Stand Up Against Victim-Blaming, Rape-Culture and Witch-Hunt of the Survivor!
AISA welcomes the belated verdict delivered after long 18 years by the Kerala High Court in the shocking Suryanelli rape case of 1996. On 4 April a division bench of the Kerala High Court convicted 24 of the 31 accused in the Suryanelli rape case. The accused were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 4 to 13 years. The main accused advocate Dharmarajan got life imprisonment and two other accused are sentenced to 10-year imprisonment with a fine of Rs.15,000. Fifteen other accused are to serve seven-year imprisonment term with a fine of Rs.15,000. However, seven other have been acquitted by the court.
The Suryanelli rape case concerns a 16-year-old school going girl, from the Suryanelli village of Kerala, who was enticed, abducted and sexually exploited by a bus conductor on January 16, 1996. She was later handed over to two others, including the prime accused Dharmarajan. She was raped 67 times by various people during a period of 40 days and transported over 3000 kilometres. 40 people were accused of being involved in the incident, and these included some well-known and well-placed individuals.
Prolonged Travesty of Justice
A Special Court in Kerala sentenced 35 persons to rigorous imprisonment in 2000. However, in 2005, the State High Court acquitted all of them except Dharmarajan, claiming that the girl had consensual sex with all of them. (Interestingly, Dharmarajan, the prime accused, had been absconding since 2002. It was only in 2013 that he was nabbed and arrested in Karnataka.) Though the prosecution appealed the case in the Supreme Court in 2005, it remained pending in the Supreme Court for eight years!
It was only in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi bus gang rape case, the long pending Suryanelli case was brought to attention of the Chief Justice of India. Subsequently, the Supreme Court reversed the Kerala High Court’s decision in January 2013, describing it as “shocking”. Following SC’s order to reconsider the Suryanelli rape case, the Kerala High Court set up a special bench and hearing of the appeals began on March 13, 2013. Earlier, at one point, the case became sensational when the girl alleged that one of the rapists was Rajya Sabha speaker P.J. Kurien. He was later discharged from the case by the High Court in 2007. In February 2013, in the wake of massive protests against rape and gender violence that that were sweeping the country, the survivor, gained some confidence to file a fresh case against P.J. Kurien and the former Additional Director General of Police Siby Mathew (for forcing Dharmarajan not tell the name of P J Kurien), in the High Court. Several protests were held in Delhi and Kerala in support of the survivor with the demand to remove P.J. Kurien from the seat of Rajya Sabha Chairman. However, Congress marshalled all its clout, in the state and the Centre to defend him. And this time too, her petition against Kurien was rejected by the High Court on October 23, 2013.
Throughout the entire phase, the survivor and her family faced social ostracism and witch-hunt from the politically powerful people. Last year, in February 2013, when the case was re-opened, the Congress MP K. Sudhakaran, in a typical display of rape-culture, went to the extent of saying that the girl had moved around “as a prostitute, making money and accepting gifts” ( Indian Express, Feb 18, 2013).
Now on 4 April 2014, the High Court pronounced the verdict in the Suryanelli rape case. The bold survivor from Suryanelli, who was just 16-year-old at the time of the incident, finally got some justice after 18 years. However, the fact remains that no action has been taken against several influential and well-placed individuals such as Kurien whose names figured in the case.
Shakti Mill Rape case Verdict
On 4 April 2014, in another significant development, a Mumbai court, pronounced punishment for the accused in the horrific Shakti Mill gang rape case of Mumbai.
The August 2013 Mumbai Shakti Mill gang rape case involves the incident in which a photo-journalist, who was interning with an English magazine in Mumbai, was gang-raped by five persons, including a juvenile, when she had gone to the deserted Shakti Mills compound, in South Mumbai, with her male colleague on an assignment on August 22, 2013. The accused had tied up the victim’s colleague with belts and raped her. The accused also made a video clip of the sexual assault. Subsequently, once the photojournalist’s rape got reported, one more gang rape case was reported by a 19 year old call-centre employee who came forward to identify that three of the Shakti Mill case were among the gang of five who raped her on 31 July 2013.
The three men had previously received a sentence of life imprisonment in the former case, but the special prosecutor filed additional charges under Section 376(E) of the Indian Penal Code, which allows the death penalty to be imposed on repeat rapists, even without the death of a victim. This clause came into force as part of the amendments in the ant-Rape Law following the 16 December Delhi bus gang-rape case. This punishment is being invoked for the first time. Two other men, each involved in one attack but not the other, were given sentences of life in prison, while two other suspects, both juveniles, are being tried separately. We welcome this speedy conviction.
At the same time, death penalty as punishment is something which is unacceptable. It has been widely held, by jurists and social activists, that death sentence has not diminished violence against women which is deeply rooted in unequal and discriminatory practices. This is often a short-cut through which the society and particularly the state abdicates its larger responsibility towards creating a culture and environment that provides dignity and safety to women. Further, as noted lawyer and women’s rights activist, Flavia Agnes has noted, “They just wanted to make a showcase of this case. There is nothing for the victim, they have not provided her with anything as relief. They are giving the death penalty as if it’s for their own sake.”
It is high time we fight up for speedy justice in every case. The govt.’s promise of fast-track courts and time bound convictions still remains a far cry. Let us also resolve to defeat the cult of victim-blaming and rape-culture indulged in by the people in position and power, which sustain the obnoxious system which breeds violence against women and deters justice!