Opinion: Access to equal justice for women in India still remains elusive

Opinion: Access to equal justice for women in India still remains elusive
Women in India are celebrating the outcome of the defamation suit against Priya Ramani. It is certainly something worth celebrating. That a survivor of sexual harassment was sued by the perpetrator for damages caused by defamation is quite mind-boggling, and we are proud of the lawyer, senior advocate Rebecca John, who was successful in defending her. Rebecca John took a very high line of argument – that of truth and of the public good, even as she faced a fearsome line-up of 97 prosecution lawyers! This brought back memories of the even braver fight put up by Rupan Deol Bajaj, a senior IAS officer against a contemporary feted hero, and the then Director-General of the Police in Punjab, KPS Gill, for subjecting her to sexual harassment quite blatantly at an official function. After over 17 years, she won a conviction, with a sentence of three months and a fine of Rs 2 lakhs. She refused to accept the compensation and it was paid to women’s organisations. The sentence was changed to probation on appeal. This was one of the first cases of sexual harassment which was successful in the Indian courts. But remember, she was an IAS officer, and was also married to one. Compare these outcomes with the darkness under the lamp of justice: the Dalit woman who prepared a detailed letter and ensured that it was given to every sitting judge in the Supreme Court, charging the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, with sexual harassment. She and her family suffered harassment and hounding out from government jobs. Justice Gogoi called for a committee to look into the matter, and headed the bench that appointed the said committee: upending the first principle that a judge will not be part of decisions in which he has an interest. The woman, an administrative assistant, had joined in May 2018 and in October 2018, charged that Gogoi made sexual advances at her while she was attending to her duties as she had been posted to assist him at his residence. After she made the charges in writing and circulated them to the judges, Gogoi initiated an internal committee to look into her charges. But as she wasn’t given the opportunity to respond or any support, the woman withdrew from the process. The committee went on to exonerate the then CJI.  She was dismissed on some administrative charges and challenged her dismissal. In January this year, she was reinstated with retrospective effect and chose to proceed on maternity leave immediately upon reinstatement. According to reports, she is still unsure of continuing in the post after her maternity leave is over. She’s not alone in her experience. As far back as 1972, in Mathura, a case of a minor tribal girl about 15 being subjected to custodial rape in a police station in a police station in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, took place. The case wended its way up to the Supreme court, and in its final judgement in September 1979, the judge acquitted the accused saying that the intercourse was consensual. The wording of the judgment was such that law professors Upendra Baxi, Vasudha Dhagamwar, also Lotika Sarkar and Raghunath Kelkar wrote to the Supreme court protesting the conclusion of consent, saying that the girl might have submitted but that didn’t prove consent. The resultant furore caused a rewrite of the rape laws, putting the onus of proof on the accused. Hitherto, the law was such that the complainant was required to prove that rape had occurred. But nothing could be done in Mathura’s case itself. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit from a village in Rajasthan, who worked as a saathin (a women’s social worker) reported a child marriage as she had been asked to. The authorities arrived and stopped the marriage. Since this was seen as a serious social infraction, the men of the girl’s family gangraped her in her field in her husband’s presence. She reported the rape the same day, but the system failed to give her justice. In 1995, the sessions court dismissed the case. The case went up to the Rajasthan High court which again upheld the acquittal stating that the men could not have raped her as she was "an untouchable." Also, two of the accused were uncle and nephew, and so it was "not credible" that such a thing had occurred. She has yet to get any justice from the courts. The appeal has not yet come up for hearing. However, her case was brought before the Supreme Court by women’s groups to ensure that women facing sexual harassment at their place of work would have legal recourse, resulting in the Vishaka judgement and the subsequent Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act in 2013. Another notable case involving Dalit women was the case of mob lynching of four members of the Bhotmange family, including two sons, who were killed and the mother and teenaged daughter who were raped and brutalized in public and killed. The crime took place in 2006 but only came to light a week later as the media tried to suppress the reports. It was only after Dalit youths set alight some bogies of the iconic train, the Deccan Queen, that the authorities were forced to register a case. In fact, the story was broken by a journalism intern from abroad working with The Times of India. She was later deported as a result. But though about 45 people were arrested and 11 chargesheeted, the final judgement refused to accept that this was a caste atrocity, saying only that the cause was a land dispute between them and another family from the majority, socially dominant caste in the village which had only one other Dalit family in the village. But it is only in the case of Dalit and Adivasi women that the violence involves public disrobing, humiliation and rape. The six who were convicted and awarded the death penalty filed an appeal before the High Court and got the sentence commuted from death to 25 years, in the year 2008. This was challenged by Scheduled Caste organisations and the sole survivor, the father of the family. He passed away in 2017. The case is pending in the Supreme Court since then. In this present case of Priya Ramani’ acquittal, here’s another angle that might have missed most people’s attention. True, in Priya Ramani’s case she was facing a powerful BJP politician, but Akbar is also a Muslim. There’s no saying what the outcome would have been if her legal adversary wasn’t one. And what if it had been a Dalit woman in her place. Would the courts have ruled in her favour? Read: ‘Woman can speak up any time’: Priya Ramani case verdict validates Me Too movement (Views expressed are author's own). Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist, social policy researcher and political commentator.

Share Tweet Send
0 Comments
Loading...