Seventeen years after the fact, a patriarchal society still shrouds the life of the young woman, known as the Suryanelli girl, in pain and anger. This year has shown her a glimmer of justice with the Supreme Court setting aside the High Court verdict of 2005 that acquitted her persecutors
By Prasanna P R
It is almost seven years after, on February 7, 2013, that I am visiting the woman known as the ‘Suryanelli girl’ for the second time. The first time I met with her was in January 2005 just after the controversial Kerala High Court verdict that acquitted 35 of her alleged rapists. This time around, the news is somewhat positive as the Supreme Court on January 31st set aside the Kerala HC ruling and sent the case back to the High Court – thus placing the Suryanelli rape case on the public radar again.
As I enter her house, I realize nothing much has changed in her life. She is still the ‘fallen’ girl for the average Malayali. Her home in Suryanelli having turned into a tourist attraction – the family reports that those who came to Munnar, (a nearby hill station) would make day trips to Suryanelli to see the house of the “Suryanelli girl”- they had to sell their house and shift 150 kms away. This house looks the same as the previous one. Windows shut…curtains drawn… Pain, fear and anger are the emotions I sense here.
The 16-year-old of 1996 is today a 33-year-old government blue collar employee living an isolated life with parents who are in their 70s now. “I have been suffering for the past 17 years, the kind of looks I get the moment people recognize me, I cannot explain in words. Some stare, some make lewd comments, some follow me, some look at me in utter disgust, some point at me and shout to others, look, ‘the Suryanelli girl’,” she says.
Today, the only ‘outing’ she can afford is going to her office. She has no friends. She has not been to a theatre to watch a movie. She doesn’t go to the church in the neighbourhood fearing that the local people would recognize her and prefers the church in the city where anonymity is her security. She worries for herself, she worries for her aging parents and she worries for her older sister who according to the family could not get married because of the so-called social stigma a rape survivor’s family has to carry in their life time. Despite of all these, she is sure of two things; Congress’s high profile leader PJ Kurien was indeed one of her rapists and there is no way she would back off from her case until all her tormentors are brought to justice.
The Suryanelli case was, perhaps, the first incident of sexual violence that managed to shake the collective consciousness of Kerala’s deeply patriarchal society. In Suryanelli, a small settlement in the picturesque Idukki district, a class X student falls in love with a bus conductor. He blackmails her into eloping with him. She is then taken to two people – one of whom is a lawyer, SS Dharmarajan. What follows is gruesome rape and assault by several men in 40 days of captivity. The young girl is so badly drugged and abused that her captors finally let her walk free on February 26, 1996, when they fear she could die of her ill-health. All these while, her postal employee father is running from pillars to post with a missing person complaint.
When the 16-year-old reaches her home, she is in such a state that she cannot even stand up on her feet. “She was so weak, so terrified, she had bruises all over her body and she did not speak a word. She cried so loudly every time she went to the bath room from the pain inflicted by the wounds in her genitals. I could not bear to see what those animals did to my child.” recalls the mother.
All hell broke loose after the girl named Congress leader and then the union minister PJ Kurien (currently the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson) as one amongst the 42 accused. Media and politicians took sides. Some called her a ‘whore’; some said she was a liar and that her allegations were politically motivated.As the Congress rallied behind its senior leader, in what could be one of the most controversial verdicts in Kerala’s judicial history, in 2005, the Kerala High Court acquitted the 35 accused who were convicted by a special court earlier. The Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice K A Abdul Gafoor and Justice R Basant also reduced the sentence of SS Dharmarajan, to a mere 5-years imprisonment. The court observed that the girl didn’t try to escape even though she had opportunities.
Seven years later, in 2013, few days after the Supreme court set aside the HC verdict, a Malayalam TV channel secretly taped former judge R Basant’s statement in a private function that Suryanelli was a case of child prostitution and that he did not believe rape took place. A petition seeking sanction to initiate criminal contempt proceedings against Justice R Basant has been filed before the state Advocate General following the channel telecast.
The Congress leadership continues to stand by its leader even after one of the prime accused SS Dharmarajan revealed in a television interview that he did take PJ Kurien to the girl in 1996. Dharmarajan, absconding since his indictment after jumping bail, was arrested a few days after this interview. The state’s BJP leadership sided with Kurien initially, only to change its stand after Dharamrajan’s revelation.
Last week, sitting MP and Congress leader K Sudhakaran called the Suryanelli survivor ‘a prostitute’. The Congress has only distanced itself from this statement. No disciplinary action has been initiated against the MP.
“Right from the start, I told the police about PJ Kurien. Yet he was excluded from the identification parade. PJ Kurien raped me at the Kumily guest house. I pleaded with him to let me go, but he ignored my cries. I helped the police identify 35 men who raped and assaulted me. Why don’t the police trust me when I say Kurien’s name? Do you really believe I would have the guts to lie about a highly powerful politician like Kurien? I saw his photo in a newspaper after I returned home and I recognized him instantly. Is there no justice in this country?” she asks in anger.
I have no answer to her questions. As I board the bus back home, I wonder how my country is going to end violence against women when we have rapists and kidnappers as our rulers and law makers. Will this country ever trust its women?
Prasanna P R is a journalist living in Kochi, Kerala