Kerala Govt in a Soup Over Sexual Assault Cases Against Clergyman and Partyman

The LDF government has found itself cornered over an issue it prominently raised in its election manifesto – women's safety.

Note: This article was updated with the news of Franco Mulakkal stepping down and republished on September 15, 2018.

Kochi: Just a couple of weeks after organising a historic rescue and rehabilitation operation during the Kerala floods with grit and determination, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala seems to have lost the plot while handling two sexual harassment cases in the state. As the allegations of sexual harassment against a sitting MLA and a serving Catholic bishop make headlines, the state government has found itself cornered over an issue it prominently raised its election manifesto – that of women’s safety.

While in opposition, the LDF had effectively used the two big rape and murder cases in the state, projecting the United Democratic Front (UDF) government as predatory when it came to women’s safety. The LDF manifesto gave ample attention to women’s issues: paragraphs 425 to 438 focused on women empowerment and development, including the re-introduction of gender auditing and gender budgeting; paragraph 432 talked about implementing the Protection of  Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act 2005, and the Prevention of Sexual Abuse at Workplaces Act 2013 in letter and spirit to reduce the atrocities against women. It also promised to review and improve the functioning of the state women commission in the light of views of previous chairpersons. Ironically, the very chairperson of the commission has courted controversy by refusing to act suo motu against CPI (M) MLA P.K. Sasi, who is accused of sexual misconduct towards a young comrade.

In another case, five young nuns are staging a sit-in just outside the high court in Kochi since Saturday, demanding the arrest of Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of Jalandhar who is accused of sexually exploiting a nun. The body posters of the down-hearted nuns, holding placards and seeking justice at the busy high court junction, should shame not only the catholic clergy but the political leadership of Kerala, as it has already exposed the not-so-holy nexus between the church and the politico who are allegedly working hand-in-glove to sabotage the investigation.

On September 13, Franco Mulakkal issued a circular handing over his administrative responsibility of Jalandhar diocese to a senior priest. The circular was issued a day after the Kerala Police had asked him to appear before the investigating team on September 19.

The nun lodged a complaint against Franco Mulakkal on June 27 this year, accusing the Bishop of repeated sexually assault over two years starting in May 2014. According to the memo filed by the police in the high court of Kerala, “the accused Bishop Franco (has) committed unnatural offence and committed rape repeatedly on different dates from 05 May 2014 to 23 September 2016 on the sister against the will and consent of her by abusing his dominance over her as bishop of Jalandhar after confining her in the guest room no 20 of St. Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad.”

Political observers and women’s rights activists say this is more than enough to arrest any person in a rape case. The government and the police are playing hand-in-hand with the church, which is vehemently opposing the protesting nuns. The church even gave the bishop a clean chit after its internal inquiry found that the bishop was “innocent.” “The nun who has complained against the bishop has conspired in connivance with nine others, including five nuns, against the bishop,” the church body said in a statement, according to a Financial Express report.

Interestingly, the opposition is somewhat silent in the bishop’s case barring some stray statements, whereas independent MLA P.C. George called the nun a prostitute, a term he later revoked, saying he is only withdrawing the word and that the rest of his statement would remain. The motor-mouthed MLA, who has courted a number of controversies in the past, never misses a chance to belittle women. He had made similar remarks on the Malayalam actress who survived a kidnap and rape, in which superstar Dileep has been chargesheeted.

“Bishop Franco, P.K. Sasi and P.C. George – all three are doing the same thing. These fellows should be shown the door immediately. If the Left front is protecting these men with next elections in the mind, it would be fatal for them like spilling a drop of poison in to a delicious meal,” wrote feminist and social commentator S. Saradakkutty on her Facebook post.

All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) state secretary P. Sathidevi said she was confident that the bishop will be dealt with according to the book. “The crime has been committed long ago, and there are no medico-forensic evidences, which is why, we believe, the police are taking their time. This government will not hesitate to arrest any accused person, be it a bishop, a swamiji or a film star. We have several examples from the past. We as an organisation stand with the survivor and we will extend all the help to her. As far as P.C. George is concerned, he has to be brought to justice for outraging the modesty of women.” The AIDWA will be organising a protest march in Kottayam in this regard on September 15, said the former member of parliament from Vatakara.

The initial response from the CPI(M) when the complaint against P.K. Sasi came up was to ignore it. The accused and the local party unit initially denied the very existence of the complaint. It was only after the general secretary agreed that he had received the complaint from the DYFI district leader who is a law student that the CPI (M) state leadership spoke about an internal inquiry that was under way. The intra-party factionalism, which the party is yet to get over completely, resulted in the news getting leaked to a television channel not locally but from Delhi.

According to the initial narrative, the complaint sent by the DYFI leader was allegedly ignored by a faction of the top leadership, implicating no less than Brinda Karat and Prakash Karat. When the secretary cleared the air by owning up the decision to forward the complaint to the state committee, the state secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who is also a politburo member of the party, had to admit that an internal inquiry is under way. The Kerala police however, decided against registering suo motu case against the MLA. The complainant, too, as of now, does not want the case to be taken up by law-enforcement agencies.

The party and the government had a foot-in-the mouth moment when State Commission for Women chairperson M.C. Josephine tried to dismiss the charges of sexual harassment against P.K. Sasi citing lack of a formal complaint. “We are all human beings, mistakes do happen. People inside the party may also have committed such mistakes,” she said. This statement by a central committee member of the party was a no-brainer considering that she has been a long-time champion of women’s cause in Kerala. She further said, “It’s up to the party to decide. The Marxist Party will have their own system of dealing with these complaints; it’s not a new thing. Since its inception, the party has handled such complaints.”

The CPI(M), meanwhile, maintained that the party was conducting an inquiry and it would take appropriate action after that. Minister for law and cultural affairs A.K. Balan and member of parliament P.K. Sreemathi MP head the inquiry commission.

The opposition called out CPI(M)’s stand that the sexual abuse complaint would be investigated internally. Leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala said A.K. Balan should conduct the investigation after dissolving the state police.

All India Democratic Women’s Association was caught in the back foot when the organisation had been hesitant in taking an open stand on the issue. AIDWA state secretary P. Sathidevi, told The Wire that the organisation stood by the young woman who complained against the MLA. “It was her decision not to lodge an FIR with the Police. The remedy she wants now is from the party. We would support her with whatever and whenever she wants. If she lodges a complaint, the police should conduct an inquiry against the MLA.”

“No group – whether it is party or the church – should be allowed to go scot-free citing some internal inquiries as far as atrocities against women are concerned,” said Rekha Raj, a Dalit feminist scholar. She added, “Sexual assault is a social crime. Democrats have the responsibility to question not only the perpetrators but anybody who dares to protect them. I deplore the stand of the AIDWA in both the cases. Better they dissolve their organisation than taking this kind of a stand.”

In the bishop’s case, the police has summoned him for questioning on September 19, after which they will decide whether to arrest him or not. According to the police memo submitted in the Kerala high court, there are discrepancies in every statement they recorded in the case, including that of the survivor, which is why they have not arrested the accused yet.

Meanwhile, the fate of the party inquiry about the MLA’s misconduct is not known to the public. According to CPI (M) politburo member M.A. Baby, the party is not wary of reporting the case to the police if the complainant wishes so. Many believe that the ruling party could brush the issue under the carpet even as comrade Baby said there is no doubt that anyone who harasses a woman will not be a part of the CPI(M).

When chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan returns from the US after his treatment, the states of affairs in his party and the state may not be as calm as he would like them to be.