Four days before this year’s Onam festival in August, 10-year-old Niyathi* couldn’t stop crying. She had been crying for hours, after her mother Mini* scolded her for failing to take down notes during an online class on her father’s phone. All the while Niyathi cried, Mini busily cooked fish for the family’s dinner after returning from her work in a hospital. But this amount of crying from the young girl was unusual.
Mini called her husband and Niyathi’s father Udayan*, a welder, to tell him that their daughter had been crying relentlessly. Niyathi told her mother that she wanted to talk but would only do so in the presence of her father, whom she was close to. Udayan rushed home on hearing this, not knowing why his daughter was in tears. It was then that the child of the Dalit family revealed the truth of what had happened to her months before — she had been allegedly sexually assaulted by their neighbour, a man named Sayuj.
Sayuj, a worker with the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of the ruling CPI(M), had been a friend of Udayan for years, and they even sometimes worked together. Udayan had even entered an agreement with Sayuj to rent his ancestral home to him, located in the same compound as Udayan’s family home, but not separated by walls. He said that he gave the house to Sayuj to live in without charging rent. Udayan runs a workshop and he had expected to get some help in work from Sayuj, who is a painter. Sayuj and his family, including three children, had moved into the house in April 2020.
"The first attempt happened on June 28, 2020,” Udayan told TNM, sitting in his home in a village in Thrissur district in Kerala. “That day, Niyathi was invited to Sayuj's house for lunch as his wife had cooked biryani. But Niyathi didn't finish eating her biryani. She pushed the plate and ran away. Back then, Sayuj's wife had told my wife that she didn't eat."
Both Udayan and Mini thought their daughter might not have liked the taste of the biryani. Niyathi, however, had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the presence of Sayuj in the neighbourhood. She would burst into tears often and she stopped studying. Her parents thought she may have had a fight with Sayuj’s children. "She began losing interest in studies and demanded that Sayuj's family vacate the home," Udayan said.
Udayan eventually asked Sayuj to vacate the house and said he would repay the advance amount. "Initially, they were hesitant, but later had to agree as they were legally bound to it. However, they asked for time to find out and shift to another house,” Udayan recalled.
On that day in August this year, the day she kept crying, Udayan said, “She was in a state like it couldn't continue anymore.” Niyathi finally told her parents that Sayuj had allegedly tried to molest her while they had all been sitting together at that biryani lunch. A second incident allegedly happened a couple of weeks after that, and that time too, Niyathi said she managed to run away.
Udayan and Mini waited for Thiruvonam, — the most important of Onam days that fell on August 21 this year — to pass before lodging the police complaint. On August 22, they filed the complaint at the police station. The Circle Inspector took the statements of both Mini and Niyathi for three hours each. Niyathi's medical examination was done and she was presented before a magistrate. The proceedings lasted till 11.30 pm. Sayuj was arrested the next day under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) Act and is still under remand.
But ever since the family filed a complaint alleging the sexual harassment against Sayuj, they say their life had been turned on its head.
The panchayat is ruled by the CPI(M) while the ward member is a Congress person. "I had called them both to tell them what had happened, but so far, they haven't enquired about us. However, they were present at the police station when Sayuj was arrested," Udayan alleged. According to Udayan, what followed was a show of unity among the people of the village against the family, which was allegedly backed by the CPI(M) and never questioned by the Congress or the BJP.
According to Udayan, he was initially keen that the incident be kept away from media coverage as he worried for the future of his daughter and Sayuj’s children. But Unnikrishnan, a local CPI(M) leader, collected over 400 signatures as a mass complaint to the police, alleging that Udayan filed a false complaint.
"People stopped talking to us. We are ostracised everywhere we go. No one would talk to me at the tea shop. At the grocery shop, I am asked why I used my daughter to make money. I stopped stepping out. Rather, I have nowhere to step out to. No one will come to visit us. Our children stopped playing outside,” he alleged.
Unnikrishnan, a local committee member of the CPI(M), however denied the allegation and says that he didn't do any signature campaign to ostracise the family. "I haven't done any kind of campaign against the family. It's a false allegation and I am examining if I can move legally against that. My name was dragged into something which I haven't done." He also maintains that the family was not ostracised in any way.
Sheeja, the panchayat president, who is a CPI(M) member, however says that she wasn't informed about the incident. "The father didn't call me and I came to know about the incident through the media," she says. When asked about Udayan’s allegation that she offered no help to the family, she reacted that she simply wanted the law to take its own course. "If Sayuj did the crime, he has to face the punishment. I haven't gone to meet the family as the law is taking its course," she says.
The ward member, a Congress leader named Ambika, says that she had called the child's father on knowing about the incident but he turned her down saying he didn't need any help. She alleged that in other matters in the past, the father had called her a couple of times under the influence of alcohol. "But this time he didn't call me at all and when I called him he seemed not interested. I went to the police station after Sayuj was arrested as his wife had called me crying, without knowing that he was arrested under POCSO," she says. The member has also not visited the family so far. "I didn't have the courage as I wasn't sure about the father's reaction," she says.
However, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has declared solidarity with the family, and its members frequent Udayan’s house so that the family doesn’t feel alienated. Nikhil Chandrasekharan, district president of the BSP, said that by the time the party learnt of the issue, the backlash against the family had already started.
“It isn’t that the police didn't act properly on the complaint, but in this case, the family faced ostracisation from other communities. This is not an isolated instance when it comes to Dalit families. This is against the Constitutional right to live," Nikhil explained.
The region where the family lives is dominated by the Ezhavas, an Other Backward Class (OBC) community in Kerala. Sayuj belongs to the Ezhava community, and Udayan's family is one of the few Dalit families who live there. "I built a house without taking any loan. We have a decent way of life, all because my wife and I worked hard. This might also be working against me," he said, referring to criticism he has faced for being a person from an oppressed class earning a living.
In the past, Udayan had been actively associated with a cultural club, even leading it for four years. He alleged that he was kicked out of the club due to casteism. Nikhil viewed this as a reflection of the casteism prevalent in the state. "Outside, the people of Kerala say that they don't believe in caste. But there is caste inside them.”
Reshmi Mohan, the state committee member of the BSP, said that casteism is so deeply rooted in rural areas that people of the village forget that there is a child survivor involved. “People, including women here, don't think of the survivor but instead stand for the accused and mainstream political parties campaign for the accused. Everyone has forgotten the survivor," she said.
Udayan knows that the fight won't be easy for him and his family, and he doesn’t know what the future holds. But for now, he refuses to leave his village. "I resolve to expose the casteism in them. They have it inside them," Udyan said.
(*Names changed to protect identity)