As if battling value judgements was not enough, activists, feminists and concerned citizens are deeply disturbed by recent court verdicts and orders on the interpretation of “consent” in rape cases. Some court rulings read more like a bigoted personal viewpoint without any reference to previous cases or precedence. One wonders how insensitive and out of tune the judicial system is with current social reality.
Rape is the only crime where the victim is blamed. Take the most recent example of the student who filed a complaint with the police about rape allied with other crimes like stalking and blackmail on campus in Haryana. All four, the female student who filed the complaint and the three men who violated her personal space, were students of different disciplines at the Jindal University in Sonepat.
The initial verdict by the Additional District and Sessions Court upheld the victim’s cry by sentencing two of the three young men to 20-year prison sentences while the third got seven years. The accused filed a plea in the Punjab and Haryana High Court asking to be released during the pendency of their appeal. All three walked out. The reasoning of the judges — incredibly — was that the studies of the three men would be interrupted due to the incarceration while their appeal was pending!
Before we get to rape, there is another crime, euphemistically called “eve-teasing”, that we should look at because this is where the problem starts. “Teasing” makes it seem a light-hearted leg pull, a kind of a joke between friends or even acquaintances so it is almost harmless. It is when we come to the first part of the phrase that hackles rise: Eve, after all, tempted Adam to taste the forbidden fruit. He, poor chap, willy-nilly gave in to her urging and tasted the forbidden fruit. The blame is all hers. It is this kind of thinking that probably prompted the court to be indulgent and allow the three accused to walk out during the pendency of their appeal.
In today’s India the perception, voiced often enough in the highest quarters, is of this same Eve who tantalises, titillates and leads on guys with her clothes, her make-up, her lifestyle choices, her needs — name it, and she’s to blame — all the while overlooking the fact that it is the man who is the perpetrator of the crime. Sometimes the victim is chosen at random, sometimes she is in a subordinate position, as in the case of the magazine staffer whose editor tried to force her to submit to his demands in Goa.
The case that caught everyone’s attention was the December 2012 rape in Delhi where the victim died from injuries caused by the gangrape (again it’s the victim’s name that is often used — one hardly remembers the names of her killers). This led to the setting up of a three-member committee, the Justice Verma committee, which submitted its report in December 2013. Among the many pertinent issues it raised, the report stated that the criminal laws governing sexual attack must be interpreted from the perspective of the victim.
In light of that recommendation, look at the Punjab and Harya-na High Court ruling: they not only ignored that recommendation but also several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) regarding the primary question of law when statements are made about the victim’s personal lifestyle choices (having a beer, smoking, staying out late with boys, drug taking, etc.), blackmail, which was inherent in the threat held over the victim’s head that unless she complied they would send out nude pictures of her….
The two-member bench of the High Court did note that there was attempted blackmail and it needed to be investigated. So much for the reason the victim submitted to the trauma of repeated rape and humiliation, all noted in her statements in court. Instead, the concern seems to have been that the accused should not be deprived of their education and be given an “opportunity to redeem themselves and be a part of society as normal beings” rather than with upholding relevant sections of the IPC (gangrape, criminal intimidation) or with the section of the Information Technology Act on the publishing of obscene information in electronic form.
Has any thought been spared for what it took for the victim in this case to register the case? What she must have dreaded when the accused threatened to send out nude pictures has now come to pass with this double trauma, of her personal choices being broadcast everywhere. The very issues that forced her to submit to the blackmailing by her assailants have now gone public. Sure, those pictures weren’t sent but barring that everything else has.
The Justice Verma Committee report has some pointed remarks on how and why what happens does in fact happen. The report notes: ‘The failure of good governance is the obvious root cause of the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law and not for want of needed legislation. If there was a felt need for more laws, there are many recommendations of expert bodies and judicial decisions that remain unimplemented.’
The order of the High Court makes no reference to any previous case or precedent. Most of the order reads like a personal viewpoint, which appears to be out of sync with the current social environment. This is not to make a case for rampant smoking, drinking, drug taking or casual sex. No, it is about the right to choose to say no and mean it. A no by a girl is not a yes. It is a No!
(The author is a Pune-based columnist and a senior freelance journalist)