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.
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.