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Kerala rape ripples in Assam village
Good as an ‘apsara’ in school, suspect now

Jorhat, Dec. 4: Daluram Gam refuses to believe that his youngest brother Prasanna, who was called apsara by his teachers because of his nature, had raped a woman.

His brother, he says, has been framed.

Prasanna, 23, and Lakhinath Panging, 20, both migrant labourers from Assam, were arrested yesterday in Kerala in connection with the November 28 gang rape of an IT employee at an island resort in the southern state.

Police officers in Thiruvananthapuram said the two had confessed to sexually assaulting their 41-year-old victim. Police sources said Prasanna and Lakhinath, employed with a pest control firm, tampered with the rear door of their victim’s room to ensure easy intrusion at night and then took turns to rape her.

Far away in their native land, cries of disbelief met the news of their arrest. “My brother is the youngest in the family, born after five sisters, almost 25 years younger than me. He was called an apsara (heavenly being) by his teachers because of his goodness,” Daluram said when this correspondent called him up today.

They are a family of nine: two brothers, five sisters and their parents.

Lakhinath is the youngest among seven brothers. “He is my nephew,” Daluram said. “He comes from my village. He had lost his father several years ago. His mother somehow manages to get by.”

Both the families are from Lassan Baligaon, a remote village on Majuli island, the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam.

“That night (November 28) I spoke to Prasanna. It was around 8. I asked him to collect his pay for the month, then return home so he could work with me on the small patch of land we have,” Daluram said from his village.

“Who knew such an incident would take place that night and my brother would be implicated? I refuse to accept they are capable of doing such a thing.”

If the crime and alleged confession betray the trust tourists put in the hospitality industry in unfamiliar places, another tale tumbled out in the sibling’s indignant torrent — a familiar account of grinding poverty that drives young men thousands of kilometres from their home in search of a better life.

Prasanna — the police had given his name as Presona yesterday — had appeared for Class XII exams two years ago and decided to go to Kerala to try his luck, his brother said.

Lassan Baligaon, his village, hadn’t held out much hope of a better future. The village falls under Jengrai police station in Majuli’s north-eastern tip bordering Lakhimpur district on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. Neematighat, where the ferry docks at Jorhat, the nearest town 325km from Guwahati, is two hours by ferry across the Brahmaputra. The village is two hours inland by private vehicle, which one has to hire — there is no public transport.

Working as employees of a private firm that had the contract for pest control at the Kerala island resort seemed a better option than tilling the small patch of land back home.

In Lassan Baligaon, everything is at the mercy of the river. Some 200 youths from the area have gone to Kerala and other parts of India in search of jobs. “I cannot send any money for my brother. My entire crop was washed away in last year’s floods,” Daluram said.

The arrest of Prasanna and Lakhinath is, however, not the area’s first tryst with infamy. Close by lies Shikari Gaon, where villagers have tortured dozens of people as “witches and sorcerers”.

It’s a familiar pattern: a person falls ill or dies and a self-styled “holy man” blames it on a family or a person, calling them witches. In October, 35 persons were forced to undergo a “purification” ritual to rid them of “demonic powers”.

When reporters and photographers went to the area, they were warned against coming back.