On Tuesday, Chennai woke up to the news that a 11-year-old child had been sexually assaulted by multiple men at a gated community in the Ayanavaram area. Seventeen alleged perpetrators ranging from a 66-year-old liftman to many security guards in their twenties were arrested by the All Women’s Police station in the locality on Monday. Shock swept across the city over the sheer impunity of the crime.
The gated community where the survivor Priya* lives has at least 350 houses, divided into multiple blocks. Reports suggested that Priya, who was hearing impaired, was raped first by the liftman who often cornered her when she would come back from school. He then began to invite other handymen and security guards, all on contracts, to harass the young girl. Sedatives were allegedly administered to the girl. According to the police, the minor had been subjected to this abuse for the last 7 months. She was even filmed as the men sexually assaulted her and was later blackmailed with the video.
It was when her older sister returned home from outside the city that the girl opened up. Her horrified family rushed to the police station to give a complaint on Sunday.
"They even threatened the child at knife point," confirms E Rajeshwari, Inspector (Law and Order) at the Ayanavaram station. She was part of the team that arrested the 17 men. "This is the worst crime this world has seen yet, as far as I am concerned. Few of them raped her; some have fondled her during this act. Some others have sexually harassed her, while others have watched the assault video. They are all guilty because not one of them tried to stop this brutality. They will all be punished," she says angrily.
Amongst the 17 men, three of them are in their 60s, four in their 50s, three over 40 and others in their 30s and 20s.
They have been booked under sections 6 (punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault), 10 (punishment for aggravated sexual assault) and 12 (punishment for sexual harassment upon a child) of the POCSO Act and sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.
According to police sources, 18 contractual workers were picked up from the flat and brought to the Chennai Police Commissioner’s office in Vepery on Monday. Priya, cowering in fear, then identified 17 of them as they stood in front of her.
"They had got wind of the complaint which was filed on Sunday and several were already in hiding. We fished them out and brought them in front of the girl," says the Inspector.
At the police station, even as the media waited for more details, members of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) were seen leaving in a huff.
"The police didn't even inform the Child Welfare Committee despite such a brutal crime taking place in the city," says Sheila Charles Mohan, member of the CWC. "The child needs immediate counselling after such an incident. But the bigger issue here is that this crime cannot be isolated. If this one child has admitted to what happened, imagine how many more will be there silently suffering?" she questions.
A cook employed at one of the houses in the gated community where this horror unfolded says that there are many isolated spots in the building which the accused could have misused.
"The gym on the sixth floor, the terrace and a common hall that stretches across the sixth floor are all completely empty. People can access the hall from blocks A, B and C. I've seen the girl playing with her cycle near the lift many times," Meena*, the cook, told TNM.
When shown pictures of the accused, she swiftly named five of them and alleged that one of the security officers was known for his inappropriate behaviour with women. "We are really tensed after this information came out. We all have children and if this can happen to people in these high rise buildings, what will happen to us?" she asks.
On Tuesday afternoon, angry women from the neighbourhood gathered near the building demanding that the 17 men be hanged to death.
“If left to us, we will murder them with our bare hands," says Chitra, who was leading the group of Ayanavaram residents. "How can they do this to a small child? We don't want this to happen anywhere else, but the people staying in the building are not sharing any information with us. They have blocked us out," she adds.
Residents of the gated community had formed a physical barrier at the gate, ensuring that no outsider entered the apartments. Their fear of security guards was evident, as women residents were seen manning the gates and not a single guard was in sight.
TNM contacted over 10 residents on the phone. Several of them refused to talk to the media, claiming they were under police orders to not discuss the matter as it was under investigation.
But a few who did talk admitted they were stunned by the incident. "I can't believe this happened here. We live in a gated community with security. What more can we do?" asks a resident incredulously. "We just want to be safe now," she adds.
The CWC, however, points out that this is not the time for residents to retreat in shock. "Every child in the building must be asked about sexual abuse," says Sheila. "We must find out if there are more victims before it is too late."
Even as those living in the apartment are trying to come in terms with the horrific incident, the city is brimming with anger. Two of the accused were attacked at the City Civil Court in the city by lawyers. The Madras Advocates Association has meanwhile announced that none of its members will represent the accused.