How the Suryanelli girl has become a victim of cruel political opportunism

In the eyes of the people of the country, the girl from Suryanelli is a victim of sex-trafficking and horrendous serial rape by 42 men over 40 days 17 years ago; but what most gloss over is the fact that she is also a victim of continuing political opportunism in a state that claims to be the most literate and progressive.

Over the last few days, ever since the Supreme Court set aside a controversial 2005 High Court order that acquitted 35 accused in the case, the Suryanelli case is a full-time obsession for the state’s politicians because the girl dropped the K-word (PJ Kurien, Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha) yet again.

The CPM wants Kurien’s scalp and the Congress wants to protect him at any cost because he is close to the high command. Suryanelli is no more a case of unimaginable sexual violence against a little girl and her life that was prematurely crushed by a mob of criminal men, but a political fight between the CPM and the Congress.

In the process, the girl - whether she realises it or not - is victimised yet again. Seventeen years ago, if she was a captive of her traffickers and several men who raped her, today she is the captive of political opportunists and the state’s reckless media.

Kurien has become the focus of the politicians in the Suryanelli gangrape case. PTI

Kurien has become the focus of the politicians in the Suryanelli gangrape case. PTI

Wily-nilly, the girl and the family fell for the trap. The CPM wants to settle scores and probably, drag the issue all the way upto the Parliament elections, while the Congress simply wants to protect itself by deflecting allegations or counter-attacks. And the media want the explosive scandal-sob-politics mix to ramp up viewership again.

When the channels did this the first time 17 years ago, there were fewer Malayalam TV channels and fewer viewers. Now with more than a dozen channels and a few more in the pipeline, it’s a do-or-die desperation for them.

Whether Kurien is guilty is or not is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, because a person so influential and powerful in society needs to be above suspicion. And the Congress should ensure that he is investigated without bias because the girl continues to maintain that he had raped her. The argument is not unreasonable, that if the investigators could go by the testimony of the girl and circumstantial evidence to nail others, the same logic should have applicable to Kurien as well given he was never even investigated.

If Kurien is indeed innocent, one can only say, bad luck for being dragged into the scandal. But that is the price one needs to pay for being in public life.

But the real story in the Suryanelli case is not all about Kurien, as the CPM and the state’s media make it out to be. The real story is the plight of the girl and her family: even 17 years after she was subjected to prolonged and indescribable physical, mental and sexual violence, have she and her family been able to reclaim their lives? Have they moved on with the rest of the state?

The answer is an extremely depressing no.

Of course, the rest of the state had moved on ridiculing, judging, stigmatising and victimising her and her family. In the back-to-back interviews that the girl and her parents gave to the state’s TV channels in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment, they spoke of it. But most of Kerala and the politicians heard only one word in the long interviews: Kurien.

Along with the charges against Kurien, the girl's father also spoke of how stigma and discrimination had made it impossible for them live in their native town. Society not only ostracised them, but also targeted them. One of the most macabre details he gave, was how their house had become a tourist-spot wherein tour-operators stopped near their place and showed it to tourists. Apparently some even went inside their house.

Unable to live there, they changed towns, but the stigma and discrimination continued there too. She was a target of open stares in public places, where people who recognised her “outed” her to others as well. At least two more generations of people, including those born after her, persist with the stigma. She moved again, but nothing has changed. She is still stared at, judged and called names.

The girl also suffered at the hands of her colleagues in a government office where she is working in a low grade job. There were allegations of attempted sexual advances against her and framing her in financial fraud. She not only spent time in jail, but also had to pay back quite a bit of money that her colleagues accused her of stealing. The news reports on the incident made no impact on the state’s conscience, except reinforcing the slur on the girl and her family.

That was her tragedy - the rape against her had in fact led to direct insinuations against her character and that of her family 17 years ago. No politicians or media shouted back at people that a school-kid - or her family - don’t need to be bad to be trafficked and raped. The State didn’t take action against anybody for their acts of stigma and discrimination.

Now, in the political battle over the Kurien, the same character assassination is back. Batting for Kurien, the chief whip of the ruling UDF in the state assembly, said unprintable things about the girl, directly commenting on her “bad character”. He also said horrendous things about her parents and even held them responsible for the incident.

A Congress MP, K Sudhakaran, also had similar words to describe her. He said that it was not fair to describe consensual-sex as sexual exploitation. This was also the sub-text of the opinion of a former HC judge, who acquitted the 35 accused in the case, which was exposed by a TV-sting operation. He said the girl was involved in prostitution.

What the pro-Kurien politicians and the judge have now done is amplify the societal bias that  had for long troubled the family and resulted in their isolation. And this has been going on for the last17 years. What have the politicians, including the CPM-humanists, and their governments done to address this?

As the girl’s parents told TV channels, they are alive only because they are too scared to kill themselves. Stigma and social discrimination have permanently ruined their lives. After the Suryanelli incident, they have been living in a vacuum where hardly anybody walks in. In this tormenting isolation, they live in ignominy and fear.

Is the former Chief Minister really doing all he can or just making the most of the situation? AFP

Is the former Chief Minister really doing all he can or just making the most of the situation? AFP

Now, with the allegations against Kurien, the politicians and the media have rediscovered her. The opposition leader VS Achuthanandan, the self-styled superman against sex-scandals and corruption, visited her on Saturday and promised her support. The suffocating solitude of the family is temporarily suspended.

But, will this change the life of the girl and the family? Will they have a normal life in which they can go out and mix with others without the fear of stigma? Can she travel in public buses without being stared at or without inviting lecherous glares? Will this round-the-clock attention wash away their past and help them reclaim the lives?

Looks highly improbable, given how politicians and the competitive media behave.

Whether Kurien goes home free or not, they will dump her yet again. In the channel associated with the CPM, the interviewer was heard repeatedly addressing her as “my little sister” while posing loaded questions against Kurien. What the man (the interviewer) was either unaware of, or chose to ignore, was that in an equal-opportunity society, you don’t need to treat somebody different for one’s age, race or ability. During the last eight years of interregnum, when she and her family were silently suffering away from the sight of the TV cameras, where was this “big brother” and his party’s media apparatus? Where were those who lined to up write her sob stories?

Whichever way the case moves, the centrality of the story will still be the girl and her family. As many activists demand, it may sound semantically and politically correct to call her a rape-survivor than a rape-victim, but few realise that the journey from victimhood to survival is a tedious process that needs to be facilitated and affirmed by society. It’s not without reasons that rescue, rehabilitation and re-integration are listed as the critical components of any response to sex-trafficking.

Unfortunately, what we see in our societies is only rescue. In the Suryanelli girl’s case, there was a perfunctory attempt at rehabilitation too (by giving her a government job). Did it work? Was there any organic process facilitated by the State and society to re-integrate her? Did she reclaim her franchise?

If crusader Achuthanandan is really serious about his concern for the girl, that is what he should focus on, besides providing legal support to her fight against Kurien. Along with his efforts to eject Kurien out of his elevated chair in the Rajya Sabha, he should also work towards reforming, if not banishing, politicians who called the 16-year victim, a consenting sex worker. He should also work relentlessly at his own inherent bias against women that prompts him to make occasional pejorative and sexist remarks against women.

But then, we are talking of real politics. Is Achuthanandan really interested in a political tool whose life has long been stunted by the cruel apathy of a class that he belongs to?

Had there been genuine political and state intervention, many subsequent cases of trafficking, sexual assaults, moral policing and incest could have been avoided in Kerala.

And a 33-year old girl wouldn’t still be struggling for the closure of a trauma that she suffered as a school-kid.