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When rape survivor becomes victim: Sherin B.S.

March 16, 2013

SHERIN B.S. writes from Hyderabad: There is a constant demand for a change in the terminology from ‘rape victim’ to ‘rape survivor’ in the agenda of feminist concerns in discourses related to rape. But beyond the feminist investment on surviving rape, a systematic reading of public discourses presents the traumatic sustenance of layers of violence that follows rape. The Suryanelli girl has survived rape, but the violent experience of life after rape perpetrated by systemic structures of patriarchy places her at the receiving end of a system that consciously alienates, humiliates and hunts her down.

While referring to the Suryanelli rape case there are two kinds of discourses circulated widely. One is the question of legality of the crime involved, with a heavily prejudiced and unsympathetic legal frame work attempting to frame the girl as an eternal victim subject for whom justice is almost impossible, mediated through parallel machinery of the state, including law enforcement. The impossibility of justice is not the intention of the legal machinery but it comes through the operating forces of judgments, prosecution stands, law enforcing offices like police stations and officers, and questions of evidence, alibis and so on.

The second discourse is the moral discourse heavily prejudiced and antagonistic to the survivor that happily relates the story of the fallen girl, punished for her deviance thus providing a lesson to all women in the society. This discourse is circulated through the specificities of the rape case but intentionally expecting to form a larger field of reprimands, guidelines, moral lessons for any woman who violates the unwritten codes of conduct. In both the discourses the survivor and the harrowing experiences that she went through lie somewhere far off from the domain of address, which rises from definitive intention to control and exploit female sexuality. Alternatively this moral realm affects and manipulates the operations of the legal discourse as clearly evident from the high court judgment releasing all the accused from the Suryanelli case.

The Suryanelli Rape Case

The Suryanelli rape, occurred in 1996 in Kerala, involves the abduction, severe exploitation and rape of a sixteen year old school girl, abducted and taken to different places in Kerala, by 42 men from all walks of life.  Between January 16 and February 26 she was submitted to extreme and horrible forms of sexual violence. The survivor named many high profiled politicians and professionals including Congress leader and the present Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson PJ Kurien as part of her assaulters, but they did not figure in the charge sheet given the consideration of lack of evidence. Nair Service Society office bearer Sukumaran Nair came up with a statement to support P J Kurien to say that Kurien had met him at the office during the particular time of the day mentioned by the girl. In 2000 September the special court for sexual assault convicted 35 of the accused for rigorous imprisonment and punishment. But in 2005, on the basis of the appeal filed against this judgment the High Court of Kerala acquitted all the convicted and punished just one, the third accused, that too reducing his sentence to five years. The public which had already ostracized her got the right weapon then to high light its moral judgment on the girl. The innuendos promoted by many mainstream Malayalam dailies got affirmation through the verdict.

In 2012 the girl was arrested for an alleged financial irregularity case in the office where she was working. The lawyers of the girl say that vested interest had set her up as her case was coming up in the Supreme Court. The recent development in the issue is the Supreme Court’s directions to the High court to re- examine the case, finding the High court judgment legally flawed. It should be noted that this is based on an appeal filed by the Kerala Government against the High court judgment, which remained pending for about seven years. Another development in the case is the capture of the only convicted accused of Suryanelli Case who had jumped bail earlier, making a statement that the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha , P.J Kurien was involved in the case and he personally had taken Kurien to the Guest house referred to by the girl. In the light of this statement there has been wide spread demands to re-open the case to include Kurien in the list of the accused.

Justice delayed:

Now the delay in the legal proceedings that adds to the intense suffering and communal ostracising of the girl for 17 years has never been addressed. The way, the case has been handled/mis handled by the law enforcing officers,  the survivor was taken from place to place as part of the enquiry and medical examination and some of the Malayalam dailies made titillating stories out of a sixteen year old who was brutally raped by 42 men, all add to the legal injustice done to her. Being a constant spectacle for the demands of a sex-starved society, the print media that covered her case through convoluted stories celebrated her as a piece of spicy ingredient.

That seventeen years have passed and still the crime committed to a sixteen year old has been denied justice shows the inadequacy of the legal mechanism in the country. It is to be noted that the rampant criticism extended by the feminist organizations regarding the delay in sexual assault cases in the light of the Delhi rape has resulted a speedy dealing of the Suryanelli appeal. Now the delay in justice has resulted in many things: the sixteen year old girl has lived seventeen years through the humiliation of a rigid moral society, the girl has been constantly chased and hunted down by a group of accused in a defensive mode, the entire family goes through the social stigma towards the rape survivor…the story goes on. While considering the case will all these be concerns for law?

Double standards of print journalism:

Malayala Manorama, the leading Malayalam daily started the stories in a melodramatic vein like a soap serial initially and portrayed her in the typical victim’s cloth. Initially she was referred to as the Munnar girl and the daily came out with front page reports on the issue. (Malayala Manorama, 19th March). Titles like “forty days, forty monsters” added to the melodramatic effect. But from 1996 April 2nd onwards the news paper changed its stand. Interestingly, it was around this period  the investigation turned to political leaders and professionals. Though never included in the list of accused, college professors like Jacob Mathew and Congress leader P.J Kurien were implicated during this phase of the investigation. Malayala Manorama reported discrepancy in the girl’s statement at this point. April 3, 1996 issue of the daily carried a front page cartoon, titled Agniputri representing a girl with the list of UDF candidates and someone from the background addressing her as comrade, prompting her to pause and wail after reading out each name from the list. This was the most naturalized form of misogyny that Kerala society received without any protest. While attempting to protect P.J Kurien and those close to the Catholic Church, Manorama violated all decencies of journalist etiquette and human concerns.

Violence of public discourses:

Recourse to family and sentiments of compassion are often revoked while dealing with the rape accused. P.J Kurien’s wife’s statement gets wide public circulation where she laments her plight and that of two daughters who are severely affected by the image tarnishing that takes place. Presenting her husband as a victim of vested interests she urges the feminists to consider her family too in this game of political lobbying. Along the same lines, moral statements regarding the character of the girl come out. Congress leader from Kerala, Sudhakaran says there should be a border line between prostitution and rape cases and that the victim of the Suryanelli case had a questionable character. He also adds that those who support the girl should think that Kurien has a family. Now this support to Kurien’s family evolves from a biased view about family and sexuality. It becomes problematic because this discourse exposes the moral grounds with which rapes have always been discussed in India. More than Rape, the violation of family values becomes a concern. The same concern also is denied to the survivor by branding her as morally deviant.

Thus the Suryanelli girl’s family should suffer because she is deviant, capable of lying and possesses an objectionable character. The binary logic of sexual promiscuity and sexual chastity helps in trivializing the rape, making the survivor the deserving body upon which the crime can be acted. The binaries of vicious mind reflecting the vicious body helps in justifying the alienation of the victim and evoking sympathies for the accused. When a normative family bonding and honor become a necessity to deserve justice, why is it that the same concern and justice is denied to the victim? The double standards of this discourse well justify Arundhati Roy’s response to Delhi rape that this exceptional reaction derives from the fact that it plays into our idea of the criminal poor: the rickshawallah and the vegetable vendor… The initial days of Suryanelli investigation drew sympathetic support for the victim, as the investigation proceeded through the involvement of  the bus cleaner, the fruit vendor, the police constable and similar images that cater to our idea of the perfect criminal. These sympathies were turned around, as and when the upper middle class, aristocratic Syrian Christians and political leaders appeared in the frame. The empathisers leave her, she becomes the prostitute and references shift to her non reliability as a person of character.

The legal discourse:

The Suryanelli case is also a typical example of a rape case fought for many years (about seventeen years) and still reached nowhere. As in the case of Mathura and other infamous judgments from apex courts, the Suryanelli judgment also evokes questions on the irresponsible and insensitive functioning of the criminal judicial system. The judgment that strives hard to prove that the girl’s statements are false, relating to a previous experience of her lying about the hostel fee of four hundred and fifty rupees and misusing it and also an attempt on her part to pawn her ornament. These are the basic premise on which the girl’s statements have been verified. The judgment reads while debating the difference between rape and consensual sex:

“When we read the evidence of PW3, we have to be cognizant of her psyche- her mental makeup. Her past conduct and behavior have to be borne in mind. She was only a student of 9th standard. She had squandered Rs. 450/- entrusted to her by her father for remitting hostel fees……That piece of conduct is admitted by her… a school girl will always be obliged to account when hostel fee is not remitted. She was prepared to take that risk. Added to this is, as suggested by the counsel for the appellants that she was even courageous enough to approach a jeweler for pledging an ornament of hers which her parents had given her to wear, meaning thereby that she had much capability of courage of even withstanding a question by her parents as to the loss of such ornament. She admitted during the evidence that she had done so. So this gives indications about the conduct and mental makeup of PW3. … She was not a normal innocent girl of that age. She was a different person. The peculiarity in her personality must realistically be borne in mind. The evidence of a person of her age with such a conduct certainly has to be viewed seriously and with caution. A court cannot meekly swallow her version. It requires serious critical assessment.” (pp. 42-43)

The very idea that the crucial question of whether the sexual acts of violence on a ninth standard student by 42 men in a period of 40 days have been consensual or not is arrived at on the basis of these two past instances shows the non-empathetic and inhuman impulses behind the judgment leading to the contention that the prosecution failed in proving the absence of consent. Rather the judgment further claims that the unwillingness spoken by the girl now before the court is an excuse found by her to save her face in the family and among the relatives for her long absence of forty days from her house. During the 40 days of sexual assault the Bench finds several instances for the girl to escape her assaulters, in the bus stand, at the doctor’s place, lodges etc. The consideration extended to the accused related to corroborative evidences or circumstances are denied to the girl, where her age, intimidated psyche, physical and mental agony of violence she was undergoing were not enough reasons for the Bench to decide that the ninth standard girl could not plan an escape. With a clean conscience the judgment rules out possibilities of adopting the normal approach for appreciating the evidence of a rape victim.

The concurring observations by Justice Basant lamenting the failure of making the consenting age for sexual intercourse to 18, is a pathetic justification for such an unsympathetic judgment. Not only that this observation brings down the entire question of sexual violence on the survivor to the concurrence of sexual consent between that period of two years, it brings in binaries of experience of sexual assault before 18 after 18, before sixteen after 16, and so on. The result of such an in-capacious and tapered thinking would be to divert the focus from the intensity of the violence and the damage done on the victim to the mental state of the victim while producing or not producing the consent. The double standards and heavy moral weightage of this observation get exposed in the further paragraphs where he talks about the young girl who succumbed to temptations of a consumerist society and also implications of not being groomed in the proper atmosphere with a proper value system. The observation goes to the extent of saying that such children can be termed as deviants but cannot be merely condemned and left to their fate. Now the implications would be, the Suryanelli rape survivor is deviant, her parents could not bring her up in a healthy atmosphere, and that was the reason why she gave consent to the sexual atrocities on her body to forty two men for forty days. And the recommendation ends with a need for a change in law.

This is an easy washing off and shrugging away one’s responsibilities. The constant urge to prove her evidences false overthrows and challenges this claim to neutral justice.  The non accountability of law to the female citizens and the misogynist sentiments of arbitrators reflect in Suryanelli case as well. The recent remarks of Justice Basant on the girl’s character reveal the prejudices underlying the judgment.

Paradoxes in Kerala’s modernity:

The ways in which Suryanelli case recurs in Kerala’s public sphere reveals the aberrations in Kerala’s notion of modernity. While making a ponderous claim to cultural elitism and modern consciousness related to its literacy rates, living standards, health care and above all the pervasiveness of electoral politics and thinking in the public sphere, the misogyny witnessed in this state is quite ironical. Permeating all walks of life there lie misogyny and moral policing that more or less affects all forms of political thinking in the state. No other Indian state can parallel Kerala in misogyny regarding the way feminists and women’s movements have been referred to in Kerala, female political party leaders have been tarnished, and work places and other public places have alienated women.

The recent remark of a college teacher in a public function sponsored by the government of Kerala aiming at women’s empowerment that it needs only ten minutes for a man including him to insert sperm in a woman’s uterus, and then it is for the woman to carry the child for the next ten months, shows the underlying layers of prejudices, violence and misogyny in Kerala. In such a public sphere innumerable stories flourish on the Suryanelli survivor, making her a titillating piece for the consumption of the sex-starved male psyche of Kerala.

The largest political party in the country did not have any qualms in letting a person implicated in a rape case to chair the Rajya Sabha proceedings during discussions on gender justice and prevention of sexual violence against women. The urge was rather to support him than the survivor. The heavy political bias taken by the leading political parties have done enough damage to the survivor and her family, as in many earlier cases.  When the case is re-examined will there be a provision to address the irreparable damage in terms of mental, physical and emotional harassment that has been done to a rape survivor and her family for the past seventeen years?  Who would choose this plight if this is what it means to survive rape?

(Sherin B.S. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2013 11:14 AM

    Well said. Congratulations! How far is the harbinger of justice?

  2. scribeANON permalink
    March 16, 2013 12:38 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with the author’s statement that misogyny and hypocrisy in the attitudes of keralite men towards women are widespread and permeate every aspect of kerala’s polity. This exists irrespective of age, education or social strata of men. It is quite a startling reality in a state otherwise known for its favourable demographic indicators. Women in kerala have been silent sufferers of this, both in and outside of their homes. The so-called modernity which exists in kerala can be best described as a hypocritical and paradoxical one in the background of an extremely materialistically driven society. There is a need to examine the origins of this phenomena, so as initiate measures to curtail it, for the betterment of the present and future of women in kerala.

  3. March 16, 2013 4:50 PM

    Very well documented. If squandering Rs.450 is any sign of deviance, most schoolchildren all over the world are of questionable character and hence (going by the court’s logic) can be sexually assaulted as “punishment”. It’s ridiculous that these are our judges interpreting our laws! Head hangs in shame….

  4. April 14, 2013 8:05 AM

    I really wish you had not consistently referred to her as a “girl”. She is in her twenties now. It’s part of the grand narrative of infantilisation that she’s already having to resist all the time.

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  1. After Rape, Indian Girl Waits 17 Years for Justice | Confessions of True Life

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