It was close to 7pm in the evening on September 7, 2018 when a panicked family in Tiruvallur district rushed to the local police station. Their second child and daughter, 15-year-old Latha* had been missing from the morning. The young girl who had left for school never made it to the institution and despite hours of searching and enquiring with friends and neighbours, there was no sign of her. Her parents, who belong to the MBC community, soon realised there were no options left.
"We went to the police to file a girl missing complaint. We even told them that we suspect that our neighbour Shankar was involved," Latha's 17-year-old brother, Shakthi* recalls to TNM. "But the police told us my sister must have eloped with someone. They told us to go home because she will come back in two or three days," he adds.
But six months later, all this family managed to recover was the skeleton of the girl buried in a farm near their house. The victim, according to police sources, had been abducted and sold to a group of men in the locality by the very neighbour the family had accused. The minor was illegally confined by four men in a small shed on a sugarcane field that bordered her residence. This, after the culprits paid 20-year-old Shankar Rs 5000 for bringing them the girl. She was then repeatedly raped for five days by multiple men. And when she started bleeding uncontrollably they allegedly wanted to let her go. However, she began to fight back and they allegedly hit her with an iron rod, killing her, say the police.
The accused then buried her near the farm and went about their lives. Later when the family went to court in December and filed a haebus corpus petition, they moved the body to a different location, which was just two kilometres from the victim's home. Finally, a group of labourers discovered the body on February 13 after the grave was partially desecrated by dogs. Amongst the group that rushed to identify the remains, were the accused - Nagamuni, Krishnamurthy, Jagatheesan, Mohanraj and Shankar. While Shankar belonged to the victim's caste, the other accused are all upper caste men. They have all been arrested and booked for murder and rape but Latha's family is still appalled by the injustice.
"We searched for her for months together. It was all my parents could think of," says Shakthi*. "If only the police had bothered looking," he laments.
Apathy on display
Sources in the Tiruvallur police department tell TNM that the sub inspector at the station at the time the complaint was given did not record the case.
"His name is Deepan Raj. These people came on September 7. But the complaint was registered only on September 9," says the official. "However, we did call and investigate Shankar. But he claimed he knew nothing about the girl's whereabouts," he adds.
Latha's family claims, a local landlord, an influential man from an upper caste community in the area, went and talked the police into letting Shankar go. The owner was later identified to be amongst the accused who allegedly raped the child. In investigations that followed the recovery of the body, police claim they found that Shankar was in a relationship with the minor girl. So, she trusted him when he called her to meet him in the sugarcane fields. And that is why, police suspect, there were no signs of struggle on the road she went missing from.
"The police in charge should have acted immediately," admits the police source who joined the investigation later. He reveals that investigating officers and even the district Superintendent of Police, R Ponni, shed tears when the skeleton was retrieved. "We were always suspicious of Shankar. We kept an eye on him even after we let him go. In November, we even used his call records to trace out some calls he made to Bengaluru before the girl went missing. We even went there to check, but it was a wrong lead," he admits.
The family, however, finds it hard to believe that the police could have failed to get to the bottom of the case when the culprits were right under their noses. But what makes them feel worse, is how close the child was to their arms of safety.
"She was right next to us all this time," say Latha's mother. "But we could do nothing to save her."