When justice no longer seems elusive, the wait becomes tolerable. With the Supreme Court quashing all the acquittals in the 1996 Suryanelli case involving the kidnapping and rape of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, the path is now clear for punishing those freed by the Kerala High Court citing absence of “convincing evidence” that the victim was an “unwilling partner” in sexual intercourse. The High Court will now hear afresh the appeal of the 34 it set at liberty after they were convicted by a special court. The girl from Suryanelli in Idukki district was lured by a bus conductor in January 1996, and later handed over to a lawyer. She was then held captive and raped by several men over a period of 40 days. The special court took into account the fact that she was a minor, and that neither love nor money appeared to be motivating factors. The High Court, however, relied on the fact that she made no attempt to escape despite having had opportunities to do so, and upheld the conviction of only one of the 35 held guilty by the trial court. Some of the accused in the case were politicians with the power of money and influence to back them. The victim, in contrast, was from a poor family in a plantation village who could not have fought for justice without the help of former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, lawyers and women’s rights activists. The case is nowhere near closure, but, at least now, the victim can entertain hopes of justice 17 years after her ordeal and eight after the High Court’s dramatic reversal of the trial court’s judgment.

The ruling of the Supreme Court comes at a time when there is nationwide outrage at the increasing sexual crimes against women. Besides implementing the Verma Committee recommendations on modification of legal provisions dealing with rape, the government must crack down on the widely prevalent trafficking of women for commercial sexual exploitation. Although provisions of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act are stringent, the implementation is weak in the face of organised crime. In the Suryanelli case, which caught news headlines, the victim was rehabilitated with a State government job, but, usually, cases of trafficking in women are under-reported and the victims suffer in silence. Often, trafficking in women thrives with the connivance of local policemen. The sex racket is profitable for traffickers and law-enforcers alike, and enjoys a high level of social tolerance. Without ending this situation on the ground, Acts against trafficking of women would remain ineffectual.

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