“I lay the blame for a lot of this at the door of Parliament,” lawyer and leading women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover said.
In January 2013, Seema (name changed), who had moved to Delhi from rural Bihar with her brother went to the Hanuman temple on Delhi’s Panchkuian Road with 19-year-old Sameer (name changed). He put vermilion on her forehead, the couple embraced and now married in their own eyes, they ran away to Sameer’s native village in Samastipur. By May, Seema, now pregnant, was in a court-mandated shelter home for young women visited only by Sameer when he got bail, accused of kidnapping and raping his young love.
The content of 600 court judgements analysed by The Hindu and interviews with complainants, judges and police officers illuminate for this first time the real stories behind the headlines on the national capitals rape statistics.
As Part 1 of the series showed, one-fifth of the trials ended because the complainant did not appear or turned hostile. Of the cases fully tried, over 40% dealt with consensual sex, usually involving the elopement of a young couple and the girl’s parents subsequently charging the boy with rape. Another 25% dealt with “breach of promise to marry”. Of the 162 remaining cases, men preying on young children in slums was the most common type of offence.
These numbers too do not on their own illuminate the stories behind these numbers; for this, The Hindu interviewed judges, prosecutors, police officers, complainants, accused, lawyers and activists most of them under condition of anonymity because they were not free to publicly discuss confidential rape trials. What emerged were heart-rending stories and the role of the police and judiciary.
‘Teenage love drama’
Of the 460 cases dealing with sexual assault in Delhi’s district courts in 2013 that went to a full trial, 174 involved or seemed to involve runaway young couples like Seema and Sameer, The Hindu found. This was especially true for inter-caste and inter-religious couples.
Across the system, there was some amount of concern and sympathy for these consenting couples, especially among judges. Ruling on Seema and Sameer’s case in October 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmesh Sharma said, “The instant case racks [sic] up a perennial problem being faced by all of us on the judicial side: what should be the judicial response to elopement cases like the instant one… This life drama is enacted, played and repeated everyday in the Police Stations and Courts…” Of the case before him, Judge Sharma noted, “This case is a teenage love drama where our dysfunctional cruel society and the justice system have separated the two love birds and have taught them a bitter lesson.”
“We get innumerable such cases in Lucknow too,” Seema Mishra, lawyer and women’s rights activists with Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI), said. AALI has been at the forefront of the pushing for women’s right to choose sexual relationships, which is at the heart of the 174 cases The Hindu looked at. In case after case, as well as in interviews with The Hindu, the behaviour of the girls’ parents was shocking: they arrive at the hotel the couple has eloped to and drag them home, they beat and even injure the couple (in one case breaking the girl’s spine), they threaten her even with acid, they force her to submit to invasive medical tests and in many cases, even to an abortion.
In Judge Sharma’s case, he was able to acquit Sameer since Seema was over the age of consent for sex at the time – 16 years. However now that the Criminal Law Amendment Act (2013) is in force, the age of consent now stands at 18. “I lay the blame for a lot of this at the door of Parliament,” lawyer and leading women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover said. “By raising the age of consent, they have ensured such cases of consensual sex being called ‘rape’ are just going to multiply.”
Promise of marriage
Judges, prosecutors and police officers tended to be far less sympathetic towards the other major area of concern – the 109 cases which deal with “breach of promise to marry”. The argument used by prosecutors in these cases is that if a woman had sexual relations with a man only under a false promise of marriage by him, her consent was not free as it was obtained through deceit. However in most such cases, showing that the accused never intended to marry the complainant becomes hard to prove, unless he is already married to someone else and hiding it.
“You might say it is wrong, but when the girl’s father comes to the police station and says she has been ruined, a policeman will tend to take the father’s side,” one senior Delhi police explained. More often than not, he said, the FIR was a way to force a man attempting to call off a marriage into going through with it; in a third of such cases The Hindu looked at, the woman deposed in court that they were now married and hence she no longer accused him of rape.
“Your family discovers you have been having relations with a man for five years and now he has called it off because of pressure from his family,” one complainant who lost her case explained. “Before you know what is happening, your father and uncle have gone to the police station and you are forced into this. Everyone tells you that if you do not go along with it, you will never get married,” she said.
“Frankly I think this shouldn’t be counted as rape. It comes from a patriarchal context, from the premium placed on a woman’s chastity. But if we want to talk of women’s agency, we cannot have it both ways,” Ms. Grover said, a sentiment shared by several other feminist lawyers.
Rape as we know it
The 161 remaining cases look a lot closer to what is conventionally referred to as rape. Nearly half of these involved an adult neighbour preying on a minor child of a neighbour or a vulnerable woman sleeping outdoors or alone at home, most took place in slums, and had a conviction rate of over 75%. “Mothers like me have to work all day and are not able to keep an eye on our children,” one mother who secured a conviction in the rape of her three-year-old by a neighbour, said in tears. The medical investigation and courtroom terrified her, the woman said, but her family supported her.
In such cases, the consistent testimony of the complainant played the most important role. Judges were usually willing to convict in the absence of medical evidence, and in one case, Additional Sessions Judge Renu Bhatnagar convicted a man of raping a mentally challenged minor girl even though she was unable to depose in court apart from nodding. However in at least two cases where the complainant admitted that she met the accused alone voluntarily but did not consent to sex, judges disbelieved the woman’s testimony.
The judgement in the December 16 gang-rape formed part of The Hindu’s study and was notable in its length, detail and unprecedented extent of medical evidence. It was one of only 12 rapes heard in 2013 that were alleged to have been perpetrated by strangers, and all of the others pre-dated it.
The stories behind Delhi’s sexual assault statistics indicate that the image created by police statistics alone might be a misleading one.
(This is part two of a three-part series. Part 3 appears tomorrow: The Journey from FIR to Judgement)
Source: The Hindu