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The Suryanelli Girl: Her Story

   Suryanelli: The place of no sun. 
  Roofs weighed down by rock bags to keep the wind from blowing them away

Off the Kerala state highway that connect the small, brash towns giddy with foreign remittances, sits an unassuming, modest home that goes by the name: Lovedale. A septuagenarian couple, a retired postmaster and a retired nurse, live here with their younger daughter and, a ghoulish past that continues to taunt every waking moment of their lives. The 33-year-old daughter smiles shyly revealing an innocence frozen in time. 17 years ago, the daughter, then a 16-year-old girl, had left home wearing a skirt and a blouse to go to school and returned sexually violated and terribly traumatized: her transformation from a carefree school girl to a bloated individual was violently shocking. The girl had been kept captive, fed sedatives and alcohol, traded for sex and raped by 42 men in a span of 40 days in the months of January and February 1996. The family’s tryst with rapists, the police, the law and society began then....

The only time the old couple fleetingly smile during this long interaction is when they dredge their memory and remember those happy days before their lives changed forever. “Suryanelli,” says the old father by the way of introduction, “is a beautiful place in the hill station Munnar, perhaps prettier than the hills of Kashmir. The name itself means: a place where there is no sun.” Clad in a dhothi and a blue shirt, he sits on a plastic chair in the middle of a small living room. On one side a divan sprawls out and on the other a row of chairs huddle together against the wall and behind him a dining table appropriates the rest of the space. He continues, “We lived in the staff quarters of a tea estate in Suryanelli where my wife worked in the dispensary of the estate hospital and I was employed as the sub-post master in Munnar town about 27 kilometers away. Our children lived protected lives because these hills were remote and far from the vagaries of urbanity. We were a happy and contended family.”

The mother recalls that their younger daughter was fond of teaching. “When she was little, she would dress up in a sari and with a stick in one hand she would teach the potted plants outside our home. There were only a few Tamil schools in the area so we had to send our daughter to the boarding school in Munnar to learn Malayalam.” Little did they know that their little girl’s dreams would be snuffed out long before she finished school. When she was in class nine, the girl developed a relationship with the helper of a bus that she regularly took to school after weekends. Raju, the helper, and she began to exchange letters and love notes. Soon he was borrowing money from her -coercing her and blackmailing her that he would reveal their relationship to her parents and teachers. He, then, convinced her to take a trip with him one weekend threatening her with dire consequences if she did not.

On February 16, after school, the girl boarded Raju’s bus which wound its way down the hills to the bus stop at Adimali. The duo then boarded the next bus and Raju sat behind while the girl sat up in front unaware of the devious plan that he had hatched. Night had fallen when the bus reached Kothamangalam but there was no trace of Raju. Following a pre-meditated plan, he had slunk away. His accomplice, a woman named Usha, accosted the frightened girl and offered to help. Usha then handed her over to a lawyer named S S Dharmarajan. Unaware that she was being trapped, the girl went along with Dharmarajan, who promised to take her back home. “He took me to a run-down lodge in Kottayam and my ordeal began then. He beat me and raped me and the next day he took me to Ernakulam,” says the daughter. Dharmarajan was nothing but a pimp and he took her to far flung places in Kerala and sexually traded her for money. He told her he would kill her if she tried to escape. She was force-fed alcohol and given sedatives. The parents do admit that their daughter is passive by nature and not too smart- the reasons that she had fallen into this trap.

Back in Munnar, the school informed the parents that the girl had gone missing and the parents immediately filed an FIR for missing person at the police station. The mother recounts, “Dharmarajan was an evil and sadistic man. He began to play a cat and mouse game with us. A week after our daughter went missing I was at my brother’s place because I was worried sick. We got a call there from this man telling us our daughter was at a place called Theni and we should come and collect her. We rushed there in a taxi but he had shifted her. A few days later, my husband gets the next call at the post office asking us to come and fetch her. We rushed from one place to the next as per Dharmarajan’s instructions but each time we found no one there. It was a cruel sport- like a cat slowly torturing a mouse before killing it. We knew then that our child was in terrible danger. We offered Dharmarajan all the money we had but he only scorned us. We begged him to let go off our daughter but he just continued abusing her.”  The police did nothing about this they only told us that they were investigating.

On February 25, there was an all night prayer meeting at a church in Munnar and the mother attended church. It was a sort of vigil where usually women come seeking solace. “That night when the priest told the gathering about my missing child, the women wept openly and we prayed together,” the mother recounts. “Next morning our daughter walked into the post office at Munnar. I don’t know how she got there but she did. My husband immediately took her to the police station and informed them that the girl had returned.” Her captors had dropped her off on the roadside, given her some money and asked her to go home. The FIR for missing person was converted to a case of rape on February 27, 1996. The daughter gave the names of many of the people who had raped her and the names of the hotels she was taken to. The girl, the parents narrate, was extremely unwell. She had terrible back ache and she groaned and writhed in pain. We took her to the government hospital and admitted her there for over a week. She had aggravated pelvic inflammation and her vaginal area was severely lacerated. Her face had scratches and bruises and parts of her body were swollen up. “She was so badly battered and sick that all that we wanted to do was to save her life at that moment.”

Meanwhile after her return, the media picked up the story and ran salacious serial stories and bestowed on the victim the moniker: “the Suryanelli girl.” Even today, the references are to that juvenile period irrespective of the fact the girl is now a grown woman. Painstakingly, the police collected evidence from the hotel registers and confessions and a list of around 40 people as the accused were compiled. The accused consisted of petty politicians, small time lawyers, lower level railway personnel, a policeman, a local planter etc.... Only two men could not be identified of which one was a politician.

“Our relatives, of course, shocked that we had registered a case, did their best to discourage us. Then they completely cut off from us. Now we have no friends or relatives. Our daughter likes to mingle with people but they don’t want us around. So why bother them?” asks the mother. In Suryanelli, even though the people were kind to them, their house had become a tourist attraction of sorts. Buses carrying tourists would stop and some of them would insensitively enter the house and take a look around. So a few years ago, the family moved from Suryanelli to this small town but the past tenaciously had clung on them and taken residence once again. “We live an isolated life and we try not to borrow even a glass of water from anyone,” says the father. Outside on the narrow patio, buckets of water covered with newspapers stand ready for any contingency.

Slowly after her return home nearly two decades ago, the story of her ordeal began to emerge as the girl unburdened herself. The parents made a firm decision that everyone who harmed their daughter would have to pay the price. “In my limited knowledge of the courts and the law, I assumed this would take a few months and if there was any justice in this land we would get it,” says the father. They had expected speedy justice but instead the case had dragged on for 17 years and robbing the family of any normality. Today, the only certitude is the excruciatingly slow trial but they soldier on determined to see it to the end. The cost has been very high both financially and emotionally. “We will not see the next generation. Our girls have chosen not to marry so the line will end with them,” says the old couple, expressionless and emotionless.

Back in the 90s, the initial investigation by the police was half-hearted and shoddy. A month after the daughter returned, she noticed a picture of a prominent central minister, P J Kurien, in a Malayalam newspaper and alleged that he, too, had sexually assaulted her. It was in the last few days of her captivity when this well-built man in khader clothes came into the room she was locked up in. “I was in immense pain, so I begged him to rescue me. I told him I was not the sort of girl he thought I was but was trapped into this. He only hit me, flung me on the bed and raped me twice and left the place,” says the daughter. The father on hearing this ran with the newspaper to the circle inspector in Devikulam, Munnar, who was investigating the case. “I remember,” says the father, “he was playing badminton when I went to him. He paused and asked me if I could not find anyone else to name as a rapist and then continued with his game. He was more concerned about where he hit the shuttle cock.”

The father, who was unhappy with the investigation, went to the state capital and submitted a letter to the then chief minister of Kerala, A K Anthony. “Almost immediately, a policeman arrived at our doorstep at Suryanelli but instead of asking us for details, he shouted at us and asked us some vague questions and left. This is one of the numerous investigations that the politicians refer to these days.” The family felt it was futile to pursue the matter and gave up. It was only after the government changed and the next ministry under CPM took over that the investigation became full-fledged. A special investigation team was constituted headed by the ADGP Siby Mathew. And the case slowly progressed from the magistrate’s court to the special court. “Our daughter had to identify the people on the list and she identified every one of the rapists to the judge.” says the mother.

In 1999, the family realised that though the case was in the special court the name of P J Kurien, member of parliament and minister, was not on the list of accused. The police had not listed the name of this politician so the family filed a private complaint with the magistrate. In September 2000, the special court convicted 35 of the accused and awarded varying degrees of sentences and Dharmarajan was awarded with rigorous life imprisonment. The rape victim was given a government job as a peon. Meanwhile, P J Kurien was summoned by the special court after rejecting his discharge petition. But Kurien filed a discharge petition which was accepted by the High Court in 2007, and later accepted by the apex court too.

To the family’s horror, in 2005, the Kerala High Court reduced the sentence of Dharmarajan to five years and acquitted all the others. The court was of the view that the girl had ample opportunities to escape but did not and in the judge’s words the girl was not an unwilling partner. “I did not expect anything when we appealed to the Supreme Court but did it as a matter of routine,” says the father. Though Dharmarajan was sent to jail he was out on bail and fled the state and was in hiding for the past 8 years. He was only apprehended in February 2013, after he gave an interview to a television channel. He was arrested in Karnataka and is now awaiting trial in jail.

In 2010, as the date for hearing in the Supreme Court approached, the rape victim was implicated in a case of misappropriation of funds at her office. The family sees it as a way of tarnishing her character further. “My daughter is only a peon in her office but she was asked to remit large amounts of cash in the bank without any escort. Thrice the bank refused to accept the money and she carried it back and forth. Though the money was finally received it was not accounted for and the officers alleged that she had misappropriated the money. They made her sign papers and made her pay the missing money immediately. The German Malayalee association had started a bank account in her name with a lakh of rupees as deposit and she withdrew that and pawned her jewellery in order to return the missing money. But in 2012, the police arrested her on those grounds and kept her in lock up for 7 days though the money was all paid up. A case was being built up to destroy her character. My heart broke when I saw them taking her away in a police jeep,” says the father. “The only crime we have committed is giving a case against the rapists and we have been hounded for that. I felt society should know what kind of people live among us. Only the women’s associations and our lawyers have stood by us.”

However, in January this year, the apex court overturned the 2005 high court verdict and asked it to hear the appeals afresh. This gave the family hope that finally justice will be meted out. In the past 17 years, the girl has not wavered in her stance and the family has refused to bend to political and social pressures. As if things were not bad enough, in March this year, the pastor of the local church where the family attended service, in an act that shockingly displays religious harassment and spiritual poverty, denied the family entry into the church till the completion of the case. (The church has since revoked its statement under pressure from the media and activists.) The remarks of the people or the harsh words of the politicians that accuse the victim of being a prostitute deter the family. “I am sure I will get justice,” says the daughter.


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