Blind to what, Your Honour?
Of all the promises made in the Constitution, the most important are the promises of the ‘right to life’, the ‘right to dignity’, the ‘right to personal liberty’ and the ‘right to bodily integrity and health’. However these promises are yet to be redeemed for women. Rape and other forms of sexual assault,domestic violence,dowry death and honour killings — the most brazen violation of these rights — are a real and daily danger for most women.
The cry that has been reverberating in the streets of the capital — and across the country — from a new and younger generation of citizens is: “We want justice”. It is addressed to us judges and lawyers whose primary responsibility is to protect the rights of the people. The women of this country are no longer willing to tolerate the unconscionable delays in the delivery of justice. It is the sacred duty of judges to prevent violence against women in the home; at the work place and on the streets and hold the perpetrators accountable. What is it that stops courts from securing justice for women? Why has the law not been able to convict the accused when it comes to crime against women? The situation is best summed up by a famous Orwellian quote—’ to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.
To see the lack of judicial will to get justice for victims of gender-based violence, as stemming from a deeply entrenched prejudice and misogyny in the justice delivery system, including the courts and their judges, is an exercise demanding a constant struggle. It is so much in front of our noses that we, women and men included, legitimise the presence of sexism in our lives and carry it to the corridors of the court and into the courtrooms and into judgements.
This is a part of the Indian reality; from the private sphere of the ‘home’ to the public space like places of work; from the open streets to the corridors of courts playing out in the theatres of justice. Today, the belief in equality is not sincerely held at all. On the contrary, the social system, including the judicial system, is built on a hierarchy along caste and gender lines.
It is no secret that violence against women stems from the deeply unequal relationship between the two sexes in private and public life. It is also no secret that this misogyny is deeply rooted in our society, including within the system of administration of justicefrom investigation to trial, to judgment. A high court judge in Orissa in his judgement once famously held, that it was not possible for a man, acting alone, to rape a woman in good health. There you have it, the distinction between “legitimate” rape and ” illegitimate” rape (to borrow from the infamous comment by Todd Akin) coming from a high court judge.
This is the same thing you hear so often from judges that “women are misusing the law.” They decide what is the legitimate use of the law for women, based on a deeply sexist view of how a woman should behave; what she should desire and how much violence she should tolerate. A casual glance at the kinds of questions a woman is asked in any prosecution of gender- based violence or a reading of judgments of the court will reaffirm this view. On one occasion when a woman lawyer asked for an adjournment, a district judge said, ” I know how you women lawyers make it”. He was rewarded by being appointed to the high court.
Sexual violence against women is unique as it begins in the home and moves out to public places. The problem begins with the assumed consent that women give to sexual intercourse within a marriage. Rape by a man of his wife without her consent is not an offence. Since this is a settled norm, it matters little whether forcible sexual intercourse is with the wife or a stranger on the street. With this accepted culture of rape within marriage standing tall, we have little hope of changing the culture of violence against women anywhere. The assumed consent of a woman to sexual intercourse becomes ingrained in the psyche of a man — as a husband, a son, a brother and this psyche continues into public spaces. Thus it is imperative to recognise that non-consensual sexual intercourse is unacceptable regardless of whether it is with a wife or a stranger, if we want sexual violence against women to stop. A legal culture that creates ‘legitimate and ‘illegitimate’ violence needs to change.
It is heartening to see for the first time, a large number of men on the streets protesting against sexual abuse of women. It is a new generation which brings hope that the tendency for violence against women is about to end as men of future generations will not tolerate such violence.
Lack of adequate number of judges or excessive workload is no longer an acceptable excuse to the women of this country for delaying judicial decisions. They know that it is the abuse of the process of law by vested interests and the utter indifference to women who have been sexually abused, that cause delays, not lack of infrastructure. An approximately 40% increase in the number of judges between 2005 and 2012, has not produced a corresponding decline in the pendency of cases. Justice does not reside in the brick and mortar courtrooms but in the heart and soul of judges and lawyers who represent victims of injustice. Any judge worth the name knows how to prevent delays and an abuse of the process of law by the rich and the famous.
The first duty of judges is to give cases of sexual assault priority and deal with them expeditiously with zero tolerance for delay. The demand for fast track courts is a metaphor for the intolerance of a dysfunctional legal system. While dedicated courts may go some way in dealing with the issue of delays, they will have to be accompanied by support structures, which enable a fair investigation and prosecution.
Women are conspicuous by their absence from the courts as lawyers and as judges. On the other hand, our law schools have at least 50% women students. Yet due to the patriarchy embedded in the judiciary and the legal system, the number of women lawyers and judges is negligible. Even those who manage to penetrate the highly patriarchal framework are discriminated against in terms of appointments, designation as seniors and promotions. Women are constantly under the microscope being pushed to prove themselves while male lawyers need pass no test of competence. The old boys network effectively keeps women out of the span of all zones of influence.
All talk of increasing the penalty for rapists to death is hollow. As the law stands today, a m a n fo u n d guilty of rape can be given a life sentence, And yet in my entire career as a lawyer spanning over 40 years, I have yet to see a single case in which a life sentence has been meted out to a rapist, what then to talk of the death penalty! This calls for urgent action plan by the Chief Justice of India and the chief justices of all high courts to raise as fast as possible the number of women judges in our courts. A few years ago, a woman who I represented in a classic case of sexual harassment, once asked me why her appeal was not being listed before a woman judge in the Supreme Court. My answer was simple, “because there is no woman judge in the Supreme Court.” At this she expressed her amazement and asked, if the Supreme Court could mandate that the chairperson of a sexual harassment committee which was to be set up by employers must be a woman, how come that law does not apply to the court itself ? I had no answer.
A critical mass of women in the judicial system and in the prosecution will inspire confidence in the system for women. The world over, this is known to happen. Women today have no stake in the judicial system and this is reflected in the cry “We want justice”.
A demand for accountability of institutions of justice delivery, the police and the courts must accompany the demand for appropriate laws. Accountability of the police must start with a complaints procedure within the police service itself where a complaint can be lodged for non-performance of duties. A clear command responsibility must be articulated within this mechanism so that in case of non-performance of duties by a junior, the senior officer is held liable. When a pattern of non-performance emerges, leading to a permanent sense of insecurity in which women live, the accountability must be that of the head of the police, and of the political establishment. Confidence in the administration can only be restored by measurable action against people in positions of power.
The judiciary has long been a selfregulating, self- appointing institution. We need a transparent method of appointment of judges where the antecedents of the proposed appointee can be publicly scrutinised. Accountability of the legal system must carry with it, accountability of judges. We need an official mechanism for monitoring the performance of the judiciary to check how content of their judgements meet the constitutional goals of equality. We need independent special rapporteurs drawn from civil society to report directly to Parliament on the performance of the legal system, the judicial system and the police system and violence against women.
It is time for standards to be put in place as to how judges must behave with women lawyers and litigants. The language of the law must be sanitized of all its male chauvinist content. No judge, let alone a Supreme Court judge must ever be allowed to use sexist language in judgements or during the course of arguments in court. Accountability starts at the top with the Supreme Court, what a judge of the Supreme Court thinks and says today, will be said and done by the 17,000 subordinate court judges who deliver justice under the supervision of the high courts.
We need a protocol on how judges ought to behave with women in courts and how they should address women’s issues in their judgements. Gender sensitive language must reflect in judgements dealing with women. This is not a matter of form but of substance. Changing culture and mindsets often requires language to change and rules and regulations, which reflect the change and do not permit a fall from standards. This is the time when the Chief Justice of India must rise to the occasion and speak to the nation and inform us what will be done to restore the confidence of the people in the justice system. Besides his role as a judge, he has a role as the head of the judiciary responsible for the administration of the justice.
The single most important statement we would like to hear from him, is that discrimination against women by judges will not be tolerated; the judiciary will have to exhibit and demonstrate zero tolerance of violence against women in the home, and on the streets.
The goal of law is to sustain life not support its destruction. This is what the 23-year-old was trying to tell us, before she died. “I want to live,” she said, not die of shame. She changed the way society looks at rape — from blaming the victim to focusing on the rapist. All law reform must move in that direction, asking how we can build a new life-sustaining legal culture, a more equal culture, with justice for all. That is the question we must address — with or — without a special session of Parliament.
The writer is Additional Solicitor General of India