In February 2019, when the Kerala high court appointed a woman judge to hear the sexual assault case of an actress, in which top Malayalam actor Dileep is a key accused, there was hope that the long-delayed trial would finally proceed without hitches.
21 months later, the survivor had to approach the high court again, this time to ask that her case be shifted to “any other court”. The reason, she said, was the harassment unleashed by Dileep’s lawyers, which the judge Honey M. Varghese allegedly “facilitated”.
“There were many occasions in the last 11 months in which I cried inconsolably inside the special court room, unable to withstand the harassment and character assassination unleashed by lawyers representing the eighth accused [referring to Dileep]. Though the judge was a woman, she remained insensitive on all such occasions and facilitated the attack under the guise of cross-examination which lasted for more than five hours. I don’t have any hope about a free trial at the designated court. The case must be shifted to any other court immediately and I would not insist like in the past to have a woman judge at the chair,” the survivor’s counsel told justice V.G. Arun on Monday.
In a rare turn of events, A. Suresan, the public prosecutor representing the Kerala government, also backed the survivor’s concerns and urged the high court to shift the case to another court immediately, alleging that the current judge violated cross-examination procedures and took a stand beneficial to the accused in the case. The high court has reserved its order in the petition.
The trial in the 2017 case had begun in January this year in a special CBI court and was stayed by the Kerala high court earlier this month after the prosecution and survivor alleged that the court was “hostile” and “partisan”.
Almost four years since the actress was sexually assaulted in a vehicle at night, allegedly by men hired by Dileep, the case is dragging on with no end in sight. The survivor and her supporters have alleged that Dileep, the eighth accused in the case, is using his influence to weaken the charges against him.
Four main witnesses in the case, who are also actors, have turned hostile and backtracked from their earlier statements which implicated Dileep, who is currently out on bail. A key approver in the case has alleged intimidation from people he said identified themselves as “Dileep’s aides”. The influential actor and producer has obtained a gag order preventing media organisations from reporting on the trial—a tactic now used by many powerful men in cases of sexual assault. He has also managed to isolate the survivor within the Malayalam film industry—she and most of her supporters resigned from the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (A.M.M.A, currently headed by superstar Mohanlal) over the past few years after the industry body indicated through its actions and statements that their sympathies were with Dileep.
“My client has raised very serious concerns regarding criminal jurisprudence and natural justice. I have conveyed to the high court all her grievances, especially the inhuman way she was treated in the trial court and the organised way the accused had tried to manipulate the whole issue. It’s an extraordinary case with multiple dimensions. The survivor deserves justice and she never backtracked from any of her statements against the accused since the untoward incident. I feel there is solid ground for the request to shift the trial court,’’ senior lawyer S. Srikumar, who appeared on behalf of the survivor in the Kerala high court, told HuffPost India.
The survivor’s brave stand had inspired many women in Kerala’s film industry to speak up about the discrimination and harassment that they faced, long before the #MeToo movement kicked off in India.
Allegations against trial court
Judge Honey M. Varghese was assigned the high-profile case based on an early plea by the survivor that the trial should be conducted in the court of a female judge. The case has a total of 355 witnesses, including many well-known names from the Malayalam film industry. Over 80 witnesses have been examined so far, including actors Siddique, Edavela Babu, Bhama, and Bindhu Panicker—all four have turned hostile.
In her plea at the high court, the survivor has alleged that apart from the harassment by Dileep’s counsel, the special court failed to record some parts of her testimony without any lawful justification. She also complained that the trial court did not restrict the number of lawyers for the accused present inside the court hall when the petitioner was being cross-examined and failed to uphold the spirit of the in-camera trial. Over a dozen lawyers who had no direct engagement with the case were present in the court whenever the cross-examinations of the survivor and witnesses were held, she said.
The government prosecutor said in the Kerala high court that he finds merit in all the allegations raised by the survivor’s lawyer against the trial court. This rarely happens, said Hareesh Vasudevan, a lawyer in the Kerala high court.
Vasudevan also pointed out that Dileep’s actions have led to a delay in the trial.
“The charge sheet in the case was filed in November 2017 by the police after a speedy and comprehensive investigation. But the trial was delayed for more than two years because Dileep approached the high court and Supreme Court to get a copy of the video footage of the sexual assault recovered by the police in the case. So the trial in the case only began in January this year after the apex court ordered handing over of the footage with strict regulations,’’ pointed out Hareesh.
The state government also informed the high court that Judge Varghese failed to record a major disclosure by actress Manju Warrier, a prime witness and Dileep’s former wife. The allegation was raised in its affidavit submitted in response to the demand for transferring the trial to another court.
The affidavit by the state government, The New Indian Express reported, said that on February 27, 2020, when Manju Warrier was cross-examined, the defence asked her several questions with the intention of character assassination.
“There were questions asked to prove that she hadn’t contacted her daughter for years. In the re-examination, the special prosecutor asked her when she had last contacted her daughter. Manju Warrier deposed that her daughter had contacted her over the phone on February 24, 2020, and requested her not to depose anything against her father. Manju Warrier also said she replied to her daughter that she was duty-bound to reveal the truth before the court. This disclosure was not recorded by the Special Judge saying such a statement in the re-examination was inadmissible. The court rejected the special prosecutor’s request in this regard,” the newspaper quoted from the affidavit.
Approver alleges intimidation
The investigation into the case took a political turn last week when the Kasaragod district police registered a case against M. Pradeep Kottathala, office secretary of Malayalam actor and politician K.B. Ganesh Kumar, for threatening and trying to influence key approver Vipin Lal. Ganesh is an MLA from the Kerala Congress (B), part of the state’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).
Vipin Lal created headlines for the first time in July 2017 by disclosing that Dileep was involved in the conspiracy behind the assault. At the time, Vipin Lal was a remand prisoner in the Kakkanad district jail near Kochi. While Dileep denied the accusation then and A.M.M.A expressed solidarity with him, the actor was arrested within three weeks of the revelation. After the arrest, Ganesh had visited Dileep at the sub-jail in Aluva and told reporters that he was firmly behind the actor.
Ganesh did not respond to repeated requests for comment but the Kasargod Police confirmed to HuffPost India that it had filed a case against Pradeep for trying to influence Vipin Lal and his family members through repeated phone calls offering money.
Vipin Lal told HuffPost India that he and his family members had been getting calls and letters urging them to change his statement in the case since January this year. He said his confidential statement to the police implicating Dileep had resulted in the arrest of the actor.
“It was during January third week that a person impersonating a staffer of Dileep’s lawyer called my mother from a jewellery shop in Kasaragod. He reached there knowing that my father was a former employee of the shop. After getting the phone number of my mother from the shop, the impersonator contacted her repeatedly to force me to change my statement to the police,’’ he said.
Police identified Kottathala based on footage from the surveillance camera at the shop. They also found a copy of the identity card Kottathala produced to check in to a local lodge. Police sub-inspector Anil Kumar told HuffPost India that they are trying to trace the owner of a SIM card registered in Tamil Nadu from which Vipin Lal was regularly getting phone calls with the demand to change his statement.
Cracks in the film industry
Despite the serious charges he is facing, Dileep is still considered one of the biggest stars in Kerala. Dileep started his career as a mimicry artist and slogged it out in small roles for years before getting good movies in the late 90s and early 2000s. Around the time Mammootty and Mohanlal began to mostly play alpha-male characters, Dileep carved a niche for himself with his comic timing in movies such as Punjabi House and Thenkasipattanam. He became a star in his own right after the mega hit Meesa Madhavan in 2002, opposite his now wife Kavya Madhavan. His first in-house production was CID Moosa (2003), after which his Graand Production has produced a number of films including Twenty:20 (2008), in which almost all A.M.M.A members acted for free to raise funds for welfare schemes.
He’s also a theatre owner and enjoys the support of a wide network of producers, distributors, and theatre-owners.
According to the prosecution, Dileep had extreme animosity towards the survivor, who had earlier accused him of taking away her chances in the industry using his clout. The actor’s alleged grouse was that the survivor sided with Manju Warrier, an award-winning actress who left the industry after her marriage to Dileep in 1998. He was also allegedly annoyed by the survivor reporting to Manju Warrier about his relationship with Kavya Madhavan, whom he married in 2016.
Manju Warrier is now active again in the Malayalam film world while Kavya Madhavan stopped acting after her marriage to Dileep.
Soon after the assault in 2017, the Kerala government had deputed a three-member committee, headed by retired justice K. Hema. to look into the various issues confronting women in the Malayalam film industry. In its report submitted to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in January 2020, the committee has concluded that sexual harassment and the practice of casting couch are rampant in the industry. The commission also found several grave issues which included blatant human rights violations at shooting locations, and lack of adequate provisions of restrooms and changing rooms for women artists.
The committee, which also comprised retired IAS officer K.B. Valsala Kumari and actress Sharada, had also presented evidence of several instances of sexual abuse and listed several cyber-attacks, targeting women artists on social media. The commission also pointed out in its report that both male and female artists hesitated to give evidence and testify before it out of fear.
Activists have also condemned the gag order obtained by Dileep against media coverage of the case. While seeking the order, Dileep argued that publishing matters concerning the in-camera proceedings in the case would injure his reputation and violate his fundamental right for a fair trial. He had also demanded protection under Section 327(2) of the CrPC, which mandates that rape inquiries and trials should be conducted in-camera; and Section 327(3), which mandates that it would be unlawful to print or publish any matter related to in-camera proceedings without the court’s previous permission.
“These legal provisions are originally intended to safeguard the identity and privacy of survivors in a male dominated society that attempts to shame women who have faced sexual assault and harassment. On the other hand, these provisions are now being used to protect the reputation of a person accused of committing an offense of rape,” said J. Sandhya, an activist and lawyer based in Thiruvananthapuram.
This opinion was backed by Parvathy Thiruvothu, the prominent actress who recently resigned from A.M.M.A in protest against the comments made by its general secretary Edavela Babu in a media interview denigrating the survivor.
“In sexual assault cases, there must be a top priority to protect the privacy and dignity of survivors. However, responsible reporting of broad facts in rape trials would help protect larger interests of justice. In this case, the accused had obtained a gag order by portraying himself as the victim,” said Parvathy, who is a member of the Women in Cinema Collective, which was formed after the assault.