In the second week of November, newspapers in Kerala revealed a disturbing incident, which has since been haunting the public conscience. Neena (name changed), first year nursing student at the School of Medical Education (SME), Kottayam, sought police help to bring to book six third-year students of her college who, under the guise of ragging, raped her in the college laboratory and threatened to kill her if she revealed this.
The south Indian state of Kerala is no stranger to incidents of ragging, rape and violence against women. But this is the first known instance of rape as a form of ragging in the state. That too in a college laboratory, on a working day.
On October 21, the senior students gave the unsuspecting girl a laddu (sweetmeat), and she lost consciousness. The seniors then raped her. When she regained consciousness, Neena went to her hostel. Later, she went to the medical college, where the doctor admitted her to the psychiatry department, apparently in an effort to pass her off as mentally unstable and hence unreliable. She was given tablets that made her drowsy for days together. The doctor also asked Neena not to talk about the rape even to her parents.
When she could no longer bear the silence, Neena told her parents, who immediately approached K M Mariam, Principal of the college. But the principal, a distant relative of the main accused in the case, was emphatic that nothing could be done. Instead, the principal and K Muraleedharan Nair, Director of SME, offered the girl's parents, who are from an economically poor background, enough money to make her life "secure".
Crimes against women are occurring in Kerala with an alarming regularity. The Economic Review 2004 released in February 2005 by the Kerala government says that atrocities against women increased by 300 per cent from1991 to 2001.
Several sex racket cases, including those involving minor girls, have been unearthed in the recent past. In an investigation conducted by six women reporters of the Malayalam daily Malayala Manorama last year, it was found that women, whether working or otherwise, go through trauma and harassment at public places, while on train or bus, or when they relax at parks.
According to statistics compiled - through a media scan of newspaper reports - by Sakhi Resource Centre for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, 117 women died of various types of violence in Kerala between November 2004 and October 2005. This included three girls aged below 10 and seven girls between 10-20 years, who were raped and killed. While domestic violence caused most deaths, rapes and other crimes nearly half the total number.
"Kerala has zero sexual literacy, and this is the main cause for such incidents," points out Leela Menon, a veteran journalist and social activist who has exposed several sex racket cases in the state. "Neena's revelation has taken the lid out of a big boiling pot. Despite our tall claims of high indices in areas of health, literacy and female education, the fact remains that sex is still discussed in hushed tones. This veil of secrecy perpetuates acts that are beyond human understanding."
As is true of other places in India and elsewhere, sexual harassment probes in Kerala are scuttled through political interference. The girl's family is 'advised' that her life would be doomed if the facts are common knowledge.
'Compensation' - in the form of money, house and the like - is offered. Many succumb to these pressures, but Neena's father V P Gopi did not. In an interview with a news channel, he said, "It is important for us that this is not repeated with anyone else, which is why we are going ahead with the case. Also, my daughter has to study further and leave these memories behind."
Neena has been a good student all through, and has approached the government to allow her to move to another college to pursue her studies. "I am not defeated or destroyed by this act. I will continue my studies, and my dream is to see that the guilty are punished," she said in an interview to a leading Malayalam daily.
"Fear of risking the reputation of the institution is a major impediment to reporting brutal ragging incidents in a college," says Sudha Balachandran, reader with St Teresa's College, Ernakulam. "Such cases are almost nil in colleges actively involved in student politics. The political affiliations of the students act as a deterrent," she explains.
The Kerala government had banned ragging in 1998. Those found guilty could be fined Rs 10,000 and face confinement of up to five years. They are also supposed to be dismissed from college, and denied admission in any other college for the next three years. But the law is toothless, says Leela Menon. "Even stringent laws become ineffective in the hands of politicians. In all the cases that I have investigated, political pressure is found to be the greatest force acting against law enforcement," she says.
The SME case has alarmed students and parents. Many students have come out in the open, revealing that their internal marks were affected by the teacher's attitude. While boys complain of enmity, girls suggest that they were asked for sexual favours in return for higher internal marks. "In many colleges, it is mandatory to appease your teacher, or your internal assessment score will be affected," says a student, on condition of anonymity. Neena strongly supports the demand for removal of internal assessment from the valuation system. There are many who face harassment due to misuse of the assessment system, she says.
"Craving for sex is a major factor behind atrocities against women in Kerala," opines Leela Menon. Explains Dr Seethalakshmi George, psychiatrist with Kusumagiri Mental Hospital, Kochi, "In Kerala, people are extra careful about sex. I have often found here that a woman talking to a man is easily interpreted as evidence of an affair, whereas in cities like Mumbai and Delhi healthy relationship with someone of the opposite sex is easily accepted." She says that there is a definite increase in the number of women who go to her for trauma counselling, and that this is an indication of increase in crimes against women.
"What has come out is only the tip of the iceberg. We should suspect that there are many similar cases waiting to be unearthed," Menon warns.