She is the ‘Suryanelli girl’. “But that’s not my name.” It’s not. It’s the name of the village in Kerala’s Idukki district where she lived a 16-year-old’s life—happy, innocent, smiling easily. She doesn’t smile easily anymore, but then, a lot more has changed since that day in 1996 when she was “trapped” by a bus conductor, the beginning of a 40-day nightmare during which she was taken all over Kerala and to parts of Tamil Nadu, raped and mutilated by 42 men. It has been a long fight, during which the case has seen several twists and turns, but she is determined to fight on. “Society denied me my name the day the case came to light. I want my name back. My fight is to get back that right,” she says, sitting with her parents at their house in Kottayam district.
The two-bedroom house is where the family moved to from Suryanelli to escape the prying eyes of the public and its open sniggers and comments. The case had become one of the biggest sex scandals in Kerala, bringing in its fold former Union minister (and now Rajya Sabha deputy chairman) P J Kurien. As the case lingered on for 17 years and with the Supreme Court now asking the High Court to re-examine the case, the public gaze only got harsher. But all along, she stuck to her case, never dithering, never changing her statement.
It’s painful to recall, but she insists on remembering, for that’s part of the fight to “reclaim my name”.
In 1994-95, she came to Suryanelli in Munnar, a hill station in Idukki, to live with her family—her mother worked as a nurse with a plantation company and her father worked as the postmaster. Until then, she had studied at a residential school in Kottayam district and now, she joined class 8 in an English-medium residential school in Munnar. She would take a bus, the same bus, from the family’s tea estate quarters to school and back. It was a beautiful ride through sloping tea plantations and mist-covered hills. It was during these rides that she befriended Raju, the conductor.
According to her statement to the police, Raju met her at her school on January 12, 1996. He wanted her to come with him on a trip and when she refused, he allegedly blackmailed her with a family photo album of hers. “I had given the album to my classmate Fathima. The day Fathima got the album back, I was not in the bus. Raju took it from Fathima, promising her that he would hand it over to me,” she says. “Raju also asked me to bring along some clothes and money for the trip. When I refused, he threatened to humiliate my family using the photos in the album. I had no choice but to go along with him.” Four days later, on January 16, she left with Raju on that trip.
Over the next 40 days, from January 16 to February 21, she was taken to Kumali (Idukki), Palakkad, Kozhikode, Aluva, Muvattupuzha and Kottayam in the state, and Theni, Kambam and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, where she was raped by different men. The police believe that during this period, she covered around 4,000 km with her tormentors, who took her from one hotel to another, city to city, and forced her to have sex with strangers. On two occasions, she was raped allegedly by two men simultaneously. Though her condition worsened and she had serious injuries in her vagina, her attackers reportedly pumped her with pills and liquor to keep her sedated.
On September 6, 2000, a special court convicted 36 people in two separate chargesheets, but five years later, the high court acquitted all of them, except for advocate Dharmarajan, saying that the victim was a willing partner in the act since there was no sign or evidence of resistance.
“The high court cannot understand the trauma I went through. How could I have resisted? Though I was taken to different places, sometimes even in buses, I was in no state to run away or even raise an alarm to attract people’s attention. I was under forced sedation. They would force me to take sleeping pills and forcibly pour liquor into my mouth,’’ she says.
On February 26, she was put on a bus back home to Munnar and she turned up at her father’s office. “I still remember the day she came back, 40 days after she had gone missing. Her body was ravaged. She could not walk. Doctors told me that her life would have been at risk if the treatment had been delayed any longer,’’ says her mother.
When her father took her to the local police station that day, it set off a long legal battle that would go on for 17 years. He says he hadn’t bargained for the attention or the political tones the case would go on to assume—he was just an angry father seeking justice for his daughter. “I only wanted her attackers to be taught a lesson. But no father should suffer the fate that I was subjected to after I filed the case. Sometimes, I feel I should not have complained,’’ says the father, now in his 70s.
“As part of their evidence gathering, the police took my daughter to all the places where she was raped. My daughter and I sat among the accused in the police bus, our faces covered with towels. People would throng the vehicle. We could hear them say nasty things about my daughter. This went on until someone obtained a court order against pubic parading of the victim,’’ he says.
Over the years, as the case dragged on, the family hoped time would heal their scars. They moved out of the tea estate quarters and pooled in their savings to build a three-bedroom house on 13 cents (approx 0.13 acres) of land. But by then, the picturesque Suryanelli had become a tourist attraction—and so had their home. “Local guides and taxi drivers would slow down in front of our house, point at us and say, this is the house of the Suryanelli girl. Things got so bad that my elder sister, who is a nurse in Karnataka, said she wouldn’t come home to such unwanted attention and taunts,’’ she says.
The family had no option but to hastily sell their house and leave Suryanelli for Kottayam. “On the evening of March 22, 2006, we put everything we had in a truck and left the hills. My friends had stopped coming to me since the case came out. So, I had no one to say goodbye to,” she says.
The ‘Suryanelli girl’ tag followed the family to Kottayam, where they bought a new house. “We had left Suryanelli unable to bear the attention. But the real estate brokers who had arranged the Kottayam house for us had spread the news about our coming,’’ says her father.
Life, as they knew it, was over. No movies, no shopping, no family or friends, no Sunday Mass. “My social life ended the day I was trapped. Over the last 17 years, I have lived without friends. Our relatives have shunned us. In fact, they have instructed their children not to meet me or talk to me,’’ she says. “Pappa goes out to get the provisions. He is still taunted. We are kept away from every function in the locality,’’ she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
The only time she steps out is to go to office, 15 km from home. She works as a peon at the sales tax department office in Kottayam, a job she got during the CPM rule of 1996-2001. “After work, if I can’t reach home by 6 pm, I call my father and he comes to pick me up at the bus stop. Before boarding the bus, I pray to God that no one identifies me. And if someone does, they usually nudge their co-passengers and point at me as the ‘Suryanelli girl’. So far, I have not complained against anyone. And anyway, how many people can I drag to the police?’’ she says.
She says her colleagues continue to see her as the ‘Suryanelli girl’, as someone who is never beyond suspicion. The sniggers became louder after the police arrested her on February 7 last year on charges of financial irregularities. The charge against her was that she had failed to deposit an office fund of Rs 2.26 lakh in the bank. An internal probe blamed her, besides three other employees, but she was the only one to be arrested. “I didn’t do anything wrong. When I took the money to the bank, the cashier sent me back saying there were hiccups in the computer network. But my office sent me back and this time, the cashier credited the money without issuing a receipt. I agree it was a lapse, but I didn’t take the money,’’ says the girl.
A year after the incident, she was taken into custody 100 metres away from her house while she was on her way to office. She was jailed for a week till social activists bailed her out. The department placed her under suspension, and it was only recently that the suspension was revoked. But the probe is still on.
Her parents say it’s no coincidence that the arrest happened when the appeal against the acquittal of the Suryanelli accused was pending in the Supreme Court. “There is a conspiracy behind the case and arrest,’’ says the father.
At home, the family huddles for prayer every morning and evening. She reads the Bible every day—the 35th Psalms of David (a prayer for rescue from enemies) is her source of strength. “Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armour; arise and come to my aid…’’
“My only prayer to Jesus is to help me go through life without any more troubles. I have nothing to do but pray, though I have no expectations from life. I can’t even think about a man coming forward to marry me. Even my chechi’s (elder sister) life has been spoiled due to the case and the stigma that has stayed with us.’’
While she prayed, she also prayed for the Delhi gang rape victim. “For the last 17 years, there hasn’t been a single day in my life when the thought of Suryanelli had not haunted me. I will never be able to forget the trauma and move on. After the Delhi girl died, I thought, ‘You are lucky. God saved you from the fate of living with the stigma.’’
That day in 1996
On January 16, 1996, the girl took a bus with Raju to downtown Adimali and then to Kothamangalam. Unknown to her, a woman named Usha was travelling in the same bus and keeping a watch on her. Investigation would later prove that the bus journey was part of the conspiracy. It was when the bus reached Kothamangalam at 8.40 pm that the victim realised Raju was not with her. As she could not return home that late in the night, the girl decided to go to her relative’s house in Kottayam.
Usha reportedly got on the same bus to Kottayam. When they reached Kottayam, the girl decided to catch a bus to Mundakkayam, where another relative lived. However, there was no bus to Mundakkayam at that hour. It was then that Usha reportedly approached the girl, calling her by name and introducing her to a ‘Sreekumar’ who, she said, would take her to Mundakkayam. ‘Sreekumar’ took her to a lodge, where he allegedly raped her. Sreekumar was later identified as Advocate S S Dharmarajan. On January 17, Dharmarajan took her to Kochi by bus. She was later taken all over Kerala where she was raped by 40 men.
On March 26, 1996, the girl saw a photograph of Congress leader P J Kurien in a daily and identified him as one of the men who raped her at the Kumali guesthouse on February 19. On March 15, 1999, the family moved a private petition in a magistrate’s court in Idukki, seeking a probe into Kurien’s role. The court issued summons to Kurien, but he approached the high court and got the magistrate court proceedings quashed. The CPM government in Kerala petitioned the Supreme Court against relief to Kurien from the high court. On November 17, 2007, SC upheld the High Court verdict. Kurien has consistently denied the allegations and called it a political conspiracy against him.
* In 1998, the CPM government forms state’s first special court for the Suryanelli case. Trial begins on November 16, 1999.
* On September 6, 2000, special court sentences 35 to rigorous imprisonment for different terms
* The Kerala High Court acquits all the accused, except Dharmarajan, on January 20, 2005.
* The Kerala government files an appeal against the acquittal of the accused on May 11, 2005
* On January 31, 2013, SC sets aside acquittal, directing HC to re-examine the matter