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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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A social crime, but it's trauma for her

By R. Ilangovan

MADURAI, JULY 30. Karupayee Karuthakannan, a mother of two girls, gave birth to a third one at the Usilampatti Government Hospital on January 17, 1994.

The girl baby weighed 3.5 kg and was healthy. After the birth, the woman abruptly left the hospital with the child, thus attracting the attention of social workers who the next day traced her to Kattakamanpatti village near Usilampatti.

She told them the child had died. A police investigation was ordered and in the subsequent trial, the Madurai Second Additional Sessions Court found her guilty of culpable homicide under Section 302 of IPC and sentenced her to life on December 24, 1996.

Karupayee thus became the first mother in the State punished under the law for alleged female infanticide. The `baby-killer' tag still haunts her. After spending nine months in prison, she is now on conditional bail.

The Society for Integrated Rural Development has moved the High Court against the verdict. Karupayee still signs before the Usilampatti magistrate on the first day of every month.

But life for this mother has now become an ordeal. Her family lives in ``forced exile'' in the village itself. She confines herself to her hut which has already been mortgaged for Rs. 20,000, to meet court expenses. Two cows and a bullock have been sold. The only silver lining is that her husband Karuthakannan stands by her despite his failing health.

Parents and brothers have rejected her. ``I have not seen them since I came out of prison,'' she said with tears rolling down her cheeks.

The villagers never let slip an opportunity to remind her of the humiliating past. The pre-trial media blitz aggravated her plight and frayed her psyche. She sulks from camera flash and shouts furiously at the men behind it. She feels she has become a ``cheap exhibit.''

No groom from any ``respectable'' family came forward to marry her eldest daughter. After a bout of uncertainties, the daughter was married away. ``The trauma we underwent till then had to be felt rather than be expressed.''

Her second daughter goes to school and the fourth and last child, born in the Tiruchi prison, is playing at home. When Karupayee was punished for life, she was five months pregnant.

The Prison Superintendent named the fourth baby `Priyanka,' now five years old.

Hence, social activists want the delicate issue viewed from a wider perspective. Had the crime been committed, it could not have been justified. But a brain-washed mother alone should not be held responsible for a ``social infraction'' in which the involvement of many in her immediate neighbourhood, either directly or indirectly, is not ruled out.

A mother, in a village family, does not have the power to decide anything, on her own they argue.

The verdict in the Karupayee case has stirred these groups to press for whipping up the public opinion against the increasing tendency to punish an ``ignorant mother'' in a society which is highly pro-male and gender-biased. In fact, the sessions judge, observed that he had to punish her, with a ``heavy heart.''

A cursory look at violence against female children has revealed that just 19 such cases have been officially reported, Karupayee being the first mother to be punished for it.

In 1997, another mother - Neelavathi in Perambalur district - was punished for life. In 2000, a Tiruvannamalai court awarded life to a father and grandmother for the same crime. The rest are at various stages of investigation.

But what has disturbed the activists most is the suicide of Lakshmi, a mother from Theni district, when she was found guilty of infanticide. Hence, the lobby wants a radically new social climate to be created to address the problem which has socio- legal ramifications.

Legislation alone will never provide a solution to a social problem of this magnitude they argue.

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