Debating India

COLUMN

Crime against women

R.K. RAGHAVAN

Thursday 29 January 2004, by RAGHAVAN*R.K.

Article paru dans Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 02, January 17 - 30, 2004.

A mere legal approach by way of special laws and enhanced punishment cannot check increasing atrocities on women. The community as a whole has a crucial role in this regard.

A FEW days ago, there was an unusual public gathering in Bangalore that discussed a live issue of great import to all civilised citizens. Organised by the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), it provided a forum for victims to narrate their poignant stories. (One estimate puts the number of acid attacks on women in Karnataka in the past five years at 27.) What they said before a distinguished panel that included the State Minister for Women and Child Development, the Bangalore Police Commissioner and a former High Court Judge could provoke a serious national debate.

I have heard of rape victims coming forward to share their experience in order to tell other women how to guard themselves against potential predators. I have seen this on television in the United States several times. This is, however, the first time I have come across an instance of women acid-attack victims going public to educate us, if we need to be educated at all! Insensitivity to gender discrimination is a national malaise, and I must compliment the CSAAAW organisers for their bold and imaginative experiment. I believe strongly that such unorthodox methods to project acute social problems cannot be frowned upon, morbid as they might appear to be, in a country that has a low literacy rate and where religion and social practices place the woman at a disadvantage.

Two revelations on the occasion were significant. First, most of the aggressors were known to the victims - as husbands, neighbours, colleagues or former employers - a phenomenon that characterises rapes as well. Secondly, acid attack victims seldom found sympathy after the trauma. They had to go from pillar to post, seeking assistance for medical attention and subsequent rehabilitation. I am not at all surprised at this, because it is more than a reasonable guess that a majority of such victims come from the lower strata of society and who have little means to take care of the enormous medical expenses required for restorative surgery.

A CSAAW representative complained of inefficiency, apathy and ignorance on the part of the police, doctors and the judiciary. However sweeping the criticism may seem, those of us who know how the system works in our country are inclined to go along with it, if only to explore possiblities of at least marginal improvements in the system.

Two recommendations - free treatment at government hospitals and a special law to deal with atrocities against women - made at the meeting are worth reflection. Can I add a third one? Will plastic surgeons in the country come forward to perform surgery free of cost to women victims of acid attacks? The numbers are manageable, and I am sure there are many doctors who are enlightened and are willing to respond to such calls of distress.

I am not at all sanguine about the impact of any special legislation to tackle the menace. It is fashionable to demand new laws without any thought on why existing ones have proved inadequate. The Indian Penal Code is a masterly document drafted and promulgated nearly 150 years ago. It has stood the test of time, and with minor amendments, proved itself to be a valuable mechanism to come down on traditional crime. And remember, violence against women has been with us for centuries. It is a shame that many of us are smug that the spread of education and the election of women to important public positions would take care of the evil. We need a revolutionary change of mindset before we can start making an impact.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s preliminary estimate for 2002, crimes against women dropped by nearly 7 per cent. The number of rapes, which hovered around 16,000 during the previous two years, came down to less than 15,000 in 2002. The Delhi Police has a slightly different tale. As per their report for 2003 released a few days ago, while heinous crime declined by 8 per cent, rapes went up by 6 per cent.

(Not many of us would forget the rape of a Swiss diplomat last year, near an auditorium staging an International Film Festival in New Delhi, which attracted a lot of media attention. It did not do any good at all for us as a nation that prides itself on having five women Chief Ministers.) Here I must compliment the Delhi Police for their honesty in admitting something that could be politically explosive and cause immense damage to their professional reputation.

We must at the same time remember that a police force can hardly protect an unsuspecting woman from her own uncle, cousin or neighbour who has gained her confidence. Repeated surveys have proved that a substantial number of such crimes are committed by those known to the victims, because easy access facilitates aggression perpetrated in the close preserve of a home. (According to the Delhi Police Commissioner, those hauled up for rape during the past year included 46 close relatives, such as grandfathers, fathers, brothers-in-law, uncles and cousins.) This does not for a moment downplay what the police can do to prevent violence against women or investigate attacks thoroughly so as to successfully prosecute offenders in a court of law.

IT is the police who can impart a sense of security among women. Ultimately, as I have always maintained, it is the fear of crime more than its actuality that haunts us all the time. I feel happy whenever I see uniformed policemen near women’s colleges. The tactic of having the police in plain clothes near campuses has also paid dividends in catching eve-teasers. However, what about rural women who do not have such protection? This is a problem that outstrips all logistics that the police can command. Except on special occasions, there is very little that the police can do. It is not surprising therefore, that crime against women in rural areas is at its worst, and rarely does it surface. An attempted sati in rural Rajasthan or the rape of a Dalit woman in the remote corners of Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh does hog newspaper headlines occasionally, but it does not trigger a social upheaval or a criminal justice exercise. This is the dilemma that we face while tackling a horror that has huge implications for the future of womanhood in this country, especially if you keep in mind that we have perhaps the largest number of female infanticide cases.

Where there are resources in the form of a concentration of police manpower or prying investigative journalists, as in the case of a city or town, violation of the rights and privacy of women is under fair check. Where the police are thinly spread and the media find it difficult to get access to information, women are in real danger. This is where social controls and enlightened vigilance on the part of persons who hold non-governmental positions assume importance. They take the place of law enforcement agencies that are unable to give enough attention in areas where they just do not have a presence.

Closely allied to acid attack is the equally despicable crime of rape. Presumably, a few acid attacks are sequel to frustration at rejection of sexual overtures. An ensuing rape is also not uncommon. Indisputably, rape is as devastating as an acid attack on which the law of the land should come down heavily. It should be the endeavour of the criminal justice system and society as a whole to ensure that no case of rape, however influential its perpetrator may be, goes unreported. Thereafter, the effort should be that it is investigated properly and all facts are presented to the court in as efficient a manner as possible. Instead of concentrating on this process, the red herring of enhanced punishment for the rapist has been dominating our public debates. This is an unpardonable distortion, especially in our country where the criminal justice system has lost its credibility almost totally.

Let us first make punishment a certainty to the wrongdoer before considering pushing up penalties. A certainty of penalty is much more deterrent than the prospect of a capital sentence. It is here that one is appalled by the fact that during 2001, of the 11,735 rape trials completed by courts all over the country, as many as 8,669 (76 per cent) failed either as clean acquittals or discharge.

There cannot be a sadder commentary on the whole process of bringing offenders to book. I do not want to apportion blame for this pathetic situation. While the police no doubt come out of this in poor light, the lower judiciary has also not exactly distinguished itself. Some acquittals have been highly questionable.

THIS is why I was delighted recently to read a report of the Supreme Court overturning a rape acquittal by a High Court. In this case, a master had been acquitted by the High Court on charges of raping his maidservant about 18 years ago. The apex court quashed the acquittal and sentenced the man to seven years rigorous imprisonment. (The acquittal was mainly on the ground that the victim had, even before the assault, lost her virginity.) What the court said in passing its orders was eloquent to the core. I cannot help quoting the court at length in order to highlight the most refreshing change of stance of the judiciary in favour of rape victims:

"Rape is not only a crime against the person of a woman, it is a crime against the entire society.... Courts are therefore expected to deal with sexual crimes against women with utmost sensitivity....A socially sensitised judge is a better statutory armour in cases of crimes against women than long clauses of penal provisions containing complex exceptions and provisions... . An unmerited acquittal encourages wolves in society."

The judgment will have to be read in conjunction with another by the apex court in 2002, upholding the conviction of a police constable. Ruling that an identification parade was not a sine qua non in such cases, the court was emphatic that minor contradictions and insignificant discrepancies should not influence a court. Defective investigation was at best a ground for extra caution than an outright rejection of the prosecution story. Not very different in tone was the apex court pronouncement in yet another case of 2002 when a two-Judge Bench held that a conviction could be based on the sole testimony of a rape victim. Here, the victim was an eight-year-old girl, and the apex court took exception to the High Court seeking corroboration to a child’s statement. ("Seeking corroboration of her statement before relying upon the same, as a rule, in such cases, amounts to adding insult to injury.") Justice S. Rajendra Babu of the Supreme Court struck a similar note recently (while speaking at a workshop in Gulbarga on law and women) when he said that the victim’s statement immediately after the incident was paramount, and those made subsequently to the medical examiner and the police were of less significance.

Readers should, therefore, be bewildered, as I am, that despite the categorical stand taken by the highest court of the land in placing the maximum reliance on the statement of the victim and the circumstances surrounding the episode in question, so many rape cases fail at the trial stage itself. It is this that needs a thorough study rather than how to make the penalty for rape more severe.

Where law enforcement agencies are unequal to a task, it is the community that should rise as a man to fill in the breach. We see this happening during major communal riots when a few enlightened members belonging to the aggressor community organise themselves and move swiftly to protect the minorities. We did get reports of such kindness at the height of the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

I, therefore, see a clear role for non-governmental organisations in protecting women. We have a large number of them in India. They have no doubt been quite active. What impact they have made on guarding women against crime is unclear. I am, however, told that there is a definite case for their stepping up efforts in rural India. This can happen only if they shed their urban baggage, especially language. Nothing works better than speaking to the target audience in their own tongue.

The message that has to be conveyed to women in the villages is that the best protection comes from their own vigilance and alertness and a courage to publicise atrocities through the village elders and elected officials of the panchayat.

This exercise can at best be supplemented by the police who, I must admit, are yet to display the measure of sensitivity expected of them. Inspiration and drive need to come from the higher echelons. Nothing else will transform the general apathy of the police to gender justice.

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