17 Years of Solitude

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The psychological abyss that the Suryanelli rape victim and her family have been living in because she dared name PJ Kurien

For the person known as the Suryanelli girl, this is the seventeenth year after she was kidnapped and gangraped by 42 men over a period of a month. Her family spends all its time praying—they are devout Christians. They have God, about the only thing they have, but she does not go to church. She does not go to the cinema. She does not participate in festivals. She does not go shopping. She does not go for marriage ceremonies. She does not even go to funerals. She gets on a bus in the morning every day, goes to the office and comes back home in the evening. She has 13 colleagues in office, some of them relatives of the accused in her case. The atmosphere is not friendly. “They openly show their hatred of me,” she says. On her way to office by bus, co-passengers stare at her and whisper to each other. “People sometimes call up others and show them ‘the rape story girl’,” she says.

On 16 January 1996, she was reported missing from her remote village of Suryanelli in Idukki district. After 40 days, she turned up at the post office where her father worked. She later told her mother of her horrific experience. She had had an affair with a bus conductor, who used her photographs to blackmail her into going on a trip with him. She took the bus with him. He disappeared on the way, a part of the plan. She was then befriended and kidnapped by a woman, turned over to a man called SS Dharmarajan, who raped her and then took her all over Kerala. As many as 42 men raped her at different times. She was then sent back, 16 years old at the time.

When she reached home, there were wounds on her body and genitals. She couldn’t even walk properly. Two weeks later, she saw a newspaper photograph of PJ Kurien—then a Union minister and now deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha— and recognised him as one of her rapists. She alleged that he had raped her at a government guest house in Idukki. The family’s complaint to the police that Kurien was one of the rapists gave the case a momentum beyond their comprehension, and set them on a road of horrors worse than those they had already known.

It was the year of both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Kerala. During the campaign, the CPM had made the rape an election issue to target the Congress and Kurien. Suddenly, newspapers like Malayalam Manorama that are close to the Congress changed their tone about the girl. Until then, they had been sympathetic to her. Now they started alluding and sometimes even directly referring to her ‘immoral track record’. She was accused of eloping with her boyfriend, though that was not the case. The family came under immense pressure to withdraw the charges. The police told them it would ruin the girl’s future and the family’s reputation. They were spurned by relatives, isolated by their social circle, but they refused to drop the case.

Kerala’s first ever special court to try a case of sexual assault was formed, and the trial began in 1999. The chargesheet accused 41 people of conspiracy, abduction and gangrape of a minor girl. PJ Kurien was not among them; the investigating team exonerated him, citing his alibis. In 2000, the court convicted 35 and sentenced them to terms ranging from four years to life. Four were let off; two, including the main accused Dharmarajan, were absconding. In January 2005, the High Court of Kerala acquitted all the 35 accused on appeal. Dharmarajan, who had been caught by the time, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but not for rape. It was for dragging the girl into the ‘sex trade’. The High Court found that she had crossed 16 (she was 16 years and three months old when she was abducted), the age of consent for sex, and ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove the absence of consent.

Meanwhile, the girl had filed a petition in the Peerumedu magistrate court against Kurien being absolved by the investigating agency. The court found there was prima facie evidence against Kurien and asked him to face trial. He filed an appeal in the High Court. The litigation went on till 2007, when he was let off on grounds that all the 35 accused in the case had been acquitted. The Supreme Court approved the High Court’s judgment and dismissed the appeal filed by the girl. Kurien had the best of lawyers—Arun Jaitley, the BJP leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, represented him in the Supreme Court.

Eight long years have passed since the High Court acquitted the 35 accused. On 31 January 2013, the Supreme Court, expressing shock over the High Court judgment letting off the accused, ordered a retrial with a judgment to be made in six months. The case, which had been dormant, became a national issue following the girl’s fresh plea to the Supreme Court to also book Kurien in the case. Kurien’s alibis of 1996 have begun to unravel one by one. Recently a Malayalam news channel interviewed Dharmarajan, who is again absconding, and he told them he had led Kurien to the guest house.

I first met the girl in 1999. When I met her last week, I was appalled to see that little had changed in her life. Rape victims do often make the journey from victim to survivor, but not this one.

Initially, the family had been staying in Suryanelli at quarters allotted to her mother, who was a nurse in a tea estate hospital. “When we were staying there, we had tremendous support from the estate labourers .We were safe. After her retirement, we shifted to our own house at Suryanelli. It was an isolated place. There were very few houses around. Domestic tourists would stop in front of our house to have a glimpse of the ‘Suryanelli girl’. People even used to come inside the house, unmindful of our shame and agony. For them, it was part of their picnic,” says her father, a retired government employee, now over 75.

After the High Court verdict, the family went away from Suryanelli. In 2006, they bought a house at Chingavanam in Kottayam. They chose this place because it was isolated. “When we came here, there were only one or two houses around. It was good for us, since we did not have to face anybody,” says the girl’s mother. But the shift did not help them rebuild their lives.

They stayed disconnected from everything and everyone even as new houses sprung up in their neighbourhood and people moved in over the span of a decade. They were anyway spurned by relatives, who were against their persisting with the legal battle. In 2000, the girl was given a job by the LDF government—a bottom grade employee in the sales tax department. What seemed like a lifeline then eventually became a trap. In February 2012, she was arrested for forgery and corruption over a two-year-old case. The police version is that she had failed to remit Rs 2.26 lakh and the corresponding ledger was found missing. Anila George, a lawyer who has been helping the girl all along, says it was a clear frame-up. “This case was actually closed in 2010. That office was notorious for corruption. She had remitted the money and entered it in the book, but curiously the book went missing. She was told there was no proof she had actually remitted the money. Her colleagues advised her to raise that amount and remit it as early as possible. Her family mortgaged the gold they had and did so. There was a departmental enquiry and three employees, including the girl, were given punishment transfers. Everybody was under the impression that the file had been closed after her transfer. Nobody, [not even] the girl and her family, had any clue that a secret enquiry was still on against her.”

The arrest was unexpected. She was waiting for the bus to go to office when the police came and picked her up. She was remanded, sent to jail and got bail only after a week. There were two more people involved in the same graft case, but only she was put in jail. Suja Soosan George, an office bearer of a CPM-backed cultural organisation, says, “It has to be noted that this case resurfaced when her appeal was listed in the Supreme Court.” She feels that it was a deliberate move to convey a message to the Supreme Court that this girl cannot be trusted. Character assassination all over again.”

There has been no local support for the family and their self-imposed exile is partly responsible for this. “I came to know that the Suryanelli girl is living in this locality only a couple of years ago,” says a local leader of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women’s Association). Local collectives like Kudumbasree are also not aware of her presence. Anita Sabu, a former panchayat member in the locality, agrees that there has been hardly any intervention to generate support for the family. “The people have an aversion to them. They all keep their distance,” she says. When the girl was languishing in jail last year, there was hardly any support from the employees’ union she was part of. “They turned their back on her. It was SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India) that helped the girl get bail,” says Anila George.

The 31 January Supreme Court verdict bears hope for the family. “I hope my daughter gets justice before I die,” says her father. Recently, television channel India Vision did a sting on Justice R Ba- santh who had delivered the High Court judgment letting off the 35 accused. He now practises in the Supreme Court. The sting caught him on camera saying, “She was a child prostitute. It was not rape. She used to misuse the money given by her father to remit the school fees. She was a child with a bad track record.”

He also said the Supreme Court judges had not read his judgment carefully, which could invite contempt-of-court action against him. But a careful reading of his judgment can only lead to the conclusion the Supreme Court reached. Because Justice Basanth’s judgment even links the girl’s childhood habit of wetting her bed to the rape. Her sister used to wash her clothes after she wet her bed. The judgment noted, ‘It shows that she had the tendency to make others responsible for all she does.’

While acquitting the rapists, the judges totally ignored the medical report, in itself telling evidence of the rapes and torture she had endured. The medical report is elaborately quoted in the judgment. Yet, the conclusion reached was that there was no evidence of resistance.

Paragraph #94 of the judgment says: ‘Vaginal examination was painful, vulva was oedematous. There was infection. There was purulent foul smelling discharge. PW73 (The doctor who examined her) says intra-uterine contraceptive device can also cause infection. In chief examination, he says that “she would have suffered severe pain during the sexual act if it had continued as stated by her during the period of infection”. In further cross, he says that, he examined vaginal wall and that he did not find it lacerated. He also agreed that during violent intercourse “laceration in vaginal wall occurs posterior”. In further cross-examination by the accused, he answered specific questions as follows:

“On the condition you had seen when PW3 (the girl) was examined by you, I put it to you that it is not possible to have sexual intercourse with PW3 (Question) It is possible provided force and intimidation is used (Answer).

If force is used, she would cry loudly (Question) Yes (Answer)”.

PW3 has no case that she had even wept while during the alleged rapes continuously, much less any loud cry. Even on the night of 24/2/96, there was, allegedly, rape on her. In spite of that no resistance mark was found on her body. According to PW73, the Doctor “there were no signs of evidence of resistance”. According to him, sign of resistance is the most common feature in a case of rape and as she was subjected to violent sexual intercourse “there can be signs of resistance”.

Thus, the medical evidence in this case also does not offer any specific and satisfactory probative corroboration to the testimony of PW3.’

This seems to be the convoluted logic—because her vagina was so badly infected, she would have to be in considerable pain during any sexual act, and she would weep from the pain. Because she didn’t weep and there were no signs of resistance, the sex must have been consensual.

Contrast this with the observation of advocate K Bhadrakumari, a practising lawyer in the Kerala High Court, who met the girl on the fourth day after her return: “There was swelling and inflammation all over her body. Her mother told me that pus and blood was flowing out of her vagina even after four days of her return. She was neither crying nor talking. She turned up frozen.”