When time is on the state’s side
Pratixa Bakshi in THE INDIAN EXPRESS DECEMBER 26,2009
Ruchika Girhotra was 15, a young tennis player who was hoping to go to Canada, with aspirations to train for the country. It was SPS Rathore, President, Haryana Lawn Tennis and later DGP, who advised her father that he would arrange special coaching for her, instead of her being sent to Canada for training. On August 12 1990, Ruchika was molested by Rathore in the office of the Lawn Tennis Association under the pretext of conversing with her about the special coaching. Her friend, Aradhana, found Ruchika trying to free herself from the accused.
It was Aradhana’s testimony 19 years later that was critical to the conviction and sentence in this case. Justice Sandhu sentenced the accused “with rigorous imprisonment for six months and fine of Rs. 1000 for the offence u/s 354 of IPC.” Rathore, now 68, was not given the maximum punishment in light of his age and the time taken for the trial though Justice Sandhu finding him guilty says, “a person can be competent and efficient, but…merely on the ground of meritorious service, it can not be presumed that anybody will not commit the act molestation”.
In other words, a young aspiring sportswoman was seen as “available” by the police officer who subsequently forced her to abandon her fight for her dignity, through a process of institutionalised victimisation which poisoned her everyday life. Ruchika was suspended from the tennis court, thrown out of her school and subjected to everyday threats to her security. False cases, including a case of car theft, were levied against her brother, then a minor, as a technique of criminal intimidation. Ruchika subsequently put an end to her suffering by consuming poison on December 28, 1993 and died the next day.
The case history is Kafkaesque. The unforgivable delay in this case took the victim’s life, destroyed her family, and wounded her friends. The defence not only mounted a vicious attack on the fact of friendship
between two girls, constructed a story of enmity which does not withstand even a casual scrutiny, but it also blamed the victim for “provoking” the violence she encountered. The defence argued that “Ruchika was a convent-educated girl, very rich and had influential background. She was modern and friendly with male trainees in HLTA training court. It is too unnatural and improbable that a girl with such a profile and background could entertain any apprehension from the accused.” It is unbelievable that the defence was permitted to remark on the deceased girl’s character.
The law itself remains rooted in colonial formulations about women’s “modesty” which is seen as an attribute of the female sex. Many judgments have also held that all women do not possess of modesty and therefore do not deserve the protection of law. When a police officer pinches his colleague’s bottom or when he molests a young girl in a tennis association, such individual infraction is framed as flirtation, teasing, a minor public relations embarrassment or even defamation against the police officer.
The recommendation to amend the set of colonial laws has not yet been considered by the Parliament. Nor has our language to describe what happened to Ruchika altered.
Ruchika was a victim of sexualised power, compounded by the fact that this power was abused by a police officer. Even the Supreme Court has held that each incident of sexual harassment ‘results in the violation of fundamental rights of ‘gender equality’ and the ‘right to life and liberty’. Although we have a debate on sexual harassment at the workplace, it is eerie that we do not recognise that we do not have any laws which meaningfully redress sexual harassment of women and children in public or private spaces. Ruchika’s constitutional right to life and liberty was violated with impunity. We must shift our focus from “modesty” to “rights” in the first place to begin a meaningful discussion on the ramifications of this case.
Equally, the fact that systemic stalking, intimidation and harassment of the victim, complainant and her family which leads to her suicide does not occur as a ground for abetment of suicide, in the context of custodial sexual harassment, is a commentary on how the law refuses to recognises structural violence against minors.
There are no laws which protect minors against many forms of sexual violence. There is utter apathy when it comes to norms of how child witnesses in sexual harassment and rape cases should be examined. The child witness is always a suspected of being tutored by a parent. She is subjected to the same kinds of questions you would ask an adult woman in court. Lengthy cross-examinations of children are routine with no provisions for even providing water to the witness or a chair to sit on. Let alone any moves to protect child witnesses from backlash violence.
Sixteen years later, our law and society has refused to recognise that Ruchika Girhotra’s death is political, which symbolises the institutionalised processes by which her life was made utterly abject. The Indian state has refused to mourn Ruchika Girhotra. Instead, the Indian state rewarded the then inspector-general in the Haryana police as if to compensate him for Ruchika’s “impudence” for moving the law in the first place.
In Ruchika’s struggle between victimisation and survival, time was used against the victim. It is to the credit of the victim’s friend, Aradhana, who refused to allow the state’s use of time to extinguish a lifetime of resistance. It is this solidarity and friendship that demands that we, as a society, recognise that Ruchika was forced to die.
It is this courageous woman who speaks to the judiciary today to ensure that the sexualised immunity enjoyed by policemen should meet the violence of the law. Perhaps, the political class will remember now to invite public discussion on the sexual assault bill to provide some measure of protection to minors from sexual violence?
Alas, the parliamentarians who claim to lament Ruchika are like mourners without tears, performers without prayers and speakers without meaning.
The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.