Reading between the lines Does the burning of a private school in Manipur reflect a larger malady ?


Ninglun Hanghal
One of the oldest and 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 April 25. Two leaders of the Kuki Student Organisation (KSO) Gunpi Block, namely, David Jamminlen Baite and Thangkhanlal Haokip were immediately arrested by the police. Later on May 2,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 general public came out on to the streets, condemning the incident and calling to nullify the student organisation - KSO. On the other hand, since the incident, Kuki Students Organisation – specially Gunpi Block has been making public statement and declaration clarifying their non-involvement and denying their hand in the arson of the school.
Prior to the incident, the school entry gate was also forcibly locked by the student body - as KSO and the school authority could not come to an agreement in a case involving suspension of six girl students from the school. According to one of the student leaders, the school authority were not willing to withdraw the suspension of the six girls. The KSO’s stand being 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 - as it is a matter of the student’s future.  This proposal was not acceptable 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 his “mischief” in the class. The girl was against the physical punishment of the boy. This did not go well with the teacher who gave the same punishment to the girl for daring to argue.  Following that the girl’s friends in support of her, had vented out their anger against the said teacher on social media. The outpour which went viral, caught the attention of the school authorities. In re-action to the social media post, the school authorities immediately suspended six girls - including the girl 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 April 26, but the incident the night before suddenly brought the case to a different direction.    On 7thMay, KSO leaders alleged that the three arrested members of the student body were tortured in the custody. A media releases of the student organisation 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 KSO shall cooperate with the investigating authority but to incriminate KSO Gunpi Block executives of the arson through threat and coercion, manipulation, and false evidences will never be tolerated. Their patience was waning the KSO statement said, and warned that KSO will be compelled to launch a state wide agitation if the KSO Gunpi Block executives are not released soon. The three detained innocent executives 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 will not be tolerated. They said that they were impartially investigating the case and appealed 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 May 13, the Police named seven persons including some of the KSO’s Gunpi block leaders as accused in torching of the school. They are said to be evading arrest and the police appealed for information of their whereabouts.
Sugnu’s St.Joseph school incident is the first such case where a student organisation has been allegedly accused. There has been numerous incident of catholic schools being targeted by militants in the state of Manipur – killing of priest, destruction of infrastructure, intimidation of school authorities, students et al.
Private schools – which are mostly Catholic schools, are the top performing in Manipur. These schools top the list in terms of any board exams in the state and students there mostly come from the elite sections of the society. Such institutions also provide free education for the members of 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 focus on “discipline” and beating is common with use of cane and wooden stick.
Comparatively in Manipur, government schools lagged behind in terms of producing good result and many score a zero  in the pass percentage of board exams. Students of such government schools are considered “inferior”.
It may be mentioned that with the booming of private schools, there is mushrooming of   “private tuition” where students go after school. In most cases, the same school teacher will be teaching at the 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)
Courtesy The Statesman