Man acquitted in the Ariyalur rape and murder is preparing for a political career

Man acquitted in the Ariyalur rape and murder is preparing for a political career

Only one person was convicted in the Ariyalur case where a minor Dalit girl was raped and murdered. TNM met the family of the victim seeking justice and some of the men who have been let off.

TW: Mention of graphic details, sexual assault

A minor Dalit girl was abducted on December 29, 2016, in Ariyalur. The police failed to register an FIR on time or investigate complaints of abduction. Her badly decomposed and naked body was found from a well on January 14, 2017. There were allegations of political interference as some of the accused from a dominant caste had connections with the Hindu Munnani and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In April 2024, a lower court in Ariyalur acquitted three of the accused because the police bungled up the investigation. TNM travelled to Ariyalur to meet the family of the victim seeking justice and the men who have been let off and are now trying to live normal lives. This story will not mention the names of the one convict and the three persons acquitted in the case, nor the names of their villages, because the Ariyalur Fast Track Mahila court has ordered the media not to disclose identification details of those who were arraigned as accused in the case. All names of the victim, accused and their family members used in the story are changed.

Little over a month after being acquitted in the case involving the brutal rape and murder of a 16-year-old Dalit girl in Ariyalur district in central Tamil Nadu, 35-year-old youth Suresh* is busy trying to find a bride. His mother shows us several of his photos, among which is one where he is shaking hands with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) youth wing secretary and Tamil Nadu Sports Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin. 

“My son’s life was destroyed by the police. Does he look like someone who would do such a crime?” she asks us and adds that he has been very much active in the Dravidian party (DMK) and hopes to become a functionary soon. Suresh is the third accused in the case and one of the three persons acquitted on April 12, 2024 in the 2017 rape and murder case. Only the principal accused Sunil* has been convicted for the rape and murder of the girl and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In January 2017, Tamil Nadu was witnessing unprecedented protests against the ban on Jallikattu. Youngsters from several parts of the state protested at the Marina beach in the state capital Chennai, the central point of the agitation. While all eyes were on Jallikattu protest, at Ariyalur, 300 kms away from Chennai, on January 14 the severely decomposed body of 16-year-old Vandhana* from the Paraiyar community (classified as Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu) was found naked in a well, with hands tied behind her back to a rock. The postmortem examination report said the death could have happened one to three weeks ago.

The district saw massive protest demonstrations against the police for being insensitive in the case and for not taking timely action. The case was marked by several controversies, including delay in registering a First Information Report (FIR). It was also alleged that some local police officials berated the family for ‘not bringing up their child properly’.

As pressure mounted, the police arrested four persons in the case – all belonging to the Vanniyar community, a dominant caste group classified as Most Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. The four men were also related by kinship.

Of the four, A1 Sunil*, who was the minor’s friend, was found guilty of abduction, murder, destroying evidence, aggravated sexual assault of a minor and atrocities committed against SC/ST individuals. According to the prosecution, Vandhana was pregnant with his child, and he had decided to kill her because he was unwilling to marry a Dalit girl. Vandhana’s mother also said that the police told her of the pregnancy and taunted her for “not bringing up her girl correctly.”

Though Sunil was convicted, three others- A2 Nithin* , A3 Suresh* and A4 Appu* - were acquitted.  While Nithin was also accused of gang rape, Suresh and Appu were charged with criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence. 

One of the reasons why the prosecution could not prove that Suresh was engaged in criminal conspiracy is because he was called ‘Anil’ by his family and villagers. The police had booked him under this name, but he produced certificates to claim that he was Suresh and not Anil.

‘We are trying to put our lives back together’

The prosecution abjectly failed in establishing the identity of Suresh and this became evident while interacting with people close to him. When we visited Suresh’s village in the third week of May, not many residents knew him by that name. We had to ask for the house of Anil, the name by which the police identified him. Suresh had argued before the Ariyalur Fast Track Mahila court that his name on official records was Suresh. He had also stated at the court that he was falsely implicated in the case as ‘Anil’, which led to his arrest and subsequent detention under the Goondas Act. It was based on this argument that he was released under the Goondas Act, too. The accused were booked under the Goondas Act back then to prevent them from getting bail.

Suresh’s parents, speaking to TNM, claimed that their son is in no way connected with the name ‘Anil’. “It is the name of another man but the police arrested my son instead. But we were forced to tell that his name is [Anil] at the court and the police station, while applying for bail,” his mother said. 

She then tried to put us in touch with her son over the phone and then used the name ‘Anil’, with which he as the accused had denied any association. “[Anil], there is a reporter looking for you,” she told her son. Throughout our conversation that went on for close to an hour, the parents kept referring to their son as Anil.

A neighbour, who did not want his name disclosed, said that the man is addressed by everyone in the village as ‘Anil’. “I don’t know what his name is in official documents, but we call him ‘Anil’ only,” he added.

A photo of Suresh* with DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin, on Suresh's mother's phone
A photo of Suresh* with DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin, on Suresh's mother's phone

When we met Suresh later, we asked about this confusion over his name and the claim he made in court. He said, “My name has always been Suresh”. When specifically asked if ‘Anil’ is a name used in his house and locality, he refuted it and said that the name came about after the case. However, throughout that conversation with him and the three friends accompanying him, he was constantly addressed as ‘Anil’ without any reaction from him.

Speaking about the case, he said that he was falsely implicated, and that this was also proven in the court. “I was working abroad and was here for vacation. Towards the end of my leave period, I had to talk to [Sunil] over the phone because of a property issue between us. It is based on that call which was found in our phone logs that I was arrested,” he said.

‘How can we forget the horrible sight of her decomposed body?’

It has been seven years since Vandhana’s body was discovered in a brutal condition from a well. “There is not a single day we go without thinking about her. When my sister was killed at such a young age, those involved in her murder are roaming free in our streets,” Vandhana’s sister Savitri (name changed) told TNM. “We have been accusing the police of negligence since the beginning and demanding a CB-CID probe. Now the judgement proves that the police failed to gather evidence to convict the other three men,” she said.

According to the initial statement given by Sunil after his arrest, he had  told the police that Vandhana was pregnant with his child, and he had plotted to kill her because he was unwilling to marry a Dalit girl. Savitri also said that the then DSP Inigo Thivyan informed her and her mother that they found a five-week old foetus of the girl, which had been sent for tests. However, the post-mortem report of Vandana does not make any mention of a pregnancy, and the doctor who performed the autopsy said that her uterus was completely decomposed. Prosecution failed to produce any forensic evidence in this regard.

When asked about this, the then IO Inigo Thivyan, who is currently the ADSP in the vigilance department, refuted the allegation and said that there was no mention of a pregnancy in the post mortem report.

“My mother keeps telling everyone that she would die peacefully if all the four men get adequate punishment. Now, our child is dead and only one person is convicted. This pain and stress is many times more than what we experienced when we found that she was killed,” she added. 

Caste difference, political clout and police insensitivity

“ Sunil is a member of the Hindu Munnani and Suresh is affiliated with the DMK, so they had that arrogance even when the case was going on. The four accused in the case are economically in a good condition and are also from a dominant caste. They are also active as local members of political outfits. They have always told us that they would  not be harmed by the case,” district secretary of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Chinnadurai said. He also added that fighting the case was much more difficult for Vandhana’s family because of their caste location. 

Sunil was a taluk level functionary of Hindu Munnani when he was arrested. Local Hindu Munnani leaders told us that he is no longer active in the party since after he was arrested.

Chinnadurai also alleged that there was a caste bias when it came to the police investigation. “The police delayed registering the first FIR and repeatedly insulted the victim’s family. Even after the family raised suspicion that [Sunil] might have had a role in her disappearance, the police ignored them. Most of the police at the time were either Vanniyars or belonged to some dominant caste. They were of the arrogance that the victim was a Dalit and they did not have the power to do anything.”

Advocate Sasikumar, an activist from Ariyalur who had formed a fact-finding team that visited both the victim and accused's village shortly after the incident, said that the investigation was botched up because of the politicisation of the murder. “After the body was discovered and the issue blew up, several political parties protested for justice. But it did not do well for the case. The police were not on the victim’s side and did not investigate properly. The political pressure made them rush through the job and even crucial details were missed during the course of the probe,” he said. 

Political parties, including the DMK, accused the police of being insensitive and demanded a CB CID probe. DMK’s working president MK Stalin himself had visited the village then and said his party would fight for a CB-CID probe. But the AIADMK-led state government by O Panneerselvam, did not hand over the probe to the CB-CID. The family even approached the Madras High Court but the court refused to transfer the case.

Disregard, carelessness and shoddy probe

From the time Vandhana went missing, the victim’s family had to suffer insults from the police, who did nothing to ensure a fair probe.  According to the witness statement by Vandhana’s mother in the court, on December 29, 2016, as they were searching for Vandhana, a relative called her and informed that she received a call. It was from a person called ‘Vellur Thamizharasan’ claiming that Vandhana was with him. Vandhana herself spoke to the relative and confirmed this. However, the man with her wasn’t a relative, but it was Sunil, something he had admitted to the police in his confession statement.

Since Vandhana’s family did not know anyone by the name of ‘Vellur Thamizharasan’, the family reported to the Irumbulikurichi police that they suspect she might have been kidnapped. They had also informed the police about the relationship between Sunil and Vandhana and raised a doubt that he might be involved in this. The family’s complaint was not accepted on the same day and that they were asked to return the next day. 

The police asked the distraught mother if she thought the police had no other job and why she had come to file a complaint at night. The next day, the family went again with a complaint, the police recorded it in the community service register (CSR) but did not register an FIR. A CSR is a register that should be maintained in all the police stations to record non-cognizable offences. 

It was on January 5, 2017, eight days later, that the police finally filed a ‘missing persons’ case instead of an abduction case. This was in violation of section 361 of the IPC, according to which a minor taken away without the consent of her guardian amounts to kidnap. It was not the only violation committed by the police. According to the POCSO Act, when police receive information of a possible commission of an offence, they should immediately take steps to protect the child within the first 24 hours. Further, the police inspector had also refused to record the complaint of the family that Vandana was abducted and instead obtained her mother’s signature on blank papers.

According to the mother, the police had also gone to the extent of shaming her by asking, “Look at how you have brought her up. The child has gone rogue, and you are sitting at home, you are coming here. Are you a woman?"

From not filing the FIR on time, not acting as per POCSO rules, filing a missing case instead of abduction, failure to find corroborative evidence including phones and call records and establish the ownership of a two-wheeler seized from one of the accused, the failures of police were many in the case. The caste location of the victim’s family and the alleged political influence wielded by the accused could have been reasons why the case was not properly investigated, according to activists.

General secretary of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) K Samuel Raj alleged that the main reason that the three persons were acquitted was that the police bungled up the investigation. “There were two main mistakes in the police investigation. The initial complaint of the family was not taken seriously and the phone and sim cards of the accused were not seized by the police after their arrest,” he said.

Elaborating on his first allegation, he pointed out that Vandhana’s family filed a complaint stating that she was abducted by Sunil. “The family named him while filing the police complaint. But the police did not take that seriously. Neither did they register an FIR that day. After close to a week, they filed an FIR saying that the girl went missing. This was the primary mistake. If they had treated it as an abduction case and launched a search for her, they could have at least got her body earlier even if they couldn’t save her life. If the body had been discovered earlier, we would have the DNA proof of sexual assault. The inordinate delay in registering the family’s complaint and the lethargic attitude of the police was the reason that we discovered her completely decomposed body, from which no proof could be obtained.” 

The second blunder of the police, he pointed out, was the failure to secure the mobile phones, sim cards or call records of the accused, which in turn led to the inability to prove that there was a conspiracy. He also added that the police should answer if it was incompetence or caste bias that caused these ‘blunders’.

One of the key pieces of evidence the police presented was the call made by Sunil and Nithin to Suresh and Appu after the murder. It was the log of a phone call seized from Sunil’s phone in which he was allegedly in conversation with Suresh and Appu, but since the police did not produce Suresh and Appu’s phones, they could not prove it in court.

Inigo refuted this allegation and said that they did seize the phones of the accused but they were not registered under their names so they could not proceed any further. He also asserted that the investigation was done properly. “That is why one person was convicted, isn’t he?”, he added.

There are many other simple but crucial elements that the police missed. On January 12, 2017, Sunil was admitted to a hospital after he allegedly attempted suicide. The Kuvagam police registered a case, and Sunil, in his statement, said that he attempted to die because he was being accused of being involved in Vandhana’s murder.

On January 14, 2017, Sunil surrendered before the Irumbulikurichi police, and on the same day, Vandhana’s mortal remains were recovered from a well. Sunil had reportedly admitted to police that he had kidnapped Vandhana, sexually assaulted and murdered her with the help of his cousin Nithin, and disposed of the body in a well after conspiring with Suresh and Appu. 

A lawyer who was involved in the case but did not want to be named said that to prove that there is an offence of ‘criminal conspiracy’ under section 120B of the IPC, it is imperative to prove that there was a ‘meeting of the minds’ among the alleged conspirators. “It can be either proved by showing that the four accused in the case met each other during, before or after the crime or by showing that they were connected in some way - phones, chats, etc. This was a major mistake by the police. In fact, conspiracy was only added later,” the lawyer said.

K Krishnaveni, state secretary of TNUEF, said the conspiracy angle of the case was not proven sufficiently by the police. “Conspiracy and gang-rape were the major crimes in this case and the police failed to prove both. This is the main reason we sought for a CB-CID investigation but it was not done,” she said.

A case that hinged on confession statements

The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that extra judicial confessions recorded from people accused of crimes cannot be taken as evidence in itself and it has to be corroborated. In March 2023, the apex court held, “It is a settled principle of law that extra-judicial confession is a weak piece of evidence. It has been held that where an extra-judicial confession is surrounded by suspicious circumstances, its credibility becomes doubtful and it loses its importance.” And yet, in the Ariyalur case - like many others - the police narrative relied heavily on the confessional statements made by the first two accused. 

In Sunil’s (A1) case, his confession to the village administrative officer (VAO) was recorded the same time that he was in hospital post his suicide attempt. One of the major pieces of evidence against Nithin (A2), Suresh (A3) and Appu (A4) was that Sunil had taken their names in his confession. As Sunil’s confession was rejected in court, it meant the others could get away. Sunil however could not manage to squeeze out as there were many calls between him and Vandhana and there were witnesses who saw her last with him.

When Nithin was arrested, a two-wheeler was also seized. A pair of silver anklets were recovered from the vehicle - which was identified as Vandhana’s by her family. Nithin’s confession was recorded in the presence of two witnesses but they later turned hostile. Nithin contended at the court that the vehicle was not registered under his name and that he was falsely implicated in the case. The court accepted the argument. 

Despite being a case that had got major media and public attention, the police did not even do routine things. They did not submit relevant documents to the court, especially the station diary records of the Irumbulikurichi police station.

Comparing the charge sheeting and conviction rates over the past five years, it is clear that conviction rate is almost one-fourth of cases that are charge-sheeted. According to the NCRB data of 2022, the charge sheeting rate of crimes against SC persons is 87.5% but the conviction rate is just 13.3% in Tamil Nadu. The trend is similar nationally as well. While the charge sheeting rate stands at 79.9%, conviction rate is 34%.

A strong appeal needed

Special public prosecutor of the case Abiraman however says that the case was proved by the prosecution beyond argument. “All the charges were proved but despite that the court has erringly acquitted three of them without applying its judicial mind. Since it is a heinous crime, all the four persons are entitled to get capital punishment and we will go for an appeal in the case,” he said.

In addition to the government’s appeal, the family is also going for an appeal on their own. Stating that seven years of their lives have been defined by police station, court and legalities, Savitri said that her fight does not end here. “Justice is not served properly yet. There are times when we do not have money to go to court. But I will keep fighting till the other three get punished,” she said.

Suresh runs a small business in the village and is a full-time DMK worker. His friends TNM spoke to in the village made insinuations about the girl’s character and alleged that she had “undergone abortions” multiple times. “How will we know who did this to her?” they asked and added that they suspect the involvement of others in the case.

Nithin, who drives a lorry, refused to talk to TNM stating that the verdict was out and that he was innocent. “If you have any questions, you can ask the court,” he said. Appu was not in the village when we visited and attempts to reach him went vain. Neighbours told us that he keeps to himself most of the time.

TNM had contacted DGP Shankar Jiwal seeking a response on allegations against the police before the publication of this story. After the story was published the office of the DGP responded and asked TNM to contact the SP of the particular district. Ariyalur district SP Selvaraj said that the police are going for an appeal. When asked about the specific allegations of police bias, and lapse in investigation, he refuted them and said that the probe was conducted properly. “In the appeal, we are asking the court to re-examine the confession statements of the accused that were rejected by the lower court and to look into the case again,” he said.

TNM has also reached out to Tamil Nadu Law Minister S Reghupathy seeking his response. This story will be updated if and when we get a reply.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

The News Minute