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Print edition : Dec 07, 2018 T+T-
Relatives of  the tribal girl and residents of Sitling village staging a protest on November 11.

Relatives of the tribal girl and residents of Sitling village staging a protest on November 11.

The murderous sexual assault on a tribal girl in Dharmapuri district shocks Tamil Nadu. Equally shocking is the callous police investigation into the crime.

THE rape and consequent death of a 17-year-old tribal girl at Sitling village in Harur taluk of Dharmapuri district has shocked Tamil Nadu, which is yet to recover from the trauma of the beheading of a Dalit girl in Attur (in Salem district) on October 22 for resisting the sexual advances of a youth belonging to a backward caste.

On November 5, two youths—Sathish (22) and Ramesh (22)—of Sitling raped the girl, belonging to the Boyar caste. The girl died in hospital on November 10. 

The accused had been stalking her for quite some time. The girl, who was studying in a government residential school in the nearby Pappireddipatti town, had come home during the Deepavali holidays. When she stepped out of her house to answer a call of nature near a forest stream at about 2 p.m., the youths, who had been lying low, allegedly caught, gagged and raped her. At the time of the rape, the girl was menstruating. She suffered multiple bruises and a concussion; she was later diagnosed as having cerebral edema. 

A villager who found the girl at the crime spot in a semi-conscious state informed her parents of the incident. Both the parents, farm labourers, were working in a field. The Kottappati police, under whose jurisdiction Sitling falls, was alerted. But the police did not go to the village to conduct an inquiry. Instead, they asked the parents to bring the girl to the police station. The police received a handwritten letter from the girl’s father describing the incident as an attempt to assault his daughter sexually. The father named the accused. 

On November 6, the police called the girl and her parents for further inquiry. They made the girl a complainant and filed the first information report (FIR) under Sections 5 (g), 6 and 18 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. After sending copies of the FIR to senior officers and obtaining necessary permission from the Magistrate, Dharmapuri Magalir Neethi Mandram (fast-track court), to proceed further in the case, the police took the girl to the government hospital at Harur, where she underwent smear and blood tests to ascertain whether the attack was a case of “sexual assault”, instead of admitting her to hospital for a detailed clinical examination and treatment.

Since the girl was only 17 years old, after medical tests they lodged her at the government-approved home of the District Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Dharmapuri. The warden of the home, Chithra, told the media that the girl was “traumatised and bleeding” when she was brought to the home. But no credible information was forthcoming from the officials as to why the girl was not admitted to hospital for medical treatment at the earliest. Ironically, a letter from the Inspector of the Kottapatti police station asked the CWC to give the victim lessons in moral education. 

A relative of the victim said that on November 7 the girl “complained of nausea and breathing difficulties. The bleeding had not stopped. With the knowledge of her parents, we admitted her to the Dharmapuri Government Medical College and Hospital.” According to hospital sources, the girl developed multiple complications on the morning of November 10 and died. 

Sathish was arrested in Yercaud on November 11 and Ramesh surrendered the next day before a Salem court. While Satish is a tribal man, Ramesh’s mother is a tribal person while his father belongs to the most backward Vanniyar caste. The crime came to public knowledge only after the girl’s death. Village residents and the victim’s relatives staged a road blockade at the hospital and later at the village in protest against the shoddy investigation done by the Kottapatti police. Sustained flagging of the issue by  The Hindu  and a few activists’ persistence with the case forced the district administration to restart the investigation. 

The Dharmapuri Collector, S. Malarvizhi, ordered the Harur Revenue Divisional Officer, G. Punniyakodi, to do a thorough inquiry into the “allegations of callous police inquiry”. In the meantime, the Kottapatti police approached the Mahalir Court Magistrate seeking permission to revise the FIR. Subsequently, Sections 302 and 376 (d) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) were added, although activists urged that relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, also be invoked. Kottapatti Police Inspector Muthukrishnan, the investigation officer in the case, was replaced by the inspector of the All Women Police Station, Lakshmi. 

The girl’s death exposed the callous attitude of the Kottapatti police. “Instead of conducting an inquiry, the police asked the victim to come to the police station on the same day of the crime. They asked the traumatised girl many embarrassing questions. The next day the police summoned the victim again and made her a complainant when she was even struggling to stand,” said V. Ramani of the Caste Annihilation Front of Tamil Nadu. It was also alleged that the police demanded a bribe of Rs. 6,000 to file the FIR.

A perusal of the records and documents, including copies of statements, complaints, FIR and declarations in the court of law, available with  Frontline , support the allegations that the police’s role in the incident was dubious. “The police asked the victim’s parents to keep quiet since the girl would be shamed in the village and school if the incident was revealed,” said A. Chandramohan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). A case-related file shows that the investigating officer of the Kottapatti police station went to the crime spot at about 12 noon on November 6. But villagers and activists said the police turned up only after the girl’s death. In their written submission to the Mahalir Court Magistrate, the police said they could not visit the crime spot because they were “busy with the investigation of another murder” (of an old tribal woman in the same village on November 2). 

Hospital sources said that on medical examination it was found that the girl’s hymen was absent but there were no traces of semen, possibly due to the lapse of time (between the occurrence of the crime and the medical examination). “She was still bleeding at the time,” the girl’s mother told Frontline . The Dean of Dharmapuri Medical College, Dr Srinivasa Raj, told the media that a CT scan showed that the girl had mild cerebral edema. He said the police did not inform the hospital that the girl was a rape victim. The post-mortem was done on November 10. 

On November 13, when a team of activists from Women’s Collective, a non-governmental organisation, visited the victim’s family, a group of ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam men asked them to leave, saying that Minister K.P. Anbazhagan was expected to call on the victim’s family. The police evicted the activists from the house and detained them at the Harur police station until late in the night. They filed cases against four people, including the Salem-based student activist Valarmathi, under Section 143 of the IPC and Section 7(1) (a) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

Activists, who have done an exhaustive profiling of the socio-economic conditions of the tribal village and its surrounding hamlets, told Frontline  that the abysmal living conditions of the tribal people gave rise to anti-social activities. “Their [tribal people’s] illiteracy and poverty have led to an influx of outsiders who not only indulge in nefarious activities such as bootlegging and sand mining but also rope in unemployed tribal youths into their network. In fact, the mother of one of the accused is a hooch seller. They enjoy the patronage of political parties,” said an activist. 

A senior police officer said the vulnerability of girls and children, especially those belonging to disadvantaged groups and living in unsafe neighbourhoods such as Sitling, was the reason for such heinous crimes. “One out of three victims in India, according to the NCRB [National Crime Records Bureau] data, are below 18, and one in 10 rape victims, is under 14,” he said.

What is alarming is the growing number of assaults on girls and the sheer brutality of the crimes being committed in Tamil Nadu, considered one of the most socially and economically progressive States.