By Ramlath Kavil
The state of Kerala, India, often cited as a model of development, has in the past two decades seen a multitude of sex scandals where minor girls have been subject to sexual abuse and exploitation.
You got to be kidding. It can’t be God’s own country. God left this carpet of greenery long ago. Money, muscle power and misogyny have taken over the political will of this most politicised state. Big names, small towns and minor girls are inextricably embroiled in the numerous sex scandals that keep unfolding across the state one after another.
Lured, kidnapped, drugged and threatened, minors were ferried across the state. While bastions of power including political, dodged accusations, children died giving birth to children. Teenage brother killed his teenage sister to uphold honor. Girls who lost home, family and friends became refugees in their own home state.
Many of these cases got the attention of the public because of the victims themselves who sought help. Activists, however, warn that only few cases get reported. Even the reported ones would subsequently get diminished in the firing lines between political parties that take mileage from such cases.
The first such glaring incident came to light in 1996 when a teenager was blackmailed into eloping with a bus conductor in Suryanelli.
Suryanelli (1996): Unarguably the first case that brought shame to the most literate state in the country. In Suryanelli, a small settlement in the high ranges of Idukki district, a 14-year-old was blackmailed by a local bus conductor. She had been in love with him and he had threatened to expose her graphic pictures if she didn’t go with him.
Photo by Ramlath Kavil
What followed was gruesome sexual assault in captivity for 40 days by several men. Constant sexual abuse made the girl fall grievously ill. The predators abandoned her giving her a death threat if any words about them were spoken. The class 9 student went to the police and named 43 persons, including Congress MP, P.J. Kurien . 39 people figured in the accused list.
In 2005, eleven years after the incident, in one of the most shocking judgments in Kerala’ s judicial history, the High Court acquitted 35, convicting only 4. The court even raised questions about the character of the 14 year old.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, the girl who now works as a peon in a Government office was arrested two weeks ago, accusing her of financial fraud. She was subsequently suspended from job. Activists fear that the fraud charges could be part of a conspiracy to ensure that she doesn’t get justice in the Supreme Court.
Vithura (1996): A 16-year-old in Vithura, a scenic village surrounded by Western Ghats in south Kerala, followed Suryanelli’s fate. The girl was lured into getting roles in films by her neighbour and was taken in and out of Kerala for a year.
The girl named 100 people and subsequently identified 18, including a popular film star (Jagathy Sreekumar, who was later acquitted), a former police deputy, and a senior public servant.
Last year, the victim who is 29 years old now, sought a stay in trial proceedings. In the petition, she stated that she had to undergo acute mental trauma and misery at the hands of the accused and the public.
“The maximum punishment in a sexual abuse case is 14 years of imprisonment and what I experienced in the past 15 years is worse than the imprisonment. I have lost all hopes of justice. Leave me alone.” These were her words.
Kozhikode Ice-cream Parlour (1997): One of the biggest and most controversial cases of sexual exploitation, money power and rotten politics in Kerala. This sensational case is still the focus of media primarily because of the involvement of P.K Kunhalikutty, Kerala’s Industries Minister and leader of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), popularly known as Muslim League.
Five minor girls approached Anweshi, a women’s group in Kozhikode led by K. Ajitha. Big names like P.K Kunhalikutty, CPM leader T.P Dasan, top custom officials etc. figured in their petition.
Anweshi team conducted an investigation and reported to the police and media that an ice-cream parlour in the city was used as a front to trap young women and minor girls by offering them ice-cream laced with sedative in order to sexually exploit and blackmail them. The activists complained that the dead bodies of two teenage girls found on the railway tracks in the city had strong connection with the case and they feared that many girls could have been trapped.
Out of five victims, two retracted their statements later. In 2005, the Kerala high court dismissed the petition that sought Kunhalikutty’s prosecution. In 2006, the Supreme Court dismissed the case citing lack of evidence.
After 14 years, in 2011, the case started hitting headlines in Kerala again. A close relative who was an aid to the minister during the scandal, accused in a press meet that the minister had bribed the victims and the three judges in the high court to obtain favorable verdicts.
The controversial Minister, P.K Kunhalikutty
Following the relative’s allegation, the Government ordered a fresh probe and the report submitted by the Special Investigation Team is expected to be released soon.
In January, 2011, former Director-General of Prosecutions (DGP) Kallada Sukumaran alleged that in 1997, the CPM led Nayanar ministry had intervened in the ice-cream parlour case to ‘exclude’ IUML leader P K Kunhalikutty.
IUML deny all allegations and Kunhalikutty is holding the portfolio of Industries and IT in the present Congress led UDF Government.
Kothamangalam (1997): A 15-year-old filed a police complaint stating that over 100 people sexually abused her for a year. The police identified 43 of the accused and some arrests were made. This case hardly caught any media attention until recently when it was raked up by the controversial minister P.K Kunjalikutty’s close relative.
In a press meet, the relative stated that the minister had bribed the victim in order to buy her silence. The girl had been admitted to a prayer centre in Kerala after her physical and mental conditions worsened. The relative alleged that the minister had sent his man to the prayer centre. The case lists 138 people as accused but has been in the cold storage for a long time.
Panthalam (1997): An academically bright student, who was expecting rank in her final year degree exam, was raped by a group of 8 for over three months. She named four of them as being lecturers from her college. They also shot her video and used it to black mail her. As the young woman saw no end to this ongoing exploitation, she approached the police with the help of her parents. In 2002, the special court passed a judgment punishing seven of them. One accused had committed suicide during the trial. Despite strong pretest from activists, the NSS college management reinstated the lectures.
Thoppumpady (2002): Also known as the Mattancherry case, a 16-year-old maid servant was lured by an auto driver and was kept in captivity and raped by many. She was also forced to act in porn films. The girl named 69 people including a film director and a priest. The judge had come down heavily on the investigating officers as the victim complained that the police was trying to change her actual date of birth in a bid to weaken the case. This case too is languishing.
Kiliroor (2004): The case came to light when the girl’s father had lodged a complaint with the police that his daughter was promised roles in TV serials and was subsequently exploited by several people. When the complaint was filed, the 18-year-old old was in a government hospital having delivered a child. Three months, later, the girl was dead. The doctors said that it was kidney failure. The police concluded that she died of post delivery complications.
The activists cried foul.
In an astonishing twist, CPM leader V.S. Achuthanandan, gave a statement to the effect that he found it odd how the young mother’s condition worsened soon after the visit made to the hospital by some VIPS. Some senior CPM leaders had visited the girl in the hospital. Activists alleged that a powerful section in CPM was desperate to sabotage the case.
The CPM leader later played down the controversy saying he was only repeating what the doctor, who was treating the girl had stated. The CBI investigation team could not collect any evidence that would corroborate the allegation.
Last month, the special court, sentenced the five accused to 10 years of imprisonment. Activists and the girl’s family protest that the big fish in this case too have escaped without a scratch.
Kaviyoor (2004): The case got media attention as four members of the family including the 15-year-old victim, her parents and her younger siblings found dead in 2004 in what appeared to be a suicide pact. The father was a priest in a local temple.
The girl, who was a talented classical dancer, was alleged to have been sexually exploited by several people after being promised roles in TV serials. While the CBI who re-investigated the case got to a conclusion of incest with the father as the accused, activists have alleged that Kaviyoor and Kiliroor cases are connected and have made several requests to the authorities that this case should be investigated by the same team.
According to P.Geetha, an activist who has worked extensively on many of these cases, since both the victims ( Kiliroor and Kaviyoor) are dead, there is very little chance of truth coming out.
Kottiyam (2004): One of the rarest cases in Kerala that made headlines with an alleged honor killing. A 15-year-old was picked up by the police at a sleepy junction in southern Kerala. As in most cases involving minors, the school going girl too was lured by a neighbour who promised to make her an actress.
A year later, in 2005, she was killed by her 17-year-old brother in what appeared to be an honor killing. In a video interview given to three women activists before death, she said that she was first taken to the Pangode Military Camp, near Trivandrum. She was 14 then. Days before her death she had approached the police stating she feared for her life. This case too has been in the cold storage for a while.
God's Own Country - Women's Own Hell? Photo by Ramlath Kavil
Poovarani (2007): This case came to light when a 14-year-old died in a hospital near Poovarani. As per the postmortem record, she died of AIDS. Further investigation revealed that the minor, hailing from a poor family, was forced into prostitution at the age of 12 by her aunt. The girl’s family is untraceable now and the case has not made any progress.
Kothamangalam (2011): The incident came to light when a 14-year-old was taken by her father for abortion to a local hospital. The class 10 student was 6 months pregnant then. The girl informed the police that it was her father who gave her away to his friends for petty cash for over a period of one year. 32 people have been arrested so far and some are out on bail. The victim gave birth to a child last year, in October.
Paravur (2011): The sexual abuse of the 14-year-old school going girl came to light after her aunt complained to the police that the girl’s father had forcibly taken the minor into prostitution. The girl informed the police that she was first raped by her father who took her in and out of Kerala for over two years. The minor also told the police that her father used to threaten to kill her younger brother if she refused his bidding.
The class 10 student, unable to bear constant sexual abuse by many, ran away and took shelter at her aunt’s place. As the father started threatening the aunt, she took the minor to the police. A total of 150 people including, a trade union leader, a local politician, a retired naval officer, and a PWD contractor figure in the accused list.
Last year, the Kerala high court directed that the authorities should complete the trial proceedings by end of May, 2012, so that the girl can resume her studies.
The Paradox of Kerala
These tales of abuse and money power reveal a disturbing truth. How minors are trapped, raped and then pushed in to sex work. It also exposes the paradox of the state of Kerala. On one hand there statistics that garner praise – high literacy, high education, high female sex ratio, high life expectancy, better health care, better living condition and on the other hand, the questionable quality of life of a woman in Kerala subject to a misogynistic society, where women and children are not safe even in their own homes.
Today, dowry is the most common practice cutting across class, caste and religious divide. Daughters are often seen as financial and moral liability. Suicide rates in the state are one of the highest in India. Sex is a taboo and to complicate it further moral policing is gaining acceptance in the society. Women’s participation in politics is very low ( 2011 kerala assembly has only 7 women compared to 133 male legislators). The land that figures in the list of 50 must see places in a life time by National Geographic Traveler is one of the most unsafe places for women to travel. The list goes on.
It is time we admit 100% literacy and high education do not change the mindset. What we need is a greater political will and commitment to ensure that “God’s Own Country” doesn’t become a living hell for its women and children.