Cover

The girl with no name

KR Meera | Updated on January 22, 2018

Political tussle The police try to disperse activists demanding the resignation ofINC leader PJ Kurien Photo: C Ratheesh Kumar   -  THE HINDU

Nabbed, finally The accused Dharmarajan being produced in a special court atKottayam PTI   -  PTI

Rot at the centre From the day she identified PJ Kurien as one of her tormentors,the girl became a political instrument   -  The Hindu

Troubles in Eden Idukki might be a verdant district, but it was also the site ofviolence H Vibhu   -  The Hindu

After 19 years, the girl in the Suryanelli case and her family struggle to make ends meet, but their will and determination remain unblemished

One nightfall a man travelling on horseback towards the sea reached an inn by the roadside. He dismounted and, confident in man and night like all riders towards the sea, he tied his horse to a tree beside the door and entered into the inn. At midnight, when all were asleep, a thief came and stole the traveller’s horse. In the morning the man awoke, and discovered that his horse was stolen. And he grieved for his horse, and that a man had found it in his heart to steal. Then his fellow lodgers came and stood around him and began to talk.

And the first man said, “How foolish of you to tie your horse outside the stable.”

And the second said, “Still more foolish, without even hobbling the horse!”

And the third man said, “It is stupid at best to travel to the sea on horseback.”

And the fourth said, “Only the indolent and the slow of foot own horses.”

The traveller was much astonished. At last he cried, “My friends, because my horse was stolen, you have hastened one and all to tell me my faults and my shortcomings. But strange, not one word of reproach have you uttered about the man who stole my horse.”

(— The Forerunner, ‘Critics’, Kahlil Gibran)

And finally the Supreme Court repeats the same question — why didn’t the ‘girl’ try to escape?

The ‘girl’ in question is the survivor of the first reported sex-trafficking case in Kerala, better known as the Suryanelli case. In the media she is known as the ‘Suryanelli girl’. But she is not a girl any longer, she is a woman of 35.

I see her waiting across the road, as she helps her infirm parents to the other side. They are coming out of church, where a special mass is held on Tuesdays. This is the only place they visit every week without fail. The family has only two places left to go — the church and the hospital. Every Sunday they visit their parish church, every Tuesday they come to town to attend the special mass. Four years ago, when their daughter was framed in a financial fraud case and suspended from her job in the sales tax department, they prayed in this church that her innocence be proved. Her mother claims on the ninth Tuesday, her suspension was revoked. Since 2011, they haven’t failed once to attend mass. The parents come by noon and their daughter joins them once she is done with work.

What are they praying for? What can rescue them? A favourable court order? A peaceful life? Knowing their ordeal, it is impossible for us to imagine what miracle can restore their normal life.

The father is 77. It is difficult to look into his eyes. I have never seen eyes that were so pained or resigned. When he smiles, I turn away because it is the kind of smile which would make us cry. He is on medication for diabetes, blood pressure and a heart ailment. When he says that nobody is interested in her case anymore, his tired voice speaks volumes. It is the voice of a father who worked as a postmaster in the serene village of Suryanelli in the hills of Kerala. His wife was a nurse. By being prudent, they hoped to get their daughters educated and married. The daughters were sent to a boarding school in Munnar, around 50km away, as there were no good schools in their village. While the elder one was intelligent, the younger one was frequently sick because of a weak heart. She underwent a major surgery at six months, and another within a year. The younger one grew up vulnerable and pampered. When the older sister passed the SSLC and went to study further — to a college in Kottayam and later for a BSc in nursing — the younger girl was left alone. Accustomed to her sister’s presence, she needed constant protection and reassurance.

It is thus easy to imagine the worry and panic of the father when his younger daughter, age 16, did not return home on the evening of January 16, 1996. He frantically sought help from the police. Even after 19 years, his voice betrays his pain when he recounts that the police were too busy searching for an old jeep to find his missing child.

He didn’t know then that his daughter had been lured out of her school in Munnar by a bus conductor named Raju, who blackmailed her. He didn’t know yet that Raju had handed her over to a woman called Usha, who pretended to be a co-passenger in the bus. That Usha had passed her on to Dharmarajan, who took her to a nearby lodge and raped her. When her father came to know about Raju’s involvement, he informed the police immediately, but the police arrested and released Raju without questioning him. They lost the last chance to save the child.

Over the next 40 days, the girl was taken from lodge to lodge, town to town. She was raped 67 times, sometimes by a single perpetrator, at times by two simultaneously. After 40 days, when she returned, ravaged and bloated, to the post office where her father worked, he couldn’t recognise her.

Horrors continue

It has been 19 years, but her smile remains intact. Those 40 men couldn’t take that away from her. It is the smile of someone who can love and trust rather than hate and loathe. However, over the past year, she has grown more resigned. She suffers from various ailments, such as migraines, depression, asthma and chronic fatigue. She does not walk like a 35-year-old, but like an old woman dragging a weight behind her through a long tunnel. I have met her repeatedly since 2002, but every time I look at her, I think of the atrocities she has experienced as a mere child.

The medical report of Dr VK Bhaskaran — the gynaecologist at the Adimaali Taluk Government Hospital, who conducted her medical examination on February 28, 1996 — reads: “…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 infection in the uterus is so severe that she would never be able to bear a child. Bodily fluids had collected to swell her body in many places. Festering throat.”

The rage and sorrows that her parents felt seeing her in this condition, spurred the legal battle that has lasted 19 years. Even though the police and relatives advised the father to withdraw his complaint from the Munnar police station, the parents were steadfast in their battle. They were adamant that the culprits should be brought to justice, so that no other child would suffer the same fate. Everyone said they were jeopardising their future and their elder daughter’s prospects. When they refused to oblige, the police asked the girl to record her statement in the police station. They kept the physically and mentally broken child and her father waiting in the station’s veranda for many hours. People gathered to mock and abuse the father and daughter. A similar scenario played out when she was taken for a medical examination and when evidence was collected. The father tries to laugh when he recounts those days. We try to hold our tears.

From the day she indentified INC leader PJ Kurien as one of her tormentors, the girl became a political instrument. While the Congress and allies tried to malign her, Left parties supported her. In March 1999, she filed a private complaint with the Judicial First Class Magistrate’s court at Peerumedu, seeking the inclusion of Kurien in the list of accused. He approached the High Court, which dismissed the complaint against him. Kerala government challenged the HC’s refusal to implicate Kurien, but the Supreme court dismissed it.

Meanwhile, on September 6, 2000, a special court convicted 36 people in two separate chargesheets. On January 20, 2005, the Kerala High Court acquitted all the accused, except Dharmarajan. The court ruled that the victim was a willing partner in the act since there was no sign or evidence of resistance. On May 11, 2005, the Kerala government filed an appeal against the acquittal of the accused. On January 31, 2013, the SC set aside the acquittal, directing the HC to re-examine the matter. In February 2013, former justice R Basant, who was part of the Division Bench that acquitted the 36 accused of rape charges in 2005, made a statement that the victim was a deviant girl, which sparked off a controversy.

Dharmarajan had been arrested on September 16, 2000, from Karnataka. On October 25, 2002, he was released on bail after the HC rejected his appeal. He disappeared until he was arrested in 2013 from Karnataka. While being taken into custody, he told TV channels that PJ Kurien was involved in the case, but three months later he retracted his statement.

In April 2014, the High Court Division Bench gave a fresh hearing in the case after nine years, ruling that the victim was not a deviant or a child prostitute. The Court ruled that a girl of 16 years wouldn’t have sex with persons of her father’s age due to lust. The HC sentenced 15 of the accused to rigorous imprisonment of seven years for rape. Six accused were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for gang rape.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected the bail applications of those sentenced by the HC. But the media homed in on the crucial question that the Court asked the girl — why didn’t you escape?

Lonely battle

Ever since they decided to go forward with the case, her family has been ostracised by society. Relatives on both sides have abandoned them. They are not invited for weddings or other ceremonies, nor intimated about funerals. When the Left Democratic Front was in power, she was given a job in the Sales Tax Department in the lowest grade. Meanwhile, the parents had retired from service and had built a house in Suryanelli. But with the High Court verdict of 2005, they were dragged back into the limelight. As her father says, “we became a mini tourist-spot.”

Her mother once told me that they decided to leave Suryanelli to escape from the attention. They built another house far from the centre of town. Friends and relatives were invited for the house-warming. The house was decorated with flowers and the family of four waited for the guests. No one turned up.

In 2006, they sold that house for a meagre sum and moved to another village in Kottayam district. They were living there peacefully for a while till she got trapped in the fraud case. A deposit receipt in her office for ₹2,26,006 went missing mysteriously. She was accused of not depositing the sum and her superior officer advised her to sign a confession in order to keep her job. Her parents paid the amount from their limited savings and retirement benefits. In the departmental enquiry which followed, three staff members were given punishment transfers. But on February 6, 2012, while she was waiting for a bus to office, the crime branch arrested her publicly. She was remanded for a week.

It was Prof Suja Susan George, a teacher at St Mary’s College in Manarcad, near Kottayam, who helped the family through the crisis. George, who is also a social activist and CPM member, has been their constant support all these years.

Looking ahead

But what next? Her father is extremely weak and tired. Her mother is the family’s source of strength, but her health is also deteriorating. Her elder sister, now trained as a nurse, has moved to the Middle East to earn money for the family. They were a typical lower-middle class family who had cherished dreams that their children would get educated, earn a good living and start families of their own. Instead, they have lived under house arrest for the last 19 years. Why? Because they chose to tell the truth and chose to stick by it. Yet she is asked, ‘why didn’t you escape?’

Nobody has asked why those 42 educated and influential men chose to rape her? Nobody asks how the family had the courage to pursue the case in court and bear the jibes of cruel neighbours and a pitiless society.

I give her my novella — Meerayude Novellakal — and she tells me that she has already bought it from a bookseller who visits her office. I feel proud that she reads my books. She has been promoted to the post of record keeper at her job. She has learned stitching too. Her colleagues give her material, which she stitches into suits and saree blouses. Her mother says, with a big smile, “Her stitching is perfect.” She recently won a saree at the musical chairs and lemon-in-spoon competition in office. She gave the saree to George, and seeing her wear it always puts a big smile on her face.

No. I wouldn’t ask her, why she didn’t escape 19 years ago. Instead I wish to ask her, how we can help her flash the smile of a 16-year-old in this savage world.

KR Meera is a Malayalam author, most recently of Hang Woman and And Slowly Forgetting That Tree

Published on November 27, 2015

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