionate touch created a misunderstanding in the student. This behaviour, though without the child's consent, has no sexual intent. It can be seen only as a non-sexual assault," it said.

However, his actions caused mental harassment to the child as revealed in the child's statement, the report said, and recommended that the teacher be charged with Section 75 (cruelty) of the JJ Act.

Peringeth's report also diligently quoted the student as saying that the teacher touched her from above her uniform and not from inside, as she mentioned in her first statement. It also quoted the student as saying she did not report to the class teacher about the incident.

However, an advocate privy to the case said the PoCSO Act did not distinguish between sexual touch from above the clothes or under the clothes.

DySP Babu Peringeth, who is now with the Crime Branch's Economic Offences Wing, said he vividly remembered the case. "It was all a case of misunderstanding. The teacher appreciated students by patting them on their backs after they did an assignment well. He did that with all students but that girl misunderstood his touch," the officer told Onmanorama.

'They came to us offering money'
When Onmanorama contacted the girl's mother, her first reaction was of surprise to know the case was still in the court. "I thought the case was closed because the teacher is continuing in the same school. So, I realised our words have no value. My kid's experience has no value. My kid stopped going to school out of fear," she said.

She said she did not compromise because she "did not want other students to have my child's experience". "But we got no support even from the teachers. One teacher asked me if my kid had a similar experience before. My kid was only 6 years old. What experience was she talking of!" the mother said.

She said a "powerful person" supporting the teacher reached out to her family to back off from the case. "They came to us offering us money to withdraw from the case. We said no. In today's world, only those who have money and influence have a life. It is intelligent for us to stay within our limits. But our honour and esteem cannot be bought," the mother said.

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