When four young law professors wrote an ‘Open Letter to the Chief Justice of India’ in 1979 following an acquittal in the landmark case of Mathura, a tribal girl who was raped, it served as a launchpad for a countrywide movement among women’s groups to demand gender sensitive amendments to the definition of rape, the issue of consent, the issue of the victim’s previous sexual relations and various investigative procedures in rape trials. Over three decades later, one of the authors of that historical Open Letter says little has changed by way of protecting a rape survivor’s dignity or ensuring justice is served.
Vasudha Dhagamwar, women’s activist, law professor and founder-member of MARG, says the years since the Mathura judgment are proof that a combination of factors prevents judges from ordering harsher sentences for rape convicts.
Calling the demand for chemical castration and death penalty for rapists a knee jerk one, Dhagamwar, who has done a considerable amount of research and writing on criminal law, says the priority should instead be on addressing societal biases and attitudes, and on reforms in police training and investigations.
“Why wasn’t there a morcha to Mahipalpur?” she asks, recollecting Amravati town of the 1970s when several eve-teasing incidents were being reported and the local Vanita Samaj had to acknowledge that the problem was with the town’s boys’ upbringing. “Track down the numbers of the cars that passed by and did not offer help,” she says.
Having held several workshops to train lower rung police personnel, Dhagamwar says the government’s announcement of seven women police constables and two woman sub-inspectors for every police station in the capital is little more than eyewash. “I have done some work with the Delhi Police and can tell you that for every vacancy advertised, there would be 25,000 male applicants and not more than 100 women. And those women would not even fulfil basic requirements such as height. Where will they suddenly find so many trained policewomen? They don’t spring out of the ground,” she says, adding that the judiciary shares the same plight, with thousands of undertrials languishing in jail awaiting trial.
Citing instances of women police constables sent for training when they were either four months pregnant or barely three months into post-partum recovery, Dhagamwar says the absence of communication between higher rung police officers and the footsoldiers is partly to blame. “We were holding a workshop for constables and the moment an officer walks in everybody goes silent. We ask how many police stations have a toilet and barely a hand goes up,” she continues. When policewomen work without separate toilets in police stations, with no place to change, rest or eat, it is natural for them to feel they lack respect within the force. “Women said they got no training. They were asked to sit in the chowky or sit in the car, just serving a decorative purpose.” The government’s assurance that urban police stations will have several times the women personnel they now do cannot be fulfilled for at least five years, she adds.
Even years after their Open Letter protested colonial, patriarchal ideas of what can be termed a woman’s consent, on whom the burden of proof should lie, acquittals continue, Dhagamwar says. “There is an unwillingness in the judiciary to give a higher sentence. Therefore we haven’t come very far on that count.”