Five days after a Palakkad court acquitted three men for the 2017 deaths of two minor Dalit sisters, the Kerala Police is facing public outrage for allegedly mishandling the case. The Pinarayi Vijayan-led state government is on the defensive as well, after protests by the opposition and anger expressed by people on social media have forced it on the backfoot.
Almost three years ago, on 13 January 2017, a 13-year-old Dalit girl from a family of daily-wage labourers was found hanging inside her hut at Attappallam, a village close to Walayar town in Kerala, bordering Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. The same day, her nine-year-old sister told the police that she had seen two masked men running away from the house, presumably after murdering her sister.
The local police arrested a young man from the locality on suspicion, but he was let off almost immediately. Though the autopsy report found clear evidence of “multiple sexual assaults”, the Kerala Police were accused of dragging their feet on the investigation.
56 days later, the younger sibling was also found hanging from the ceiling of the house. This time, there was even more outrage, as there was no way, given her height, that the child could have been able to tie the rope by herself. Her autopsy also confirmed multiple sexual assaults.
After the second death, the police arrested five people, including a juvenile. The accused included a close relative of the mother of the children and the arrests were made amidst widespread anger and anguish over the botched probe. In the meantime, another suspect who was summoned for interrogation was found hanging from a tree at a deserted spot.
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“If there was a proper investigation into the death of the elder girl, the life of the second girl might have been saved. Only the police is responsible for the death of the younger sibling. After all, she was the sole witness in the first case,’’ said social activist Bobban Mattumantha from Palakkad, the headquarter town of the district where the incidents occurred.
Now, a week after the acquittal of three of the accused by a POCSO court, which gave them the benefit of doubt in the absence of clear evidence, the spotlight is back on the case.
Why is the govt facing criticism?
On Monday, the government was forced to order the removal of senior lawyer and CPI(M) leader N Rajeshas chairman of the Palakkad District Child Welfare Council, a statutory body that was supposed to ensure proper investigation into the case.
However, before his appointment, Rajesh had actually appeared as counsel for Pradeep Kumar, one of the accused in the case. Now opposition parties and child rights organisations allege that he tried to dilute the case by influencing the prosecution and letting his juniors continue to appear on behalf of the accused. Rajesh, a close confidant of CPI(M) heavyweight and Kerala law minister A.K. Balan, chose to ignore all the allegations against him but the government has finally removed him, saying it was improper to allow a lawyer who regularly appeared in POCSO cases to hold the chief post of the child welfare body.
After the removal of Rajesh, there is now a strong demand for action against deputy police superintendent M.J. Sojan, who investigated the case. In a television interview, Sojan had claimed this was a clear case of suicide and that the siblings had ended their lives due to the guilt of having frequent consensual sex.
“Public anger is high against Sojan, who claimed the minors had had consensual sex with multiple partners. Sexual relationship with a minor even with consensus is crime as per the law. He lacks basic sense. This statement itself is enough to arrest him for violating child rights,’’ said P.E. Usha, an activist.
“The police and prosecution conspired to facilitate acquittal of the culprits. A reinvestigation must be conducted and that too with a central agency,’’ he said.
The police team led by Sojan, which investigated the case, is now facing heavy criticism from all corners. On Monday, a series of protest marches and meetings were held across the state and the Kerala assembly witnessed unruly scenes when the opposition attempted to stall the proceedings.
“It took a lot of public protests for the case to be handed over to a special team from the local police, but they closed the case by terming the deaths as unnatural. Despite clear post-mortem revelations that the two girls were subjected to rape, the special team did injustice to their own cause by invoking the consensual sex theory. We will not rest until the culprits get sufficient punishment,’’ said Aleyamma Vijayan, secretary of Thiruvananthapuram-based Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre.
The government has now expressed willingness to either have the case re-investigated by higher-ranking police officials or the CBI.
Autopsy report ignored
A leading lawyer in Palakkad who was briefly the special public prosecutor in the case told HuffPost India that the case had not been investigated properly and that the prosecution’s case was weak.
“Though I was appointed as special public prosecutor in the case in February this year, I was removed from the post within three months with no reason. The same public prosecutor as earlier handled the case after my exit. During my short span in the office, I went through the documents and found that the case was not investigated thoroughly and the evidence was not furnished properly. The entire prosecution case was very weak and most of the arguments were drafted in a way that helped the accused,’’ alleged Jalaja Madhavan.
According to P.B. Gujral, forensic medicine expert and senior police surgeon who conducted the autopsy of the second child, the girl was sexually assaulted just before her death. Now, legal experts who read the case diary say the police had overlooked the medical report in the case of the older sister, who also faced sexual assault before her death. But the police did not register any case for rape and sexual assault.
In his report on the second child, Gujjral had clearly said that the nine-year-old may not have hanged herself and the police had to investigate if it was a murder. However, the special team that probed the case ruled out the possibility of murder a few months later. The doctor had also mentioned in his report that there was evidence to suggest “unnatural sexual offence”.
It was in April 2017 that the police had arrested five men, accusing them of abetting the suicides. All the men were known to victims’ family. While V. Madhu and M. Madhu were close relatives of the mother, Bhagyavathi, Shibu had earlier worked the parents. Also, he had been living with the family for eight years. Pradeep Kumar hailed from the same locality and the fifth accused, a juvenile, was a neighbour.
Shaji, father of the girls, had told reporters after the acquittals that he had witnessed the sexual exploitation of the elder girl by V. Madhu. He had testified this in court as well. The mother has also accused the police and prosecution of hiding the facts and facilitating an easy escape for the culprits.
While dismissing the circumstantial evidence submitted by the police, the POCSO court had observed that there was no attempt on the part of police to collect scientific evidence.
“No semen or spermatozoa could be collected either from the specimen collected from the deceased girl or from the dresses of the accused. There is absolute absence of scientific evidence to connect the accused with the alleged offence,” observed the judgment.
J. Sandhya, a leading child rights activist, asked why the police didn’t probe the murder angle despite the doubts expressed by the surgeon.`
“There is no point in filing an appeal as the probe was flawed. Only a thorough reinvestigation can yield results,” she said.
The issue took on a political dimension after the acquittal when the mother of the children alleged that a “Left” party had attempted to scuttle the probe. In a television interview, she said that workers of the party with the sickle symbol released a suspect from the police station at night soon after the arrests.
While responding to demands for a CBI probe from the opposition benches in the Kerala Assembly on Monday, CM Vijayan clarified that his government was approaching the Walayar case with a “humanitarian” perspective. He said the government would soon file an appeal against the acquittals and also examine any lapses in the prior investigations. It would also assess whether reinvestigation or a CBI probe was required, he said.
Now the outrage is growing beyond political and legal circles.
“What is more frightening than the incident itself is the fact that there is a monotony setting in to writing these posts,” said Malayalam actor Prithviraj Sukumaran in an emotional Facebook post on the issue which went viral on social media. In the post, he asked whether a “social media mob” was required every time for the system to act.
“And when a populace gives up on the system that sustains their structure, there will always be a revolution. In one form or the other,” was how the actor concluded his post.