How a police cover-up of rape led to the death of an Adivasi teenager in Tamil Nadu

On 10 November, over two thousand Malaivasi tribals of Sittilingi protested against police inaction and negligence in the investigation of the a gang rape and subsequent death of a 16-year-old teenager.
07 December, 2018

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.”

After paying the bribe, the family filed a verbal complaint, accusing Sathish and Ramesh of rape. But the Kottapatti police registered an FIR for the offence of attempting to commit gang penetrative sexual assault on a child, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The hand-written complaint attached to the FIR, too, describes the assault as an attempt to rape the 16-year-old, though the family insisted that they had told the police that she had been raped, and described the assault as recounted by her. The complaint also bears a signature of the teenager, as well as that of her father. But, according to the family, the teenager did not sign the complaint at all, while the father, an illiterate daily-wage labourer, said he signed it assuming that the police had written down the account of events as narrated by the family.

The case exhibits the police’s failure to adhere to the procedure laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure at multiple stages of the investigation. The standard procedure mandates that in cases of rape or an attempt to rape a woman, police officials must ensure that she is examined by a medical professional within 24 hours. D Magesh Kumar, who was then Dharmapuri’s acting superintendent of police—the district’s superintendent was on a two-week leave when the incident took place—and S Malarvizhi, the district collector, said the teenager was taken to the government hospital in Harur, 45 kilometres away from Sittilingi. The family, however, has denied the claim. According to them, the entire family, including the teenager, were asked to sit outside the hospital and sign on a register, without any information about what or why they were signing. “None of us went in at all,” the brother recalled. “The police were the ones who spoke to the doctors inside.”

Piyush Manush, an environmental activist from Salem who took part in the protest, said that he was in contact with Dr R Matheshwari, the gynaecologist at the Harur hospital who claimed to have conducted the medical examination. “The doctor told me that a swab found no semen, as it was two days after the attack, but hymenal damage was found which indicates rape, challenging the police’s account of the incident,” Manush said. He added that the doctor claimed the 16-year-old did not show any other wounds. But, according to her family, she had several wounds on her back and abdomen, her entire face was swollen up and she bore bite marks across her face.

Matheshwari did not respond to multiple calls and messages seeking a comment on the story. A medical report was not provided to the family.

In yet another significant procedural lapse, the police failed to present the teenager before a judicial magistrate to record her statement, as mandated by law. This “is not just an act of negligence, but criminal conspiracy by the police, attempting to completely cover up a case which they had already botched,” Manush said. Instead, the police took her and her family to a children’s home run by a Child Welfare Committee—both of which are constituted under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act—in Kurinji Nagar, a locality near Dharmapuri town.

At the children’s home, the parents said, the police asked the family to pay another bribe of Rs 2,000 without explaining what it was for. But the family did not have any money with them, so the police and CWC officials sent them back to Sittilingi. They returned the next day with the money, after selling one of their goats.

This decision to take her to the children’s home is another digression from routine procedure. While the POCSO Act states that the police must report such an offence to the CWC, there is no mandate to admit the teenager into the children’s home. The police offered the family no explanation for why they were taken there. “They told my parents that this is where they were supposed to bring papa,” the brother said. “We asked if at least my mother could stay here with her, but they refused and sent us all back home.” Manush emphasised that the CWC had acted illegally by taking custody of the teenager. “The CWC home is for destitute children, minors who have eloped and can’t be returned to their family for fear of safety, or victims of family abuse,” he said. “If the state had found no additional healthcare needed, then they should have handed over custody of the child to the family.”

On 7 November, after one night at the children’s home, the teenager’s condition deteriorated further, with constant vaginal bleeding and vomiting. Murugammal N and V Shalini, staff members at the home, took the teenager to the government medical college in the town. Despite her grievous medical condition, the parents recalled, the CWC staff told them not to inform the doctors that their daughter had been raped, and asked them to only complain of “giddiness” instead. The CWC “told us not to mention rape, because it would ruin the reputation of the family and become a complicated and costly legal case,” the mother said. “If only I had not listened to them and told the doctors about rape, my daughter might be alive today.”

Three days after she was admitted at the medical college, the teenager’s condition worsened drastically. A little after 9 am, within 15 minutes of being rushed into the intensive care unit, she was declared dead. According to the discharge summary, R Punitha, the warden of the children’s home, informed the doctors at the hospital about the rape only after the teenager died. The family was only given the discharge summary when they threatened to not take custody of the body without it.

The summary states that she was admitted with episodes of “giddiness and vomiting at the time of admission,” and that she is “suspected to have vertigo.” It further notes that a computed tomography (CT) scan of her head revealed “diffuse cerebral oedema and suspected space occupying lesions in the brain.” According to Subhash Mohan, the family’s lawyer, the family received a preliminary post-mortem report from the Harur sessions court on 6 December, which states that this could be a result of choking. He added that the preliminary post-mortem also indicates that the 16-year-old was raped.

Thiru MS Saravanan, the chairperson of the Dharmapuri CWC, told me that when the police brought the teenager to the children’s home, they had described the assault as an attempted rape, and did not submit any medical report. It was for this reason, Saravanan said, that the staff did not inform the doctors at the medical college that the 16-year-old had been raped. When asked why the CWC staff had asked the family to not inform the doctors about the rape, he said the parents were lying about the warden’s instructions. He added that the family had not told the staff about the rape, and suspected that “the police had probably threatened them.”

Saravanan claimed that the teenager did not have any visible wounds, and that she was not suffering from vaginal bleeding—a claim that is disputed by the family, and demonstrably false, as wounds were visible across her face, back and torso when I attended her funeral in the village. When I asked why the CWC had taken custody of the teenager at all, given that there were no allegations of negligence or misconduct against the family, he claimed that it was routine practice in Tamil Nadu to take a child to a CWC before a magistrate, despite this being a deviation from procedure. “The CWC has become an institution of routine mismanagement and negligence due to its unclear mandate and use of contract labour,” Manush told me. “Incidents like this occur all the time—the only reason this came to light was, sadly, because the girl died.”

Despite multiple phone calls and messages, I was unable to contact the then acting superintendent, Magesh Kumar. P Lakshmi, the investigating officer in the case, too, had not responded to my calls or messages at the time this story was published.

Following the teenager’s death, simultaneous protests erupted in Sittilingi and outside the medical college. At the time, the police investigation had witnessed little progress. The FIR still did not include the offence of rape, and the police had not arrested either of the men identified by the 16-year-old. According to Sittilingi locals, both Sathish and Ramesh had previously been hauled up by the village oorkettu—an unofficial tribal village assembly—for misbehaviour. In 2017, Sathish was caught taking a video of a woman as she was bathing. Ramesh, a migrant worker who travels to Tiruppur, where he is employed at a cloth mill, was infamous among the locals for routinely getting drunk and beating up his wife, who has since left him.

On 11 November, in an effort to pacify the burgeoning protest, the district collector, Malarvizhi, and the acting superintendent, Kumar, arrived at the scene of the protest—the main intersection in Sittilingi village. After hearing the demands of the family members and villagers, the collector assured them that the police would register a new FIR, which would include the charge of rape and police negligence, and that the revenue divisional officer would investigate government lapses in the case.

The protest only disbanded at around 6 pm that day, after the RDO had recorded the statements of the teenager’s relatives, which was to be relied on for the new FIR. The family told me that they had recounted all the circumstances leading up to her death in their statements, including the lack of medical attention for the teenager and the bribes demanded of them. However, the new FIR, which was registered on 12 November, does not include the charges of negligence or misconduct by the police.

“The police negligence and criminal conspiracy needs to be added in the same FIR as the rape as in the case of Kathua, otherwise the police will get off scot free,” Manush said. Mohan said that they had moved an application before the Harur sessions court on 3 December, seeking a copy of the medical records and other documents relied upon by the police. He added that on receiving them, they would file another application seeking registration of charges concerning police negligence.

As a result of the protest, Satish was arrested on 11 November, while Ramesh surrendered the following day. But no action has yet been taken against the police or the CWC staff, and the atmosphere in Sittilingi is far from calm. A protestors addressed the prevailing sentiment in the village: “They kept telling us they would catch the boys who did this, but who will catch the police?”