A recent court verdict in a decade-old rape and murder case has stirred Dharmasthala in Karnataka’s coastal Dakshina Kannada district, with the ripples being felt far beyond the temple town and triggering a poster war.
While one set of posters call for justice for the family of the rape victim, another set, which has mostly sprung up within the temple town, call for an end to the case and the “false allegations against Sri Kshetra (Dharmasthala)”.
On June 16, a Special CBI Court in Bengaluru acquitted 44-year-old Santhosh Rao in connection with the October 2012 rape-murder of a 17-year-old in Dharmasthala. The 95-page judgment points at “loopholes” in the probe — the failure of officials to collect key evidence such as CCTV footage and call detail records (CDR) of the accused, and incorrect storing of the victim’s vaginal swabs. The order also recommends action against all investigators who “botched” up the probe in the earliest stages by “losing” evidence that could have led to the real perpetrators. “This is a fit case to place before the acquittal committee for initiating needful action against the erring officials,” it states.
Allegations by the victim’s family
The girl’s family has consistently maintained that police (both local and the Karnataka CID) — and the CBI which subsequently took over the case — implicated the wrong person in an alleged bid to protect an influential family. The family had relied on eyewitness accounts to claim that three to four men were seen dragging a girl away around the time the teenager went missing on October 9, 2012.
The verdict echoes the questions that were being raised by the teenager’s family since Santhosh was arrested on October 12, 2012, two days after her body was discovered in the town’s forested area. Speaking to The Indian Express, her mother alleged investigations by the police, the Karnataka CID and even the CBI had failed to find any “real” evidence against Santhosh. The investigators, she continued, never questioned the three youths named in the court records who, the family suspects, played a role in the teenager’s death at the behest of the influential family.
A Special CBI Court had, based on a plea by the victim’s father, asked the CBI in February 2017 to probe the role of the youths in her death, but the order was overturned in January 2021 by the Karnataka High Court.
The mother said, “The real perpetrators are still roaming free. When the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder happened, the entire country rallied against the perpetrators. We are hopeful of getting justice as more and more people and organisations back us in our fight.”
She recalled how her daughter, as she left for college for an exam on October 9, 2012, had promised to return home for lunch. Instead, the girl was found dead near her home a day later.
Two days later, some locals, including Gopala Krishna Gowda and Ravi Pujari who were named as witnesses, caught hold of Santhosh and handed him over to the police. Gowda and Pujari died during the trial — Gopala due to ill health and Pujari by suicide.
The police charge sheet claimed that he had set up a tent near the spot where the body was found. The victim’s relatives claimed that while searching for her everywhere, they did not come across any tent when they combed the area a day before her body was found. The family alleged that the CBI followed evidence gathered by the local police and chargesheeted Santhosh despite lack of proof.
The June 16 acquittal order notes, “… parents of the deceased, near relatives and the people of Belathangadi have taken the names of the … persons about their alleged involvement in the crime. However, no materials are on record to show that the I.O. (investigating officer) has conducted investigation, subjected these suspected persons to interrogation and has done some investigation in respect of the allegations made against them.”
The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) at Madiwala, Bengaluru, which received the swabs, said it could not get any DNA from the swabs. “Vaginal swabs should not be dried and packed. All doctors know this,” a scientific officer with FSL told the court, which noted that the swabs would have been the “best piece of evidence” to connect the accused to the crime. The order stated, “The doctor who collected the vaginal swab virtually demolished the entire case of the prosecution at the inception.”
The verdict also states that though the police had taken the tower dump of mobile numbers active near the crime scene around the time of the incident, the data was never handed over to investigators. Moreover, the first IO failed to collect CCTV footage from the camera installed at a hospital near the crime spot and the post-mortem was not videographed.
The mother added, “When we tried to tell the investigators about our suspicions, this one time, CBI officials asked us to catch hold of the accused and hand them over.”
As per the order, Santhosh was suffering from phimosis, a condition that makes intercourse painful. Dr Mahabala Shetty, Professor and the head of forensic medicine at KS Hegde Medical Academy, Mangaluru, had initially issued a potency certificate to him and said that there was “nothing to suggest that Mr Santosh Rao is incapable of performing sexual intercourse”. However, Shetty later admitted in court that in case of phimosis, “there might be chances of ripping of the foreskin, causing injuries”. No injuries on Santhosh’s private parts and “no seminal stains (fluid) were detected… on the clothes of the accused,” the order said.
Santhosh’s “voluntary” confession, recorded by the police on October 13, 2012, painted him as a “sexual predator” who was “interested in learning about the sexuality of animals”, “was addicted to smoking and drinking”, “used injections to increase his libido” and someone who had been “thrown out” of his house due to these habits.
Depositions by his acquaintances contradicted these claims. The order added that “except the confessional statement of the accused, there was no evidence to connect him with the crime”.
‘Alas, you are not a building…’
In a small hotel run by the teenager’s paternal uncle, a poster reads: “Where is the Human Rights Commission? Women’s commissions? Courts? If a building is pelted with stones, people descend from Delhi? Alas, you are not a building…”
Claiming that an influential family had covered up the crime, her uncle alleged, “The police and other agencies made sure the real perpetrators were never questioned. If the agencies were interested in nabbing the real culprits, how would they explain the delay in filing an FIR against the persons we always suspected?”
He recalled how the brother of a prominent religious leader from the temple town told the family to be “careful” and not take on the powerful. Since the family persisted, the uncle alleged, the monthly rent of his premises was suddenly hiked from Rs 4,000 to Rs 1.25 lakh. “The owner also wanted three years’ rent upfront,” he recalled, adding that he shifted to a small village along the road that connects to Dharmasthala.
The movement that had helped pressure the state to order a CBI probe in 2013 has over the last few weeks gathered pace. Protests have been held in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Dakshina Kannada by civil rights groups. Earlier this month, CM Siddaramaiah had said in Udupi that the government was examining the recent verdict. “The case has been decided by the CBI court. As far as I know, an appeal will have to be filed (against the CBI court order). I have not read the judgment. Filing an appeal will involve challenging the CBI court order,” he had said.
However, the family is demanding a Supreme Court-monitored judicial probe which, they say, is the only way for the family to get closure.
Meanwhile, local traders say the recent acquittal, posters, protests and statements from a few celebrities have affected business. “There is at least 50 per cent reduction in pilgrims visiting Dharmasthala. Support to the victim’s family by celebrities like actor Duniya Vijay have created a negative image of Dharmasthala,” said Mansoor, who runs a refreshment store along the road towards Dharmasthala.
Another vendor in Dharmasthala said, “The long-drawn-out battle for justice by the teenager’s family has dented the town’s image. Since the case started making headlines again, visits by devotees have reduced.”
Even as the teenager’s family continues to fight for justice, Santosh’s family is a relieved lot. Declining requests to meet him and his parents, his brother Sanjay Rao told The Indian Express, “We have suffered enough over the past decade. We are relieved that Santosh is free. The case took a toll on the family. I hope we remain away from the headlines the case has been making this time around.”