One prided oneself on the fact that one was fortunate to be born into the worlds’ largest and arguably the freest democracy, where all citizens were assured of equality and justice. This pride has suddenly been punctured recently, as it became increasingly clear that equality and justice was available to only about half the population – the male half, that is. With depressing regularity one reads about how little girls, students and aged women are tortured, assaulted, brutally raped and even publicly humiliated to ‘punish’ their families, communities or caste. We see on TV how medieval minded Khap Panchayats ban women from wearing jeans, owning cellphones or are even ordered to forcefully marry their rapists. Disgusting. Perhaps this has been the situation all along, and we – educated India, have chosen to be blissfully unaware of it. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the Media, this sad state of affairs is now increasingly in the public domain.
A few weeks ago, I was saddened to read the article 'Trial and Error' published in the Week Magazine, in which the horrific experiences of a 16 year old victim of abduction, illegal detention and repeated rape read virtually like a sick X-Rated novel. The Magazine had started a campaign to lobby for justice to the Suryanelli rape victim - something I readily support. In fact, a lot more than just getting her the justice she deserves is necessary, and other critical actions that ensure her re-integration into a society that has chosen to shun her will be required.
It is quite tragic that except for her parents and her lawyer, virtually everyone seems to have deserted her. One learns that she had been given a Government job on compassionate grounds, and recently faced suspension on account of corruption charges – which she denies. One wonders if this corruption charge is some sort of retribution for daring to appeal to the Supreme Court? The timing of the corruption charge certainly seems to be a little too convenient, to say the least. Thus, it looks like every stone is being overturned and every trick in the book is being used to subvert due process. It is absolutely shocking to learn that such concerted attempts at denying justice in this manner is even possible in this day and age, which is also denying a victim the right she has of receiving the support of society.
It seemed quite apparent to me that a 'Grade A' cover up process has been achieved, and the entire Justice System - right from the Social Worker, the Police and the Judiciary seems to have failed the victim, leaving her to battle this horrendous experience virtually on her own. What a brave little 16-year old she must have been to take on the system that cared nothing for her. From day one, the Police investigation and the judicial process seemed to have focused only on protecting the political bigwigs allegedly involved. One can understand the spineless approach of the Police, but a lot is expected from the Judiciary, as they are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring every citizen's fundamental rights. While the lower Courts may be less independent, one assumes nothing but the best support from the High Court. Despite that high expectation, it really shocked me observe the inexplicable Kerala High Court ruling that stated the victim had 'consensual' sex with her 42 rapists, and acquitted all but one of the accused! This strange ruling was given when the law is very clear on the Age of Consent being 18 years. One is no legal expert, but it seems plain as day that the judgment was faulty. As, even if the 16 year old had consented (a preposterous argument in itself) to having sex with each of those 42 men, every one of them, as adults, would have committed Statutory Rape, and should have faced the full might of the law. Instead of recognizing this, no less an institution than the High Court of Kerala has chosen to pass such a verdict. We need to hang our heads in collective shame for this. Each and every one of us – right from our founding fathers down.
This verdict has to also be seen in the context of a recent incident, the Delhi Bus Rape and Murder of a Paramedical Student. What a strange Juvenile Justice system we have in this country, that rules that a mere 16 year old child has attained the age of consent for sexual contact and ‘chose’ to be ravished and exploited by no less than 42 men, and was hence undeserving of justice, while at the same time, we have a 17-and-a-half year old Delhi rapist and brutal murder accused - an adult by any yardstick, being fed the 'milk of Judicial kindness' as it were, where he has been sent to a nice safe remand home, and is being provided every protection by law, including anonymity, and faces a maximum jail term of only 3 years if convicted. We live in a sick society if something like this can happen in our watch, and we do nothing to remedy the situation.
Our Juvenile Justice System has to be recast to ensure that never again will anyone who is accused of a heinous crime receive the safety net of society. It surprised me no end to learn that India has one of the most liberal Juvenile Justice Acts (JJA) in the world, where any person who is even a couple of days shy of the age of 18 years, enjoys the full benefit of being a minor. Both in the US and UK, on whom much of our Justice System is modeled on, have rules that exempt minors accused of heinous crimes from seeking refuge in the JJA. Children accused of Rape or Murder in these two countries face the same charges and could receive the same punishment as an adult would. Why we in India, in our JJA, choose to be so protective and nurturing of underage criminals? Of what use is our JJA that protects a sadist rapist-murderer, while failing to ensure justice to a 16-year old victim of another rape and sexual exploitation case?
Our Criminal Justice System and the Juvenile Justice System are both worthless if they cannot ensure that justice is meted out in the Suyranelli case. I sincerely hope that each and everyone accused of raping the minor victim will be soon finally brought to book and face the maximum terms of punishment. As thinking individuals, we need to also lobby for the identification of all the people involved in the alleged cover up, regardless of their position. Whether it be the policemen, the lawyers, the prosecutors, the judges or the politicians - anyone involved in a cover-up (if one can be proved) are given exemplary punishment that will deter anyone in future from contemplating such horrible a miscarriage of justice.
Finally, a concerted attempt needs to be made to reintegrate the victim into the mainstream society, and every person who chose to shun her is made to see the folly of their ways. Firstly, the victim must be suitably compensated financially both from the Government and from exemplary fines collected from each of the convicted persons. She should also be afforded an opportunity to face society with her head held high. This can be achieved by conferring on her a Bravery Award for the steely resolve she has exhibited in seeking justice - not only for herself, but for all women. She is richly deserving of that singular honor.