By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
I do not claim to be an expert on children’s issues or criminal law. My forte is political science and conflict resolution. Therefore, I am not writing this essay as an expert but to initiate a dialogue that hopefully will lead to Justice for Ishalini. Ishalini, a child by definition, was brought to Colombo and employed at parliamentarian and former minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s private residence in 2020. She was a Tamil girl from Dayagama, Talawakele. Ishalini was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Colombo National Hospital with severe burn injuries on July 3, 2021, and succumbed to death on July 15.
Despite the tragedy, Ishalini remains nameless and faceless. Other similar victims were a bit luckier. “Vidya” Sivaloganathan, who was raped and murdered, had a place in the news headlines. “Rizana” Nafeek, who was brutally beheaded, was in the international headline. Ishalini had no such luck. I am yet to see her name in a news headline. The media still refers to her as “maid” or “servant.” For example, one headline said, “The Post Mortem Report of the Maid at Bathiudeen’s Residence Submitted to the Court.” Another screamed, “Girl Working at Former Minister Bathiudeen’s House Dies of Burn Wounds.” Let’s spell her name, Ishalini. The “maid” and “girl” could disappear from attention soon.
Two fundamental issues are connected to Ishalini’s death, suicide, or murder: (1) her rape and death, and (2) the system that allows inhuman exploitation of a vulnerable group, Indian Tamil children from the plantation sector.
“Chronic Vaginal Penetration”
Ishalini’s so-called employment at Bathiudeen’s residence was problematic at multiple levels. For example, she started to work at Bathiudeen’s house at the age of 15. Sri Lanka raised the minimum working age from 14 to 16 in March 2020. Therefore, employing her at the age of 15 in 2020 was illegal. According to Section 43 of the Education Ordinance, the compulsory education age is 16. But Ishalini was working as a “servant.” Illegal. Therefore, her rights were violated by a lawmaker at many levels. Would the law punish influential personalities like Rishad Bathiudeen for violating child protection laws? Highly unlikely.
However, a crime has clearly been committed. The postmortem report suggests that there were signs of “chronic virginal penetration.” In other words, Ishalini had repeatedly been raped. In this case, I am hesitant to use the word “alleged rape,” because there is no reason to doubt the postmortem report. She should have been in contact with a very few men when she was employed at Bathiudeen’s residence. According to information from the Indian Tamil community in Hatton, Ishalini had a highly restricted life at Bathiudeen’s house. Therefore, it should not be that difficult to identify and punish the perpetrator. At this point, it is not clear that Ishalini committed suicide or was murdered. Both were possible scenarios. Therefore, I am sure the authorities are looking into this aspect. Even if it was a suicide, someone or people contributed to her death. Ishalini could not take the abuse. That’s why Ishalini committed suicide. I am not sure if there is a Sri Lankan law that penalizes encouraging suicide. If there is one, it should come into play in this case.
Police: Commendable Job
So far, the authorities have done a commendable job on this case. Two police teams were formed to investigate the matter. In addition, the Attorney General appointed a special team to provide legal advice. According to the latest reports, the police have made three arrests, including Bathiudeen’s wife, Ayesha Sheyabdeen Bathiudeen, and her father, Mohammed Sheyabdeen. In addition, the broker who facilitated Ishalini’s employment has also been arrested. The broker’s arrest is especially encouraging. However, until the perpetrator/s of the crime are produced in the court of justice and punished, nothing is guaranteed.
Therefore, it is important to continuously monitor this case and keep up the pressure so that it is not used as political leverage against Bathiudeen. The demand for justice for Ishalini is not against any community. On the contrary, we have a collective responsibility to demand justice for Ishalini.
According to police spokesperson Senior DIG Ajith Rohana, another 22-year-old woman, who “served” at Bathiudeen’s residence, was also sexually assaulted while working. The police have arrested Bathiudeen’s brother-in-law, Sheyabdeen Ismadeen, on the charge of raping the 22-year-old woman. She was also from Daygama. The whole scenario imparts the impression that a sex trafficking ring was in operation. This aspect should also be investigated.
At the root of Ishalini’s abuse, rape and death was the practice of employing Tamil plantation children as domestic servants. I hesitate to use the term “employment” because it is not employment in the traditional sense. It is soft slavery. These “servants” are not paid legal or reasonable wages, and the idea of off-days does not apply as they are expected to work 24-7. Many undergo severe physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their masters. It is an inhuman practice undertaken for cheap labor. Many middle-class people cannot afford regular servants due to their own poverty. Hence, they opt for a vulnerable group from the plantation sector. It is an irony that even super-rich people like Bathiudeen take advantage of this practice. But not surprising. For some, it is a (falls) status symbol. A poor-looking servant running behind the family and “serving” is a status booster. The practice should be demonized and banned. The argument that the “masters” are “employing” these children to help them and their families is nothing more than bull crap.
In Sri Lanka, no other social group “sell” their children as soft slaves like the Indian Tamil community. Every member of the community, fathers, mothers, community leaders, political leaders should be ashamed of the practice of sending their children as servants. The Indian Tamil community cannot wash its hand on the Ishalini issue, saying they are the victims. They are a part of the problem. Therefore, they have a responsibility to take action, socially and politically, to stop this practice. This is precisely why the arrest of the “broker” is encouraging. He/She should be handed over the maximum punishment.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.