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Print edition : December 03, 2004

Allegations about Kerala Industries Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty's involvement in a sex racket surface again, triggering protests all over the State.

in Thiruvananthapuram

Police personnel assault mediapersons protesting against Minister P.K. Kunhalikkutty in Kochi.-VIPIN CHANDRAN

REAL-LIFE story lines in which faceless characters conspire, ensnare young women and offer them to the rich and the famous as part of lucrative pleasure-for-money rackets have been the stuff of `market-tested' sensationalism in Kerala for quite a while. Since 1996, when the first of a new genre of startling scandals involving top leaders came to light, they have become the stuff of mainstream politics too - a potent tool that plays on the fortunes of naughty politicians at opportune moments and then lets them roam free, with an ogre on their trail.

In the case of P.K. Kunhalikkutty, the State Industries Minister and general secretary of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), who had been facing allegations of wayward indulgences since 1997, the ogre chooses mischievous occasions to present itself. For example, on October 28, as on an earlier occasion in 1997, it appeared right when the Minister embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca. "It is perhaps a sign that God is testing my resolve and my ability for undertaking the great deeds he has meant for me to do later on," Kunhalikkutty comforted himself and the mass of agitated "Muslim League supporters" who gathered at the Kozhikode International Airport on his return from Mecca on November 1.

Three days had passed since a young woman, Rejina, went live on Indiavision (a television channel under the chairmanship of IUML Minister M.K. Muneer) and asserted that the statement that she gave the police in 1997 alleging that Kunhalikkutty (among many others) had sexually exploited her when she was only a minor was indeed true, though she had subsequently stated before a magistrate that it was false. Rejina indicated that she was willing to present the facts anew before a court, if only it would consider her revised statement.

The woman's `disclosures' came the day Kunhalikkutty - known for his political shrewdness and administrative efficiency - left with his family members to Mecca. But by the time he returned three days later, a storm had engulfed Kerala, questioning his moral and legal right to remain in office and demanding his resignation. Kunhalikkutty supporters had been on the rampage, attacking the offices of Indiavision and journalists from several media organisations in Kozhikode and Kochi. In an unprecedented attempt to muffle the press from publishing news reports related to the woman's allegations, minutes before his return on November 1, his supporters once again unleashed their ire on mediapersons, including a woman journalist, at the Kozhikode airport premises. Thirteen journalists were injured and several cameras damaged and a videocassette containing footage of the violence was forcibly taken away. The police remained spectators. Significantly, immediately on his return, Kunhalikkutty donned the robes of a `Muslim politician', climbed on to an impromptu stage at the airport premises to join the huge, restless gathering of "supporters" in a prayer and a speech invoking God, in what was described by his detractors as a blatant attempt to give a communal colour to the allegations.

WHAT followed were events that had the State riveted to television screens for a few days. Faced with spontaneous protests by mediapersons against the attack on their colleagues, Kunhalikkutty had to leave several venues in disgrace. Occasionally, some of the mediapersons went overboard in their demonstration of protest, threatening to divert the issue of attack against press freedom into a personal battle against the Minister. Without fail and, no doubt, because of the compulsions of coalition politics, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy tried to equate the reaction of the mediapersons with the political goondaism of IUML supporters when the representatives of working journalists met him and demanded a judicial inquiry into the attacks.

The State also witnessed the amazing spectacle of the entire IUML leadership rallying behind Kunhalikkutty and the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition, whose liaison committee met in Thiruvananthapuram at the height of the protests against Kunhalikkutty, refusing to discuss the allegations against the Minister or the demand for his resignation. The IUML announced that the allegations were politically motivated and that the party would deal with it politically. Party president Panakkad Muhammadali Shihab Thangal tried to give a communal colour to the allegation by stating that "it is part of an organised attempt to single out community leaders and to disgrace them as well as the Muslim League in public".

P.K. Kunhalikkutty.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The Congress was a divided lot on the issue. But, "officially", the leading partner in the ruling UDF (in whose internal affairs the IUML and its leader Kunhalikkutty had often played a coercive role, especially on the issue of forcing leaders such as former Chief Ministers K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony to step down) decided that discretion was the better part of valour, even if it meant buckling under the IUML's unstated threat that all its four Ministers would resign if the Congress demanded Kunhalikkutty's resignation. But prominent party leaders like former Member of Parliament V.M. Sudheeran - who was in the forefront of the people's agitation against the environmentally disastrous mineral sand mining project sought to be implemented by the Industries Department under Kunhalikkutty despite repeated allegations of corruption - demanded the Minister's resignation on moral grounds, until the case was decided in a court of law.

Oommen Chandy, who increasingly grew wary of media questions on the issue, said the government would not try to protect the guilty but "would not also allow people to be blackmailed". The protests by the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) were muted initially, with their political rivals, including Oommen Chandy, pointing out that the police inquired into the case when it was ruling the State.

On November 4, a day before Kunhalikkutty was to hold an "explanatory" media conference, Rejina was arrested by the State police on charges of attempted suicide in a related, six-year-old case in which she was so far considered an "absconder". Although she was let off on bail, Rejina submitted a sealed letter to the magistrate which her advocate claimed was "perhaps a letter to the Chief Minister". And, as she was leaving the court room, Rejina, obviously under tremendous pressure, once more did a flip-flop act, shouting to presspersons that "she had once again wrongly accused Kunhalikkutty" under the direction of K. Ajitha, a former naxalite, whose organisation Anweshi was the first to bring to light the sex-for-money racket and the disclosures of Rejina in 1997.

The next day Kunhalikkuty told a crowded media conference in Thiruvananthapuram that he was being hounded for the past eight years as part of a major political conspiracy on the basis of the statements of a woman who changed her statement every other minute. He said he would not resign until the IUML president directed him to do so. There was a similar conspiracy to implicate him in the communal killings at the Marad beach in Kozhikode and then to demand his resignation. The Minister claimed that all through the eight years of the case, "none of the courts, including the Supreme Court", had found him guilty, despite a detailed inquiry by a team of top police officials. He denied reports that the then LDF government had helped him through a lackadaisical and half-hearted police inquiry. He said that there was no scope for further inquiry as demanded by his "tormentors". He had only "clues" about their motives at present and would disclose them at a later stage.

The Minister who showed remarkable restraint throughout the media conference was also emotional at times. "I have nothing to lose now. What more do I have? What more can I look forward to but death?" he asked. "Cases can be charged against anyone including top leaders on the basis of accusations regarding their younger days," he said. He reminded mediapersons that "the woman had not preferred any complaint on her own" but the complainant was the Anweshi.

THE sex-for-money racket that prospered around an ice cream parlour in Kozhikode first came to light through the disclosures of a woman at a counselling centre run by Anweshi. When there were signs of the State police inquiry slowing gear, Anweshi conducted an inquiry and submitted a memorandum to the then Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar. A police raid at the parlour on August 6, 1997, revealed startling details of a flourishing sex racket in which the parlour owner had enticed several women promising them jobs, visas, or ornaments and later forced them into the flesh trade. One of the girls thus trapped was Rejina. Several women's organisations alleged then that the arrest of the parlour owner, Sridevi, 21 days after the raid, gave "ample scope for destroying evidence". Soon afterwards, the case relating to the sex racket was registered at the Nadakkavu police station in Kozhikode.

The special investigation team submitted its report at the Judicial First Class Magistrate's Court in December 1998. But the court rejected the first chargesheet as "incomplete".

The police then conducted "further inquiries" and filed a chargesheet listing 14 persons as accused. It was at this juncture that Rejina and another victim changed their statements regarding the involvement of Kunhalikkutty. When the case was again scheduled for hearing, another accused obtained a stay order from the High Court on further proceedings. An appeal submitted by Anweshi that the inquiry should be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was subsequently dragged to the Supreme Court, which after four years rejected the demand on the basis of an affidavit submitted by the State government in June 1999. Kunhalikkutty announced at the media conference that "even the Supreme Court had absolved him of the charges" while, according to those demanding his resignation, including Ajitha and Sudheeran, the Apex Court had rejected "only the demand for a CBI inquiry".

All along, there was no effort on the part of the police to vacate the High Court's stay order. As pressure mounted for Kunhalikkutty's resignation, with several youth and women's organisations, especially those affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Bharatiya Janata Party joining the protests, the Chief Minister announced on November 10 that the government would initiate steps to vacate the stay order and allow the law to run its course. But, once again, he said: "The government can proceed only according to the law."

Curiously, the names of some top politicians have figured as `customers' in several notorious sex racket cases that have surfaced in Kerala recently. Police inquiries into such cases are invariably ineffective. Once the `politician factor' comes to the fore, an overzealous media zooms in, the government and the law enforcement machinery slows down and the question of speedy justice is put on the backburner. The cases drag on.

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