If ever there was a travesty of justice, it is this. And we all stand as mute spectators to it. Shockingly, this has ceased to shock us any more than our hair turning white or our brow getting wrinkled would.
19 years ago, a man twice molested a 14-year-old child - a budding tennis star and a chirpy teenager. Today, he smiles as he fishes out a crisp 1000-rupee note to offer as 'punishment' for his 'frivolity'. As for the girl, she died 16 years ago, unable to seek justice and compassion, unable to see her tormentor tormenting her and her family, unable to ask for her right as a human in a state where a woman is hardly so, unable to look at tomorrow in a society where a girl is both unwanted and dispensable plus a lot of trouble, unable to live her dreams (or even her rightful life) in a nation that can see no reason but only power and clout. The story of Ruchika Girhotra is too common, too repetitive, too frequent.
In the summer of 2010, a woman will turn 58. Only, she will never know that, just as she has never known herself since 1973. A wardboy raped and sodomised a nurse, brutally assaulting her and asphyxiating her with a dog's leash. Today, the man walks the streets after a six-year sentence - not for rape, though. The woman, brain dead and oblivious to life, remains permanently vegetative in a hospital bed. The 'honourable' court demurred that the victim had been anally penetrated, so she was still technically a virgin - and thus could not have been 'raped'. The accused had gone to her 'with the intention to rape' - which, of course, was not seen as important enough. The nation has failed yet another woman, and Aruna Shanbaug will never know what she went through that night, what it has cost her and her loved ones.
In mid-2003, a nurse employed with a prominent hospital in Delhi was tending to a patient. Suddenly, she found a ward boy pressing into her from behind. As she turned to protest, the man plunged his fingers into her eyes - gouging out her right eye and grievously injuring the left. He then raped her and left her in a storeroom to be discovered unconscious the next day. The woman approached the court for justice and patiently waited for the judge to pronounce the sentence. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. The rapist Bhura proposed marriage to her in order to 'wash off her stigma' and 're-establish her in society', for he felt no one else would want to marry a 'used' woman. The Additional Sessions Judge J M Malik took up the offer and delayed the judgement, giving the victim time to 'consider the proposal'. The victim refused, citing the offer to be intensely degrading and humiliating to her. Bhura was then awarded a life sentence, but not before the judge stated that the 'last-minute marriage offer' was rendered 'malafide' since the accused had not expressed 'remorse' throughout the trial.
But no, all of this does not shock India’s judiciary. The Supreme Court and the not-so-supreme courts all remain mute as India goes on violating human rights. We continue to have abject poverty, appalling malnutrition, intense infant and maternal mortality, extreme numbers of farmers committing suicide, an unacceptable number of boots in the Kashmir valley, unspeakable atrocities in the North East, a laughable role in many of our neighbourhoods. But this does not awaken the citizens of this great nation, nor the many supposedly 'honourable' courts.
Judge Sturgess of England has famously remarked: "Justice is open to everyone in the same manner as the Ritz Hotel." At home in India, we can seamlessly substitute 'Ritz' with 'Taj' or 'Oberoi' or whatever takes our fancy. The truth remains the same - justice, far from being the most basic of human rights, becomes the personal possession of the privileged few. But then, a court of law need not necessarily be a court of justice.
These tragic tales are not only about justice delayed and denied. Importantly, they are about justice being made a mockery of, and of appalling disrespect for a fellow human. More importantly, they are also about the ruthlessness with which the morally corrupt seek to silence the victims of their misdeeds. But most importantly, these are sorry accounts of how the State, as we understand it, colludes with criminals to whitewash their crimes. When certain individuals - the rich, the famous, the mighty - get away with the most heinous of crimes, society loses respect for the law of the land. When such people are not shamed, let alone punished, the law-abiding citizen loses trust in those who supposedly implement/uphold laws. Worse, the judiciary becomes an object of ridicule.
I feel that dog collar around Aruna's neck is a manifestation of all that is wrong in the Indian society today. It is the noose that hangs around your neck for all your life, if you are not the high and mighty, and especially if you are a woman. Men get their fair share of injustice and harassment, no doubt. But it is a fact that, especially in India, wherever a case involves a woman, the public already has its verdict - the said woman must have overstepped/crossed some invisible line, the 'lakshman-rekha'. Why is it that, in a nation that virtually deifies the woman, it is so difficult for a woman to find respect for herself? Why is it that in India 'boys will be boys', but girls are always a burden (or politely put, a responsibility)?
If a woman's honour must be protected, why should it be at the cost of her freedom and her right to live her life as she wishes to? Shouldn't such protection come from educating our men - and women - to respect her as they would want to be respected themselves? Shouldn't we teach our sons and brothers that our daughters and sisters too are individuals - with the same dreams and wishes, with the same aspirations, with the same need for space, with the same right to oneself? Why do we instead choose to silence our sisters' laughter, strangulate our daughters' dreams - and draw their space for them? It is easy, isn't it, to control the one who can be easily controlled, rather than hold ourselves responsible for our actions? Let men molest and rape - it will always be because the woman was not appropriately attired or did not behave within the limits we defined for her, never because the men saw her not as a human but as their personal belonging.
Why do men think that women are their private property, that they can do with them whatever they fancy? Why do women think they can (or must) not raise their voice, or even their eyes, up to men within their homes and outside? Why is it that a man can get his way around by beating his wife, but a wife must stifle her dreams and desires to live the way her husband wishes her to?
Outside her home, why is it that a woman must take resposnsibility of the behaviour of men towards her? Why is she asked to dress in accordance with men's wishes? Is it because men are so intellectually and emotionally defunct that they go raving mad whenever they see as much as a stray hair or a bare arm of a woman? No, it is definitely not that, for men are beings of reason and understand their instincts/emotions perfectly. Then it must be because some men molest and rape, know it was wrong on their part, appreciate that the society will always judge the woman and not them, and therefore waste no time in pointing their finger at her.
Is this injustice so hard to spot, or is it that it has now become a way of life for our men and women? In a free society, anyone can have their own set of norms for acceptable behaviour which they would like to see in others. But they can do nothing at all to enforce that behaviour - that is simply not acceptable.
Even if a woman walks the streets stark naked at 1 am, it still does not give any random man the authority or the license to violate her freedom. At best, the said man can report the matter to the police if it violates the law of the land. But how does he suddenly get bestowed with the power to vitiate her private space? If a man gets aroused seeing a woman (and it could be her bare breasts as much as it could be only the veil over her face that aroused him), it is his problem and not her. It is his responsibility, and not hers, to control his urges. Tell me, what does a 2-month-old infant or a 90-year-old woman do to arouse a man? Contrary to popular imagination, they get raped too. It is about time men seriously grow up and start taking responsibility for their own behaviour. It is also about time women start taking responsibility for their own lives - their freedom, their space, their wants and desires, their rights.
But no, these stories do not shock us.
I simply have two questions to ask. If not us, who? If not now, when?