The deaths of the young women in Palode and Vithura tribal settlements in Thiruvananthapuram district expose a deeper problem — that they needed assistance and intervention, but this was lacking.

Mohanan and Sujatha sitting outside their houseSujatha and Mohanan, Priya's* parents
Delve Tribal Issues Friday, February 04, 2022 - 09:15

The only painted house in the Vittikkavu tribal settlement belongs to Mohanan and his family. Mohanan was sitting in the front yard of his house, furiously plucking raw peppercorns from the stem. Without looking up, he continued his rapid motion even as tears streamed down his face. “This house was heaven, the heaven we both built out of our dreams. Now this is hell,” he said.

Mohanan and his family live around 42 km from Thiruvananthapuram city in one of the Kanikkar tribal settlements in the Palode region. The Palode and Vithura tribal settlements have made headlines in recent months, after five young women, including two minors, died by suicide under extremely similar circumstances — one among them was 17-year-old Priya*, Mohanan’s daughter, who died on November 1, 2021.

While these deaths by suicides were surmised to be due to troubled relationships, they expose a much deeper problem. These youngsters from these settlements — which have just 10 to 15 families each — needed intervention and help, and this was lacking. There was also another disturbing thread — a majority of them were sexually exploited.

One morning last September, Priya told her father that she had made a mistake and that she had been in touch with a boy who used ganja. “I was shivering when she said that. But I regained strength and asked her for details. She said she was introduced to a person named Alan Peter by two neighbouring girls,” Mohanan recalled. Priya told her father that the girls would come over when their parents were not home, and use their phone to video call Alan. Priya insisted that she knew nothing of ganja but confessed to consuming some kind of sweet that contained a drug. “I consoled her. She promised me that she would not continue the relationship and asked us not to talk about it later on,” Mohanan said.

But the issue didn’t seem to end there, and Priya was clearly in despair. “She also told me that she was in a trap that she could not leave. She hugged me and cried a lot,” her father remembered.

Mohanan

Priya had joined the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram to begin her degree course. Sujatha was inconsolable as she looked at her daughter’s admission card. She said her daughter seemed happy and jovial after speaking to her father. “But I felt she was in fear. When she saw those two girls, she ran inside. Many times I saw the fear in her eyes,” the mother said.

On the night of October 31, Sujatha heard Priya opening the door of her room. After some time had passed, she went and checked. “At first I thought she was sleeping covered in a blanket, but I went back and checked again. That's when I realised she had covered her three dolls in the blanket and she was not there,” Sujatha said. The family, along with a few relatives who live nearby, searched in the locality. They also called Alan Peter and checked if she was with him. “Priya’s uncle threatened Alan, saying we would call the police and asked to drop her at home. He kept on saying he will drop her soon, each time when we called. Around 3.30 am, he said she was at the nearby temple. We rushed to the temple and saw her sitting there,” Sujatha said.

Though they confronted Priya, she insisted that she did not go with Alan but was sitting in the temple all along. The next morning, Priya was cleaning the front yard when Mohanan left for his rubber tapping work. Sujatha also went out for some work. Later, Priya’s grandmother came home to check on her and found she had died by suicide. “My mother came running to me crying out loud that my daughter has gone.”

Mohanan broke out in tears. “That is when I realised what my daughter said was right. She was in a huge trap that she was not able to come out of,” he said.

Mohanan and Sujatha approached the police many times alleging the involvement of Alan and his gang in their daughter’s death. But for 60 days, the Palode police did not take action saying there was no evidence, though it was revealed that Priya could have been sexually exploited. Alan was finally arrested in January 2022.

Around 10 km from Priya’s house, in a Kannikar hamlet near Agrifarm in Palode, another 16-year-old girl, Sruthi*, died three weeks later, on November 21.

“If the police had listened to us after our daughter’s death, they could have saved Sruthi, as the accused in the case is an acquaintance of Alan. But the police sat on our case for 64 days,” Mohanan alleged.

The tribal rights activists in the area found out that a person named Shyam, who was in a relationship with Sruthi, was in the gang with Alan. Sruthi, who was studying in Class 11, was a diligent student and had even received an award for high marks in Class 10. Her father Jayachandran, a daily wage labourer, held the shield she had received while speaking to TNM.

“A day before her death, her aunt saw her on a two-wheeler with a man. When she returned home, we confronted her and she confessed that they were in a relationship. We did not make a big issue of it as we all know teenagers have such relationships. I did not connect it with Priya’s death, though I had heard about it,” Jayachandran said.

Jayachandran

The next day, the family were all at home but Sruthi was not around. When Jayachandran went in search of her around the house, he found that Sruthi had died by suicide. Police found that Sruthi had contacted Shyam just before she died, and suspected that issues within the relationship had led to her death.

In September 2021, a 19-year-old woman, Anjana*, a neighbour of Sruthi, had also died by suicide under similar circumstances. She was in a relationship with a person from Kollam district. In the Palode police station limits, Sruthi’s death was the third in three months. All the girls belonged to the Kanikkar tribal community.

On December 3, 2021 and January 10, 2022, two more women died in Vithura, the neighbouring panchayat. Reshmi* and Kripa*, both 19, died by suicide, allegedly after complications in their relationships. Akash, who was arrested in relation to Kripa’s death, had arrived at her house soon after her death and attempted to steal her phone to erase the phone records. But some of the neighbours caught him and handed him over to the police. The accused in Reshma’s death has not yet been arrested.

Sixty days after Priya’s death, on January 1, 2022, the accused in the case — Alan Peter and his companions — were seen roaming around her house in Vittikkavu. “They were mocking us that they cannot be touched. He was arrested four days after that, after the media started reporting on the three deaths and it became a huge discussion,” Mohanan said.

Divya Gopinath, Superintendent of Police, Thiruvananthapuram Rural, told TNM that the police had taken action on time. “In three of the cases from Palode, two have POCSO charges against the accused, as in those cases we found physical relationships. In Priya’s case, charges for abetment to suicide and sections under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act were also added as the accused belonged to another caste. Other two cases are in Vithura.”

Anil Kumar, Jayachandran and Ajaya Kumar

Drugs in a vulnerable community

Kuruppunkala Anil Kumar, a tribal rights activist who represents the Adivasi Kshema Samiti organisation, said that they had been complaining about drug usage in the locality for a long time.

“There are a few outsiders who trap youngsters from the tribal settlements to get hold of these girls. We were shocked to see Priya’s postmortem report,” he said.

The postmortem revealed that Priya had drugs in her system, police said. However, except for Priya, the other parents had no information on drug usage.

“No proper enquiry has been launched yet. Except for Priya, the police did not provide any details of the postmortems conducted on the other girls. If they had taken proper action after the November 1 death, the second death [of Sruthi*] wouldn’t have happened,” Anil Kumar Kattinkuzhi, another tribal activist from Palode, said.

He also pointed out another concern. “All these girls were educated and had many skill sets. Now parents might get worried about sending children for studies. Many of them might think it’s safer to marry off the kids rather than sending them for higher studies. This will badly affect our community,” he said.

VD Satheesan, the state opposition leader who visited the region, also pointed out that the police had failed to track the free flow of drugs into the region. The police agreed that many of the accused in the cases were using drugs, but denied the possibility of a racket.

Dhanya Raman, a tribal activist, said that vulnerabilities are the major reason that youngsters in tribal settlements fall prey to these evils. “With the social environment we are brought up in, there are a lot of insecurities and lack of awareness that tribal youngsters face. All these can be easily misused by outsiders,” she added.

Dhanya also highlighted the need for intervention.

“For the last few years no awareness programmes were happening in the tribal sector. After these incidents, we have been requesting the ministry and departments to conduct various awareness programmes. One programme by the Scheduled Tribes Development Department was done recently. We need continuous and innovative awareness mechanisms to come out of this. We activists have decided to keep on pressurising departments to go on with it," Dhanya said.

The Scheduled Tribes Development Department has also stated that they will be conducting more awareness programmes. “The young men in the settlements are very reluctant to attend such programmes. We need to make continuous efforts to get through to them. We are planning many programmes incorporating various departments,” a junior official from the Department said.

*Names changed

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional suppport to individuals and families.

Tamil Nadu

State health department's suicide helpline: 104

Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh

Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930

Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Karnataka

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Kerala

Maithri: 0484 2540530

Chaithram: 0484 2361161

Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

Telangana

State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104

Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200

SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 amd and 7 pm)

Aasara offers support to inidviduals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those  undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.

24x7 Helpline: 9820466726

Click here for working helplines across India.

 
 

 

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