Kerala High Court grants bail to headmistress accused of cutting hair of a tribal boy in school

The Kerala High Court granted bail to the headmistress for offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 for allegedly cutting the hair of a fifth standard boy from a Scheduled Tribe community on the ground that the fundamental element of intention is doubtful. 

THE Kerala High Court recently granted anticipatory bail to Sherly Joseph, a headmistress in a Christian-aided Kottamala Mar Gregorious UP School in Chittarikkal in the state’s Kasaragod district.

She was accused of forcefully and publicly tonsuring the hair of a fifth standard boy belonging to a Scheduled Tribe community. The act is an offence under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, (SC/ST Act)1989.

Brief facts

The victim complained that on October 19, 2023, while attending the morning school assembly, the headmistress used scissors to cut his hair in the presence of other teachers and students.

The victim was asked to trim his hair but refused, leading the teacher to cut his hair forcefully. The victim stated that when he returned to his class, the students mocked and insulted him.

After the incident, the victim met his mother, who was working at a nearby property. He then went along with her but did not divulge the details of the incident to her. Afterwards, the victim showed reluctance to attend school.

Based on the victim’s complaint, dated October 28, 2023, the police registered a first information report against the headmistress for cutting the victim’s hair with the knowledge that he belonged to a tribal community.

Offences punishable under Section 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 read with Sections 3(1)(e) and 3(2)(va) of the SC/ST Act were registered.

Section 3(1)(e) states: “Forcibly commits on a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe any act, such as removing clothes from the person, forcible tonsuring of the head, removing moustaches, painting face or body or any other similar act, which is derogatory to human dignity.”

Section 3(2)(va) reads: “Commits any offence specified in the schedule, against a person or property, knowing that such person is a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or such property belongs to such member, shall be punishable with such punishment as specified under the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) for such offences and shall also be liable to fine.

A case under Section 75 (punishment for cruelty to child) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act (JJ Act), 2015 was also registered.

The headmistress applied for anticipatory bail before the sessions court.

The court found that the prosecution had failed to prima facie establish the offences under the SC/ST Act. However, it denied bail to the accused on the grounds that there is a strong prima facie case to attract offences punishable under the JJ Act.

Before the high court, the counsel for the headmistress contented that she had not committed any act derogatory to the dignity of the victim. Even if the act caused hurt to the victim, she did not commit it intentionally.

The counsel argued that the headmistress having disciplinary control over the victim attempted to enforce discipline to shape his character and growth.

Against this, the counsel for the victim argued that the headmistress is an influential person and she committed the act knowing that it is derogatory to human dignity and that the victim belonged to a poor Scheduled Tribe community.

Lastly, the victim’s counsel informed the court that the victim’s sister and the victim both suffered mental frustration due to the act of the headmistress.

The State submitted that it could place material before the court which suggests that the SC/ST Act is attracted. It requested the court to give the police some time for custodial interrogation of the headmistress as the “weapon” used for the alleged act had not been recovered.

Before the police, the victim alleged: “Shirly teacher is Christian. The teacher knew that I belonged to the Malavettuva community. The teacher forcefully cut my hair while I was attending morning school assembly with the intent to insult me.

The victim reiterated the allegation while giving a statement to the magistrate under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The statement of the victim was supported by his mother.

After the incident, an inquiry was set up but the manager of the school did not find Joseph guilty of the alleged offences. However, she was suspended. Reportedly, she absconded thereafter.

What did the Kerala High Court say?

While perusing the material placed before it, the Kerala High Court noted that the complaint was filed with a delay of ten days.

Justice K. Babu acknowledged that the material placed before it shows that the headmistress was genuinely interested in the welfare of the students.

It said: “There are materials to show that when the victim and his sister regularly absented from the school, it was the appellant who brought them back.

Based on all this, the court asserted that the necessary mens rea of the headmistress to commit the alleged offences is ‘doubtful’.

It held: “At the most, it could be seen that the appellant being a school teacher having disciplinary control over the victim exceeded in the corporal punishment on the victim. Therefore, I am of the view that there is no prima facie material to attract the offences under the SC/ST (PoA) Act.”

The court similarly found that the intention of the headmistress to commit an offence under the JJ Act is doubtful based on the material placed before the court.

It referred to Gurbaksh Singh Sibbia & Ors versus State of Punjab (1980) and Sushila Aggarwal versus State (NCT of Delhi) (2020) and held that while considering the anticipatory bail application, the court must consider the nature of the offence, the role of the person, the likelihood of him influencing the course of the investigation, or tampering with evidence, and the likelihood of fleeing justice, etc.

Based on the precedents, the court found that the prosecution had not argued that the headmistress would abscond. Nor was it their case that there was any material to show that she would influence the course of an investigation or tamper with the evidence.

Considering all this, the court granted anticipatory bail to the headmistress provided that she would fully cooperate with the investigation.

In this case, the Kerala State Commission of Human Rights had taken a suo moto cognisance of the incident.

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