For over a month now, Usha (name changed) has been living with her family in Vadipatti town, 25 kilometres from Madurai. The 36-year-old woman was forced to move out of her village Ramaiyanpatti, because she dared to file a complaint against a village strongman, Tirupathi, who is the husband of the Panchayat clerk. Usha alleges that Tirupathi has been raping and sexually abusing her for four years, and when she finally spoke out about it, she faced taunts and harassment from other residents in the village.
Worse still, her complaint of rape has allegedly been watered down by the police to sexual harassment, and Tirupathi was let off by the police after three days in remand. ‚ÄúNo further action has been taken against him, while we have been forced to move out of our house with no employment,‚ÄĚ Usha tells TNM.
‚ÄėTirupathi created a hostile work environment‚Äô
In April 2011, Usha found employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) as Panithala Porupalar (Worksite Supervisor), a job that she eased into by helping her aunt, who was previously in charge. Usha‚Äôs responsibilities at work included assigning job cards to those who came in seeking employment under the 100-days employment scheme.
According to Usha, while she was supposed to report to the Panchayat clerk Revathy, it was Revathy‚Äôs husband Tirupathi ‚Äď a village strongman ‚Äď who was the de facto boss. Tirupathi had devised a plan to swindle government funds by misreporting the number of job cards issued, Usha says, and he made her and another coworker tamper with the records.
‚ÄúTirupathi would ask me to enter more job cards than what came in during the day, and pocketed the extra money. He convinced us that he would take care of any repercussions and we did as we were told,‚ÄĚ says Usha.
In 2013, when a social audit was due for the village, Tirupathi allegedly told her she would have to take the blame for the fraud ‚Äď unless she provided him with sexual favours.
‚ÄúHe called me to his house claiming his wife needed to speak to me, but when I went there, his wife was not around,‚ÄĚ Usha says, ‚ÄúHe wanted me to provide him sexual favours, and when I refused, he threatened that he would put the blame on me for the financial fraud.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúSince then, he has come to my house multiple times when no one else was home, and forced himself on me,‚ÄĚ Usha says, accusing Tirupathi of sexual abuse and rape.
Four years of trauma
Tirupathi allegedly continued harassing and raping Usha for the next four years ‚Äď he would come to her house drunk and unannounced, and several neighbours believed she was in a consensual affair with him, she alleges.
In 2017, Usha quit her job with a lot of difficulty and joined a private hospital in Madurai where she worked for about six months. ‚ÄúEven then, he would make calls and threaten to expose my secrets to my family. I realised my previous co-worker too was helping him get to me,‚ÄĚ she says.
In August 2018 Usha‚Äôs husband Suresh* got wind of the rumours and confronted her. ‚ÄúBecause Tirupathi would force himself upon me in my own house, villagers started believing that I was doing it out of my own volition. Problems escalated between me and my husband and I even attempted suicide,‚ÄĚ she confides.
But Suresh then realised that his wife was facing sexual abuse from Tirupathi, after their neighbour explained to him that Tirupathi had misbehaved with her as well. ‚ÄúI understood my wife was not at fault and I knew Tirupathi had to be brought to justice,‚ÄĚ says Suresh.
Apathetic police watered down complaint
On January 22, 2019, Usha, along with her husband and Sumathy (name changed), submitted a complaint to the Madurai Collector‚Äôs office with help from Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) members. Over two weeks later, Vadipatti police registered her complaint and on February 13, she got a call from the Social Welfare department. An FIR was filed on February 16 ‚Äď but not for rape or sexual abuse. Instead, the police watered down her complaint and filed charges of sexual harassment [under Section 4 of TN Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 2002] and criminal conspiracy [under IPC Section 506 (1)].
Further, the complainant in the FIR has been named as Usha‚Äôs husband instead of her. TNM has accessed copies of both Usha‚Äôs complaint and the FIR, and while Usha has accused Tirupathi of rape in her complaint, the FIR makes no such mention.
‚ÄúTirupathi was remanded by the police for three days and then let out on bail. No further action has been taken against him,‚ÄĚ Usha says, alleging that the police were also insensitive towards her.
‚ÄėVillagers ganged up against us‚Äô
Additionally, ever since she filed the complaint, the people of Ramaiyanpatti have been hostile to her and her family, Usha says. ‚ÄúThey believe that in my complaint, I have named all women employed under the MGNREGS scheme as having been abused by Tirupathi, which is not true. I‚Äôve only said there are more such women like me who have faced sexual harassment at the hands of Tirupathi,‚ÄĚ she explains.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve been shamed and abused by the villagers for no fault of ours, while the man who is my abuser, lives free and enjoys their support,‚ÄĚ Usha adds.