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Kurien's Suryanelli trial: When SC's clean chit doesn't matter!

The ignominious predicament that the Suryanelli rape case has landed the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman and veteran Congress leader PJ Kurien in, is a scary commentary on the vicious socio-political times that we live in.

Here is a man — who has been a member of the Lok Sabha six times and Rajya Sabha three times, a former union minister and the chief whip of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Rajya Sabha — who was implicated in Kerala’s biggest sex scandal in which a minor girl was sexually abused by 42 men over 40 days in 1996.

The rape survivor identified Kurien when she saw his photo in a newspaper and alleged that he was one of her abusers. She repeated her charge many times and Kurien became one of the most besmirched politicians in the state. Even without a dozen loud TV channels that one sees in the state now, Kerala was all agog with Kurien’s sex-trivia, feeding on the scandal-fare from the print media.

The government of the time was run by the CPM, that too headed by a Communist superstar EK Nayanar. His investigation team, headed by an officer close to the party, Sibi Mathews, who is now the information commissioner of the state, found no evidence against Kurien.

In 2000, a special court sentenced 35 persons charged in the case for rigorous imprisonment of different terms and the main accused to 13 years of jail plus another four years for other offences. In a shocking decision, the Kerala High Court subsequently let off the 35 people, which was recently revoked by the Supreme Court after eight years.

In the case of Kurien, the Kerala High Court discharged him for lack of evidence in 2007, which was subsequently endorsed by the Supreme Court when it dismissed a petition by the then state government headed by another CPM chief minister VS Achuthanandan. The Supreme Court told the state government that it could go back to the magistrate court and ask for a re-investigation, but Achuthanandan’s government didn’t do anything.

Why didn’t he or the party, which now asks the Congress to re-investigate and throw him out of his RS job, pursue the case? Nobody knows.

The government that found no evidence against Kurien was that of the CPM; both the head of the investigation team as well as the Advocate General, who had said that there was no evidence against the Congress leader were CPM appointees; and the government that didn’t pursue a possible re-investigation was also that of the CPM. In fact, the party that more or less ended Kurien’s woes was the CPM. The chief investigator and the AG still stand by their version even today, but the CPM is singing a different tune.

In the eyes of law, Kurien is clean. The highest court in the country had exonerated him and the government didn’t pursue the case any more. He now presides over the house where some landmark legislations and discussions on issues such as rape or violence against women come up for discussion. He should be certainly above suspicion, and under Indian law he can certainly claim that he is above suspicion.

PJ Kurien in this television screengrab. PTI

PJ Kurien in this television screengrab. PTI

But then, when the Supreme Court acted on a state government petition against the High Court acquittal of the 35 accused, after eight long years, Kurien, who was in no way connected with this petition, became its biggest victim. Instead of the 35 people whose acquittals have been revoked, the entire focus strangely fell on him when a news channel said that the girl wanted him to be investigated and punished.

Was it by design or default?

The girl as well as her parents repeated their 17-year old allegation that Kurien was one of the rapists and that he should be punished. Strangely, the question of least importance was if all the 35 men could be traced and whether they could be brought back to book again. Reportedly, most of them are missing and some might have even died. There is no trace of the main culprit either.

So the entire rape case of Suryanelli has now become a Kurien case. The girl and the family are adamant that he should be punished. With concealed identities, they repeat their demand in exclusive TV interviews.

Now the most striking part.

Along with the girl and the family, the person who is asking for Kurien’s head is Achuthanandan, the same CPM leader under whose rule he got away. The party that made a ruckus in the assembly on the issue was CPM, whose government under Nayanar originally found no evidence against him. But, they want the Congress to find evidence and send Kurien to jail. Achuthanandan has threatened agitation till this is done.

Interestingly, along with the girl’s repeated statement, which according to chief minister Oomen Chandy is no different from what she has said before, new pieces of “evidence” have also started appearing. One of the witnesses who testified in support of Kurien now says a different story while somebody else claimed that he saw Kurien at the guest house where the alleged incident happened. In addition, a senior member of the investigating team also expressed suspicion.

Are these new “revelations” adequate for a re-investigation? It’s for the Congress to decide, if it wants to be above suspicion.

It is true that even after the Supreme Court exonerates somebody, the government can look at re-investigating a case if there is fresh evidence under 173 (8). The state recently saw a couple of old cases being re-investigated when there were open confessions of people admitting their culpability. The sensational Rajan case as well as cases re-opened by the gaffe of CPM leader MM Mani are examples. In both cases, there were open admissions of culpability.

However, if after an accused gets cleared by the highest court of the country after a long period of investigation and trial, should he/she be subjected to the same ordeal if a couple of witnesses change their story for whatever reasons?

Or if there are new people coming up with their versions, is it a reasonable ground for reinvestigation? In such a situation, wouldn’t a person be in a perpetual cycle of investigation, trial, re-investigation and re-trial. Where will it end?

Kurien, being a political leader with his party’s strong backing, lawyer friends and other resources, might be able to handle it. What about a common man like you and me? It’s certainly disconcerting.

It costs huge amounts of money, time and moral strength to take a case even beyond the magistrate’s court, let alone going all the way up to the Supreme Court. Even with modest resources, it will bankrupt one besides destroying one’s life. If a person is really innocent, it is certainly unfair, but that is the price one has to pay in a system that stands by rule of law.

However, is subjecting the same person to the same process again and again justified? That too in a humiliating case involving the rape of a minor? If it happens to a commoner, will he or she be able to handle it? Say spend 20-30 years fighting the same case, even as your reputation remains suspect and suspended?

The CPM’s double standards, although predictable, are extremely disturbing. Reportedly, the Nayanar government had rewarded one of the officers of the investigation team that found no evidence against Kurien. The same party today has no qualms in asking for his head.

Similarly, it was the CPM who not only supported (not opposed) Kurien’s nomination to the RS Deputy Chairmanship, but also felicitated him in the house. Reportedly, not a single CPM MP, including those from Kerala, didn’t argue against Kurien citing Suryanelli. In fact, if a single party is responsible for Kurien getting away, if at all he was guilty, it is the CPM.

The case also exposes BJP’s double standards. Its Kerala unit now wants action against him although its state secretary had testified in support of Kurien. Today, he wants to change his testimony. Contradicting its state unit completely, the BJP’s central leadership has made it clear that the allegations against Kurien were personal and that he had been cleared by the Supreme Court. More over, it was Arun Jaitley who defended Kurien in the apex court.

Watching Kurien defending himself on TV and saying “I am innocent, I am innocent and I am innocent — morally and legally” even when the Supreme Court has cleared him, is terrifying in a country of a million intrigues and hundreds of TV cameras.

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