IN the Santos household, a board bearing a cross and three photographs of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez serves as a constant reminder of the youngsters’ brave fight on the night of October 20, 2011, that claimed their lives.
Keenan’s grandmother, a 90-year-old woman he lovingly called Naana, sometimes glances at the board during her morning prayers and breaks down. “But she won’t let us remove the pictures,” says Keenan’s father 56-years-old Valerian Santos. In one, the two boys are standing with their arms around each other’s shoulders, carefree smiles lighting up the photograph.
Keenan, then 24, and Reuben, 29, were killed on the night of October 20, 2011, when they stood up to a man who was sexually harassing their women friends, including Keenan’s girlfriend Priyanka Fenandez. The group of youngsters had just stepped out of an Andheri restaurant after dinner when Jeetendra Rana allegedly made a pass at one of the girls. Having been told off by Keenan and Reuben, Rana is charged with returning with a gang of four men, armed with choppers. The group stabbed the two boys, Keenan dying the same night. Reuben succumbed to his injuries on October 31.
More than four years later swearing by his son’s photograph behind him, Valerian says he would have never spoken to his son if Keenan had not stood up that night. “Why go like a coward?”
Keen now to ensure justice, Valerian tries to attend all the court hearings after the case was committed to a fast track court in 2012. He maintains a small notepad with important facts and dates jotted down. “The case was transferred to the fast track court in Sewri on February 8, 2012. On our appeal, the case was shifted to a woman’s court in 2014 as there were several women witnesses,” Valerian says.
The still grieving father is a bit disappointed with the speed of the legal process, saying the case is far from closure despite being “fast tracked”. He enumerates the number of times the accused were not produced, following which the Santos and Fernandez families asked for them to be transferred to nearby jails. Valerian has also faced threats and got police protection last year which he discontinued. “The system consumes too much time and energy of the victim and the family. It’s like we are begging for justice,” he adds.
Currently, the cross-examination of the witnesses is nearing an end, he says. Naana has also gone to court, with everyone acknowledging Keenan’s ‘aaji’s’ presence.
The shocking killing of the two youngsters led to some local youth coming together to form the Zero Tolerance Group. Its first petition was to make sexual harassment a non-bailable offence.
Aditya Paul and Ankita Verma, both now regular visitors to the Santos household and working with the Zero Tolerance Group, say it was shock that led them to vow that this should be the last such incident in what has been roundly accepted as one of India’s safest cities for women. “This was where we hung out at the time,” Paul says.
Their petition was signed by one lakh people. Ankita, a lawyer by profession, says they were inundated with calls from women who had been victims of sexual harassment and wanted help.
“We tried helping out, given our limited resources,” she says. Paul says they also decided to think about seeking legislative changes and ensuring certainty of punishment without focusing too much on the severity of punishment.
During the early phase, the group tried to identify dangerous spots and would send volunteers with police officers, but soon found out that this was not sustainable as a long-term initiative. “We are now concentrating on how we can actually achieve fast-tracking this case,” says Ankita. The group is also working to get Mahila Dakshata Samitis or vigilance committees for women at police station levels.
Valerian treats Paul and Verma as his own children.”I want emotional closure. I only want the accused to pay for what they did. I don’t know how long I have and when it will end,” he adds.
Not so long ago, the Amboli household was a lively place with Keenan’s friends gathering there at all times. Valerian has tried to ensure that the incident would not change anything else for his wife and two other sons.”I don’t want them to live differently after this incident or be scared of venturing out,” he says.
All three admit that some change in attitude has been visible in the locality and in the city since 2011. “There is no longer a stigma attached to sexual harassment,” they agree. But for them, the real victory will be when the case is put to rest.