Suryanelli rape case reopened

Just how good is this news?

For nearly eight years, a woman from Kerala who was gang-raped by 42 men in 40 days has been waiting for the Supreme Court to take up  her case.

Today, the Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir said hearings will begin within three weeks.

No, not that the poor girl had to wait eight years for the highest court in the land to find time for her, but the fact that the Supreme Court is in fact going to hear the case — for it is one that represents much that is wrong with our police and judicial systems. Here’s a quick recap, quoting from an earlier post:

Do you remember Suryanelli? The story of a 16-year-old girl who was abducted from a bus, raped by the conductor, then handed over to a couple who, over the next 40 days, transported her like a traveling circus all over Kerala and pandered her to 42 different men, all of whom raped her?

The story has an instructive coda. A Special Court was set up three years after the incident (the first time in Kerala history that such a court was set up to fast track a case of rape; it happened because of massive public protests). In September 2000, the court handed down major prison terms to 35 of the accused. Dharmarajan, an advocate and main accused, was absconding at the time; he was subsequently arrested and, in 2002, sentenced to life in prison.

All good, right? Not. Two weeks after the Special Court verdict, the Kerala High Court gave bail to all 35 accused and let them out of jail. And in 2005, the aforesaid High Court acquitted all 35. More, it deemed that Dharmarajan, the man who had along with his lady friend taken this minor girl the length and breadth of the state and facilitated her serial rape, was guilty only of the crime of “sex trade” — and sentenced to just five years and a fine of Rs 50,000. There was, the honorable judges deemed, no evidence of any “conspiracy” to commit crimes against the girl — like, you know, Dharmarajan was just sort of accidentally escorting her around Kerala, and accidentally, some things happened, too bad, so sad. Oh, and the judges also had some acerbic comments to make about the “character” of the teenager and her “motive” in filing a complaint.

That young girl — in keeping with the Joneses of the media, I’ll name her Mayoos, The Hopeless One — who, last heard from, was employed in a menial job and attempting to get on with her life, lives with the trauma of the multiple rapes she endured for over a month and the knowledge that the authorities she turned to for succor deemed that all that happened to her was somehow her own fault.

In 2005, her family filed an appeal to the Supreme Court asking for justice. Years rolled on. Early last year, in a sudden, surprising development, she was charged with embezzlement of funds and initially, suspended. When various rights groups protested, she was reinstated and transferred after securing some form of written apology. (Additional details of the case here).

The question most found baffling was this: She was a very low level staffer, in a rank where normally you don’t get to handle significant sums of money. Ergo, the accusation that she had somehow walked off with over Rs 2 lakh seemed, prima facie, to fail the smell test.

This, in tandem with the High Court verdict that completely overturned that of the special court, has created in popular perception the impression that the entire case was manipulated with the sole purpose of saving the high and politically mighty — an impression italicized by some of the comments the High Court, in its judgment, made about the then 16-year-old girl, and the downsizing of charges against the principal accused.

How much truth there is in that perception will be known soon enough when the Supreme Court begins its long overdue hearing of the case. However, that nothing is black and white, that there are layers to even seemingly straightforward stories, was underlined for me yet again when, on Twitter, I asked a couple of lawyer friends to explain the dichotomies in the case.

Here is a transcript.

Bottom-line, the wait is almost over, the case will be heard — and, given everything that is at stake, it will be a trial worth following.

Chidambaram’s open letter to…Ashwani Kumar?

While reading all I could find about police and judicial reform, I came across this gem — a checklist of five ways to un-clog courts that are affected by severe arteriosclerosis. With apologies to the original publisher, quoting this in full:

  • There are several experienced judges in high courts on the verge of superannuation who because of their low seniority do not have a chance of being considered for appointment as judges of the Supreme Court. Many of them have excelled as trial and appellate judges on the civil side or the criminal side. Select 10 such judges and appoint them as ad-hoc judges of the Supreme Court. Let them sit as two – judge benches and hear the old cases only. The arrears of cases will be wiped out in about 500 working days. (By the way, this suggestion found a place in the 1991 Congress election manifesto.)
  • Repeat suggestion No.1 for high courts by choosing suitable district judges.
  • The chief justice of India, the attorney general, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and you should prepare a list of senior advocates who (waiving the age limit) are otherwise undoubtedly qualified to be high court judges. The chief justice should make them an offer and tell them they do not have the option of saying no! Each one should be asked to agree to serve for eight continuous weeks in a year, for five years, as an ad-hoc judge of a high court of his/her choice. It will be a form of compulsory service akin to military service. Many will accept and the few who may decline will invite public opprobrium.
  • Give two law clerks to every judge of the Supreme Court. Thank God, there are outstanding young men and women graduating from the National Law School, Bangalore, and some other universities. Let them clerk for two years each on a modest stipend. Once the law clerks are in place, the chief justice should make a rule that, in all cases listed for final hearing, the rival parties will submit written arguments (not exceeding 20 pages) two weeks in advance and limit oral arguments to one hour for each side. Once written submissions are filed, many of the cases will be concluded in 30 minutes.
  • Set up an in-house three-member panel (judge, lawyer, civil servant) to grant or refuse permission to file an appeal in the Supreme Court by any government department or agency. Just before filing the appeal paper-book in the Supreme Court, the intending appellant should present its paper-book to the panel and also be allowed to make brief submissions. If permission is refused, the appeal shall not be filed. No doubt this will add three days to the process but the advantages are manifold. Change the panel every year. Depending on your response to these suggestions, we can discuss long-and medium-term plans.
Make sense to you? More courts and speedier trials was, in fact, top of the list when Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy recently thought through urgently needed reforms.
Where did this set of solutions come from? An open letter written by P Chidambaram to then Federal Law Minister Arun Jaitley back in January 2001, and published by India Today. 12 years have passed, almost to the day. And here we are again, “discussing” judicial and police reform.
Why is it, do you suppose, that when you are in the political opposition you *always* know the right thing to do — and when you are the government, you *never* do?
PS: In good news of sorts, Manish points out on Twitter that one of these suggestions — the law clerk (item 4) is already in place.