Exactly four days after ‘Nirbhaya’ was brutally raped and thrown away on the roads of Delhi, a strikingly similar incident happened in Sri Vaikundam, near Tuticorin in TamilNadu. A 13 year old girl – a student of class seven – had gone missing on her way back to school.
The next day, she was recovered as a corpse in tattered clothes near a local railway station with her school bag lying next. Investigations by the local police revealed that that she was raped and murdered by one Subbaiah in the same locality.
What played out next was a cruel joke at all levels.
When the Delhi rape victim was called Nirbhaya – the fearless one, the Sri Vaikundam rape victim had her name splashed across in almost all the media in Tamil Nadu. While the image of Nirbhaya still remains a testimony to the fiercely guarded ethic of journalism, the media in Tamil Nadu was generously publishing the images of the Sri Vaikundam rape victim as a dead body with her tattered clothes on. Google and you will get it now.
Months later, I was sitting in a chat show on a popular television channel where responding to a query from the organisers on the most important issue the country was facing then, many youngsters were talking about how women were not ‘protected enough.’ Surely all of them were deeply affected by Nirbhaya. I tried to tweak their memory a bit and draw them to what had happened closer home. Most of them drew a blank. One person said he vaguely remembered the incident and it had happened on 'East Coast Road’ off Chennai.
The case itself was another dark comedy of errors. There were reports that Subbaiah was already accused of rape charges and the police was not ‘too keen to arrest him.’ A Tamil website said the 13 year old student could have been saved if only the police had taken stringent action against Subbaiah on previous charges. The case was initially tried in Sri Vaikundam magistrate court before being shifted to Tuticorin court and finally to a Mahila court where it had to run into several hurdles.
For several months, public prosecutor was not appointed leading to an inordinate delay in the case. It took several struggles by local women’s organisations and human rights movements for the government to appoint a public prosecutor. Ironically after the appointment of a public prosecutor, the judge who was handling the case till then had retired and another one took over.
In December 2014, a year after Nirbhaya verdict was delivered, the court had sentenced Subbaiah to life sentence.
You call this justice? Not just because the accused got a lifer. Don’t we owe her more justice for all the images and liberal use of her name across the media? For the laxity in courts? Don’t we owe her more justice for simply turning a blind eye to her all along?
Ever since Nirbhaya single-handedly forced an amendment in Juvenile justice act last week, Punitha has been coming back to me.
Her name is Punitha and I am ashamed to say that. Yet today I choose to, so she will stay in your mind if only for a fleeting moment and let you wonder why she didn’t touch you as deeply as Nirbhaya did. Her name is Punitha – the pure one. Yet in her death and aftermath, all that has been handed down to her was indignity.
I respect Nirbhaya and deeply believe she deserved justice. It has been delivered. But Punitha leaves me wondering why justice should be the exclusive prerogative of a select few.
And all those who were beating their breasts over the release of Juvenile in Nirbhaya case, let us remember this: We also carry the guilt and shame of letting Punitha down. That she was from a little known Sri Vaikundam should make no difference.