KOCHI, SEPT. 9. It's light at the end of a long dark tunnel for the girl from Suryanelli, who was abducted from her school at Munnar and raped by over 40 men for 42 days at 15 different places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in 1996.
When the special court at Kottayam, set up for the first time in the country to try the sexual harassment of a minor girl, handed down stiff punishment to 35 of her tormentors on September 6, it created judicial history on many counts.
More important, it has given a glimmer of hope for the countless victims of rape and sexual harassment across the country, who had so far failed to put their tormentors in the dock.
But more than anything else, the Suryanelli verdict is the triumphant end to the saga of a village postmaster, a nurse in a remote tea-garden dispensary and their teen-age daughter. Braving all odds, they showed the courage to expose the rapists and take them to court. They were weak and poor; they were harassed and frequently threatened by the culprits; they were jeered at and taunted by society. Still, the three fought bravely.
``We are fighting not for our daughter alone,'' the postmaster had told this reporter in an interview four years ago. ``We are fighting for the daughters of all the parents who have suffered the same kind of pain.'' His wife had this resolve: no other daughter in the country should face such painful experience.
This resolve echoes in the special court's verdict. The special judge, Mr. M. Sasidharan Nambiar, after 317 days of trial that started after the special investigation team probed the crime for two and a half years, sent at one go 32 men and three women, to jail for involvement in one of the most sensational sex racket cases in the country in recent times. Of the 35 sentenced, nine persons, including one woman, got 13 years' rigorous imprisonment as they were found guilty of rape, mass rape, abduction, illegal detention and sale of a minor girl for sexual abuse. The Rs. 4.20 lakhs to be collected from the culprits as fine would go to the girl.
Rarely have women been sentenced for rape and mass rape in India, but the judge found Usha, accused No.2, who was the key link in the sex racket, responsible for all the rapes and mass rapes committed by her male accomplices. Rare again is the long jail term awarded to her for such a crime.
The `Suryanelli' case has rocked Kerala ever since it broke out in February 1996. Not just because of the age of the girl and the number of the persons involved, but also because of the number of political activists involved. Those sentenced include a former District Congress-I Committee secretary, a former University union chairman and several local-level politicians. The girl had pointed accusing finger at the former Union Minister, Prof. P.J. Kurian, but his trial has been stayed by the Supreme Court. Small wonder then, that the `Suryanelli case' has remained a political issue in the region. The two major political fronts volleyed it every time an election was held. Prof. Kurian lost his Lok Sabha election in Idukki last year mainly because of the scandal.
Suryanelli, some 20 km from Munnar, had been a sleepy mountainous village in the folds of the high ranges in Kerala's Idukki district - until January 16, 1996. That day, the 16-year- old class IX student from the village who attended school in Munnar, was abducted by a bus conductor known to her. The conductor handed her over to a female pimp, Usha who, in collusion with other racketeers `rented' her to some 40 men.
After a 42-day ordeal, the girl was sent back home by the abductors. By the time she returned, her body was host to a number of infections and her mind was deeply scarred. A few weeks after her return, the girl had narrated to this reporter the agonies she had passed through. Throughout the interview, her face was flat, her eyes were dry. As she recounted her traumas as if they had happened to another person, it was hard for the interviewer to hold back his tears (the interview was never written).
Surprisingly, when the family decided to bring the culprits to book almost everybody opposed it. The Munnar police wanted the family to withdraw the complaint (three of the policemen have now been suspended following the special court's strictures); relatives and friends advised them to keep quiet for fear of social stigma. But the family was determined. The result: they were isolated. The relatives disowned them, the friends looked the other way, the society shunned them. A section of the media was initially guilty of reporting the explicit details of the girl's woes, thus allowing its readers to take part in a collective voyeurism.
Visiting the family a couple of years after the marathon legal battle started, the father told this reporter that the family had used up its humble savings of a lifetime and that the case had ruined his and his wife's health. There were times when the three seriously considered a suicide pact. But the battle had to be won.
For over four years now, surrounded by policemen posted by the Government for her `protection', the girl has been almost under `house arrest' for over four years. In a humble two- room quarter on a desolate, cold mountain slope, she used to spend most of the day in loneliness. She has no friends; there are no visitors. She could not step out of home, even to go to church, without the policemen in tow. Hopefully, this would change now.