October 15, 2018

A year on, Odisha yet to ensure justice in Kunduli gang rape case

Image source: Citizens for Justice and Peace
A year on, the case of alleged gang rape of a minor girl by men in uniform in Kunduli area of Odisha’s Koraput district has become a point of discussion again. After dismissal from Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Dr. Damodar Rout, lawmaker as well as former minister in the Naveen Patnaik cabinet, sparked fresh controversy by making statements that evidences were manipulated, destroyed and altered in the case to protect one alleged rapist, a constable in paramilitary forces.

However, scientific experts reject Rout's charges while inviting him and all to prove the reports wrong.

An ordeal to agony 

The girl, a class IX student from Musaguda village under Potangi police limits, alleged that a group of men in uniform gang-raped her in a forest while she was returning home from the Kunduli market on October 10, 2017.

The survivor somehow reached her aunt’s house and was first admitted to a local hospital and shifted to Saheed Laxman Nayak Medical College and Hospital in Koraput.

Director General of Odisha police said the very next day on treating it as a “red flag” case and formation of a separate team to identify the culprits. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik also termed the incident as “inhuman.”

Since nothing significant happened till almost a month, people started questioning police actions in identifying and nabbing the alleged perpetrators in the case. The Human Rights Protection Cell (HRPC) of Odisha police, on Nov 7, 2017, came up with its statement while referring to medical reports that the minor girl was not raped.

Driven by her nearly four-month-long ordeal that ended with agony, the survivor committed suicide and ended her life on January 22, 2018. 

Rout’s recent claims 

Rout pulled to the dock the reigning government saying, “Our government left no stone unturned to suppress the Kunduli gang-rape case.”

“Preliminary investigation confirmed semen spots on the clothes of the victim which she wore at the time of the incident,” Rout added claiming further that “the police sent another set of clothes of the victim later for advanced forensic tests purposefully to cover up the rape.” 

These claims by the lawmaker, who remained a minister in the Naveen led governments, in regard to the alleged gang-rape case raised many eyebrows over investigation by the police, which simply rejected incidence of any rape on the basis of forensic and medical evidences, the political intent of the leader himself, and the state of democracy and governance in Odisha. 

Reasons of doubt 

As per a report leaked by a regional TV channel, Odisha TV (OTV), two patches of semen from two persons, allegedly rapists, with A and B blood groups were spotted. Authorities of the State Forensic Science Laboratory (SFSL) did not disown this leaked report but explained through a press release that the disseminated one was the “preliminarily inter divisional report” and not the final one.

This report still remains the centre of doubt the laboratory authorities needs to clarify.

In another report that had the same file number and signatory, as shown by the aforesaid tv channel, two patches of semen were replaced by vaginal secretion from single human being with blood group A, of the survivor to suggest who later committed suicide.

Subsequently, the district police also filed an affidavit negating the allegations of gang-rape with the Odisha High Court in compliance to a direction issued by the later regarding a PIL seeking probe into the case by CBI or NIA.

Now the question is how could two reports signed by a single investigator have same file number with different findings? It was by mistake or deliberate? And, was it true that samples collected were altered by police while sending to SFSL and Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata, for advanced tests, as claimed by Rout? 

No medical evidence 

Terming such allegations made by Rout as just “baseless,” Professor Sudipa Das, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at MKCG Medical College, Berhampur, who led the forensic medical team to investigate the case told, “I don’t see the government at any fault in regard to forensic medical investigations in this case.”

“Our investigation was all scientific thus unbiased. We reached the same day and did our job meticulously with utmost care in compliance to the guidelines set by the government for forensic medical tests in such cases. We didn’t see any medical evidence of penetration with the survivor, as alleged. No vaginal injury, no foreign elements in any of the samples collected, no marks of any struggle with perpetrators to corroborate the claims of the survivor,” Das said authoritatively.

“I dare anyone to contest the medical examination report and prove it wrong scientifically,” she invited while pointing out that “everyone was happy with one side of the story where scientific investigation was completely ignored.”

Asked about the report with mention of semen patches, Das simply said, “We didn’t find any such evidence in the samples we examined.”

However, with some degree of disagreement over HRPC’s claim that the forensic medical examination report rules out gang rape theory, Das told that the team didn’t rule out the incidence of rape but said there was “no medical evidence” of penetration or sexual offence.

“Medical examination being only a part of the investigation, rape had to be established or ruled out on basis of investigations done by all different agencies.” 

Awaiting Justice 

Underlining recent amendments in the rape law as need of the hour, a bench of Delhi High Court observed in July 2018 that Justice cannot be denied to victims of sexual offences for lack of medical evidence. “In most of such cases, there is no medical evidence. Oral testimony of the victim is sufficient,” it mentioned.

Rape of minors becoming a trend in Odisha, the Kunduli gang rape case is just a tip of the iceberg where justice is still awaited.

While the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has stated on the floor of the Assembly, on September 10, 2018, that the crime branch investigation into alleged Kunduli gang rape case is still on. Judicial probe ordered after no-rape claim by the Odisha police continues as well although its tenure has completed on September 25, 2018, and no further extension to the inquiry commission has been announced yet by the government. 

An acid test 

The victim’s ordeal being a journey through trauma and agony, the pertinent question is, can the ongoing probes unearth the truth in the case, facilitate justice and bring those responsible for the ordeal and death of the minor girl to book?

It appears to be an acid test for Naveen Patnaik government to go beyond rhetoric and prove its commitment towards the safety of girls and women of Odisha and, also, to the very word and spirit of ‘non-violence’ that the Chief Minister has been urging consistently for inclusion in the preamble of India's constitution.

An edited version of this article first appeared on The Quint, on October 13, 2018.

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