No one could have foreseen that a habeas corpus petition filed in the Madras High Court on the “disappearance” of a US citizen’s 70-year-old uncle from a rehabilitation home for persons suffering from mental illness at Villupuram in Tamil Nadu would lead to the exposure of torture, rape, and abuse of inmates.
The home, Anbu Jothi Ashram at Kundalapuliyur near Villupuram, was shut recently after serious allegations of sexual assault, human trafficking, and drugging of its inmates surfaced. The authorities inquiring into the ashram’s operations discovered that it had not renewed its licence for years.
It all began with US-based Salim Khan asking his friend Halideen of Tirupur to get his ailing uncle Jaffarullah of Sathyamangalam admitted to a care home because there was no one to take care of him at his native place. On December 4, 2021, Halideen admitted him to the ashram. A year later, when Salim came on a short trip to India and made an attempt to see his uncle, he was told that Jaffarullah had been shifted to an institution called Home of Hope in Bengaluru on December 6, 2021. Neither Halideen nor Salim was informed of the shifting.
Before returning to the US, Salim asked his friend to find out about Jafarullah. Halideen did not find Jaffarullah in the Bengaluru home either. On Salim’s advice, he filed a complaint on December 26, 2021, at the Villupuram Kedar Police Station, under whose jurisdiction the ashram was located. The police registered a case of “man missing”.
The police team that reached the Bengaluru home was told that Jafarullah and a few other inmates had escaped on March 4, 2022, by breaking open the window of a bathroom on the first floor and using bedsheets as ropes. Strangely, the institution did not report this incident to the local police. The management of the Villupuram ashram too did not care to enquire about Jafarullah.
Halideen approached the Madras High Court on December 17, 2022, with a habeas corpus petition, in which he stated that his friend’s uncle had “disappeared” from the ashram and his whereabouts were not known. The court immediately ordered an inquiry, which exposed the happenings at the facility that claimed to “care for homeless, oppressed, abandoned, mentally and physically sick, injured and infected, and destitute schizophrenia patients”.
On February 10 this year, armed with court orders, a team of officials from Villupuram district’s revenue, police, and health departments descended on the ashram’s Kundalapuliyur premises and two of its branches located nearby. What they saw there was terrifying. Almost all inmates had physical ailments and deep wounds from severe beatings. The place was a mess. In fact, in the area around the building, the stench in the air remained more than a week after the ashram was closed, which was when Frontline visited the place. From a distance, a lone policeman stood guard.
The officials rescued 166 inmates, including 45 women and a few minors, from the ashram and its two branches. Twenty-three chronically ill inmates were referred to the Institute of Mental Health in Chennai. Shockingly, the ashram, registered under the Nalla Samaritan Charitable Trust, had been functioning for 17 years without a valid licence.
‘Torture and rape’
The government inquiry revealed the telltale signs of cruelty inflicted on the inmates. Apart from third-degree torture, the ashram personnel were suspected of sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking. The police seized large quantities of psychotropic substances without prescription; these were allegedly used to keep the inmates sedated.
On February 27, the police told the Madras High Court that they had seized more than 50,000 capsules and tablets of different combinations of psychiatric drugs on the ashram premises. They also found 309 tubes of an anti-fungal cream used to treat vaginal infection. The fact that all these drugs bore the seal “Tamil Nadu Government Supply – Not for sale” pointed to a nexus between the ashram management and government health service providers. How such a large quantity of drugs could have left the counters of a government healthcare facility is still a mystery, said an investigation officer.
All the inmates, other than those who were admitted to hospitals, were sent to various homes. A few were allowed to go with their families. The police arrested the founders of the ashram, Jubin Baby (45) alias Anbin Jubin and his wife Mariya (43), both from Kerala’s Ernakulam district, and their relative Biju Mohan, warden Muthumaari, computer operator Gopinath, and helpers Iyyappan, Satish, Boopalan, and Das. They were charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Woman Act. Das, however, was enlarged on bail because of his old age.
The confessional statements of four of the accused, including Biju Mohan, a copy of which is available with Frontline, explain how the home was made into a horror chamber for the hapless victims. The statements of inmates revealed how they had been beaten up and tortured almost on a daily basis. “Surprisingly, many of them could depose with clarity. Some were chained to walls and window grills for days and weeks. The inmates were tonsured mainly to camouflage their identities. Their original documents were destroyed to erase their identities,” said the officer.
The ashram’s most bizarre act, especially against those who defied orders, was to terrorise them by unleashing a couple of monkeys kept in cages on the premises into their rooms. The rooms would then be locked from outside. The terrified animals would pounce on the inmates and maul them. Many were bitten by the monkeys. Biju Mohan confessed to this grisly crime in detail in his statement to the police.
An official told Frontline that a woman from Odisha, who was rescued from Villupuram bus stand, was brought to the ashram and forced to cook for everyone. When she resisted, she was beaten up severely, and the monkeys were let into her room. Later, she was taken to the ashram’s branch in Puducherry where she was allegedly raped. The Forest Department has taken custody of the monkeys and registered a case against the detained persons under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
The ashram had long been functioning with audacious impunity. Even letters transferring inmates from one facility to another outside the State, issued in the name of the Tamil Nadu Police and other district officials, were found to be forged. No documents were maintained about missing persons.
The apathy of those who abandoned their dear ones in the ashram had only emboldened those in charge of the facility. Its management had virtually appropriated the state authority and even authorised homes to which its inmates had been shifted to “perform final rites according to the organisation policy” in the event of their death. There was no accountability for anything that happened to the inmates.
CB-CID takes over
Realising that the enormity of the issue warranted an inter-State investigation, the case was transferred to the Crime Branch’s Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID), which also reopened the probe on the Bengaluru home from where 15 people, including Salim’s uncle, were said to have escaped. The CB-CID launched a search for them, with public notices in the media displaying photographs with their details.
The CB-CID began a full-fledged investigation on February 23. The police in Kedar village, which had been handling the case until then, handed over the relevant documents to the agency. A team led by Superintendent of Police Arun Balagopalan inspected the ashram and seized hard discs and computers from the premises. “The CB-CID will file a charge sheet soon,” Arun Balagopalan said.
A team from the National Commission for Women (NCW) took up the issue suo motu. Kanchan Khattar, a senior coordinator of the NCW, said that their initial inquiry had pointed to “at least two cases of sexual assault at the ashram”. She said that two women had given statements that they were subjected to sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, according to a communique dated February 13, 2023, from the Tamil Nadu State Mental Health Authority, its review board had inspected the ashram on December 26, 2022, and found irregularities. It had returned the ashram’s renewal application asking it to rectify the deficiencies first, the communique said. It sent a reminder in January 2023. When the ashram authorities did not respond, it imposed a fine of Rs.5,000 on the ashram for violating the provisions of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017. The authority also warned that if the organisation did not fulfil its requirements, a fine of Rs.2 lakh would be levied. But the ashram, it claimed, ignored the warning.
C. Thangavelu, District Differently Abled Welfare Officer, Villupuram, said that he had issued the organisation a warning against flouting rules and regulations under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. “They did not respond,” he said. Thangavelu said he had submitted a detailed report to the CB-CID police in this regard. A senior official from the Social Justice Department pointed out that the ashram did not have, on its rolls, psychiatrists, counsellors, doctors, or workers. It did not possess sanitation certificates and inmates’ identification documents.
However, despite the malpractices, the ashram was allowed to run its business unhindered. A group of social workers who volunteered to assist the authorities to place the inmates in various homes told Frontline that they had warned the Villupuram district officials concerned about the clandestine operations of the ashram, but to no avail. “It was not monitored by the officials of both State and Central governments from which it reportedly received grants besides heavy voluntary donations,” one of the social workers said.
Besides, it is said that no action was taken against the ashram because Jubin had clout with officials and political functionaries. He was regularly involved in many welfare programmes of the State and the district. Recently, he was seen at a function with Tamil Nadu Health Minister Ma. Subramanian. “But for the strong judicial intervention, the gory happenings in the ashram could not have come to light,” the activist said.
The Erwadi tragedy
The Villupuram episode brings to mind the tragic fire that claimed the lives of 28 people with mental illness at a private asylum at Erwadi town in Ramanathapuram district in 2001. They were all chained to bamboo poles inside the asylum, one of the 500-odd such illegal facilities functioning at that time.
The dargah of Quthbus Sultan Syed Ibrahim Shaheed Valiyullah at Erwadi was a place where people with mental illness were brought for a miracle cure. Unscrupulous elements commercialised the faith, which led to the proliferation of illegal homes, such as the one the fire had destroyed, in and around the dargah. After the tragic event, the government ordered the closure of all such homes. People of all religions, however, throng the dargah even today.
At the Sri Prasanna Venkatachalapathy temple at Gunaseelam near Tiruchi, people with mental illness are brought for a 48-day stay for cure. It is believed that the priest splashing holy water on their faces will cure their illnesses. Not long ago, patients could be seen chained to the pillars of this ancient temple. But the evil practice has been done away with. In fact, the State has approved the operation of a short-stay home near the temple, complete with the necessary infrastructure and medical and psychiatric care. A blending of faith and modern medicine is the method used here to cure illness.
Action Taken Report
Jaffarullah, who knew Tamil, Hindi, and Urdu, is still missing. So are two others, an 80-year-old woman and her 45-year-old son from a village near Sankarankoil in Tenkasi district. With regard to the Jaffarullah case, the police, filing an Action Taken Report before the Madras High Court, said that they had found a body matching the profile of the missing old man and required the presence of his nephew Salim Khan from the US to identify it. (As Salim Khan’s counsel sought time, the court has adjourned the hearing to March 13.)
These are identifiable cases. The fate of many who were orphaned and abandoned and shifted to various homes in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and even to far-off Rajasthan, is still a mystery. How many people have died, disappeared, or have been trafficked from the ashram since 2004 remains shrouded in secrecy. And, why the local police and district administration remained inactive against the gruesome happenings in the ashram may never be known.
- The Anbu Jothi Ashram at Kundalapuliyur near Villupuram, a home for persons with mentally illness, was shut recently after serious allegations of sexual assault, human trafficking, and drugging of its inmates surfaced.
- The ashram had been operating without a licence for 17 years.
- A habeas corpus petition filed in the High Court prompted an investigation into the ashram by the Villupuram district’s revenue, police, and health departments. They discovered shocking information.
- The officials rescued 166 inmates, including 45 women and a few minors, from the ashram and its two branches.