On the night of November 12th 2018, more than fifty people from Sittilingi, a village in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, made their way back home from Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital with the body of a 16-year-old Adivasi (Malaivasi) girl. The girl had been raped on November 5th by two drunk men, and had died in the hospital five days later – a death that her family have described as linked to blatant police negligence, beginning with their refusal to file an FIR, and involving the questionable role of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Dharmapuri. Manjunathan*, a resident of Sittilingi, says that on November 12th, around ten police vehicles and 100 policemen had followed the girl’s funeral procession through the village, all the way to the graveyard. “Till now we have never seen the police,” Manjunathan attests, “now suddenly, since the day of the protest, they have remained in the village, especially at the junction, harassing people.”
This large and unusual police presence in Sittilingi began on November 10th, after around 2000 people gathered on the main road of the village, frequented by buses connecting Salem and Thiruvannamalai, to protest against the rape and death of the girl. Subsequently, Satish, one of the accused, was nabbed by the police in Yercaud on November 11th, after which Ramesh, the second of the accused, surrendered in Salem the next day, even as the girl’s family waited for a post-mortem. On November 13th, The News Minute reported that 17 activists, including student activist Valarmathi, Dalit and trans activist Grace Banu, and others from the Tamil Nadu Women’s Federation, who were visiting the girl’s family on a fact-finding mission, had been briefly arrested. This was followed by reports of allegations that the police had failed to collect evidence like the girl’s soiled underwear and her broken bangles from the site of the crime – four days after she had died, and almost ten days after she had been raped.
In the very recent past, that is, from the end of October 2018, there have been two other reported cases of caste and sexual violence from Tamil Nadu. The first was the beheading of Rajalakshmi, a 13-year-old Dalit girl in Salem, by her neighbour Dinesh Kumar, a Mudaliar man, after she rejected his sexual advances. More recently, the bodies of a young couple from Hosur, S Swathi, a Vanniyar woman, and N Nandish, a Dalit man, who had been murdered by Swathi’s family for their marriage, were found in the Cauvery river in Karnataka’s Mandya district. However, much like Rajalakshmi’s murder and the Hosur killing, the case from Sittilingi warrants more public condemnation than it has received; in fact, over the last two weeks, there have only been brief English media reports about it outside of Tamil Nadu. Just as Rajalakshmi’s case was followed by a discussion about whether her murder was a caste or sexual crime – with some rightly contending that it was both – there is arguably a need for similar attention to this case from Sittilingi.
So far, conversations with those involved in the protests following this girl’s death reflect a common, disturbing refrain – “I don’t think the police expected her to die; if she hadn’t died, then no inquiry would have been raised.” Although in this instance, both the accused are also Malaivasi, the violence has undoubtedly been compounded by several discrepancies and a series of concerted police cover-ups, all of which require much closer attention. The whole episode, as indeed the events marking it, is a critical reminder of the need to urgently address (and document) the multiple ways in which social identities of ‘tribe’, caste and class are linked to situations of sexual violence and accompanying efforts at legal and governmental redress (whether in the form of registering a criminal complaint, or accessing a government hospital and generally addressing subaltern public grievances). To borrow an evocative phrase from Suchitra Vijayan’s piece on Rajalakshmi’s murder, “[the crime] remains seen but not acknowledged, heard but not listened to,” and, note, we are only speaking of ‘acknowledgement’ and ‘listening to’ here, and much less about ‘redress’ or even ‘righting wrongs’.
For now, what we know about the Sittilingi event from various reports in the media is this: the girl, who had returned to the village from her boarding school for Deepavali, was raped on November 5th by two drunk men, Satish and Ramesh, when she had gone to relieve herself. She was gagged, her clothes had been torn, and she was bleeding and very weak. On the same day, her family had gone to the police station in Kottapatti (12 kilometres away) to register a complaint. The police initially refused to do so, until they were pressured to comply when the girl’s family contacted 1077, the Tamil Nadu Police Helpline number. The FIR was finally filed on November 6th as ‘attempt to rape’, and the girl was taken to Harur (approximately 40 kilometres away from Kottapatti) for a medical examination. The FIR mentions that Satish and Ramesh were being booked under Sections 5 (g) [whoever commits gang penetrative assault on a child], 6 [punishment for aggravated penetrative assault], and 18 [punishment for attempt to commit an offence] of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
The police, who as reported had taken a bribe of Rs 6000, then shifted the girl to a CWC children’s remand home in Dharmapuri. Thiru MS Saravanan, Chairman of the CWC, has insisted that they were not informed of the girl being a victim of sexual assault. “We were only told about an attempt to rape,” he says. On November 7th, the girl, who was vomiting and complained of dizziness in the remand home, was taken to Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital. A CT scan was conducted – for which Rs 500 was taken from the family – which revealed a diffuse cerebral oedema. Over the next two days, her condition seemed to improve, until suddenly, on the morning of November 10th, she collapsed and then died.
When the news about the girl’s passing away reached Sittilingi that morning, a large group of protestors blocked the main road through the village. They demanded not only the arrest of the two accused men, but an investigation into the police and hospital negligence that had resulted in the girl’s death. The Dharmapuri District Collector (DC) S Malarvizhi ordered a revision of the first FIR, in which the case had been registered as an ‘attempt to rape’. She also promised that the accused would be arrested in 48 hours. Muthukrishnan, the investigating officer of the Kottapatti police was replaced by Inspector Lakshmi, and the two accused were subsequently arrested.
Over the last two weeks, these broad facts about the case and its timeline – particularly the important questioning of the CWC – have been repeated by the media with varying details. The fact that there is now a perception among the people about the ‘problems’ with the investigation cannot be denied. However, what has remained hazy is the scale of police negligence and cover-up, the dimensions of which emerge quite clearly in smaller particularities as evoked in interviews with those close to the girl’s family, and others who have been involved in the protests that followed her death.
The first complaint
Perhaps it is best to highlight these distortions by returning to the events of November 5th. When we talk over the phone, Abhay, a recent graduate and resident of Sittilingi, is waiting outside Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital for the post-mortem. As reported, he tells me that the girl was raped when she had gone to relieve herself near a river in the village. She was found there by her brother, who had gone looking for her. The men were “problem cases”, Abhay insists. They had been in trouble in Sittilingi before – Satish for taking a video of a woman bathing, and Ramesh for abusing his wife, who had subsequently left him.
Here, it appears that media reports of what happened at Kottapatti police station – including the police’s initial refusal to file an FIR – tell only a small part of the story. Abhay describes other smaller, but important details: first, that the police followed the family back to Sittilingi on the evening of November 5th, and demanded a bribe of Rs 2000 to take their complaint. On November 6th, the girl and her family then returned to Kottapatti police station early in the morning. They again described the entire episode to the police, who filled in a complaint form, which they made the girl’s father sign. “Her parents are illiterate; they didn’t know what was written,” Abhay affirms, “But the complaint had no mention of rape; it only said attempt to rape. The police also additionally lied, saying that they [the victim and her family] only came on the 6th because their village [Sittilingi] didn’t have vehicles, and the girl had fainted. They made up an entire story to hide the fact that they didn’t take the complaint before.”
What happened in Harur?
At this point, the story – which has so far seemed familiar in terms of the police’s initial refusal to file an FIR in a case of sexual violence – begins to get murkier.
After the FIR was filed, the police instructed the girl and her family to travel with them to the government hospital in Harur, for a medical examination. Abhay insists – and it is important to remember this – that the girl had vaginal bleeding, severe injuries on her back and in her trachea (from the cloth stuffed in her mouth), bite marks on her face which was also swollen, and two cuts on the side of her abdomen. At Harur, the girl and her family were made to wait outside the hospital, even as two police officers – one male and the other a female – went and talked to somebody inside. During the 30 minutes that the family waited outside, a nurse came and asked them to sign the registration form. No treatment was given. Immediately after this, the police said they needed an additional Rs 2000 to shift the girl to Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital, which the family gave. Abhay is certain that no explanation for this decision to shift was given to the family. The girl was then taken to a CWC children’s remand home in Dharmapuri (around 75 kilometres away from Harur, and 90 kilometres away from Sittilingi), and her parents, who thought she would soon be taken to hospital, were sent back home.
What is unclear here, and has received no media attention, is what Piyush Manush, an environmental activist in Tamil Nadu, who was involved in the protests in Sittilingi following the girl’s death, describes as the “most intriguing part of the case”. “The parents say that there was no medical examination at the hospital in Harur,” Manush clarifies, “But Dr Matheshwari, a gynaecologist at the hospital, says that an examination was done. She told me she recorded that the girl’s ‘hymen was not intact’, thereby confirming rape.”
Evidently, there are many serious issues with this order of explanation about the hymen. Where Manush had corroborated as he did, the DC, S Malarvizhi insisted that an investigation by the Harur Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) recovered footage of the girl “in a yellow salwar” undergoing a medical examination in the government hospital at Harur. Over the course of our conversation, Malarvizhi begins by saying “the findings [of the doctor at Harur] are under investigation, and need to be corroborated with the post-mortem report”; and then, when pressed about whether she is certain that a medical examination was done, she insists: “Without doing a medical examination, she cannot be produced in front of the CWC. The doctor confirmed it after the examination, that it was an attempt to rape, not rape. So, the CWC was also told this.”
Repeated attempts to reach Dr Matheshwari from the government hospital at Harur – to clarify whether the girl had been examined, and what the examination found – have gone unanswered.
From the CWC Remand Home to the Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital
I talk to Madheshakka, who works at the hospital in Sittilingi and was at the forefront of the protests following the girl’s death. She is certain that the girl’s parents had not known that their daughter was kept at the CWC remand home. After Harur, Madheshakka says, the parents had thought that the girl would eventually be taken to the Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital. At the remand home too, the girl’s parents had been asked for an additional Rs 2000 for treatment. The parents had to return to Sittilingi to arrange for the money, which they did by selling one of their goats.
Vidya Reddy, founder of the NGO Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Sexual Abuse, who has also been looking into this case, clarifies that under POCSO, children are placed in the CWC’s care under three conditions: if the abuser is from within the household, if the abuse happens in a children’s home, or if they don’t have parental support. As many media platforms have reported, the CWC Chairman, Thiru MS Saravanan, has claimed that they had not known about the girl being a victim of sexual assault. However, the same news reports quote CWC officials noting that the girl was in trauma, did not speak, and could not walk or stand, reminding us of the serious and visible injuries that she bore, which required immediate attention and care.
Here, the DC indicates a more formal procedure. She says emphatically: “The girl was made to appear before the CWC. There also she didn’t complain of any physical discomfort or anything. So, she was admitted in the home. In the home also, she didn’t say anything, but confirmed she was on her menstrual cycle. There she was vomiting and unable to eat properly.” The trajectory of her explanation – from describing the entire case as an “attempt to rape” to the girl’s appearance before the CWC, following which she was quickly admitted into a children’s remand home – raises multiple questions. Why was the girl produced in front of the CWC? Why was she, in a traumatised and physically weak state, sent to a remand home when neither she, nor her parents, had asked for this? Why were her parents sent home? Manush is similarly unconvinced – “She was in state custody for five days. And the remand home, run by the CWC, had no business to keep her there,” he says. He goes on to highlight another unreported layer of inconsistency – that the government hospital in Harur has claimed (to Manush) that they had indeed provided the CWC with all the necessary papers which indicated that the girl had been raped (what the DC contradictorily describes as “attempt to rape”), despite the CWC’s claims to the contrary.
On November 7th, the girl’s parents were called back to the CWC remand home. A woman told them that their daughter – who had vomited and fainted there, and complained of giddiness – was being taken to Dharmapuri Government Medical College Hospital. The DC concurs with this, but does not mention, as Abhay states, “This woman specifically told the parents not to mention rape [at the hospital] because it would ruin the girl’s image, and to just say giddiness.” Here, the police took the last bribe of Rs 2000 – one that they had to sell their goat for, bringing the tally up to Rs 6000 in all – to take the girl to the hospital. Madheshakka adds that the girl – whose face, as she tellingly describes, was still swollen, who still had vaginal bleeding, and who hadn’t been able to speak, eat, or drink – was taken to the hospital by a public bus and not an ambulance.
As we noted at the outset, a CT scan was then conducted at the Dharmapuri Government Medical College, given the girl’s recurring complaints of giddiness, and for which Rs 500 had been taken from her family. Abhay insists that the doctors had told the family that the CT scan showed no issues, and that their daughter would be released from the hospital soon. “They said she was alright even though she had still had continuous vaginal bleeding, and vomiting,” he pointedly says. The girl was only given IV fluids. Over the course of the next two days, however, the parents went through a cycle of being with their daughter, being asked to leave, and then returning to her side when they were allowed. “The girl’s mother told me that her daughter had stated that ‘Amma, they haven’t done any treatment, they’ve just left me,’” Madheshakka recalls.
On the morning of November 10th, the girl collapsed. She was taken to the ICU, where she died within fifteen minutes.
What remains suspect, is that no medical records, or cause of death had been given to the girl’s family until November 12th – despite the fact that The News Minute had reported medical findings (on November 11th), including the “diffuse cerebral oedema and space-occupying lesion of the brain.” “Now, even if that was the finding, they should have informed the parents and given treatment,” Abhay insists, adding: “It is incredibly unethical of the hospital to have given all this information to the media, when the family was told nothing. They only received this information on the evening of November 12th, when we refused to claim the body until we were given a discharge summary.”
The discharge summary notes that the doctors had been informed about the girl being a victim of “attempted rape” only after she had been declared dead.
The two FIRs
On the morning of November 10th, Madheshakka, who was at work, heard that the girl had died. “Everyone was asking, ‘How did she die?’” she exclaims, “Because the doctors had said she is fine only; they kept saying that.” That morning, Madheshakka asked for permission to leave the hospital to find out what had happened, and found that people were beginning to gather at the junction on the main road through Sittilingi. I am told that the group, which began with 200-300 people (primarily Adivasi women), soon became more than 1000 people by the afternoon – a number, as was claimed, that doubled when people from neighbouring villages joined the protest. “This was when the RDO and police came and said don’t block the roads; we’ll catch the boys in three days. But it’s not only about the boys,” Madheshakka asserts. She adds: “We’d just then heard about the [remand] home. What is this home? We want to know what happened at every stage, in Kottapatti, Harur, and Dharmapuri. We want to know what treatment she was given – we were told that in Dharmapuri she was not even given a blanket.”
What followed thereafter was supposedly a series of negotiations with S Punniyakodi, the RDO, who claimed that the Collector was on holiday in Chennai. The protestors had decided to blockade the road through the night. The police, who had not begun to search for the accused until then, asked protestors for their photographs. It was also only after these protests began that a copy of the first FIR was received: it only noted an ‘attempt to rape’ and listed appropriate charges under POCSO, while also indicating that the case was being forwarded to the next government official.
While the sections invoked in this FIR have been acknowledged by the media, what has not been reported is an attachment of three handwritten pages, supposedly signed by the victim, detailing the event as ‘attempt to rape’ and which the girl’s family insists she had never written, or signed. According to Abhay, the girl’s signature, when compared to other documents, is different.
Madheshakka, who remained with the protestors at the junction from the morning of November 10th without any food, says that on the 11th, the RDO insisted that he would convey their demands to the DC. But as local media coverage increased and prominent politicians started to arrive, the DC, Malarvizhi, was forced to intervene. “She started listening to the politicians,” Madheshakka retorts, adding firmly: “When the Collector asked them [the politicians] to describe what happened, I said no, you come to the centre and talk to the village directly. Don’t talk to the politicians on the side, talk to the family. Then girl’s mother recounted the story at the protest gathering.”
The protestors had very clear demands. The first was that the FIR had to be changed from ‘attempt to rape’ to ‘rape’. They also wanted a full investigation into the glaring police and hospital negligence under the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, clearly reflecting that the police and other authorities had been more callous because the girl came from a poor Adivasi family. These two demands, Manush had urged, should be included in a single FIR, as it had been done in the Kathua case – to ensure that the investigation into the patterns of official negligence was not conveniently forgotten. Subsequently, Madheshakka says that the DC ordered the RDO to record a new statement from each member of the girl’s family for a second FIR, promising that it would be filed the same day. This statement was duly recorded, but was given only on November 12th.
Some media reports have noted this revision of the first FIR, and hinted at the family’s discontent. But nobody has reported that this new FIR too does not include an investigation into the police role. “Although the details of the rape are correct, they’ve only mentioned bribes taken by the police, without adding charges of negligence, or criminal conspiracy. These should go against them in the same FIR, because they also murdered this girl, and took bribes for it,” Abhay strongly urges. When asked about this second FIR, the DC Malarvizhi, who repeats that it is a case of ‘attempt to rape’ is almost dismissive. “During the protests, they said gang rape, and wanted sections to be altered. We altered whatever sections they said. They made some allegations against the police – that the FIR was not filed on the same day, that they demanded some money – those kinds of allegations were there, and RDO is inquiring into that. They also made some allegations that the doctors have not given proper treatment. So again, inquiry will be completed, and any omission and negligence from the part of the officials, whether criminal action is warranted, or departmental action, that will be done,” she affirms.
Concerns about the post-mortem
By November 12th, the girl’s family had waited two days, hoping for a fair post-mortem. The post-mortem was finally undertaken by Dr K Thunder Chief, Head of the Forensic Medicine Department at Government Medical College, Vellore. It must be noted that even the question of who would conduct the post-mortem had been a point of contention, with the family insisting that the heads of the Forensic Medicine Department at Madras Medical College and Kilpauk Medical College be called upon to conduct it. Abhay is emphatic: “But the police said no; they asked why we were asking for these specific doctors, and that we were trying to alter the post-mortem results. Because now if it shows evidence of rape, they will be in serious trouble. Then the police said that this was not possible without a High Court order.” He further adds: “I don’t know if this is actually the procedure. But we agreed to have Dr K Thunder Chief come in. The family, who’ve been constantly questioned by the police, politicians, and the media, also really wanted the body back.”
The results of the post-mortem should have been given to the family in three days, but they are still awaited to this day. Madheshakka says she has been praying that the post-mortem is fair, and that it will tell the truth. As someone who works at the hospital in Sittilingi, she asks repeatedly: “I keep thinking that if she’d been our neighbour, we would have taken the girl to our hospital; we would have given her treatment ourselves, and she would have been alive. The parents trusted the police, and they trusted the hospital. I keep thinking, what should we do, how do we make sure this never happens again?”