The two-storey house, in a shade of faded green, looks awkward in a neighbourhood of freshly painted, sprawling bungalows. The house, unlike most others in Kerala, doesn’t bear a name either. Quite like the young woman who lives there.
She is known as Suryanelli — after a small village in Munnar, a popular hill station in Kerala’s Idukki district. Some 17 years ago, she lived a peaceful life there with her family. Now she is in the eye of a continuing storm, shuttered in her home in Kottayam district.
“I want my name back,” says the 33-year-old with a faint smile and misty eyes. “That is all I seek.”
Raped for 40 days in 1996, she represents the underbelly of Kerala. The state that has been held up as an example of progress — with a literacy rate of 93.91 per cent — is being criticised by its own people as a hotbed of sex crimes. Minor girls — now mostly known by the name of the town they came from — have been caught in rackets patronised by the powerful.
“For the past two decades or so, Kerala has become a sex tourist destination,” fumes K. Ajitha, founder of Anweshi, a women’s counselling centre. “Organised sex network gangs have been institutionalised,” she says.
For Suryanelli, the trauma began on January 16. The Class IX student at a convent school in Munnar had thought she was going on a short tour with a bus conductor friend. Instead, she was taken around and out of Kerala and raped by over 40 men.
The case has been in and out of court, but it’s not yet seen closure. “A month after her return, she saw a photograph of Congressman P.J. Kurien (now deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha) in a newspaper and identified him as one of the men who had raped her,” activist Suja Susan George says. “The father wrote a complaint to then chief minister A.K. Anthony. Soon, cops started threatening and asking them to withdraw the case,” George adds. Kurien has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case. He was exonerated by both the High Court and the Supreme Court, but earlier this week, a local court admitted a petition to register a case against him.
Yet the Suryanelli case is just one of the many scandals that have rocked Kerala in recent years. Most of the victims are minors. Worse, many victims have pointed fingers at powerful men. “There could be a nexus between the mafia that runs the sex networks and high profile people,” admits a top police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Every sex scandal has a big name attached to it and they often bribe their way out of it,” he adds.
PUBLIC FURY: A protest outside Parliament demanding the removal of P.J. Kurien, deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha
Even as the Suryanelli case was making headlines, a similar tale was unfolding in Vithura, an idyllic village some 25km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram. A 16-year-old girl was lured by her neighbour with the promise of roles in films and pushed into the sex trade. For over six months she was taken to various parts of Kerala and to Tamil Nadu and sexually abused by over 100 men.
“She was rescued when police arrested her and brought her to the Kerala State Women’s Commission,” says poet-writer Sugathakumari, who was then the chairperson of the commission. The girl named 100 people and subsequently identified 18, including a popular Malayalam actor, a former top cop and a senior bureaucrat.
“The only case that till now has seen closure was a verdict that came in favour of the film star. The court observed that the girl gave her consent for the act,” says Sugathakumari, who rehabilitated the victim.
Now married and a new mother, she no longer wants to pursue the case. “She was brutally beaten and put under sedatives whenever she resisted. Is that what is called consent,” asks Sugathakumari scathingly.
In just about a year after these two high profile cases, Kerala was hit by another scandal that’s come to be known as the ice cream parlour case. In 1997, it was alleged that an ice cream parlour in Kozhikode was actually a brothel, where women and minors were sexually exploited after they were served ice cream laced with sedatives. Many high ranking politicians were named in the case.
The matter came to light when five minor girls approached Anweshi, which went to the police. Out of the five victims, two later retracted their statements. The High Court, and subsequently the Supreme Court, dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
But people remember the case because P.K. Kunhalikutty, the present Kerala industries minister and leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, was accused of having been involved in it. Last year, it cropped up again when one of Kunhalikutty’s relatives — once close, but subsequently estranged — alleged that the minister had bribed the victims and three judges for a verdict in his favour. The government ordered a probe. The Special Investigation Team report on the case is yet to be made public.
According to Mercy Alexander, a co-ordinator with Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, the state has a flourishing sex network run by influential people. “Minors from illiterate and poor families are lured by someone close like a relative or a neighbour,” she says.
The figures underline the sorry state of affairs. The state government’s Economic Review 2004 says that atrocities against women in the state increased by 300 per cent from 1991 to 2001. According to some estimates, there are as many as 14,000 cases of sexual abuse pending in Kerala. Chief minister Oommen Chandy has promised speedy justice through fast-track courts.
“We are extremely worried about what is happening to minors and women,” Chandy emphasises. “The government can only act within the law so we recently introduced a bill in the Assembly to protect the rights of women,” he adds. The chief minister has also written to the Kerala High Court chief justice on the need for fast-track courts for speedy trials and conviction.
Among the many cases pending is the one involving a 16-year-old domestic worker who was lured into sex work by an auto driver in Thoppumpady in Cochin in 2002. She was kept in captivity, raped by many and was forced into pornographic films. The girl named 69 people — including a film director and a priest — in her complaint. The case is still languishing in court.
In a politically polarised state, politicians have also played their part in keeping the public glare on the crimes. “It seems Kerala is full of sexually starved men and pimps exist to serve their needs. We will ensure that justice is delivered in the Suryanelli and ice cream parlour case quickly,” says the leader of the Opposition and Marxist veteran, V.S. Achuthanandan.
What is it that ails Kerala? Some argue that one reason crime is shown as rising is that more cases are registered in the state than elsewhere. “A high literacy rate has ensured that there is high reporting of crimes,” says advocate Vineeth Kumar.
But some observers hold there’s more to sex crimes than mere reporting. “The high rate of crimes against women shows our deeply patriarchal society,” argues advocate Bhadrakumari, who has closely worked in the ice cream parlour case. “It’s a myth that Kerala is kind to women,” stresses J. Devika, associate professor, Centre for Developing Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
Devika believes that the “globalised culture and media explosion in an otherwise deeply traditional society” has led to a break-up of family and social set-ups.
Indeed, some statistics underline the downside of a state known for its high growth rate and per capita income (Rs 83,725 in 2011-2012, up from Rs 71,434 in 2010-11). It has, for instance, one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the country. Substance abuse is also on the rise. “Farmers have fallen into debt traps, liquor addiction is high and drugs are easily available,” Ajitha stresses. Cornered families, many argue, are being forced to look at sex as a source of income — leading to a rise in sexual crimes.
“This is a trend where underage girls are being trapped and drawn into a thriving sex market,” admits V.D. Satheesan, a Congress MLA.
A senior politician believes that the lack of a red light area in the state is a reason for rising sex crimes. “If there had been a few brothels in the state, maybe such scandals wouldn’t have occurred,” the leader observes. “Kerala is now turning into an illegal Bangkok,” holds K.K. Shailaja, state secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association. “It shows our weak governance and lack of fear of any kind of law,”she adds.
What’s clear, though, is that the people of Kerala are not going to allow such cases to be quietly buried. The outcry over the Suryanelli case, for instance, led to the setting up of the first special court in Kerala. The trial began in 1999 and in 2000 the court convicted all the 35 accused except Kurien.
In 2005, the Kerala High Court reversed the special court’s verdict and acquitted everybody except one person on the ground that he used the girl for commercial sex work. Last month, the Supreme Court set aside the acquittal and ordered the High Court to re-examine the case.
For the victim’s family, though, the trauma continues. When they couldn’t bear the harsh public arc lights, as their sleepy village became a tourist destination with roads and tourist resorts, they sold their house and moved to Kottayam.
“But things have remained the same. Our relatives shun us, society has ostracised us and my daughter is an object of curiosity for onlookers. How far can we keep running,” asks her 70-year-old father.
The state once took pride in the moniker God’s Own Country. Today, its people mockingly refer to it as Go Down Country.
Some of the other cases that rocked the state
A college student at Panthalam in Pathanamthitta district was raped by a group of eight men, including four of her college lecturers, for over three months. The video of the acts was used to blackmail her. In 2002, a special court convicted seven people. One person committed suicide during the trial.
An 18-year-old from Kilroor in Cochin district was lured by her uncle’s neighbour with the promise of roles in TV serials. She was sexually exploited for several months. She died three months after giving birth to a child in 2004. Last month, a special court sentenced five accused to 10 years’ imprisonment. The girl’s family alleged the involvement of politicians.
A five-member family, including a minor, committed suicide in Kaviyoor in Pathanamthitta district. An investigation revealed that the girl had been sexually abused by her father. The scandal was linked to the Kilroor case as one of the main culprits of that case was reportedly close to the family.
A 14-year-old complained to the police that her father had forced her into prostitution. The Class X student named 150 people including a trade union leader, a local politician, a retired naval officer and a top government official. Last year, a sessions court awarded life imprisonment to the father.
The incident came to light when a 14-year-old girl was taken for an abortion by her father. The girl reported to the police that he had forced her into prostitution. So far 32 people have been arrested.