4 womens wait for justice as cops accused of rape roam scot-free for 11 years

4 women's wait for justice as cops accused of rape roam scot-free for 11 years

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Sathya* was 25 years old and three months pregnant when she and three other women were bundled into a police van and raped deep inside a eucalyptus grove where no one could hear their screams. Burly cops pinned them down on the ground and stared into their eyes menacingly as they raped the Irular tribal women, one by one. Speaking to The Federal, 11 years after the incident, Sathya says...

Sathya* was 25 years old and three months pregnant when she and three other women were bundled into a police van and raped deep inside a eucalyptus grove where no one could hear their screams. Burly cops pinned them down on the ground and stared into their eyes menacingly as they raped the Irular tribal women, one by one. Speaking to The Federal, 11 years after the incident, Sathya says she remembers every bit of it, only “the criminal justice system has long forgotten us”.

It was around 3 pm on November 22, 2011, when three policemen in a two-wheeler climbed up to a hilltop, around 1.5 kilometres away from T Mandapam near Tirukovilur in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, and stopped outside a tiny hut. Inside, Sathya, her sister Vidhya* and their two sisters-in-law (brothers’ wives) were cooking food.

“Even before we could understand why the policemen showed up, they started slapping my husband. We were shocked. When my brother asked the policemen why they were beating my husband, they said he [husband] refused to show up at the police station where he was earlier called to do some menial job. Later, two of the cops took my husband in their two-wheeler while one of them went back walking,” recalls Sathya.

They asked the family to send Sathya’s father, who was not home at the time, to the police station once he was back. “However, they did not tell us which police station. We too were so scared and confused, it didn’t occur to ask which police station,” Sathya says.

What unfolded afterwards still haunts the family.

On the night of November 22, according to the family members, at least 15 policemen barged into their house and asked them to line up on the hilltop. They then bundled the four women along with Sathya’s mother into a police van.

The women were not told anything despite repeated pleas. “We thought we were being taken to the police station. But the van first stopped at the Tiruvannamalai road and halted there for a while before shifting all the five women into one van and driving into a eucalyptus farm,” Vidhya recalls.

After reaching the farm, the mother was made to wait near the van while the four women were dragged deep inside the eucalyptus grove.

“One cop asked me to remove my clothes. I cried and pleaded and pleaded. I also told him I was pregnant. He shouted at me and then gagged my mouth with cloth and pinned me down to the ground,” Sathya recalls the horrifying details. As her ordeal continued, Sathya could see the same was being done to the rest of the three women – all of them gagged and held against their will by their rapists in the stillness of the night. The only sound that Vidhya recalls was the swishing of the softly swaying eucalyptus leaves. The policemen then packed them back into the van along with their mother and dropped them home.

It took four days and a hell lot of efforts by the Pazhangudi Irular Pathukappu Sangam (Association for the Protection of the Irular Tribe) before a police complaint could finally be lodged on November 26, 2011, against the alleged rapists.

The Villupuram police finally registered a case against five policemen under sections 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 363 (punishment for kidnapping), 427 (mischief causing damage to the amount of Rs 50), 376 (gang rape), read with 3(I) (xii) of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

But Sathya admits that she baulked under police pressure and turned hostile. “Right from the day of the reporting the incident, the police were trying their best to shield their colleagues. Soon after filing the complaint, we were taken to the police station for inquiry. Five women cops threatened me that to confirm the rape, doctors would conduct a test by inserting sticks and fingers inside my uterus which would kill my baby. I got scared and decided to lie to save my unborn child. But the other three women told the truth,” Sathya confesses.

It was only during the inquiry by a judicial magistrate that she gathered the courage to come out with the truth. This judicial inquiry came following a public interest litigation filed before the Madras High Court on November 28, 2011. The Thirukovilur judicial magistrate during the inquiry took the survivors to the crime scene. This is when Sathya could no longer keep quiet.

“I could no longer hide the truth. It was weighing too heavy on my chest. So, I told the magistrate everything. I even told him why I lied in the police station and how the cops threatened to kill my unborn baby during medical examination,” Sathya says, adding that the medical examination of all the victims confirmed rape.

Ever since, the survivors and the rest of the family have shifted houses and changed jobs many times over the years. Yet the one thing that hasn’t changed – the accused policemen still haven’t been punished for the crime.

The PIL filed before the high court had pleaded for an interim direction to the government to suspend all the guilty policemen immediately. “The very arrest of the women after sunset would amount to gross misconduct on the part of the police personnel,” it read.

However, during the hearing on the petition, the public prosecutor pleaded that unless the charges could be proved during the investigation and a chargesheet was filed, the accused policemen could not be arrested. Even after 11 years, the chargesheet has not been filed.

In response, the First Bench of the High Court, which was hearing the case, observed: “We fail to understand the submission…. If a lady goes to a police station complaining about sexual harassment or rape by any named person, the police officer will not hesitate to arrest the person immediately. If that be so, why should law made applicable to the common man not be applied to the police officers?”

“Since the case involves cops, their colleagues in Tirukovilur don’t seem eager to file the chargesheet. Nor have they shown any urgency,” says advocate Freeda Gnanamani, who has been representing the victim women.

A chargesheet was initially filed before the special court for SC/ST cases at Villupuram. “But it had some errors. The court had asked the police to come back with corrections. The court even sent a letter to the Tirukovilur DSP to take back the chargesheet and correct it. However, they have not filed a fresh chargesheet yet,” a court official aware of the developments in the case tells The Federal on condition of anonymity.

Following public outcry at the time the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa assured stern action and suspended five accused – inspector Srinivasan, sub-inspector Ramanathan, head constable Mani and constables Dhanasekaran and Thangarasu. But, apart from inspector Srinivasan, the rest of the accused managed to get bail after surrendering before the judicial magistrate court. In 2017, Srinivasan approached the Madras High Court and was directed to appear before the district court to get a bail. (The Special Court for trial of SC/ST offences was not established then.) He, however, never appeared before the court until recently.

Over the course of time, all five of them managed to get their suspension revoked citing the delay in filing of the chargesheet.

The case was back in news recently after inspector Srinivasan appeared before the Special Court for SC/ST cases in Villupuram seeking bail in connection with the case (there are rumours that the police are finally ready with a fresh chargesheet fearing which Srinivasan sought a bail). However, his bail petition got rejected as the direction was to appear before a district court way back in 2017 and not maintainable in Special Court for SC/ST cases. The judge remanded him to judicial custody since he had not appeared before the court even a single time in 11 years.

Intriguingly, the inspector managed to escape the court premises and couldn’t be arrested. “A separate case has to be filed in this regard. Although police claim that an FIR has been filed, the copy of it is not available and we are still kept in the dark,” claims advocate Gnanamani.

Repeated attempts by The Federal to get a response from Tirukovilur DSP Pazhani failed as he refused to comment on the issue. His senior colleagues in the department too were unwilling to speak on the matter.

According to tribal rights activist PV Ramesh, who has been standing by the survivors all these years, they have little hope from the police or the administration. He says they had demanded a CBI inquiry into the matter. “Right from the first day, we have been demanding to change the investigating agency. But the government did not pay any attention to it.”

The police, he adds, will help the police only. “How can we expect mercy or justice from them?” asks Ramesh.

Sathya doesn’t expect mercy. She just wants justice. The fact that the cops who raped the four women are still roaming free is eating her up inside. “Eleven years is a long time to spend trying to forget the face of your rapist. Every time I see my boy, I remember how I feared losing him inside my womb,” she says, trying hard to control her emotions.

Born around six months after his mother was raped, Sathya’s little son doesn’t know what happened to his mother and aunts years ago. But his mother knows one thing for sure. “I’ll teach him what it means to be a real man and how to respect a woman,” she says. For now, Sathiya hopes one day the tables will turn and her rapists would be the ones pleading for mercy.

(*some names have been changed to protect identity)

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