Teenage girl in Tamil Nadu set on fire by stalker shows caste cracks in state's social fabric

A 35-year-old man murdering a 17-year-old girl — it is bound to raise some eyebrows. When this murder is committed by a Dalit man who has been stalking the girl for over two years, however, there is a whole new dimension to the case.

30 July started out like any other day for 17-year-old A Naveena and her family. She helped her mother, a daily wage labourer, in the fields and had come home. A neighbour recalls walking past her house, seeing her watching television with her two younger siblings: Nandini and Logesh. Just when everything seemed normal, tragedy struck. Senthil Kumar (34), who had been stalking her for over a year, walked into the house armed with a knife, petrol and a lighter. He pushed away her siblings and tried to set her on fire. Eventually, he doused himself in petrol, set himself alight, and grabbed her. Both Naveena and Senthil suffered serious burns.

Selvi, a neighbour, saw the smoke and rushed to the house. “We didn’t realise what was happening, but when we arrived on the scene, we could barely see through the smoke. The stench was unbearable,” she says. The neighbours then called an ambulance and rushed Naveena to the hospital.

Senthil Kumar died on the way to the Mundiampakkam Government Hospital, while Naveena, who sustained 80 percent burns, was taken to JIPMER Hospital in Puducherry, where she passed away a couple of days later. Her sister Nandini, who tried to save her sister, sustained burns on her right arm, and was taken to Chennai for treatment.

Teenage girl in Tamil Nadu set on fire by stalker shows caste cracks in states social fabric

The entire incident took place in the family’s house in the village of Nannadu on the Villupuram-Thirukoilur main road. From the outside, the house is like any other house located along the highway: a small brick house with sheet roofing and a small backyard that ends at a railway line passing right behind the house. To the left of the house is a small cow shed, and to the right is a garden where policemen have been sitting on guard ever since the incident took place. From the main road, it is possible to see past the small sit-out into the house itself. Neighbours say they would often see Senthil sitting under a tamarind tree across the road, looking into the house. The house is located right across from the petrol bunk, where Senthil bought the petrol he used.

As Naveena’s mother Nagamma relates the incident, there are tears in her eyes. “For over a year, my daughter has been tortured by this man [Senthil]. He used to follow her home from school and would stand outside our house calling out to her, asking her to come with him. She was terrified of him,” she says. Even a week before the murder, Senthil had stood outside their house, calling out to Naveena and even abusing her, Nagamma said. “Naveena has been upset this entire year. She scored only around 50 percent in her Class 12 exams, because she was so disturbed by this man. Now, he has taken her away from us forever,” she adds.

Senthil, a bus conductor, first started following Naveena when she was 14 years old, and used to travel in his bus to school. “Initially, she did not say anything about him, because she didn’t realise how dangerous he was,” Naveena’s uncle Ezhumalai Thevarasu said. “Slowly, he started coming to her house, calling for her, claiming he couldn’t live without her. When she didn’t respond, he would get abusive, and call her names,” he adds. Eventually, her family approached the police last year, and registered a complaint. “He was over 30 years old, why did he come after a school girl and then ruin her life?” Nagamma wails.

Senthil went missing for a couple of months. When he resurfaced, he approached the Villupuram Taluk police station, with an arm and a leg missing. He lodged a complaint claiming that Naveena’s family had attacked him and cut off his limbs. “After investigation, and a Fact-Finding Commission report, we determined that he had not been attacked, but had fallen on the railway tracks in a drunken stupor,” Senthil Vinayagam, the investigating officer on the case said. After that, Senthil was booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, and remanded. Around a month ago, he was released on bail.

“After Senthil came out of jail, he continued to approach Naveena, but her mother decided not to file a case, because it could ruin her daughter’s future,” her uncle said.

“Last year, the pro-Vanniar and pro-Dalit political parties wanted to get involved because Naveena is a Vanniar and Senthil is a Dalit. We fought to make sure this didn’t happen. We did not want the problem Naveena was facing to be reduced to an issue between castes, because it was more than that,” Ezhumalai says. He now said that if the caste-based parties were involved, this tragedy could have been averted.

“There are boys in every caste who harass girls and stalk them. It is unfair to say that this happened because the boy was a Dalit or the girl was a Vanniar. There are a few people in our family, who have married into Dalit families. Even Naveena had a number of friends from the neighbouring Dalit colony,” he adds.

As much as the family wanted to keep caste politics out of the equation, the local pro-Vanniar PMK and the pro-Dalit VCK have been involved in the case for over a year now. When Senthil first made his complaint about Naveena’s family attacking him and cutting off his arm and leg, there were a number of protests by the VCK. After it was proved that it was not an attack by Naveena’s family, however, the VCK stopped their protests.

After Naveena’s murder, the PMK founder P Ramadass has been issuing a number of statements condemning the murder. “The girl suffered for two days with 75 percent burns in a hospital ward because of a boy who was stalking her. It is impossible to imagine how much she suffered,” he said. The PMK conducted protests in Villupuram as well as Chennai condemning the murder, saying they will ensure justice for Naveena and Swathi, the girl who was hacked to death in the Nungambakkam railway station.

Even after the protests, the PMK cadre has been visiting Naveena’s home, and has been taking photographs and collecting details. “Now, the PMK is saying they will help the family out,” Naveena’s mother said.

The VCK, on the other hand, has not taken up the issue in a big way. They say it is a case of stalking, which could happen with any community. “The girl's [Naveena] murder is a result of stalking; something that happens to a lot of girls in rural Tamil Nadu,” Dalit activist and VCK General Secretary Ravikumar said. There are a few questions being raised about how Senthil, with only one arm and leg, managed to do the deed.

Stalking is a problem that many girls face, especially in rural India, according to S Geetha, Villupuram District General Secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Alliance. “Stalking and harassment of girls is fairly common, especially when women have to travel some distance to get to school or work. In many cases, the women don’t report these stalkers, because they either brush them off as inconsequential, or they are afraid that it will affect their reputations,” she said. It is important to raise awareness on these cases to help the girls get justice, she added.

If schools, colleges and even workplaces have committees to counsel women and children when they are feeling unsafe, or threatened, and help able to report these cases anonymously, it will go a long way to help these women, Geetha said. “There is a certain stigma attached to the police station, which will take a while to overcome. Many families believe that filing a complaint against a man who is harassing their women will mean that the girl’s reputation will be ruined forever. If these complaints can be made with someone they trust, like a teacher, or colleague, it will help reduce this stigma,” she adds.

According to a senior police official, often girls who are being stalked, will hide it even from their families. “We take all cases of assault against women, and especially young girls, very seriously. In Naveena’s case, if we had known that this man was back in the picture, we would have revoked his bail immediately, but the family did not inform us,” he said.

As Naveena’s family and friends are still trying to come to grips with the horror of her death, they only ask that other families learn from her death. “We failed our only daughter and now she has gone. We want other families to learn from us. One day we hope Naveena will be the guiding light for any young girl who is being threatened in such a manner,” her mother said.

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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2016 10:58:07 IST

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