Allegation of conversion over suicide by minor girl in TN: SC refuses to interfere with Madras HC's direction for CBI probe, dismisses TN's concerns

THE Supreme Court, on Monday, refused to interfere with the Madras High Court’s order directing investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI] into the death by suicide of a 17-year-old female student at a boarding school in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. The High Court directed the CBI to take over the probe from the state police, which had refused to probe allegations that the girl committed suicide, unable to resist pressures from the school management to convert to Christianity.

A division bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Bela Trivedi said it would issue the notice on the appeal filed by the Tamil Nadu Government taking exception to the certain observations made by the High Court against the state government and the state police, but for the time being, would not interdict the CBI probe.

When the Tamil Nadu government insisted on the stay of the High Court order, Justice Khanna asked it not to make it an issue of prestige.

The bench also issued notice on an appeal filed by The Immaculate Heart Of Mary Society, the Congregation which runs the boarding house. The Society is aggrieved with the certain observations made by the High Court against the school.

The girl, who attempted suicide, died on January 19, after recording two dying declarations, one recorded on a video, by a person known to her family and having affiliation with one of the local Hindu outfits. In this video recorded at the hospital where she was undergoing treatment after the suicide attempt, she apparently alleged forcible conversion as one of the reasons for her decision to end her life. Her other dying declaration, recorded by the police, makes no such allegation. Her death stirred a political controversy in the state. The police refused to investigate the second dying declaration recorded on a private video, which prompted the High Court to direct the CBI investigation to ascertain whether the allegation of forcible conversion has any substance.

Appearing for the state government, senior advocates Mukul Rohtagi and P. Wilson, vehemently contended against the High Court order. Rohatgi argued that the High Court interfered without any justification, and passed day-to-day orders in the case. Suggesting that the High Court could have directed CBI investigation only in exceptional cases without the state government’s consent, as per the Supreme Court’s judgment in State of West Bengal vs. The Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, West Bengal (2010), Rohatgi told the bench this is not an exceptional case at all. The bench, however, told Rohatgi that it would issue notice on the state government’s grievance regarding certain observations of the High Court in the case, but not on its decision to transfer the investigation of the case to the CBI. The observations were a reflection on the competence of the state police, Rohatgi had contended.

Wilson argued that the state government was not made party before the high court; Justice Khanna shot back and said “Police was a party before the High Court”.

Wilson added that the petition that was filed before the High Court had a prayer to transfer the case to the Crime Branch of the state police’s Criminal Investigation Department [CB-CID], and not the CBI. Justice Khanna responded that sometimes what transpires during the hearing weighs with the High Court and the present case is one such case. Justice Khanna told the Tamil Nadu government not to make the issue as one involving its prestige.

Wilson further argued that the High Court judge who passed the order for the CBI probe did not have a roster assigned to him to do so. Therefore, before directing the CBI to take over the investigation of the case, the Judge must have placed it before the Chief Justice of the High Court, he contended. Justice Khanna shot back and said the bench has gone through the papers, and is satisfied with the High Court’s order.

Making a subtle distinction between transfer of the case investigation to the CBI, and directing it to take it over from the state police, Wilson argued that the adoption of the latter course by the High Court, without giving time to the state government to counter it, was erroneous. The bench then asked Wilson whether he wanted a direction to the state government to comply with the High Court’s direction. Wilson continued to insist that even the petitioner before the High Court did not seek transfer of the investigation to the CBI, and it came as a surprise. “The High Court Judge didn’t post the matter for final hearing, and didn’t wait for the medical report”, he said.

A single-judge bench of Justice G.R. Swaminathan on January 23, while ordering the CBI probe, observed that the attempt of the police appeared to be to derail the investigation. He opined that one of the high-ranking ministers in the state government had already taken a stand that it was not a case of alleged forceful conversion.

In its appeal, the state government, among other grounds, has contended that the High Court did not appreciate that since there was a lot of uproar, rumours were spreading regarding the death of the deceased, and misinformation was being spread on social media, the Superintendent of Police [SP] held a press conference to appraise the facts and share available information with the public about the action taken so far and the progress in the investigation. It was in that context, the police had stated that in the preliminary enquiry it was found that there was no information or allegation of conversion by the parents or the deceased. However, the High Court found it against the SP, and observed:

The Superintendent of Police probably forgot the virtues of silence. To a question from a news reporter, she asserted that in the preliminary enquiry, the conversion angle was not made out. Such a statement was unwarranted because by then the private video was already in circulation and the parents of the child have given a complaint alleging that there was an attempt to convert the child to Christianity.

The High Court added: “By stating that the conversion angle stood ruled out, the Superintendent of Police had brushed aside the petitioner’s complaint made in writing and backed by the video of the child. Therefore, the petitioner was justified in entertaining an impression that if the investigation continued by the District Police, it will be biased. But he had faith in the State DGP when he filed this petition.”

The bench didn’t hear the senior counsel for the Society, Nitya Ramakrishnan and the senior counsel for the respondent, Muruganantham, Mahesh Jethmalani, before letting the investigation to continue in terms of the impugned order.