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Inmate's rape allegation casts shadow over Akshaya Trust

July 07, 2014 14:19 IST

Akshaya TrustA 23-year-old inmate who escaped from the Akshaya Trust home, founded by CNN hero Narayanan Krishnan, alleges that she was raped. This has cast a shadow over the non-profit organization, that houses mentally ill inmates in Madurai. A Ganesh Nadar/ investigates the controversy.

The plight of a homeless man in Madurai made Narayanan Krishnan give up a cushy chef's job in Europe. He returned home and in 2003, he founded the non-profit Akshaya Trust.

For eleven years now, he has served millions of meals, three times a day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- to the mentally ill, destitute and abandoned in the city.

Then he decided to go one step further and built a home for the people he had been feeding for years.

Akshaya opened the doors of the Akshaya home on May 9, 2013. Since May 7, 2013 Krishnan and team have rescued hundreds of mentally ill from the roads of Madurai.

They are first given a haircut, shave and dressed up here. Pictures are taken of when they came in as a matter of record. They also have files showing where and when a person is brought in.

They are regularly checked by a doctor and a psychologist and records of the doctors’ opinion are also maintained.

At its peak, the home had 600 people. Krishnan was awarded a hero certificate by CNN. He has also been felicitated in Malaysia. In India he is known across the country for his pioneering work among the mentally ill.

Inside the premises, the men are segregated from the women. HIV-positive patients are kept separately. Every inmate when admitted has to undergo a HIV test. “They live on the streets and are vulnerable to this disease,” says Seethalakshmi, a trustee here.

The trust runs entirely on donations from well wishers and corporates. Donations have poured in regularly as Krishnan has always inspired trust in the donors as he maintains scrupulous records of accounts on how the money is being spent.

All hell broke loose on June 5. An inmate, 23-year-old woman scaled the high wall, climbed over the barbed wire fencing and jumped into an open field.

Her dress was torn by the barbed wire. It was 3 pm, just after the inmates had been served lunch.

The inmate found some women working in the field. When she saw them she screamed “rape”.

The worried women took her to their village. Soon a mob of villagers blocked the roads and did not allow traffic to proceed. The Akshaya Trust got a call that there was a near naked woman roaming in the village and they should come and collect her.

Three men and a lady from the trust went to the village. They were beaten up badly by the villagers. In the meanwhile the road block resulted in the police coming on the scene.

When her people did not return, trustee Seethalakshmi went with another man to the spot. They were greeted with slippers and stones. The police kept them in the village administrator’s office to protect them from the mob.

The inmate was kept in another room. Someone called the media and a host of reporters turned up immediately.

She was questioned by the reporters and also the workers from the trust. She was then taken away by the police who sent her to the Kilpak mental hospital in Chennai. The trust workers were escorted out safely by the police and they returned to the Akshaya home.

A Tamil magazine went to town with allegations of rape, blue films and brutal beatings of inmates. Another daily pointed out that 118 people had died within a year in this home.

The Tamil Nadu police had a magistrate record the statement by the inmate. They have filed a FIR on her statement. Madurai Superintendent of Police Vijayendra Bidari told, “The girl’s statement was recorded by a magistrate and she underwent a medical examination. We have both the records. I have appointed an officer of the rank of additional SP to investigate the case. Prima facie there is evidence to show that she was harassed.”

“You may vouch for the character of the management, but you cannot vouch for every person working there. I am not making any statement till the case officer finishes his investigation and hands over the report. These people have to realise that when small wrongs happen they should not hush it up. This emboldens the culprits to do bigger wrongs,” he said.

District Collector L Subramaniam ordered an inquiry by the Revenue Divisional Officer. The RDO report gave Akshaya two orders. One to install CCTV cameras in the premises and also on the high walls and also to make sure that any deaths in the ashram has to be followed by a post mortem before burial.

The RDO concludes that allegations that she ran naked into the fields are fabricated. As she was mentally ill, her allegations of rape could not be held to be the truth.

Bidari disputes this, “We are not going to establish rape by her allegations alone. There is a medical report to substantiate that or dismiss it. Let us wait for the complete report before jumping to conclusions”.

An NGO fighting for women’s rights had moved the Madurai bench of the Madras high court to rescue the Akshaya Trust inmates from their forced confinement. The judge has ordered the court registrar to conduct an inquiry and submit a report within three days.

The registrar descended on the home with a battery of lawyers and doctors. The doctors asked the inmates if they wanted to go home. Many said “Yes”.

On July 4, the report was presented to the judge. He ordered the release of 200 inmates who said they wanted to go home. The court officer came and took away 200 inmates from the home. The number of inmates now at the home stands at 337.

Seethalakshmi told, “What these people don’t understand is that these are mentally ill people. If you ask them if they want to go home, they will say ‘yes’ but none of them will be able to tell you where they live”.

Talking about the women who escaped, she said, “I got call from Riyaz, a member of the Popular Front of India, a well-known Muslim organisation that a young girl was crying near the Madurai bus stand and that we admit her.”

“The girl was brought here by Riyaz after registering an FIR at the local police station. She was accompanied by two police women. We have a photograph of her with the police women and Riyaz.  She was examined by a doctor and psychologist who certified that she was mentally ill.”

“She came here on April 1 and ran away on June 5. While she was here she got along well with the other inmates,” Seethalakshmi said.

The average age of the inmates here is above 40, the woman who escaped was 23.

On the allegation that in the last one year, 118 people had died, Seethalakshmi said, “You have to understand that we bring old, ill, destitutes here that even the government hospitals refuse to admit. Every death has been reported to the local police station and village administrative officer. We are not hiding any facts.”

Akshaya has a record of 122 deaths in the last 14 months. Of these 14 are above 80 years of age. 34 are above 70, another 34 are above 60, 14 are above 50, 17 are above 40 and 9 above 30.

Both Seethalakshmi, who is a trustee here since 2010, and Krishnan are sure that the 200 inmates released by the court will be abandoned. “How will they go home when they don’t know where their home is?”

For Krishnan this is the biggest controversy of his life. Always in the media glare for his good work, he finds himself on the wrong side of the fence for the first time.

The SP waits for the final report. The inmate who first said she was from Erode is now in Chennai. The 337 inmates continue at the home and 24 people continue to look after them.

If this incident leads to drying up of funds, Naryanan Krishnan will be in big trouble. If he comes through he can carry on his work with greater vigour.

A Ganesh Nadar in Madurai