Recently, a two-member Division Bench of the Kerala High Court let off all but one of the 36 convicted by a lower court in the infamous Suryanelli sex racket case, shocking some citizens and taking many others by surprise. The case was about a 16-year-old girl was allegedly sexually harassed continuously for 40 days by 42 men, who were convicted on charges of abduction, conspiracy, illegal detention, rape and gang rape. Overturning an earlier verdict by a special court which convicted 36 of 42 accused, the High Court acquitted all the 36 individuals of the charges of rape and gang rape. It also reduced the sentence given by the trial court to the prime accused Advocate Dharmarajan from a rigorous life imprisonment to a mere five-year imprisonment.
Terming the verdict a perfect example for the gender insensitivity of the judiciary, various women’s organisations and human right groups have formed a common platform to protest against the verdict. “Taking into account the increasing incidents of sexual harassment and violence against women, the High Court’s verdict is a real let down,” points out K Ajitha, a prominent activist and president of Anweshi, a women’s counselling centre at Kozhikkode. A meeting of Kerala Sthree Vedi, an umbrella organisation of women’s groups in Kerala, held soon after the verdict, at Ernakulam has decided to take up the responsibility of filing appeal at the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict. Also, a defense committee has been formed for raising the finances for the case and for providing moral support to the victim and her family.
It was in January 1996 that the Suryanelli incident rocked the collective consciousness of the people of Kerala as well as the political realm. The prosecution's case is that as a result of a conspiracy hatched by the accused, the 16-year-old girl from Suryanelli, a remote village in Idukki district was enticed, threatened and persuaded to runway from her school hostel by a bus conductor whom she was in love with. He blackmailed her with a photo album of her and had her travel with him. He then threatened her that he would make nude films with her photos if she informed her parents about the trip.
In a planned move, somewhere during the trip he got off the bus and disappeared. The second accused, Usha, who was travelling in the same bus offered help to the girl and subsequently handed over her to Advocate Dharmarajan, the prime accused in the case. On the pretext of taking the girl to her relative’s house, he took the girl to a lodge and raped her. There after, Usha and Dharmarajan presented her to several men, including influential politicians, businessmen and other prominent persons, at various places in Kerala and Tamilnadu.
The girl was held in coercive confinement, injected with drugs to prevent her escape, thereby also making her more liable for exploitation. It was only when she fell seriously ill and she could no longer serve the exploiters’ purposes that she was abandoned. Her captors threatened her with dire consequences if she told anyone about what had happened. After 40 days, she came back home on February 26, 1996.
Though the ordeal of the girl shocked Kerala, what happened soon after was sheer injustice. The girl and her family were socially ostracized and they passed through traumas of several lifetimes. The girl had to abandon her studies. There was tremendous pressure on the family not to register a case. The investigation was inordinately delayed and the involvement of the influential persons resulted in scuttling of the entire probe. In the name of identifying the culprits, the police paraded the girl all over the State along with the accused. Where ever they stopped, the public abused the girl. The newspapers celebrated the incident with pulpy stories. There were threats on the minor girl’s life to withdraw from the case. In the 1996 Assembly elections, the Opposition Left Democratic Front made the scandal one of its major campaign issues, especially in view of allegations that one of the men guilty was a prominent ruling party politician (eventually, however, his name did not figure in the charge-sheet for want of evidence), and came into power.
It was under tremendous public pressure that the LDF government set up the State's first-ever Special Court to try a case of sexual assault. A special investigation team probed the case for two-and-a-half years. After holding a 317-day trial, the Special Court on 6 September 2000 handed down stiff punishments to 35 of the accused -- 32 men and three women. Nine of them, including one woman, were sentenced to 13 years' rigorous imprisonment--for conspiracy, abduction, illegal detention, rape and gang rape.
Later in 2002, the court tried the prime accused Dharmarajan, who was absconding during the first phase of the trial, to rigorous life imprisonment. The court had termed the offences by the advocate as rarest of rare offences. The court had further gone on to observe that the accused was a hardened criminal, and as a lawyer he knew the ramifications of his gruesome criminal acts.