There was no candle vigil to support her when she was gangraped by more than 40 men for over 40 days in different locations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in January-February 1996. Only lewd comments welcomed her when she came for the trial. The police investigations into shocking rape case were all a farce to find loopholes to save the accused. When the High Court of Kerala headed by Justice KA Gafoor and R Basant acquitted 35 accused in the Suryanelli rape case on January 20, 2005, there was no hue and cry. The division bench of the High Court observed that the girl, who was 17 at the time of rape, had consented to the sexual act with each of the men, that the victim was “not an unwilling partner” and that she had enough opportunity to escape from the custody of the accused. The court had found only Advocate Dharmarajan, the prime accused, guilty and reduced his term of jail to five years and fine from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5,000. Even then, there was no public sympathy for the victim in the 100 percent literate Kerala.
After eight years, it was the Supreme Court division Bench comprising AK Patnaik and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra that came to her rescue. Thanks to the Delhi rape victim and the massive public response against rapes. Now the Supreme Court has quashed the High Court order and directed the High Court review the case with fresh trial and to give a verdict within six months. It’s nothing new in the history of Indian judiciary – the apex court directing the High Courts or lower courts to review the case but the Suryanelli case has a special relevance. Justice Gyan Sudha Misra challenged the conclusions reached by the learned High Court judges –the victim was not an unwilling partner in the sexual act which is not rape.
The court was putting the onus of blame on the girl. Yes, courts give verdicts on the basis of evidences. If there was no evidence to prove the guilty, the courts can acquit the accused and they can walk free without a criminal tag. That’s the standing of our legal system which is considered to be fair. But a doubt lingers – how did the judges arrive at this wild conclusion that the victim cooperated with her tormentors? As the Supreme Court stated, the judgment was erroneous and unsustainable. For me, it was a reflection of a perverted social psyche – that rape victims do enjoy the brutal act. Not only politicians but also judges look at rape victims with contempt.
I met the Suryanelli girl in Kottayam in 1999 when she came for the trial. She had a cute face and looked like a rabbit in a cage. The court was crowded with people and everybody was eager to get a glimpse of her. Her father and mother had accompanied her to the court. Her parents narrated their sad tales to everyone. The police paraded before the media and gained immense media glitz as the case was sensational and politically sensitive.
When the special court convicted 35 persons involved in the rape and acquitted four persons as the girl could not recognise them, many people in Kerala believed that justice was given to her in a small way. Later, the government gave her job. Everybody had forgotten about her until last year. In 2012, the police registered a criminal case against her for misappropriation and cheating alleging she had not remitted the tax money in the treasury accounts. She was arrested and sent to jail and later suspended. She pleaded before everyone that she was being trapped. But again she was branded as a prostitute turned thief.
To me she had suffered more than her tormentors. She was studying in the ninth class of an English medium school in Nallathanni when she was raped by at least 40 men. Since then, she has been living with a tag in a society where moral policing is a national past time. Even if all the accused are convicted by the court, she may not get back what she has lost in her life. She lost her innocence, childhood and youth in the mess. For her delayed justice is no justice, it’s only a mockery of our judicial system. We do and undo things at our conveniences. Victims have no right to demand justice.