(Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identities.)
Vellusami quietly sat next to me in the People’s Watch van as we traveled from Madurai to Chennai. He barely moved the entire journey. No nervous twitches or uncomfortable shifts as he sat upright for nine hours.
I admired his style. He had a big frame for a South Indian man. He was tall with broad shoulders. He made up for the lack of hair on his head with a bushy, eight-inch-long salt and pepper beard. (The white salt in his facial hair clearly dominated the darker pepper strands.) Sitting calmly in his white lungi and metallic grey shirt, he reminded me of Santa Claus with South Indian nationalist sensibilities.
We only exchanged a few words during the drive – including the standard “hellos” (vanakkam), the “have you eaten” (saapidachaa?), and other small talk questions. I didn’t know what else to say. We were heading to a public hearing organized by the Human Rights Law Network. I wasn’t sure if he was a victim of a human rights violation, a witness intent on helping someone else seek justice, or a human rights defender. All I knew was that he had a real reason to be going to this hearing. I wasn’t sure if I did.
While sitting in the audience of the public hearing the next day, I anticipated Vellusami’s testimony. I wanted to know who he was. I wanted to know why he was there. He approached the podium and told the story of his son Arvind.
On February 26th, 2009, Arvind, a ninth grader at a local government secondary school, passed a love letter in class. He didn’t even write it. His friend wrote it to a girl classmate a few seats down the row. When the girl received the letter, she was apparently embarrassed or not impressed. She immediately gave it to the teacher.
This resulted in a beating. After reading the note, Arvind’s teacher took his cane and repeatedly hit both boys until the stick broke. He then headed to the neighboring classroom, took another teacher’s cane and continued the thrashing. According to reports conducted by People’s Watch, the public beatings and verbal castigation continued for multiple days and involved several teachers, the letter recipient’s father, and even the school headmaster. However, the boy who initially wrote the letter was relieved from this abuse because a family member who worked at the school protected him. The blame was placed solely on Arvind.
Embarrassed and injured, Arvind lost hope. On March 2nd, 2009 he committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Vellusami’s last vision of his son was his mangled corpse.
At the hearing, he spoke rapidly but without emotion. You could tell that he had recounted this story dozens of times, perhaps hoping that sharing these details would somehow forge the path of justice for his son. But attaining justice hasn’t been easy. Amidst threats from school officials, Vellusami registered a complaint with the local police station. The police did not take any action. He then submitted a complaint to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) with the help of People’s Watch. The SHRC, following their typical pattern of inefficacy and negligence, forwarded the case back to the police authorities who took no action in the first place.
In the meantime, Vellusami’s wife never recovered from the trauma. She became severely mentally ill and is unable to care for herself. So it is up to Vellusami, a mourning father who’s faced severe trauma in his own right, to continue to fight for his son.