In 1996, she was 16. She was raped by 42 men in 40 days. Since then, the attempts of the woman, forever known as ‘the Suryanelli girl’, to live a life with dignity have been derailed by public ridicule and an endless legal battle. Our writer meets the survivor of one of India’s most infamous rape cases and discovers how, nearly 18 years later, her ordeal continues; how we won’t give her justice but remain pruriently obsessed with every detail of her life

By KR Meera | Grist Media – Mon 21 Oct, 2013

  • “I’m scared about which officer is going to take charge at my office. The person who was in charge earlier was a good man. But he retired yesterday. I was shattered by rumours that someone who used to work in the office earlier has asked to be posted here again. He was one of those who tormented me the most…”

She speaks with a faded smile. Her voice has the innocence of a schoolchild. But in her eyes and voice is a detachment. Self-conscious about her body, she shrinks in a chair across the table.

The three inhabitants of that house seem like lifeless objects – the 75-year-old father, the 70-year-old mother, and she, a 33-year-old. Sofas, a TV, chairs around a dining table spread with books and medicines.

Her father’s face is swollen and marked by the pain of sickness. He speaks little, and that softly. Her mother speaks continuously, panting a little. Both have heart ailments. Her father is diabetic, among other things; her mother has bronchitis and uterine problems. Their condition stirs alarm in us, and anxiety about her. But she has few anxieties — because there’s little that can trouble her beyond the horrors she has experienced already.She was 16, when she became the victim of the first child trafficking case that shook Kerala. A Class 9 student from a village called Suryanelli. Raju, the conductor of the private bus in which she travelled to school, pretended to be in love with her. He morphed a nude body onto the head in a photograph he snatched from her hand and threatened to publicise it.

As an alternative, he promised to marry her and lured her out of school. Than was on January 16, 1996. A woman called Usha sat next to her on the bus, pretending to be a stranger. At Kothamangalam, Raju disappeared. Usha approached the frightened girl, and promised to escort her to a relative’s house in Mundakkayam. Usha took her to Kottayam instead.

A protest against PJ Kurien and retired HC judge R Basant. Photo credit: Harris Kuttipuram Madhyamam

Advocate Dharmarajan awaited them. He took the child to a lodge, where he raped her. He then took her to Ernakulam, Kumily, Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and then back to Kumily, selling her to 42 men over a 40-day period. When she protested, she was drugged and beaten. Then, three women called Usha, Zeenat and Mary, along with autorickshaw driver Jamal, took over ‘responsibility’ for her.  They served her up to many ‘big shots’.

On 26 February, she showed up at the post office where her father worked, a bloated, half-dead figure. The miseries she had experienced came to light. The list of those who had assaulted her included the name of PJ Kurien, a former professor of physics, at the time a Member of Parliament and Union Minister and today, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. (Kurien belongs to the Congress Party, the leading partner in the alliances that rule both at the State and Central governments.)

She sought justice – but from that moment on, she and her family have been punished for her tragedy. As the case drags from court to court, her exhausted father, unwell mother, and a sister who lives in hiding continue to pay damages.

The woman whom Kerala calls the Suryanelli girl still has the face of a schoolgirl who is unaware of the deceptions practiced by the world. Her body, however, is bloated from her many medications and from being shut up in her house. She suffers intermittent fevers. She has other persistent illnesses, such as migraine, backaches, asthma, depression and fatigue. Every month the three members of the family seem to take turns to be hospitalized. The doctors don’t know who she is, or the wounds that were inflicted on her body, mind and spirit. And so she doesn’t quite receive the treatment she needs. Over the last two months, she and her father have spent two weeks each in hospital.

Last June, her father became very sick, with complications related to the cardiac bypass surgery he underwent in 2004 that included a hernia and continuous vomiting. The mother and daughter struggled to reach him to a hospital in the middle of the night. In the middle of the epidemics of dengue and chikungunya that were plaguing Kerala, no hospital had room. Eventually, they made it to a private hospital in Kottayam. The doctor who examined the patient was clear – the patient needed surgery immediately.

But with no rooms available, the patient would have to be admitted to the general ward. ‘And my daughter and I?’, the mother asked. You can sit in the ward on a chair by the patient’s bed; let your daughter sit outside. The father and mother looked at each other. They couldn’t say ‘This isn’t a daughter we can leave waiting on the verandah.’ Someone was bound to recognize her, as had happened many times in the past. Sometimes, the reaction would stop at ridicule. At others, it escalated to assault.

So they fled to Karnataka, to the hospital where the original surgery was done. Completed the surgery.  Stayed in hospital in the security of anonymity for forty days. Step by step her father returned from the edge of death. He cannot let himself die for if he does, three women will have to fend for themselves – three women who are weapons for some factions, and prey for others.

They have no one to help them. Their relatives gave up on them a long time ago.  When the father’s mother died, they were not told. They were not informed about the deaths of siblings and other relatives either. They are not invited to weddings or naming ceremonies of friends or family members.  There’s not a single house where they are welcome to visit. The mother’s family also keeps them at a distance, annoyed at the way old stories are repeatedly resurrected by the media. One aunt keeps in limited touch; they are ostracized by everyone else.

To the community, they are a spectacle. Should they wear nice clothes, people are uncomfortable. Should they be heard speaking or laughing, they attract comments of the “What cheek!” variety. Ideally, society wishes to see them miserable and dressed in mourning. It believes that women whose ‘character’ has been compromised and their families have no right to smile. So they don’t smile. Or speak. They have no social life at all. Few people darken their doors, apart from journalists who do so every time there is a new break in the ongoing news saga.

A protest in Delhi asking for justice for the Suryanelli victim. Photo credit: Fotocorp

She can be attacked at any time — physically, emotionally or economically. Her experiences are different from those of other trafficking victims. What wrecked her life was that fifteen days after she had managed to escape from the traffickers, she recognized a picture of Kurien (Minister of State for Industries and Minister of State for Non-Conventional Energy in the Union Cabinet at the time) in the newspaper and identified him as one of the men who had sexually abused her. The Congress party, the Church and the Nair Service Society (NSS) backed Kurien. Rumours began to circulate. She and her family were vilified. Character assassinations abounded.

“He is a big shot. Compared to his position, we are all just worms. Why would we need to malign a person of his stature? We had already gone through so much. Suffered the jeers and contempt and derision of the community for eighteen years. What could we possibly gain by lying and falsely accusing him?” asks her father.

What have they gained? They needed to raise funds through a public subscription for his last surgery. If they had kept their various tribulations under wraps, they could have fled somewhere to keep their middle class lives secure. Or they could have auctioned themselves to the highest political bidder and become rich. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they live for what they still believe to be the truth. Despite every blow, they insist on repeating the same truth.

And for that very reason, she has become a political instrument. A life designed for the UDF (United Democratic Front: an alliance of political parties created by Congress party leader K Karunakaran) to beat up, and for the LDF (Left Democratic Front: a coalition of left-leaning parties) to ‘protect’. Except that the beaters-up and the protectors forget that she is a human being with the right to live with dignity.

“I was a nurse with the Harrison Estate hospital,” says the mother. And the children’s father was a postmaster. “We had a lot of expectations for our two daughters. Since the educational facilities in a remote village like Suryanelli were limited, and we wanted our children to get the best opportunities possible, we sent our children to boarding school. Our older daughter was very bright. She was courageous and intelligent and responsible. But she was sickly as a child. She underwent two major surgeries, at six months and one and a half years. The second one was particularly complicated, and she ceased breathing for a while during the surgery.  We made a vow to the Mother at Velankanni. After that, every year we went to Velankanni. Once we got caught up in the case, we couldn’t keep our vow for six years because we had the police guarding our house. We couldn’t even go to church. Even now, only the children’s father and I go to church. She rarely goes out. Three or four months ago, at Suja Teacher’s insistence, we went to see a play. It was about the sexual harassment faced by young girls. We slipped in without anybody else noticing. And Suja Teacher escorted us home as well.”

“Anyone who happens to spot this young woman can’t keep the information to themselves. They need to immediately inform half a dozen people – did you see who that was? The Suryanelli girl,” says college professor, political activist, and member of the board of the Purogamana Kalasahitya Sangam (a Kottayam-based group of writers and artists), Suja Susan George.  She has been the mainstay of this family for years. Most recently, she was responsible for raising the money for the father’s surgery.

“I’ve felt sorry that not even political activists are able to find in themselves the sympathy that this young woman and her family deserve,” laments Prof George. “This is a middle-class family, like yours or mine. They had dreams – they wanted to give their children an education so they could achieve something and then get them married. But it grieves me to see how poorly they are perceived by the community. I was dismayed when even politicians told me that I should not visit this house. Right now, they accept help only from me. And that is because of the trust we have built in our relationship over many years. I’m always anxious when I have to leave them for a few days.  And I’m always anxious about the father’s health.”

On January 16, 1996, when his daughter went missing, the father registered a complaint at the Munnar police station. But the police were busy searching for an old Jeep that had also gone missing. When he discovered the involvement of bus conductor Raju, the father promptly shared this information with the police. On February 19, the police took Raju into custody. But they let him go because of interventions from ‘above’. At the office of the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Munnar, Raju grinned cheekily at the hapless complainant and walked free. If, instead of letting Raju go, the police had interrogated him, the culprits could have been apprehended right then and the child rescued. Instead, she returned, a living corpse, on February 26.

The father registered a fresh complaint at the Munnar police station. After a preliminary investigation, the police advised the father to withdraw the complaint. When the father was unwilling to do so, the police warned him that he could expect much shaming and dishonour. The next day, the police asked the child to come to the police station to record her statement. They kept the shattered child and her father waiting on the station’s verandah till one o’clock in the morning. A huge crowd had gathered to witness their misery. They mocked the child and made lewd comments.

The next day, the police took the child for a medical examination. Since this matter too had been publicized, huge crowds had turned up at the hospital as well. The pain of having to take his daughter for a medical examination in the company of the police and through the crowds still haunts the father.

The gynaecologist at the Adimaali Taluk Government Hospital, Dr VK Bhaskaran, conducted the medical examination at 2.30 pm on February 28, 1996.  His certificate records the following: cuts and bruises all over the body. Bite marks and scars of festering wounds where she had been beaten. The injuries in her private parts had become serious wounds because of bacterial infections. They were so bad that pus and blood spurted from the wounds when they were touched. The severe infections had affected the uterus and she would never be able to bear a child. Bodily fluids had collected to swell her body in many places. Her throat was festering.

The police released the child and her father at Adimaali. Since they had been with the police, the child’s father had no money with him. The child was unable to walk. In tears, the father walked with his daughter through the gawking crowds. They managed to reach home in an auto arranged by an acquaintance. That night, the child’s health took a turn for the worse and she was hospitalized.

But the police turned up in the morning, insisting that the child needed to be taken to gather evidence. The police wandered through Adimaali town with the child and her parents. The purpose was to determine whether the girl could identify the places she had mentioned in the complaint against conductor Raju. Unprecedented mobs turned up to see the latest scenes in the drama. The media reported that the town had never seen such crowds.

By mid-March, the police began gathering evidence in earnest. They put the child, together with 40 of the accused, in a van, in which they travelled from place to place for the purpose. The van came to be known as the ‘Suryanelli vehicle’. The gathering of evidence – this grotesque travelling show – took two and a half years.

When she was snatched, the child was slim. She was dressed in a mid-length skirt and top. When she returned after a month and a half in captivity, she was swollen and bloated. Her old clothes no longer fit her. “The circumstances were such that we could not buy her new clothes. We had a woollen shawl.  People heard that she was being brought as part of evidence gathering and huge crowds gathered everywhere. Every time we got out of the vehicle, we would wrap her up in the shawl. Everywhere people mocked her, abused her, made obscene jokes. We heard this on all those journeys…”, her mother remembers.

“People simply could not understand that this was a child who had been nurtured and raised lovingly by her parents, when they treated her so cruelly. We insisted on going through the judicial process in spite of the relentless shaming because we didn’t want something like this to ever happen again. But to what end? Children continue to go missing. Trafficking of women continues.”

Meanwhile, some people began to protest the treatment of the child by the police and in particular, the way in which she was being paraded from one place to another on the pretext of gathering evidence. Treating a letter sent by an organization from Thrissur as a writ petition, the courts forbade the police to use the child in the evidence-gathering process.

When I asked her if she had met any of the policemen who had treated her badly later, she smiles with detachment. “All the local policemen have since retired. I once saw the then Sub-Inspector of the Devikulam police station at the collector’s office. He recognized me. He glared at me, and walked past.”

The political overtones of the matter created even more misery for the family. A police guard was stationed at her house. Not one or two, but six police personnel.

“That was torture all over again. The child could not step out of the house. If she stepped out, the police would whistle and jeer and make coarse comments. There were six police personnel, including women, stationed at a time. My quarters were close to the dispensary. When I went to the dispensary, she would shut the door and sit inside. If she happened to step outside, they would recall the forty days she had spent in captivity and make vulgar remarks. One day, she ran into the kitchen, poured kerosene over herself and screamed ‘I don’t want to live anymore, Mummy, I want to end it all here’…”, the mother wipes her tears.

The process of investigation created a ruckus in the Legislative Assembly. The case was transferred to the Crime Branch. On July 6, 1996, the responsibility of investigating the case was handed over to the Inspector-General in charge of Administration, Siby Mathews. The investigations were completed. 41 people were arrested. Only the accused called ‘Baanji’ in the records, alleged to be Kurien and named by the girl, was not apprehended. 18 years on, this accused remains the only one the police have been unable to trace.

The young woman recalls that day as follows:  “He came at dusk on the third or fourth day that I spent in captivity at the Kumily Guest House. By then three people had already assaulted me.  He came into the room when I was in the bathroom. When I emerged from the bathroom, I saw him sitting on the bed. I ran back into the bathroom. He banged on the door. I didn’t open it. Then a man came around the back to the window and abused me. He told me to open the door and said that I would be killed if I didn’t open the door. I was terrified and opened the door. I was exhausted and my body ached all over. He grabbed my arm and twisted it. He stamped hard on my foot. I screamed out loud. He raped me cruelly for half an hour. After he left, another man came in. He grabbed me by the hair and hit me with his fists. He said the punishment was for screaming and not treating the man they called Baanji well.”


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