And Justice for the ‘Suryanelli Girl’
Sexually assaulted for 40 days continuously, by 42 men: After 17 long years, will this epic tale of injustice ever end?
Arathi PM Delhi/Kasaragod (Kerala)
The national capital witnessed unparalleled protests for gender justice and sexual violence against women. The December 16 gangrape in Delhi generated public attention across the national spectrum. However, public memory in Kerala hardly recollected the injustice inflicted on a girl (now grown-up woman) from a small village in Idukki district called Suryanelli for 17 long years by the criminal justice system of this country.
The patriarchal public sphere of Kerala and the ruling Congress government in Kerala treated the ‘Suryanelli girl’ with complete insensitivity. She was mentally tortured. The government tried to ‘teach her a lesson’ on what happens if you fight against big shots like PJ Kurian (Congress leader and Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha) by constituting a false money misappropriation case against her. Through stares, sexist, derogatory statements, the male gaze and social exclusion, the public sphere made social life impossible for her.
On January 31, 2013, the Supreme Court expressed its shock at the Kerala High Court verdict in the
Suryanelli case and ordered a retrial within six months; hence, media attention has refocused on the case.
The Suryanelli case involved the rape of a 16-year-old girl. In 1996, she was sexually assaulted for 40 days continuously — by 42 men. Due to the unique character of this case, it was discussed in diverse spheres. Among the accused were high-profile individuals. These included Kurian, then cabinet minister in Delhi. The case led to a huge political debate in Kerala and was used as a campaign point in the parliamentary and assembly elections. The issue was taken up by feminist groups seeking justice for the victim/survivor (I am not calling her only ‘survivor’, as she has been ‘victimised’ by the entire social system).
The then CP(M)-led Left Front government in Kerala constituted the first-ever special court in 1999 for the trial. This took into consideration the large number of the accused and witnesses and the involvement of different jurisdictions. This special court convicted 36 of the 42 accused in 2002 on charges of abduction, conspiracy, illegal detention, rape and gangrape. This verdict was overturned by a division bench of the Kerala High Court that acquitted all but one among the convicted 36.
Indeed, the verdict of the Kerala High Court by Justice KA Abdul Gafoor and Justice R Basanth (dated 20.1.2005) is primarily based on male fantasies about the female body and sexuality. The institutional inter-play of law and medicine, based on their inherent anti-women perception, is reflected here since the
medical/forensic evidence played a crucial role in the judicial decision-making process.
The special prosecutor had contended that, in spite of the severe infection in her vagina, the main accused and many others had raped the girl. Some of them raped her more than twice a day. According to her deposition in the court, during those horrible days, her condition was precarious and she had acute pain at the back of the hip. In spite of this, the division bench observed that “to rape a girl with such ailments, pain and infected vagina may be humanly impossible, as contended by the appellants, except with roaring cry from the victim (the girl)… has no case that she had even wept during the alleged rapes… no resistance mark was found on her body”.
According to the doctor, there were no signs or evidence of ‘resistance’. The bench observed that the girl had many opportunities to run away but she did not do so. The Kerala High Court did not even take into account previous judicial observations in the Mathura case that absence of resistance does not amount to willingness to have sex. When the girl was terrorised and forced to undergo sex, the court considered it consent.
The judgment held that the medical opinion was of no help to the prosecution to prove that there was intercourse using force. The doctor who examined the girl after she came back home, had given crucial evidence for the prosecution. The doctor reported that “vaginal examination was painful, vulva was oedematous. There was infection. There was purulent foul smelling discharge. She would have suffered severe pain during the sexual act if it had continued as stated by her during the period of infection.” (High Court of Kerala, 2005, pp 481.)
But the judges pointed out that at the time of cross-examination the doctor said that infection could also be caused by uterine contraceptive devices. The doctor told the court that he examined the vaginal wall and did not find it lacerated. The court observed, that, according to the doctor, during violent intercourse also, “laceration in the vaginal wall occurs posteriorly.” (High Court of Kerala, 2005, pp 482-483).
Thus, overturning the verdict by the trial court, the division bench completely glossed over the evidence given by the victim and medical evidence. Legal precedence in the case of medical and corroboratory evidence was conveniently ignored by the judges.