Anatomy of a forgotten rape: A year since Nandhini was killed, justice remains elusive

Nandhini was manipulated, gang raped, brutally killed, and dumped. Her case is rotting at the altars of the justice system.
Anatomy of a forgotten rape: A year since Nandhini was killed, justice remains elusive
Anatomy of a forgotten rape: A year since Nandhini was killed, justice remains elusive

In January 2017, as the country focused on the unprecedented jallikattu protests at the Marina Beach in Chennai, a horrific crime was unfolding just five hours away from Tamil Nadu’s capital city. In Ariyalur too, there were angry agitations against police insensitivity. But Rajakili had no time for protests.

Rajakili was busy scurrying back and forth to the local Irumbukiruchi police station in the hope of finding her 16-year-old daughter Nandhini, who had gone missing on December 29, 2016. Two weeks after the mother first lodged the complaint, the cacophony created by protesters in Ariyalur finally made the police take notice, but it was too late. On January 14, Nandhini’s body was discovered two villages away, at Keelamaligai. The body was dumped inside an empty well, without any clothes, and it had severely decomposed. 

Rajakili recalls running towards the body when she was taken to the spot and fainting at the sight of it. “The light in our lives had gone forever,” she says, tearing up.

Divided in caste

It has been 15 months since Nandhini’s body was discovered, and with no justice in sight, Rajakili’s family has been left broken, bitter and angry by the way the police, politicians and the court have treated them.

The family lives in Sirukadambur village’s ‘colony’, a settlement exclusively meant for Dalits. Caste-based segregation is common in Tamil Nadu’s villages, and in this village, dominated by the Vanniyar community, the difference in social status is evident at a cursory glance. The 3,000 Vanniyar families here mostly live in pucca buildings, while the 300 Dalit families live in either government-sponsored houses or huts made of dried coconut leaves.

Yellow flags with mango symbols, signifying support to the Vanniyar-dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi, adorn houses on the Vanniyar side of the village. But in the Dalit colony, the support is scattered amongst the AIADMK, VCK and the DMK.

(Political banners at the Dalit settlement)

“Do you know what the real difference is?” asks Nandhini’s 26-year-old sister Sivaranjini. “Their lives are valued while ours mean nothing to this world,” she says, as she lights the stove to boil water. Nandhini’s mother stares listlessly as her daughter bustles around. Her movements are slow and she struggles to focus on questions directed at her.

“Everything in this house was bought by Nandhini,” says Rajakili, pointing at a clock mounted on the wall. The 45-year-old sits resting her back against the wall of their house built under the Indira Awaas Yojana. “She left school and decided to work to help the family. She was such a cheerful and smart girl. She saved money and made sure to buy things for the house. She would tell me not to strain myself because I was unwell. She promised to take care of everything,” she adds, closing her eyes and letting tears flow down her cheeks.

It was this promise that pushed the young girl to become a daily wage worker and take up odd jobs that came her way.

“A local contractor had called for help to construct a cement road in Sirukadambur,” recalls Sivaranjini, Nandhini’s elder sister. The family didn’t see any harm in letting her take it up as the road to be constructed was right in front of their residence. At this construction site, Nandhini met the man who pretended to love her, then allegedly abducted, raped and murdered her.

(Cement road that Nandhini and Manikandan allegedly worked on)

“Manikandan is from a Vanniyar family in Keelamaligai and was overseeing the construction of the cement road,” says Sivaranjini. “They would come to our house, sit in the shade and eat lunch together. When my mother noticed that they were getting close, she warned Manikandan. She told him we were from different castes and that they will face problems, but he kept saying that they were just friends,” she adds. The family believes Nandhini fell in love after Manikandan convinced her that he will marry her.

“In her eyes, he was always right and a good man. But what will she know? She was just a teenager,” her sister reasons. “We told her not to trust him but she still went when he called her. And while he cheated her, the police cheated us by failing to bring her back,” she adds.

Nandhini’s family members say that the caste-discrimination began on the very night the minor went missing.

In her statement to the Superintendent of Police, Ariyalur district, Nandhini's mother Rajakili says, "On 29 December, 2016, at about 8pm, I found my daughter missing and I searched her whereabouts in the village and also enquired with her friend Devi. But we could not find her. At about 8.30 pm, one of my relatives namely Venilla, daughter of Nallappan living in Kumizhiyam village, received a call on her cell phone from the number 8939439565. The caller told her that he was Thamilarasan belonging to Vellur and my daughter was in his custody."

The call, however, was from Manikandan himself, as he has later admitted in a statement. Nandhini too spoke to her relative on that call, claims the family. Armed with this phone number, they then rushed to the Irumbulikurichi police station by 9pm.

"They asked us to write down the complaint. We wrote it and gave it to them. But they refused to file the complaint. I asked why they didn't file it and they said they will do it tomorrow. They asked us if we had no other job and why we were coming so late," says Sivaranjini, Nandhini's sister.

"They were Dalits and this family was weak economically and socially," says Samuvel, General Secretary of the Untouchability Eradication Front, "And like them, their complaint too was weak in the eyes of the police.”

When the police broke the law

The family was forced to return the next day and file a complaint. Even though they insisted that their daughter had been kidnapped, only a 'missing' complaint was filed. This was in violation of Section 361 of the Indian Penal Code, which clearly states that when a minor is taken away without legal consent of her guardian, it amounts to kidnap.

Moreover, as per Section 19 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012, when police receive information of possible commission of an offence, immediate arrangements should be made under Sub Sec. (5) to provide for the care and protection of the child within the first 24 hours. The police failed to follow the law.

And when the family insisted that it was an abduction, the police rebuked them. "The inspector Manivannan refused to record the complaint as stated by me. He then obtained my signature on blank papers and issued a receipt in CSR No.559 of 2016," Nandhini's mother says in the complaint.

Under rule 4(12) of the POCSO Act, the police are duty-bound to inform the guardians of a child about the status of the investigation, the arrest of the suspected offender and the filing of charges. But the authorities instead treated the family with disdain.

"I pleaded with the police. I begged over and over again to bring my daughter back alive," recalls Rajakili, adding, "They said we'll find her but that when a saree falls on thorns it has to be removed slowly.” This implied that the police were not willing to move on it quickly.

The condescension did not stop there. "They said, ‘Look at how you have brought her up. Child has gone rogue and you are sitting at home, you are coming here. Are you a woman?’" narrates Rajakili.

On the night of January 2, 2017, Nandhini's friend and neighbour Devi, finally divulged the truth.

"I came to know through my neighbour Devi that one Manikandan, resident of Keezhamaligai village and belonging to the Vanniyar community and the Taluk Secretary of Hindu Munnani had kidnapped my daughter. On January 3, I went to the police station to give this information," reads Rajakili’s complaint. But once again, the Dalit family had to face apathy.

The police informed Rajakili that they were going to Sri Rangam for security duty at a temple festival and asked her not to come to the station for the next three days. Even the FIR in the case was filed only on January 5, nearly a week after the complaint was given.

(Irumbulikurichi police station where family spent days waiting)

The Irumbulikurichi police called Manikandan for an enquiry on January 5, but he was let off after a few hours, when two members of his village signed as witnesses on his behalf. The family has accused the District Organiser of the Hindu Munnani of flexing his political muscle to force the police to let Manikandan go home. Manikandan went absconding the next day.

Ignorant, irresponsible police

In a counter-affidavit filed by the police, the Deputy Superintendent of Police of Ariyalur district said that an inquiry was indeed done by the inspector. The DSP claimed that the inspector concluded Nandhini and Manikandan had a love affair and that she would have eloped with him. What they seem to have forgotten was that she was a minor, and a ‘love affair’ was inconsequential.

On January 12, the Kuvagam police station, just 16 km away from Irumulikurichi, received a message from the Golden Private Hospital in Ariyarlur. Manikandan had attempted to commit suicide by consuming poison in a cashew forest at Kodukkur village. The Kuvagam police station registered a case and got Manikandan's statement, where he admitted that he attempted suicide because he was being traced in relation to Nandhini's murder.

Despite him admitting this, the Irumulikurichi police did not take over the case.

"Wouldn't the Kuvagam police have informed the investigating officials that the person they are looking for is in the hospital?" asks lawyer Karal Marx, who is fighting the case for Nandhini’s family in the high court. “Instead, they gave Manikandan a chance to surrender himself, thereby further distorting the case and botching up the investigation," he adds.

The DSP's counter-affidavit states that Manikandan surrendered himself to the Village Administrative Officer (VAO) on January 14 at 10.30 am. He then went on to admit that he “kidnapped Nandhini and raped and murdered her along with his cousin Manivannan..near one Anbazhagan's well in Keelamaligai. The body of Nandhini was disposed of, by dropping it into the well by tying it with a big stone, a rope and a shawl.”

(Well where Nandhini's body was found)

An hour and a half before that, a constable had called Rajakili to inform her that her daughter's body had been found.

“My son, eldest daughter, my son-in-law and I rushed to the spot and we were shocked to see my daughter's body lying there," reads the mother's complaint. "The police immediately took the body to the Ariyalur Government Hospital. Thereafter, post-mortem was carried out without obtaining any signature from me or any other relative.”

A pregnant minor, and a cover up

Manikandan's statement clearly states that Nandhini had informed him that she was pregnant. He was unwilling to marry her as she was a Parayar (a Dalit community) and so he decided to use her and murder her. Even the family alleges that the police informed them of Nandhini's pregnancy, two days after her body was found, by berating them for 'not bringing up the girl correctly.'

"On 16.01.2017, the Deputy Superintendent of Police came to my house and ridiculed me. He asked what kind of mother I was, and how could I not know that my daughter was pregnant. I was shocked to hear that my daughter was pregnant. The DSP rebuked and taunted that I had not brought up my daughter in a proper way and warned that if we do not receive and cremate her immediately, they themselves would cremate the body as an orphan," says the mother's complaint.

Strangely, the post-mortem report does not contain any details of the said pregnancy.

Rajakili questions why a paternity test was not conducted along with the post-mortem.

"When we asked the police why a DNA test for the foetus was not conducted, we were told that it was because it was not fully formed," says Samuvel. But according to the family, Nandhini had not got her period in three months, which meant that she could have been at least two months pregnant, making a paternity test viable. There are also allegations that the accused destroyed the foetus when they brutally assaulted her.

Four people were arrested in connection with the gang rape and murder – Manikandan, and his three cousins Thirumurugan, Mannivanan and Vetriselvan. But only two of them have been booked under POCSO, while the other two have only been accused of disposing the body.

(Four Vanniyar men accused in the case)

Lawyers point out that even the charges have been wrongly scripted. Manikandan and his cousin have been booked under Section 5(a)(i) of POCSO Act, which pertains to aggravated penetrative sexual assault by a police officer in a police station. The police should have filed the case under 5(g) of the POCSO Act which, refers to gang rape.

The prosecution alleges that the delay in commencement of the investigation and filing of the FIR is only bound to favour the accused. In addition to this, the statement of 26-year-old Devi, a crucial witness in the case, was recorded only on January 6, 2017. The records furnished further show that two other accused were not interrogated and their statements not recorded.

Even her date of death is allegedly being manipulated for the benefit of the police.

Based on the post-mortem report, which details the extent of the body’s decomposition, the police claim that her death occurred two weeks before the body was found and that she was not held in illegal custody. The victim's family however is not convinced and neither are activists.

Advocate Sasikumar, an activist from Ariyalur had formed a fact-finding team that visited both the victim and accused's village shortly after the incident. "According to our sources in Manikandan's village, Nandhini was seen with him till January 3. An elderly woman told us that he was ferrying her around in his bike. That was when she was last seen," he explains. “He was apparently trying to get the foetus aborted but wasn’t finding a doctor willing to take the risk. They realised she was a minor and also unmarried. So, nobody was willing,” he says.

The family has alleged that the police are trying to fix the date of death as December 29, in order to hide their failure in tracing the victim.

"I have a strong suspicion that in order to cover his failure to trace my daughter, he (DSP) has recorded the date of death as 29.1.2016, when she was actually killed many days later. I came to know that my daughter was seen by some persons on 30.12.2016. It is also widely spoken by people in and around the village that my daughter was in illegal custody for 5-6 days and only thereafter killed," states the mother.

Forgetful politicians, slow judiciary 

When the news of Nandhini’s body being discovered came to light, politicians made a beeline to Ariyalur district. Visits were made to the family, condolences expressed and promises announced in front of the looming cameras. But over a year later, the crowds of politicians have vanished and the assurances long forgotten.

DMK’s working president MK Stalin himself had arrived at the village and said that his party would fight for a CB-CID probe. A few members of the Bahujan Samaj Party - a party that has negligible presence in the state, have kept in touch with Nandhini’s family. On hearing about TNM’s visit, members of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi rushed to the house. Both Dalit parties blame local leaders of the Hindu Munnani for Nandhini’s murder.

“There is no doubt that the Hindu Munnani and RSS are behind this. As far as this case is concerned, Manikandan is Hindu Munnani's Taluk Secretary in Sendurai. Rajasekhar is the District Secretary. Rajasekhar and Manikandan were thick friends and they would be seen with a gang,” says Chinnadurai, District secretary of the BSP. “Nothing could have happened without Rajasekhar's knowledge in this case. We told the DSP to investigate Rajasekhar. We protested without taking the body for two days, but they still didn't interrogate Rajasekhar,” he adds.

When TNM visited the Hindu Munnani’s office in Ariyalur, we were informed that nobody sits there any longer. District secretary Rajasekhar who was in Sriperumbadur when TNM called him, did not shy away from answering questions on his alleged involvement. “I don’t even know who Nandhini is,” he says. “Only after this case came to light, we came to know about her involvement with Manikandan. Allegations against the Hindu Munnani are aimed at tarnishing our reputation and damaging our growing popularity,” he claims.

But was Manikandan not a prominent member of this pro-Hindu outfit? “He was, like any other member. But we have no communication or connection with him,” says Rajasekhar.

“He killed my daughter and now he is walking around with no worries. Every time I see him, I feel...,” Rajakili’s voice trails off. “These politicians all came and told us they will ensure my daughter gets justice. But nothing has happened. We are asking for a CB-CID probe but the case is not moving in court either,” says Rajakili.

Advocate Karal Marx is angry and dejected with the judiciary. “The Chief Justice of India has issued a circular saying that cases involving women and children, should be disposed-of fast. Despite this, the case has been stayed for over a year. Courts have to be more sensitive and dispose of such cases at the earliest,” he says.

Tamil Nadu's conviction rates under the SC/ST Act is abysmal. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, 94% of those accused under this Act were acquitted. In this particular case, the prosecution managed to get a stay on the police investigation on April 10, 2017.

“The investigation done by the police in this case is as worse as it can get. We are requesting for a CB-CID probe now,” says the advocate. “But the trial has not even begun. The court is not taking this case up immediately. And if this is the fate for a case that shook the state, I can’t imagine what would happen to other girls in this state,” he adds. 

(The identity of the victim and her family members have been used with their consent)

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