The crime that enraged Puducherry

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Trigger warning: the following article has references to rape. Please avoid reading if you feel distressed by the subject

By all accounts, Nithya (name changed to protect identity), 9, was a cheerful child. She studied at a primary school in Puducherry, a coastal city in the Union Territory of the same name, bordering Tamil Nadu in the south. Her father says she enjoyed playing sports and the freedom of walking or cycling along the narrow lanes of her neighbourhood, located at one end of Beach Road, where houses are densely packed together. She would buy biscuits or sweets from small shops. Like many children her age, she was curious.

On March 2, Nithya went out to play. She should have been gone only a short while, but she did not return. Her sister, 11, was the last to see her. Her parents filed a missing complaint.

Two days later, when the police found no leads, Nithya’s parents hit the streets, along with relatives and a group of residents of the neighbourhood, in protest. They staged a blockade on the arterial Mahatma Gandhi Road, demanding that police officials make more of an effort in tracing the child. The protesters dispersed only when the police assured them that they would intensify their search and find the girl soon.

When yet another day passed without any signs of progress in the investigation, the agitation began to snowball. Campaigns seeking justice for the girl began trending on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). From the morning of March 5, cadres of the Opposition parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Congress, the Left parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, and the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, joined the protesters. Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan and Home Minister A. Namassivayam, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held meetings with senior police officers to review progress in the case.


Also read | BJP delegation visits house of murdered schoolgirl in Puducherry

The same afternoon, Nithya’s body, with her hands and feet tied, was found in a drain a few metres from her house. The discovery came as a shock to the city. S. Sundhari, a resident of Nithya’s neighbourhood, says, “We have heard that such atrocities happen to girls in different parts of India. But we never thought it would happen to a child in our locality.”

However, according to data furnished by the Puducherry police, the Union Territory with a population of nearly 14 lakh people recorded 164 cases pertaining to crimes against women last year. Of these, 92 cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012; 30 on charges of molestation; and nine on charges of rape.

The day the body was found, the police held two men from Nithya’s neighbourhood on charges of kidnapping and murder. The victim’s family says they knew the accused. Namassivayam announced that a Special Investigation Team had been constituted under Senior Superintendent of Police Kalaivanan to probe whether more people were involved in the case. Earlier, this week, the post-mortem report revealed that the child had also been raped.

“Everyone here knows one another,” says Sundhari. “Usually, we tell our children to be cautious while mingling with strangers. Now, it is scary that we have to teach them to be wary of people known to them too.”

Protests erupted after the child went missing and there was no immediate headway in the case. Three days after her disappearance, the police found her body.

Protests erupted after the child went missing and there was no immediate headway in the case. Three days after her disappearance, the police found her body.
| Photo Credit:
S.S. Kumar

The day she disappeared

On March 2, at 8 a.m., Nithya’s parents left her at home with her sister and went to work. Nithya’s mother works at a health centre as a help and her father owns a mini truck which he drives mainly to transport fish from the harbour to various markets. It was a Saturday, a non-working day for primary schools. The parents routinely left their daughters at home except on Sundays, when the mother would take the day off.

The police say Nithya stepped out to play soon after. She came home to eat lunch before leaving the house again. At around 5 p.m., Nithya’s mother returned home and only found her older daughter. When there was no sign of Nithya for some time, she went around the locality in search of her, gripped by dread. She went with a few relatives to the police station and lodged a complaint. She then called her husband to inform him that their daughter was missing.


Also read | YSRCP leaders call on rape victim’s parents in Puducherry

“I came home immediately,” Nithya’s father recalls. “We searched all the areas near our house. Soon, it was night. We thought she may have been kidnapped as there have been reports of child kidnapping cases in recent times.”

After registering a case of kidnapping, the police and the girl’s relatives combed through the entire area. They navigated their way first through the narrow lanes and then the wider adjacent ones, marked by posh houses, large guest houses, and hanging bougainvillea. They went to the beach, searching for her near stalls and amid the slippery rocks withstanding the force of the waves. The CCTV footage from the area also did not show any signs of Nithya.

“We initially restricted the search to the child’s residential area, but there was opposition from the relatives. They strongly believed that the girl had been abducted and taken elsewhere. So, we extended our search beyond Puducherry,” says a police officer, who was part of the initial investigation.

Three days after the search, the police finally found the partly decomposed body of the child in a drain. The injuries on her body indicated that she had met a brutal end.

Men known to her

During the days between the time Nithya went missing and her body was found, the police came under some flak. Residents in the neighbourhood felt that the response to the missing complaint had been lukewarm. They wanted the police to cast the net wider, but the investigators seemed keen on searching the neighbourhood first.

Under pressure, the police intensified their investigation and picked up some suspects for questioning. One of them was Kakka alias Karnas, 19, a school dropout. Karnas lives with his mother and siblings some 50 metres from Nithya’s house.

When he was interrogated, the police say Karnas admitted that he had taken the child to the house of Harikrishnan alias Viveganandan, 56, a dairy farmer, when she was playing. Viveganandan, too, lives a stone’s throw away from her house. “He used to give Karnas money to buy alcohol and cannabis,” says a neighbour. “Karnas would regularly go to Viveganandan’s house to party.”

The accused confessed that they raped and murdered the child and dumped her body in the drain behind Vivaganandhan’s house, according to the police. The confession was corroborated by medical evidence. The post-mortem was conducted at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research in Puducherry.

Based on these statements, the police arrested Karnas and Viveganandan under Section 6(1) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012; the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; and under several sections of the Indian Penal Code including 363 (punishment for kidnapping), 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement), and 302 (punishment for murder). The two men have been remanded to judicial custody and lodged in separate cells at the Central Prison in Kalapet, around 15 kilometres from Puducherry town.

While Karnas stayed put in the locality after allegedly committing the crime, Viveganandhan left for Kottakuppam in Villipuram district, about 2 km away. They police say he, too, knew the child. Neither of these men had a criminal past, but both of them were known to get into trouble. Neighbours say Viveganandan was once beaten up by the residents for his “inappropriate behaviour with women.” They allege that his wife left him because she was disgusted with his attitude towards women. Karnas, they say, used to fight with his mother for money after getting drunk. He would also smoke cannabis and get into brawls with the residents of the locality.

Nithya’s father recalls seeing the two accused spend their evenings at the same place where the body was recovered. “I have seen Karnas and his friends smoking ganja near the drain. Sometimes, Viveganandan would join them. We warned them several times not to smoke and drink in public places,” he says.

While political parties and residents link the crime to substance abuse, the police say there is no evidence. “We can’t say the murder is directly linked to drug addiction and alcoholism. But when Karnas was arrested, he was high. It took him hours to get sober,” says a police officer.

The Director General of Police, B. Srinivas, says the police are making efforts to prevent the sale of drugs. So far, they have focussed on cracking down on the supply chain and on sources from other States. There is no organised drug cartel operating from Puducherry, he adds.

“Drug addiction is a social menace which has to be prevented through awareness. While strong enforcement is the responsibility of the police, it is also necessary that various sections of society and government departments come together to create awareness,” he adds, in officialese.

Srinivas says the police will file the charge sheet in 5-6 weeks. The government has also decided to approach the district court to fast-track the trial once the charge sheet is submitted.

Former Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry Kiran Bedi believes that the Puducherry government should not allow more liquor outlets and should instead reduce its dependence on revenue from liquor. “There is also need for better rehabilitation centres, including in prisons,” she says.

Educating the child

Following the incident, the people of Puducherry have questioned the effectiveness of policing, especially the weakness of the ‘beat system’. Under this system, every constable is assigned an area and is mandated to frequently visit it to learn about the issues that the people face.

“In recent times, we have seen a weakening of the beat system. We don’t see anyone patrolling these areas. Senior officers do not conduct field visits. If senior officers did that, inspectors and the constabulary would be on their toes,” says Raghu Chandran, a resident.

But Assistant Professor of Criminology at Rashtriya Raksha University, Puducherry Campus, Shivalaxmi Arumugham, says this is not a viable solution. “Although the police do instil fear among the people, we cannot have them around at all times. Community or public vigilance is also important. And any suspicious activity should be reported immediately,” she says.

Her colleague, Nethaji Subash, adds that only a collaborative exercise will enhance public safety. “It will also lead to a better relationship between the police and community,” he says. “Regular meetings between the police and the residents would help create awareness about crimes and also help people identify potential offenders.”

Arumugham adds that it is important for people to know that those who abuse children are often known to them. “These offenders are often from the family or the neighbourhood. Educating children is important. They should know that they can report anything that makes them uncomfortable. Education is also important for parents. If they see behavioural changes in their child, they should speak to the child. This way, we can prevent atrocities,” she says.

In any society, children should be able to play outside or roam around without fear, says child rights activist Vidya Ramkumar. “It is the child’s right to play or roam around alone or with friends in the neighbourhood. This is important for the child’s development. But adult supervision is definitely required,” she says.

Before Nithya was cremated, Chief Minister N. Rangasamy announced a compensation of ₹20 lakh to the family. Representatives of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes visited the victim’s house and handed over a cheque of ₹7.12 lakh. A delegation of the BJP, led by party in-charge for the Union Territory, Nirmal Kumar Surana, also went to the victim’s house on March 14 and handed the family a compensation of ₹5 lakh.

Money cannot take away from the family’s grief, though. Nithya’s father recalls how he saw Karnas even when he was searching for his child on March 2. “He was near my house,” he says, shaking in anger. “He even used to buy sweets and ice-cream whenever he saw my child. I had no idea that he had such a beast in him.”

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