KIRTI SINGH IN FRONTLINE , JANUARY , 16-29 2010
THE molestation case of a minor girl by the former Director General of Police of Haryana, S.P.S. Rathore, reflects in a microcosm many of the ills that plague the criminal justice system in our country. The case highlights the lacunae in both the procedural laws and the substantive laws relating to sexual assault, particularly of minors. It shows how an influential accused can manipulate the legal system. Rathore used his position as a police officer to subvert the law and file false cases against the girl’s brother and reportedly managed to delay the case for several years. Finally, even though he was convicted, Rathore managed to get away with a light sentence, not only because of a judicial mindset but also because the offence of molestation is punishable with only up to two years’ imprisonment.
In fact, amendments to laws relating to sexual offences have not been a priority for successive governments. In spite of repeated suggestions and demands by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and other women’s groups, governments, including the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, have refused to amend the century-and-a-half old laws relating to sexual assaults in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Women’s organisations and groups have pointed out how the definitions relating to rape, molestation and ‘eve-teasing’ are flawed and not reflective of women’s experience of these crimes. They have also emphasised the urgent need to differentiate between sexual crimes committed against adult women and those committed against minors. The National Women’s Commission has reiterated these demands. The Law Commission has also, in its 172nd report, suggested an overhaul of the substantive and procedural laws dealing with rape, molestation and sexual harassment (popularly known as eve-teasing) against women and children.
The Rathore case highlights how sexual assault is viewed as a trivial crime not only by the law but by many others, including those in positions of authority. Rathore was given two promotions and made Inspector General of Police in 1990 and DGP of Haryana in 1999. The minor girl was molested about 19 years ago, on August 12, 1990, by Rathore, the then Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, in the office of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association, of which he was the president.
It has been reported that the initial trauma, accompanied by the persistent harassment, led to the girl’s suicide three years after the crime. It is an acknowledged fact that normally the trauma suffered by a minor victim of sexual assault is greater than that suffered by a major. Suggestions have been made in the past that police stations must be associated with doctors and psychologists, who should counsel these victims as soon as possible.
The case involving Rathore was registered 10 years after the incident, after a writ petition was filed in the High Court on the victim’s behalf by her friend’s mother and after an appeal in the Supreme Court. The AIDWA and other women’s organisations and groups have, time and again, complained about the difficulty in registering a first information report (FIR) owing to gender bias and corruption among large sections of the police force. They have demanded that non-registration of an FIR be made an offence.
The Law Commission, in its 83rd report on “Rape and Allied Offences”, suggested that a new section, 166 A, should be added to the IPC to make the police accountable for deliberate inaction and disobedience of law. Therefore, while the Union Home Minister’s reported suggestion to the police to register FIRs immediately is a welcome first step, the criminal law will also have to be amended to make the police culpable.
The case against Rathore was filed under Sections 354 (molestation) and 509 (harassment) of the IPC. No case was filed against him and the other police personnel and others for threatening the victim and her friend and their families. No action was taken against those who filed false cases against the victim’s brother at Rathore’s instance. These illegal acts were completely disregarded by the police machinery and the Haryana government, and no cases were filed against Rathore and those who acted on his behalf for criminal intimidation, conspiracy and filing of false charges under Section 211.
While some FIRs have now been filed against Rathore, and the Central government has made known its intention to fast-track these and other cases of molestation/sexual assault and amend certain other procedural sections, these measures by themselves are not enough to ensure justice to victims of sexual crimes.
It has been argued that for a case of abetment to suicide an intention to abet the suicide is necessary. The abetment should also be proximate in time to the suicide. In Gurbachan Singh vs Satpal Singh, in 1990, the Supreme Court held that persistent ill-treatment of a woman for dowry amounted to abetment to suicide.
In a case in 1989, the Andhra Pradesh High Court held that “the cumulative effect of the incidents of harassment spread over the period after the marriage had to be considered”. Section 107 of the IPC, Explanation 2, states: “[W]hoever… does anything in order to facilitate the commission of that act, and thereby facilitate the commission thereof, is said to aid the doing of that act.”
Under Section 354 of the IPC, molestation is defined as “assault or criminal force” by a man with an intention to “outrage the modesty of a woman” or “knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty”. The crime is cognisable and bailable. The section is problematic not only because it is couched in archaic and meaningless language, but also because all forms of sexual assault other than rape have been included in it.
To ensure that the law relating to child sexual abuse is reflective of the exact nature and seriousness of the abuse, AIDWA and others have suggested a number of changes to it. They have suggested that the provision relating to molestation in Section 354 should be amended to redefine molestation as unlawful sexual contact and any man who touches/assaults a woman with a sexual purpose should be liable for imprisonment up to three years and with fine.
They have also suggested that if a child is molested or forced or incited to touch the body of any other person, the imprisonment should extend up to five years along with fine. If the molester is a person who is in a position of trust or authority towards the minor or is a person on whom the minor is dependent, the imprisonment should extend up to seven years. This suggestion should also apply to custodial molestation.
Definition of rape
It has further been recommended that the definition of rape should be enlarged to ensure that some of the forms of child sexual abuse are also considered rape. Such a definition would be in accordance with international legal standards, including the definition of rape by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has defined rape in even broader terms, as being “a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive”.
Apart from these changes, certain procedural amendments are necessary to ensure justice in cases of child abuse. In Sakshi vs Union of India, the Supreme Court held that a child’s statement should be recorded in court without the child having to face the abuser.
Thus, the court held that a videotaped interview of the child’s statement or the child’s testification behind a screen or via closed-circuit television should be permitted. It further held that the cross examination of a minor should only be carried out by a judge based on written questions from the defence, and that the minor should be given sufficient breaks as and when required.
The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2008, which has still not been notified, stipulates that a rape victim’s statement to the police should be recorded by a woman police officer at the victim’s residence or at a place chosen by her, in the presence of her parents or guardians or near-relatives or a social worker of the locality. It further states that the investigation of a child-rape shall be completed within three months and that the trial and inquiry should be completed within a period of two months from the date of commencement of the examination of witnesses. These provisions should extend to all cases of child sexual abuse. In most cases of child abuse, the child is not able to express the exact nature of abuse. It is, therefore, necessary to allow experts such as child psychologists and paediatricians to depose on behalf of the child.
It has been said that the seriousness with which a judge views a crime is reflected in the sentence he awards. Rathore was awarded only a six-month imprisonment, ostensibly because he was old and had been subjected to a prolonged trial. It is ironic that though the accused was reported to be mainly responsible for the delay, the court overlooked this and also the fact that he was not so old that sending him to prison would serve no purpose. In fact, several previous judgments show that rapists and those who have sexually abused children have often got away with fairly light sentences. Apart from a higher maximum, minimum sentences must be prescribed for these offences.
Finally, even though several laws now stipulate time limits within which a case should be tried and the judgment given, these laws are not followed by large sections of the judiciary. The High Courts and the Supreme Court will have to ensure that the time limits are adhered to by censuring errant judges.
Kirti Singh is Legal Convener, All India Democratic Women’s Association.