The first rape, of a nun, was in communally charged Kandhamal in 2008. Now, a tense trial recreates the horror. Rohini Mohan reports
AT THE car door, Latika Devi checks her bag one last time: a spare salwar kameez, towel, toothbrush, and a limp blue file with yellowing paper. She breathes in deeply. Hugs the bag to her chest.
“Ready?” asks her lawyer Dibakar Parichha, from the back of the car. “Do I have a choice?” she says and gets in.
For most of the 45-minute drive from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar to its old nerve-centre Cuttack, Latika studies the photocopied papers on her lap. The words are her own, dictated to a scribbling policeman 10 days after the incident of 25 August 2008. Two years down, she must narrate the incident as if she saw it yesterday.
“I am a resident of Nuagaon village, Kandhamal district,” she begins in Odiya, with her eyes closed. “I knew the nun and the priest who worked in our village. I recognise all the accused standing in front of me; they are also from my village. I run a shop opposite the Janvikas Kendra, in whose verandah the incident took place. (“At 1 pm on 25 August 2008,” prompts Dibakar) A mob of 40-50 men, including the said accused, took the nun inside the Janvikas Kendra. When they brought her out, her blouse and sari were torn…”
Latika is one of the 33 witnesses to depose in the Cuttack district sessions court, where nine men are being tried for the alleged rape of a 29-year-old nun. The incident occurred during the anti-Christian riots in August 2008 that killed 38 people and displaced more than 22,000. News of the rape made international headlines. Pope Benedict condemned it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it “Orissa’s shame”. BJP leader LK Advani denounced it as a “shameful crime against humanity”.
For Latika, however, this is a case deeply rooted in her hometown. The victim, the 23 arrested, the nine accused in the current phase of trials, the 33 witnesses and even some of the lawyers are from Kandhamal. “It is international news, but I see the effect right outside my window,” says Latika. Precisely because of this, in March this year, the high court transferred the trial out of Kandhamal to a Cuttack court. All other 831 riot cases are being heard in a fast-track court in Phulbani, Kandhamal.
For two months after August 2008, the details of the rape were figments of media imagination, allegations by Hindu and Christian groups and apathetic politicians. In October 2008, the nun, her face veiled in a black-and-red dupatta, held a press meet in Delhi. “I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimised again by the Orissa Police,” she said, asking for a CBI probe. The sequence of events the nun described on that day became the dominant narrative of the crime. Until the trial began.
The nun’s lawyers try to restrict the case to the act of rape. But it becomes, invariably, about Kandhamal
In the Cuttack court, 22 witnesses gave testimonies in in-camera sessions with judge BK Misra. Seven turned hostile; they denied having seen rape or assault or refused to recognise the accused. The other 15 witnesses — neighbours, policemen and administrators — said the rape had taken place between 1 and 1.30 pm in front of a police outpost with 12 policemen watching. A priest, Father Thomas Chellan, who was with the nun, was seen being beaten and paraded shirtless on the street. But during the cross-examination, most witnesses were cornered into saying that while they saw the nun and Father Chellan being paraded half-nude, no one had actually seen the rape. “This is the difficulty in most rape cases,” says Akshaya Kumar Nayak, assistant to the Special Public Prosecutor. “The victim is often the only eyewitness.”
A CRIMINAL LAWYER for 28 years, Nayak says, “Cross examinations are meant to rattle even the truthful.” When Father Chellan testified as the key witness, the defence lawyer said he had not mentioned ‘rape’ in his FIR. His reply in court reads thus: “It is a fact that there is no mention in my FIR of any allegations of rape on (the nun)” because this second FIR alleged assault (on Chellan) and was not about the rape at all. Local and national news reports carried this exchange in one line: “Father Chellan says nun was not raped.”
Appointed by the state, Nayak has been struggling with nine other lawyers to keep the nature of the case criminal. “It keeps boiling down to why the rape happened,” says Nayak. It becomes, invariably, about Kandhamal. About the murder of VHP leader Swami Lakshmananda on 23 August 2008, that incited mobs to lash out against Christians. About the saffronised caste conflict between Kandha and Panos tribes when the latter converted to Christianity and lost SC/ST benefits. “We’re simply trying to prove that the nun was raped — whatever the reason,” says Nayak.
Chief defence lawyer Soura Chandra Mahapatra, on the other hand, is trying to prove it was an act of retaliation. “Allegation of rape is only secondary,” he says. “It is first about Odisha’s reputation. Hindus in Odisha are not rapists.” In his chamber outside the high court premises, Mahapatra is flanked by 11 other associate lawyers. They insist they are defending the accused pro bono, volunteering to support those who have been framed. “Yes, the nun was humiliated in public and her clothes ripped off,” he says, calling this “a spontaneous reaction” to the Swami’s murder. “The accused have only outraged the modesty of a woman,” he adds.
Legal narratives fall into place, but the clinching evidence is still to come: from the nun herself
As the lawyers disperse at the end of the day, one of Mahapatra’s close associates, a bespectacled Gyanalok Mohanty, hangs around. “Have you been to Kandhamal?” he asks, offering a cup of tea. Mohanty had been a volunteer with a local youth wing of the VHP before he began practising law 11 years ago. He frequented Kandhamal “as part of our organisation’s efforts to fight rampant conversion to Christianity”. After the donga, as the Kandhamal violence is referred to in Odisha, Mohanty has dealt with about 300 riot cases, largely in the form of bail applications. The highlight of his career, he admits, was when he defended the BJP’s sitting MLA Manoj Pradhan in a riot case.
THROUGHOUT THE trial, the defence lawyers have been media savvy. At the end of the 23 September hearing, reporters from local television channels stand expectantly outside the court. They familiarly greet the defence lawyers exiting the court and yell questions at them for soundbites. When the special public prosecutor arrives, however, the waiting semi-circle of cameramen and reporters quietly gives way, letting the nun’s lawyers walk on without a quote.
On hearing of media presence at the court, BJP spokesman Ashok Sahu too makes an appearance to speak to TEHELKA. Retired cop and politician Sahu had been arrested for making inflammatory speeches in Kandhamal before the 2009 Assembly polls. “The Archbishop is publicising the nun’s rape to energise Christians.” In mock horror, he adds, “What animals Hindus must be if we don’t even spare nuns! This defamation will get a fitting reply.”
It is this very reaction nuns in Odisha have begun to fear. In a quiet convent in the centre of Bhubaneswar, Sister Bimla is preparing for her fortnightly visit to Kandhamal. An Adivasi from Tumudibandh village, once home to the murdered Swami Lakshmananda, Bimla became a nun a decade ago. “For peace of mind,” she says, smiling at the irony. After the rape, Bimla’s congregation instructed the nuns to abandon their usual beige or white saris during field work. “We now wear salwar kameez like other women, so we don’t stand out,” says Bimla. The nun’s rape was discussed threadbare in Bimla’s congregation: Was it Catholic of the nun to have gone public? Should she have simply forgiven those who sinned? “Some disagree with me, but we’re women of Kandhamal as much as we’re women of God,” says Bimla. “The nun represents all of us. Justice is as much a religious matter, as it is a legal matter.”
As bits of the legal narrative fall into place in Cuttack, the most clinching testimony is still to come. From the victim herself. Since the trial began, the nun has been sheltered by the Archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar, with only a few aware of her whereabouts. She has been summoned to court thrice, but her lawyers have pleaded security concerns. She has only attended Test Identification Parades (TIPs), where arrested persons are lined up in front of the victim or witness for identification. For every arrested person, nine other ‘dummies’ (prisoners with similar physiques) are also lined up. In the first TIP in the Choudwar jail, the nun had to identify nine accused persons from 90 prisoners. She picked two accused and one ‘dummy’. Always covering her face with a scarf and sunglasses, the nun has had to attend two more TIPs in June and July — identifying one from 70, and another one from 30.
Besides the nun’s own statement, the other crucial but equally controversial piece of evidence is the first medical examination report. This exam involves a thorough check of the alleged rape victim’s body. Wounds are listed separately as fresh or previously sustained. Foreign pubic hair, teeth marks or nail chips, if found, are carefully collected. A vaginal swab test is also conducted to glean DNA from semen or blood. In her testimony, examining surgeon Dr Sangeeta Mishra details the nun’s injuries and declares: “Our findings are consistent with recent sign and symptoms of forceful attempted sexual intercourse.”
On 24 September, the court awaits the appearance of the nun. Investigating Officer Dilip Mohanty paces impatiently outside the courtroom. Mohanty has “personally arrested” all 23 people in this case. One of the chief prosecution lawyers informs him that the nun will not turn up today. Mohanty storms down the stairs. It is the third occasion of the nun’s nonappearance for cross examination. “It has been a really fast investigation but now it is dragging,” shrugs Mohanty, both his hands in his trouser pockets. The lawyers explain to Mohanty that the newly arrested persons are still to be included in this trial. When that happens, the nun would present her statement.
“We have presented all the evidence, medical reports, witnesses, and arrested everyone who should be arrested,” says Mohanty, launching into a tirade. “All we need is for the nun to turn up. And she does not.” He swings open the door of his SUV and sits down in a huff. “It is a heinous crime. It is supposed to be simple. If everyone keeps making it into something more complicated, this will never end,” he says.
The investigating officer is one of the few who believe that the incident of 25 August 2008 is simple. For many witnesses, the memory of the rape must overshadow their own pain of losing their home and sense of security. The lawyers either strip down or compound the crime, arguing from disparate positions. Nuns and priests from across congregations protect and shelter the victims, wondering if the trial is putting their community under more peril. The memory of violence in Kandhamal is invoked at all times, by everyone, its stories embedded in the anatomy of the rape trial. Simple, it is not.