One of the oldest and most popular Catholic institutions in Manipur, St Joseph Higher Secondary School situated in Sugnu, about 70 km south-east of Imphal, went up in flames on the night of 25 April.
Two leaders of the Kuki Student Organisation in Gunpi Block — David Jamminlen Baite and Thangkhanlal Haokip — were immediately arrested by the police.
Later on 2 May, Peter Mangkhohao Lhungdim was arrested from Imphal. The three were placed under IPC section 436/447/506/34 and are in judicial remand.
The following day students and the general public came out on to the streets, condemning the incident amid calls to nullify the KSO.
On the other hand since the incident, the KSO, especially its Gunpi Block branch, have been making public statements and declarations clarifying their non-involvement in the arson of the school. Prior to 25 April, the school entry gate was also forcibly locked by the student body as KSO and the authorities could not come to an agreement in a case involving the suspension of six girl students from the school.
According to one of the student leaders, the school authorities were not willing to withdraw the suspension of the six girls. The KSO’s stand was that as the parent-teacher meeting had taken place and an apology had been tendered by the students, the suspension must be revoked.
Most importantly with the quarterly examination coming up, they said it was a matter of the students’ future. This proposal was not accepted by the school authorities who said that the “girls were not good students”.
It so happened that a girl student of Class IX was punished by the teacher. She had raised an objection when one of her classmates was punished for “mischief” in the class. The girl was against the physical punishment of the boy.
This did not go down well with the teacher who gave the same punishment to the girl for daring to argue. Following that the girl’s friends came out in support of her and vented their anger against the said teacher on social media.
The outpour, which went viral, caught the attention of the school authorities. In a reaction to the social media post, the school authorities immediately suspended the six girls including the one who was punished.
According to them, the girls were suspended for defaming the school. While several attempts were made for taking back the girls, the school authorities remained adamant.
The final round of meeting was scheduled to be held on 26 April but the incident the night before suddenly brought the case to a different direction.
On 7 May, KSO leaders alleged that the three arrested members of the student body were tortured in custody. A media release from the KSO stated that Lhungdim had to be hospitalised due to physical harassment. It stated that the physical torture and continuing judicial remand of the three executive members of the KSO, despite their innocence, was unacceptable.
They also said that the KSO shall cooperate with the investigating authority but incriminate its Gunpi Block executives of arson through threat, coercion, manipulation and false evidence, would never be tolerated.
Their patience was waning, the KSO statement said and warned that the student body would be compelled to launch a state-wide agitation if the Gunpi Block members are not released soon. The three detained members, whose guilt has not been established, should be released unconditionally, the statement demanded.
On the other hand, the police denied the claim of the KSO stating that it was an attempt to defame them and that such baseless accusations would not be tolerated. They said that they were impartially investigating the case and appealed to the public for information about the culprits.
The police in an official communication to the media also stated that sectarian tension and defamation of St Joseph School is building up through social media forums.
Moreover, on 13 May, the police named seven people, including some of the KSO’s Gunpi Block leaders, as accused in the torching of the school. They are said to be evading arrest and the police appealed for information about their whereabouts.
Sugnu’s St Joseph School incident is the first such case where a student organisation has been allegedly accused. There have been numerous incidents of Catholic schools being targeted by militants in Manipur — killing of priests, destruction of infrastructure, intimidation of school authorities and students, et al.
Private schools, which are mostly Catholic, are the top performing in Manipur. These schools top the list in terms of any board exam results in the state and students there mostly come from the elite sections of society. Such institutions also provide free education for members of the Catholic community who are less privileged.
Gaining admission to these institutions is considered a matter of pride and students of these schools are considered to be “privileged”. These institutions are strictly focused on “discipline” and beating is common with the use of a cane or wooden sticks.
Comparatively, in Manipur, government schools are lagging behind in terms of producing good results and many scores a zero in the pass percentage of board exams. Students of such government schools are considered “inferior”.
It may be mentioned here that with the booming of private schools, there has been mushrooming of private tuitions where students go after school. In most cases, the same school teacher will be teaching at home/private tuition.
Sugnu’s St Joseph school is perhaps reflecting some sort of a deep failure of the school education system.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Imphal and Dimapur)