Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn:

#Not for the likes of Kailash Vijayvargiya who displayed appalling misogyny and a corresponding lack of knowledge of the epic he was citing when he talked of women having to live within a notional Lakshman Rekha.

#Or an Abhijit Mukherjee who seems to have a thing for ‘dented and painted’ — and beautiful — women.

#Or a Raj Thackeray who believes that if a fence could be built around Bihar and that state could be isolated from the rest of the country, rapes wouldn’t happen.

#Or a Mohan Bhagwat who in the face of all quantified evidence holds that rape is a phenomenon peculiar to the ‘westernized’ cities of ‘India’, and absent from the villages and forests (forests?!) of ‘Bharat’.

#Or for Chhattisgarh minister Nanki Ram Kanwar who suggested that the fault lay with the alignment of the stars and the planets.

#Or for the countless others of both sexes and all party affiliations who, over the past few days, have vitiated the atmosphere with comments that are risible when they are not downright reprehensible.

I don’t give a damn for the Jamaat-i-Islami Hind, which suggests that in order to stop rapes and make women safe, all sex outside the marital bed should be made punishable offenses and co-education should be banned;

#Nor for Rajasthan MLA Bhanwari Lal Singhal who believes that schoolgirls wearing skirts is the problem;

#Nor for the Pudhucherry government that wants to put our schoolgirls in overcoats and ferry them around in segregated buses;

#Nor for ‘spiritual leader’ Asaram Babu who said The Delhi Rape Victim (I capitalized that to distinguish her from the 635 or so other women who were raped in Delhi these last 12 months) could have avoided her fate if only she had called her assailants ‘brothers’;

#Nor for the dozens of other ‘solutions’ being proposed that show a total ignorance of the problem and an absolute focus on whatever antediluvian agenda the proposer holds dear.

In passing, I don’t give a damn too for a tendency, at least on my timeline, for the conversation to segue into whether the ruling party or the opposition is more to blame or whether the media is ‘biased’ towards this or that particular political grouping — because, frankly, every political group currently active in this country has come out of recent incidents reeking of the medieval, the antiquated, the regressive, the repressive. All these conversations tell me is that we are still unable to move beyond our own peculiar, particular mental cocoons.

I don’t give a damn for any of the above because much as these statements give the media pegs to hang their ‘righteous indignation’ on, none of this is new, or startling. I haven’t heard anything in recent times that I hadn’t heard already — from an uncle who during dinner table conversation casually condemned a cousin as ‘fallen’ because she chose to leave the family fold and live life on her own terms; from parents who, sight unseen, refused me permission to marry the girl I wanted to because in their worldview, any girl who would ‘fall in love’ and ‘go out with’ men (or at least, with me) couldn’t be a ‘nice’ girl worth being invited into an ‘ancient family’; from ‘well-meaning’ ‘family friends’ who denied me shelter for the crime of marrying an ‘improper girl’; from a ‘friend’ who over rum and coke casually discoursed on the ‘bed-worthiness’ of a girl who had, just some weeks earlier, tied a rakhi around his wrist; from another ‘friend’ who once got up a dinner party and invited a bunch of us over just so the invitation could include a girl he hoped to take to bed that night…

The attitudes reflected in recent statements by various political worthies is neither new, nor particularly remarkable; tune our antennae inwards, and all of us can recall much worse being said in our presence — and sometimes, even said by us.

I notice that some of the more egregious statements have been ‘withdrawn’ — but how do you withdraw the mindset that spawned them? I notice that some political groupings have distanced themselves from those of their fellows who recently gained foot-in-mouth notoriety — but how do you ‘distance yourself’ from what is in your midst?

I don’t give a damn for any of the above because while we collectively obsessed over such asininities, a teacher and a watchman were found to have raped tribal girls in a school in Chhattisgarh; another minor girl was first raped, then forced to consume a poisonous substance in Faridkot; an 18-year-old in Alwar found life so insupportable thanks to constant harassment that she preferred death by self-immolation; a 15 year old was set on fire because she resisted rape… (okay, I’m stopping here — if your stomach isn’t turned yet, just google ‘rape’ for yourselves).

And? Even as the Delhi police take prompt action against Zee News for airing an interview with the Delhi victim’s friend in which he accused them of playing with red tape while he and the brutalized girl lay naked, cold and bleeding on the roadside, elsewhere in Delhi the discovery of a raped, murdered woman’s body turned the spotlight yet again to a seemingly endemic refusal on the part of the police to take timely action.

That’s what I give a damn about, just now — that even now, even after all this, nothing has changed.

Or at least, that is not quite true: something has. In Noida, the discovery of the woman’s body triggered mass protests and that in turn led to punitive action against the errant cops — just as the Patiala cops involved in harassing an 18 year old rape victim and hounding her to her death were suspended/sacked.

This is what we need more of: more protests when such things happen, more heat on the law enforcement machinery to force them to act. We need for police forces across the country to realize that here on, there is a penalty attached to not doing their job.

While on that, I don’t get the rubbish being spouted by top cops about holding courses to sensitize police to take action in cases of rape.

Say what?! Isn’t it the primary job of the police to take action when someone comes to them with a complaint? Any complaint? They don’t need to be ‘sensitized’ into doing their job — they need rather to be severely penalized when they don’t do it.

These are the things we need to focus on, I’d submit. The rest? Mere noise, of no significance whatsoever.

Reading Matter:

1. Via Nilanjana Roy and a new hub created to document, discuss and act on gender violence, a curated list of stories worth reading from the past one week

2. Natasha Bhadwar on the tyranny of silence and how the victims are finally finding a voice again

3. Harini Calamur, eloquently making my case for me, on why we need to focus laser-sharp on the basics

4. Annie Zaidi on why women are proving to be their own worst enemies

5. Law professor Mrinal Satish on the startling ways in which the law on rape is applied in practice. An excerpt:

Let me provide a concrete example of how the stereotypes find their way into the trial process through medical examination. Assume that in examining an unmarried rape victim, the doctor notes the presence of old tears on her hymen. The doctor also notes that she was able to insert two or more fingers into the vagina of the victim. Although the doctor does not expressly opine that the woman was sexually active, this information is conveyed to the court by way of the medical report. My study showed that in cases where the medical report indicated that the woman had been sexually active before marriage, lower sentences were imposed on the offenders who raped them. In contrast, in cases where the offender had raped a virgin, the sentence was relatively higher. Thus, the sexual history of the victim had an impact on the sentence imposed on the offender. Another factor related to virginity is the perceived loss experienced by an unmarried victim, in terms of her marriageability. The Supreme Court has in a number of cases noted how rape adversely affects the chances of a woman finding a suitable groom. In this context, the Court has even held that the marital status of the woman can be a relevant factor in rape sentencing. It is not surprising then that offenders who raped unmarried (and virginal) women got higher sentences in contrast to men who raped married women. Further, courts tend to impose lower sentences when a victim who was unmarried when the offence was committed, gets married during the trial. Since the rape did not impact the victim’s ability to get married, the harm caused by the offence is discounted. An egregious example of this approach is the Supreme Court’s decision in Baldev Singh v. State of Punjab (2011), another gang rape case that got a lot of media attention. One of the reasons that the Court gave for reducing the sentence in this case was that the victim was now married.

PS: Even as I finished writing this post and checked Twitter to see what else was going on, I found a teaser for a TV chat show coming up. Apparently the likes of Pooja Bedi, Chitrangadha Singh, Arjun Rampal and spokesmen from the VHP and Asaram Babu’s outfit are about to debate the latest hot topic: should Asaram Babu apologize (for idiotic remarks already alluded to earlier in this post).

Seriously?

PPS: It also turns out that in our haste to find new statements to outrage over, we are even making some of these up now. Vide this furor over a ‘second’ Mohan Bhagwat statement. Do we think of the disservice we do, the credibility we collectively lose, when in our rush to judgment we forget to fact-check?

PPS: I am traveling, with limited time and access; blogging will be intermittent for the duration. See you when I do.

Suryanelli rape case reopened

Just how good is this news?

For nearly eight years, a woman from Kerala who was gang-raped by 42 men in 40 days has been waiting for the Supreme Court to take up  her case.

Today, the Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir said hearings will begin within three weeks.

No, not that the poor girl had to wait eight years for the highest court in the land to find time for her, but the fact that the Supreme Court is in fact going to hear the case — for it is one that represents much that is wrong with our police and judicial systems. Here’s a quick recap, quoting from an earlier post:

Do you remember Suryanelli? The story of a 16-year-old girl who was abducted from a bus, raped by the conductor, then handed over to a couple who, over the next 40 days, transported her like a traveling circus all over Kerala and pandered her to 42 different men, all of whom raped her?

The story has an instructive coda. A Special Court was set up three years after the incident (the first time in Kerala history that such a court was set up to fast track a case of rape; it happened because of massive public protests). In September 2000, the court handed down major prison terms to 35 of the accused. Dharmarajan, an advocate and main accused, was absconding at the time; he was subsequently arrested and, in 2002, sentenced to life in prison.

All good, right? Not. Two weeks after the Special Court verdict, the Kerala High Court gave bail to all 35 accused and let them out of jail. And in 2005, the aforesaid High Court acquitted all 35. More, it deemed that Dharmarajan, the man who had along with his lady friend taken this minor girl the length and breadth of the state and facilitated her serial rape, was guilty only of the crime of “sex trade” — and sentenced to just five years and a fine of Rs 50,000. There was, the honorable judges deemed, no evidence of any “conspiracy” to commit crimes against the girl — like, you know, Dharmarajan was just sort of accidentally escorting her around Kerala, and accidentally, some things happened, too bad, so sad. Oh, and the judges also had some acerbic comments to make about the “character” of the teenager and her “motive” in filing a complaint.

That young girl — in keeping with the Joneses of the media, I’ll name her Mayoos, The Hopeless One — who, last heard from, was employed in a menial job and attempting to get on with her life, lives with the trauma of the multiple rapes she endured for over a month and the knowledge that the authorities she turned to for succor deemed that all that happened to her was somehow her own fault.

In 2005, her family filed an appeal to the Supreme Court asking for justice. Years rolled on. Early last year, in a sudden, surprising development, she was charged with embezzlement of funds and initially, suspended. When various rights groups protested, she was reinstated and transferred after securing some form of written apology. (Additional details of the case here).

The question most found baffling was this: She was a very low level staffer, in a rank where normally you don’t get to handle significant sums of money. Ergo, the accusation that she had somehow walked off with over Rs 2 lakh seemed, prima facie, to fail the smell test.

This, in tandem with the High Court verdict that completely overturned that of the special court, has created in popular perception the impression that the entire case was manipulated with the sole purpose of saving the high and politically mighty — an impression italicized by some of the comments the High Court, in its judgment, made about the then 16-year-old girl, and the downsizing of charges against the principal accused.

How much truth there is in that perception will be known soon enough when the Supreme Court begins its long overdue hearing of the case. However, that nothing is black and white, that there are layers to even seemingly straightforward stories, was underlined for me yet again when, on Twitter, I asked a couple of lawyer friends to explain the dichotomies in the case.

Here is a transcript.

Bottom-line, the wait is almost over, the case will be heard — and, given everything that is at stake, it will be a trial worth following.

Chidambaram’s open letter to…Ashwani Kumar?

While reading all I could find about police and judicial reform, I came across this gem — a checklist of five ways to un-clog courts that are affected by severe arteriosclerosis. With apologies to the original publisher, quoting this in full:

  • There are several experienced judges in high courts on the verge of superannuation who because of their low seniority do not have a chance of being considered for appointment as judges of the Supreme Court. Many of them have excelled as trial and appellate judges on the civil side or the criminal side. Select 10 such judges and appoint them as ad-hoc judges of the Supreme Court. Let them sit as two – judge benches and hear the old cases only. The arrears of cases will be wiped out in about 500 working days. (By the way, this suggestion found a place in the 1991 Congress election manifesto.)
  • Repeat suggestion No.1 for high courts by choosing suitable district judges.
  • The chief justice of India, the attorney general, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and you should prepare a list of senior advocates who (waiving the age limit) are otherwise undoubtedly qualified to be high court judges. The chief justice should make them an offer and tell them they do not have the option of saying no! Each one should be asked to agree to serve for eight continuous weeks in a year, for five years, as an ad-hoc judge of a high court of his/her choice. It will be a form of compulsory service akin to military service. Many will accept and the few who may decline will invite public opprobrium.
  • Give two law clerks to every judge of the Supreme Court. Thank God, there are outstanding young men and women graduating from the National Law School, Bangalore, and some other universities. Let them clerk for two years each on a modest stipend. Once the law clerks are in place, the chief justice should make a rule that, in all cases listed for final hearing, the rival parties will submit written arguments (not exceeding 20 pages) two weeks in advance and limit oral arguments to one hour for each side. Once written submissions are filed, many of the cases will be concluded in 30 minutes.
  • Set up an in-house three-member panel (judge, lawyer, civil servant) to grant or refuse permission to file an appeal in the Supreme Court by any government department or agency. Just before filing the appeal paper-book in the Supreme Court, the intending appellant should present its paper-book to the panel and also be allowed to make brief submissions. If permission is refused, the appeal shall not be filed. No doubt this will add three days to the process but the advantages are manifold. Change the panel every year. Depending on your response to these suggestions, we can discuss long-and medium-term plans.
Make sense to you? More courts and speedier trials was, in fact, top of the list when Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy recently thought through urgently needed reforms.
Where did this set of solutions come from? An open letter written by P Chidambaram to then Federal Law Minister Arun Jaitley back in January 2001, and published by India Today. 12 years have passed, almost to the day. And here we are again, “discussing” judicial and police reform.
Why is it, do you suppose, that when you are in the political opposition you *always* know the right thing to do — and when you are the government, you *never* do?
PS: In good news of sorts, Manish points out on Twitter that one of these suggestions — the law clerk (item 4) is already in place.