The Conspiracy against the #Suryanelli Gang #Rape Victim
In 1996, in the town of Suryanelli, in Kerala, a 16-year-old girl was abducted and brutally gang-raped by 42 men over a 40 day period. This has become one of the most high profile cases about the brutality of gang-rape and sex-trafficking in India, and yet 16 years on the Indian system has failed to give justice to the victim.
Since under Indian law, rape victims cannot be named, she has become known as “the Suryanelli girl.”
The Suryanelli girl was a shy child who grew up in the sheltered confines of Catholic boarding schools, since her father, a postmaster, and her mother, a nurse, had to move often for new job assignments. In 1994, she moved back home with her parents, where she relocated to a new boarding school closer to their home amid the hills and tea gardens of Suryanelli. Every weekend she would take the bus to her parents’ house.
It was on the bus rides that she met Raju, the ticket collector. She was 16 and he was 26, but like teenagers do, she fell in love. And like most Indian girls, she hid her love from her strict, Catholic family. Though she loved Raju, she was also afraid of him. Once, he got hold of an album of her family photographs and blackmailed her with them. He told her if she didn’t run away with him, to marry him, he morph her pictures on naked bodies and post them around her school.
Though nervous she agreed to go. On Jan. 16, 1996, she was to meet him at a local bus stand but he was not there. It was too late to go back to school. In a panic, she caught another bus headed toward her aunt’s house in a town nearby. An unknown woman with a male companion who had been following her, introduced herself, and knew her name. She told her that she knew her relatives and would take her to their house. Instead they took her to a nearby guesthouse and the man raped her.
The next 42 days passed in a blur of beatings and rapes by a parade of strange men. She was taken to homes and hotels, in cars and public buses, driven more than 2,000 miles across two states. She was forced to drink arrack, a local liquor, and sedated with pills.
Her attackers included a retired professor, lawyers, businessmen and government officials. When she resisted, the first man who raped her threatened to kill her parents. “I’m a lawyer,” he told her, “I will never get caught for this.”
One man seemed older than the others, and she begged him for pity. “You are old enough to be my papa. Please rescue me from here.” He raped her too.
When she reached the point she thought she would die, they gave her a little money and left her at a bus station. She thought her ordeal had ended. But it was only the beginning.
At the hospital the doctors said her groin and private areas were so savaged, and she had bled so much that a few more days, and she would be dead! The memory of seeing his daughter that day is burned into her father’s brain – her bloated body, her face covered in scratch marks. “I cannot describe it,” he says. “And I cannot forget it. When she left, she was a young girl in a school uniform. When she came back, she looked like a grown woman, her body puffy and swollen….I knew immediately what she had gone through.”
They went to the local police, who tried to dissuade her from reporting the crime. It took two days to file the first report. The police took the girl and her father everywhere she had been forced to go, in a police van, like culprits — with several of the suspects. Every day was a humiliation. The police and the perpetrators seemed like friends, laughing and joking together. The victim however found courage and named and identified her rapists.
She was examined by a male gynecologist. Victims of rape in India generally have to undergo the so-called “two-finger test.” Doctors probe the vagina to see if it is lax, the term commonly used, and if a hymen is absent. Both are taken as evidence the woman routinely has sex and so must have consented to intercourse. In the case of the Suryanelli girl, the doctor did not perform the two-finger test. He said her vagina was simply too damaged.
It took three years for the case just to reach a court in India’s overburdened justice system. And when it did, it was not the men who were on trial – it was the character of the girl. Lawyers for the accused cross-examined her relentlessly for days, in minute detail that seemed designed to embarrass her.
“How many pairs of underwear did you have?”
“Did your underwear get torn when you were raped?”
“Did they undo the string on your pants or did they cut it?”
“Did the pants get torn?” “Did you carry any sanitary napkins during your travels?”
The men said either that they had never even met her or that the sex was consensual. Some had minor links to a political party and claimed they were part of a political vendetta.
But at least the trial court offered the girl a chance at justice. The judge, who was liberal by Indian standards, believed that a woman’s failure to resist could not be seen as consent.
He found all 35 accused guilty. On September 06, 2000, a special court sentenced all 35 men to between 4 and 14 years in prison, for charges ranging from conspiracy and kidnapping to gang rape and trafficking.
For one moment, it looked like the Suryanelli girl had won. However, it was not to be so.
One of the accuesed was Kurien who she recognized and identified from a photograph. During her captivity one day she was told that an “important” man would be “visiting” her. She didn’t know who he was at the time, but begged him to spare her and rescue her since he had the power to. He didn’t. Later, she saw his face in a newspaper and recognized him instantly.
None of the men served any time in jail. They all filed appeals in the state high court and walked free on bail.
When 9 years later, the case finally came before the Kerala High Court, the ruling was overturned. The High Court acquitted all 35 convicted rapists and found only one of them guilty of crimes related to the sex trade and sentenced him to a 5 years jail term and a fine of Rs 50,000. The reason for the acquittal was political pull, specially that of the accused P.J. Kurien, who was a former Union Minister and member of the Congress party the current party in power! Of course all men had to be acquitted together, since they were in the crime together, otherwise they would have testifyed against each other! The police made no other arrests in the case!
The High Court judges spoke with sarcasm about the victim’s ability to befriend strangers easily, noted by the bus driver. They brought up her childhood bedwetting, saying the fact that her sister had washed the sheets showed “a tendency to make others responsible” for her problems. Most of all, they said, she was not a “normal innocent” 16-year-old. She had shown the nerve to pawn jewelry and give money to a secret boyfriend, risky behavior that betrayed shaky character. And why hadn’t she tried to escape when she was kept in guesthouses and transported in public buses? Her word couldn’t be trusted. In fact, everything she said was to be doubted.
The “million dollar question,” the judges said, was not whether more than three dozen men had had sex with her over 42 days. It was whether she had been a willing partner, now turning on them to protect her reputation. They said that “She needed money. She was prepared to raise it. She had needs which her parents did not know,” the judgment said. “She is thus shown to be a girl of deviant character.”
The court that acquitted Kurien and the others said they had a witness testifying that Kurien was not in the guest house at the time of the rape. However, that same witness said that he actually testified that he had seen Kurien in the guest house, around the time the victim was raped there! He said the police officer in charge had changed his statement to protect Kurien, and a number of bribes were also offered to him for his silence! Furthermore, the one man convicted in the case has also testified that Kurien was in the guest house but that he was pressurized by the investigating officer to not testify against Kurien!
Despite this the government has refused to remove Kurien from office and re-try his case with the new evidence emerging against him!
Over the years, the victim and her family had to move houses constantly, and still continue to be ostracized by society, and face harassment from various quarters. After her ordeal, friends vanished. Relatives slunk away. People said her father was selling his daughter and bought his house from the money she made.
The family began to face harassment from other quarters when the victim refused to retract Kurien’s name from the list of men who had raped her! The family began to live in fear, often only commuting between work and home. The mother quietly mourns the lost happiness of both her daughters. “Who will marry them?” she asks. “Who will look after them when we’re gone?”
Faith was the cornerstone of the family, back in what they think of as the time before everything happened. Even today, images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus decorate the living room, and several rosaries hang from a nail hammered into the wall. But they lost the solace of church too. Their local priest suggested they stay away for a while because people had begun to recognize them.
Watch the video above to understand how this victim and her family have been further victimized by the political system over the last 16 years.
In January 2013, the government of India released a new anti-rape law in response to the ground-breaking Verma Committee report on rape and sexual violence on women in India. Of the many recommendations of the Verma Committee, a key one was for the government to ensure that no politician charge-sheeted with rape be allowed to be in office, which the law in India currently permits.
The government however made a complete MOCKERY of this recommendation. On February 19, when the Rape Ordinance was discussed in Parliament it was chaired by P. J. Kurien !
The mother of the victim, had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress party, who is also Kurien’s boss, saying, “… How can he (Kurien) chair the discussions when the ordinance aiming at the emancipation of womanhood in India promulgated by the Union of India with regard to the sexual offences against women in the Upper House of Parliament…(is about to be considered).” But Sonia Gandhi has her own vested interest in protecting rapist politicians, since many of them are in her party, and had organized the rape of Sikh women in Delhi in 1984! For more click here.
However, there was worse! The most humiliating blow to the Suryanelli victim was delivered in May 2013 by the U.S. based women’s organization “Women Deliver,” when invited Kurien as a guest speaker at their global conference on women’s reproductive rights! Later, Women Deliver just swerved past this blow they had served to the Suryanelli victim by saying, they didn’t know! They never even apologized directly to the victim! Many questions remain. Women’s groups in India have been furiously fighting Kurien, so who recommended Kurien as a speaker? The “Women Deliver” organization seems to have high profile connections with American business and political leaders. Did one of these with a vested interest in India, suggest Kurien? And if this was truly a mistake, wouldn’t “Women Deliver” make a serious attempt to reach out to the victim? Instead they just dismissed her case as a “controversy.”
Soon after the Women Deliver conference, the one witnessed who had been jailed, and who had testified that he not only accompanied Kurien to the guest house where this girl was kept, but that he had been threatened and bribed by various agencies to change his statement, suddenly changed his statement! After 16 years, this man suddenly said, that he was “drunk” and does not remember what he actually saw! Was this the part of the political conspiracy — to have Kurien invited to a high-profile international women’s conference, where he shared the platform with the likes of Melinda Gates and Chelsea Clinton, so it would push his case towards acquittal? If so can we rule out that Women Deliver wasn’t a part of this political conspiracy?