On 10 November, over two thousand Malaivasi tribals took to the streets of Sittilingi, an Adivasi settlement in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, to protest an atrocity that was previously unheard of in the village—the gang rape and subsequent death of a 16-year-old teenager. The Adivasi residents mobilised to protest not only the police failure to arrest the perpetrators, but also their acts of negligence and complicity, as well as that of the government hospital where she was taken after the sexual assault. “We trusted the police when they took the girl; we thought they would taken care of her,” one of the protestors, a 38-year-old nurse who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said. “The police have never cared for us tribals, but we thought that at least in such a serious case they would take care of her. Now we see the police as murderers as much as the boys.”
Two days later, the 16-year-old’s body was brought back to Sittilingi from the hospital for a traditional Adivasi funeral, accompanied by a police force of at least two hundred officers. The residents all expressed serious concerns about the police presence in the village—particularly given the state police’s record of violently clamping down on protests. As a result, most of the protestors I spoke to were unwilling to be identified by name. “We told the boys to all take videos of all events because we knew the police would start the violence, then blame it on us to disrupt the protest,” a 21-year-old college student, who resides in Sittilingi, told me.
According to the locals, the police were guilty not only of inaction in investigating the crime, but of a dedicated effort to cover it up and characterise it as an attempt to rape. They failed to ensure immediate medical attention for the 16-year-old, did not alert the necessary authorities regarding the sexual assault and engaged in a series of negligent acts that ultimately led to her death, in the Government Dharmapuri Medical College and Hospital—a government hospital in the district. From the first stage of registering a first information report, the circumstances that led to her death exhibit a string of lapses, which locals believe are characteristic of the government’s treatment of Adivasis.
On 3 November, the 16-year-old teenager returned home from her boarding school in Dharmapuri’s Pappireddipatti town, where she was studying in the twelfth standard, for Diwali holidays. Two days later, two men of her village and community, S Sathish and T Ramesh, allegedly raped her near a stream behind the village. Amid sobs, her 45-year-old mother described the incident in harrowing detail, as her daughter had recounted it to her. “They removed their lungis, which they forced down her throat to stifle her screaming, choking her. They removed her clothes, which they had used to tie her hands behind her back before taking turns raping her. On hearing her brother calling out and searching for her, both men ran away, leaving my girl to limp back home.”
When she reached home, the teenager was covered in wounds and bruises, barely able to move. Immediately, her parents and brother left for the nearest police station, 12 kilometres away, in the village of Kottapatti. At the station, the teenager’s 24-year-old brother told me, the constables on duty initially refused to register the complaint, and agreed to do so only after he called the Tamil Nadu police helpline and paid the constables a bribe of Rs 2,000. “The police would refuse to take this complaint and cover up the case,” he added, “because they are involved in the illicit liquor trade of Sathish’s mother and want to protect her.”