August 02, 2020
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Devils In The Dock

A special court convicts 35 for a schoolgirl’s rape

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Devils In The Dock
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It’s been hailed as a verdict without parallel in Asia. Thirty-five people have been convicted en masse for the kidnap and serial rape of a 16-year-old Kerala schoolgirl and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment (RI) ranging from four to 13 years. The recent pronouncement of the sentence by a special court appointed to try the case ended a protracted courtroom drama that highlighted the issue of violence against women in India. The year-long trial also damaged reputations and careers of high-profile politicians and bureaucrats and put communist-run Kerala in the news for the wrong reasons.

The girl was abducted from her school hostel near the scenic hill resort of Munnar in Idukki district by a bus conductor on January 16, 1996, and put through a 42-day ordeal of sexual abuse in different locations across the state. She was eventually abandoned at an isolated bus stop in Muvattupuzha from where, traumatised and chronically ill, the girl found her way back home. And it was her father, a post master, who initiated the litigation.

The verdict finally came through on September 2, 2000, and the judgment found 34 of the 39 accused guilty of kidnapping, unlawful detention and mass rape. While three of the convicted were women, others included district-level politicians, lawyers and officials. Though the court was within its powers to hand down a life sentence on a conviction of gang-rape, Judge Sashidharan Nambiar chose not to do so. Instead, he handed out varying terms of rigorous imprisonment and imposed hefty fines totalling Rs 4,30,000 which is to be handed over to the victim as compensation.

Usha, one of the three convicted women, received a sentence of 13 years’ RI for her role in abetting the gang-rape of the schoolgirl. The other two women are to serve four years’ RI on the charge of unlawful detention. Usha, who had custody of the girl after she was abducted by the bus conductor, took her to Kottayam where she was installed in a lodge. The girl was reportedly first violated by Dharmarajan, a local lawyer who escaped the police dragnet and is now absconding. The police are also clueless about the whereabouts of Devassia, a bus fleet operator, who figures among the accused. The mysterious disappearance of the two men has left a gaping hole in the investigation and recalls the vanishing trick played by one Sukumara Kurup, who pulled off a major insurance scam by murdering a passing motorist and using the body to fake his own death. Twenty years later, the cops are still looking for him.

The case also focused public attention on former union minister and Congress MP P.J. Kurien, whom the rape victim identified from photographs in a local daily. The girl contended that he was among the men who raped her at a Kumili rest house in Idukki. Kurien was issued summons by a lower court at Peermade which was upheld by the high court. But he went in for an appeal to the Supreme Court and has obtained a stay order. Kurien also produced computer printouts of telephone calls made to the chief minister and the Prime Minister’s Office from a house in Thiruvalla on the day he was said to have been in Kumili. Faced with this evidence, the police dropped his name from its chargesheet. Despite that, the scandal had its political fallout. In the last general elections, the Congress suffered reverses in its stronghold of Idukki, home of the rape victim. Kurien, who was the party candidate, had in his campaign speeches appealed to the "people’s court" to settle the question of his innocence. But he lost by a margin of over 10,000 votes.

The special court’s verdict is clearly intended as a powerful deterrent against atrocities on women. "The defence tried to establish consent on the part of the victim," recalls special prosecutor Suresh Babu Thomas. To counter the claim, the prosecution set out to dispel the possible motives of "love, lust and money". The girl could not have fallen in ‘love’ and consented to have sex with so many men during a period of 42 days. ‘Lust’ was ruled out on the basis of medical reports which confirmed that the girl had developed a painful pelvic infection during her confinement. Finally, none of the accused contended in court that money was offered to the girl in return for sex.

But despite the landmark verdict, it was questions about the political system that dominated in the end. A system so degenerate that it allows organised lobbies operating under political patronage to bring even children under their ambit of abuse.

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