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The recent Shakti Mills and Suryanelli case verdicts may leave us with a sense that rape victims in India are getting justice. But, we have a long way to go.
Earlier on this month, our judiciary handed out ‘Guilty’ verdicts in two cases involving the rape of young women – yet, although both verdicts were in a sense a vindication of women’s fight for justice in this country, they did not leave me feeling happy.
While the verdicts may bring some sense of relief or satisfaction to the victims, they are also indicative of how far we have to go, as far as the police and judicial system in this country are concerned.
First, the cases themselves, for anyone who has not been following the verdicts (and indeed, the verdicts did not receive the same sort of coverage that the trial of the Delhi gang rapists did last year. Media fatigue? Election news takeover?)
In one case, 24 of those accused when a young girl from Suryanelli in Kerala was abducted, held captive and raped repeatedly by men across all classes of society, and acquitted by the Kerala High Court, were found guilty by another bench of the very same court. In the other case, the three men found guilty of raping a young woman photojournalist at the Shakti Mills compound in Mumbai were sentenced to death.
Now, a closer look at some more facts about these cases.
1. In the Suryanelli case, it has taken almost 20 years for the case to come to this stage. Enough said.
2. What’s more, she was labelled a deviant, a child prostitute; her testimony was not taken seriously. A very poor sort of justice we have, when the judiciary participates in victim-blaming; where those who should know better are unaware that even prostitutes and ‘deviants’ have rights and no one has the right to their bodies either without consent. We may say this happened many years ago, but are we at a situation where victims can take it for granted that their character and life is not the one under scrutiny? Not really, if the conversation around the journalist from Tehelka is any indicator. Women must still assume that if they dare to speak up, they will be the ones under investigation.
3. In the Shakti Mills case, the trio had previously raped other women, including one who spoke up after this case made the headlines. Some of those they had raped previously were rag-pickers. While the police may have been prompt in acting on the complaint of the photojournalist, would they have shown the same alacrity if a rag-picker had gone to file the complaint? We are still very far from a situation where every woman’s complaint would be investigated as per procedure. You have to be someone to get justice in this country. If you are poor, live in a rural area, and the media has no interest in you – justice can meander along at its own pace. Remember Khairlanji? Possibly not. In fact, even the Suryanelli victim thanked ‘Nirbhaya’ for bringing focus to her case.
4. Many of the procedures as part of the police investigation and even trial are highly bureaucratic and further compound the mental trauma of victims. The ridiculous, illogical and completely useless two finger test continues to be performed despite new guidelines that do away with it. Victims are asked to identify perpetrators face to face, when they may be traumatised by having to face an attacker directly, or even be completely intimidated (given that many cases in India involve powerful, well-connected criminals). If one of the accused is a juvenile, the victim has to depose all over again. While we scream ourselves hoarse over awarding a death penalty, there is very little effort going in to reform these procedures and make them more sensible as well as humane.
Making India safer and more just for women is not about solving a few visible cases, and feeling thrilled that we’ve rid ourselves of a few criminals. For a start, there should be some real consequences for police officers who do not file FIRs and judges who allow victim-blaming in their courtrooms.
Pic of candle light vigil outside Safdarjung hospital in Dec 2012, courtesy Ramesh Lalwani (Used under a creative commons license)
Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations
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