A simmering rage is evident in the words of 38-year-old Manikandan*, a carpenter from Vellore district in Tamil Nadu whose eldest daughter passed away on Tuesday night. This father of two, has no more tears to spare as he descibes the events that led to the death of 15-year-old Lavanya*, who took her own life in a desperate attempt to escape sexual harassment.
"My daughter's death is not a result of suicide, it was cold-blooded murder," says Manikandan, even as wails of grief erupt on his end of the phone call, from his inconsolable wife. What makes the case even more difficult to digest is that the family says they had gone to the police for help earlier, but were ignored.
Aakash (22), Ganapathi (19) and a 17-year-old juvenile near Lavanya's residence stand accused of sexually harassing the minor. The trio had allegedly shot videos of her, her younger sister, her aunt and her grandmother bathing in a thatched bathroom near their residence, and blackmailed the young girl to provide sexual favours in return for the videos. On Saturday, when the young girl finally confronted them in an isolated spot, they hit her on the head and fled.
Devastated, she went home and attempted to take her own life. While neighbours managed to rush her to the local hospital, she died three days later due to injuries from the suicide attempt. The persons she named in her statement to the police were arrested immediately and booked for sexual harassment, abetment to suicide and sections under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Speaking to TNM about the incident, Bagayam Inspector Subha says, "If she had come to us sooner with a complaint of blackmail and sexual harassment, we could have prevented this."
But when Manikandan is told about the police's statement, he scoffs.
"What makes you think we never went to the police? Or that this is the first time she was harassed?" he asks. "If the police had done their job when we first complained in January, my daughter would not be dead," he reveals.
The video of Lavanya's statement to the police, which is in TNM's possession, shows her stating that the accused had shot the videos for 'revenge' against her and her relatives over an earlier complaint.
"They said they’ve sent a video to my phone. They said they had sent it to take revenge on my Chitappa (uncle) and me. I saw. There were videos of me taking a bath," she can be seen saying, struggling to speak.
When Manikandan is asked about the alleged 'revenge', he narrates a horrific tale of harassment and alleged police apathy.
"The accused along with other men in the area used to harass my daughter whenever she was coming back from school. She initially didn't tell us about it because she was scared that her reputation will take a beating," says the father. "But on January 20, matters went out of hand and they chased her near our house with sharp blades. They cut her clothes, hands and legs. When she managed to make it home, we rushed her to the hospital," he recalls.
Manikandan and his family immediately approached the Bagayam police to file a complaint. They, however, allege that their appeals for help were met with indifference.
"Lavanya clearly identified Aakash and the juvenile amongst the men who chased her, and told the police," he says. "But instead of taking action against them, they tried to arrange for a katta panchayat (informal discussion) to let the boys go. Two AIADMK functionaries Perumal and Arun Nathan came into the picture, spoke to the police and completely ruined the case," he alleges.
When TNM asks Inspector Subha about this allegation, she denies that the police didn't act.
"I have come to this station only a month back and it was Inspector Nandakumar who handled this case. All the officers who managed it have been transferred and none of them are here now," she says. "An FIR was filed in January in connection to this case," she adds.
But, Manikandan says that the FIR was never even shown to the family and multiple efforts to talk to the police were unfruitful.
"Despite my daughter identifying the culprits, the police kept trying to confuse her and make her seem like she didn't know who was behind the attack," he alleges. "I carried her bleeding to the hospital, but they made it seem like she was never attacked," he says.
The distraught father further asks why no action was taken if an FIR was actually filed.
When the question is put to Inspector Subha, she says, "If no action was taken, it means they didn't find enough truth in the case to book these men."
In her last statement to the police, Lavanya makes a clear reference to the incident during which she was attacked with the blade.
"They (the accused) asked me to come to Vellore Kottai. I said no, I can't come. They called me again and asked me to come to the hill near the riverside. I went there. Then the person with a 'cat eye' (accused Aakash who has one light eye) who cut me with a blade, got caught there. The three of them ran. One of them said “be careful with the phone”. I asked “What is there in that phone?” and they said there were videos in it. Videos of Aaya (grandmother) bathing , me bathing, (unclear) bathing," Lavanya says in the video.
Manikandan admits that his daughter never told him about the recent blackmail and that he would have definitely done something if he had known.
"Ever since these men and the juvenile managed to wriggle out of the first case in January unscathed, the harassment seems to have become unbearable for Lavanya. But she was too scared to tell us," he says. "These men thought they could get away with anything. They told either you come in the wrong way with us (sexual favours) or we will send the video to everyone," he adds.
In her statement, Lavanya talks about going alone to meet the men and deleting the videos in one of their phones, but by the time she called a relative for help, she was hit on the head, and the men allegedly fled.
"She was a really bright girl and had a zest for life. She used to study very well and was fully prepared to take her 10th standard exams before they announced 'all pass'," says Manikandan. "You wouldn't have met a more social or friendly girl," he laments.
Lavanya's younger sister, he says, can barely understand what is happening.
"She is just 12 years old and keeps asking for her sister. What do you even explain to her?" asks the father. "If the police had arrested these men earlier, it would have never come down to this. We want justice for Lavanya's murder."
(*Names changed to protect identity)