Case of injustice

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

in Chandigarh

FOR nearly two decades, the case was out of public memory. All except those who were keen to secure justice for a life that was snuffed out early had forgotten it. So, it was with mixed emotions that people welcomed the verdict, on December 21, 2009, of the Chief Judicial Magistrate of a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court, sentencing the former Director General of Police of Haryana, Shambu Pratap Singh Rathore, to six months rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs.1,000 for molesting a 14-year-old girl in 1990. The charge under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (assault or use of criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty) was established after protracted litigation by those who kept alive their hopes of justice.

The guilt of the convict has already been proved up to hilt, noted Chief Judicial Magistrate Jasbir Singh Sidhu in his 97-page order, adding that the allegations were of moral turpitude and were of a serious nature, particularly in the circumstances when the victim was a minor. Dismissing the arguments of the defence counsel highlighting Rathores meritorious record, the judge noted that a meritorious service record and high moral character were two different things and that it could not be presumed merely on the grounds of meritorious service that a person would not commit an act of molestation.

The victim was not yet 15 and was a student of Class X in a public school when her life fell apart on August 12, 1990. Rathore, then a Deputy Inspector General of Police serving with the Bhakra Beas Management Board, was also the president of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association (HLTA) at Panchkula, where the teenager and her friends had just started playing tennis. The victims father had plans of sending his daughter, who had lost her mother several years earlier, to Canada for a bright future.

Rathore convinced him that his daughter was a promising tennis player and that he would give her extra coaching. Rathore molested her in the office of the HLTA. This was accidently witnessed by her friend Aradhana, and the very first inquiry report submitted by the then Director General of Police, R.R. Singh, confirmed it. Instead of taking action, the State government led by Hukam Singh ordered departmental proceedings against Rathore. No first information report (FIR) was registered. Three years after the incident, the girl committed suicide by consuming poison.

The victims family was aided in their fight by Aradhana, her father, Anand Prakash, a government employee, and mother, Madhu Prakash. Madhu Prakash told Frontline that Rathore should have been booked early on under Section 306 of the IPC for abetment to suicide as well. Nevertheless, she said, the sentence of six months jail for Rathore, who had delayed the process of justice all these years, was still an achievement. Womens organisations such as the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA) and the National Commission for Women and citizens forums like the newly constituted Democratic Forum in Chandigarh demanded that the government take the matter forward by registering a case under Section 306 against Rathore.

Following a writ petition by Madhu Prakash in 1997, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, on August 21, 1998, ordered the registration of an FIR and handed over the investigation to the CBI. Rathore appealed against it in the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower courts order. Finally, an FIR was registered on December 29, 1999, six years after the teenager committed suicide.

While the order of Justice Sidhu on the whole has been appreciated, many feel that the judgment has come too late and that it has overlooked the fact that the molestation and the subsequent harassment meted out to the family led the teenager to kill herself. What prevented any agency of the State from booking the senior police officer on the additional charge of abetment to suicide baffles everyone. The fact that it took 19 years to establish a case of molestation was a setback in itself.

Nevertheless, in a State infamous for its shabby treatment of women where the skewed sex ratio has been an issue of concern for long and where honour killings have enjoyed public and political sanction the verdict was a relief. But when Rathore got bail soon after, the public, political parties and womens organisations were outraged and they demanded that the bail be cancelled. Though the government did little in that direction, after some initial prevarication the police registered three FIRs based on complaints by the victims father and her brother against Rathore and four others under various sections including abetment to suicide.

We want the case to be reopened and want to know clearly why the delays happened and who all were responsible for them, said Madhu Prakash. She said fast-track courts were needed to deal with crimes against women and children. There are so many girls who do not speak up. Even if they do, there is hardly anyone to speak up for them, she added.

She said anyone familiar with the case would know that harassment of the family led the girl to suicide. Her father was removed from his job. They sold their home because of sustained harassment and moved to Shimla [Himachal Pradesh] on rent. The son, who was a student of St. Josephs, would have had a bright career but for the false cases registered against him, she said.

Madhu Prakash said her family too was harassed. My husband was charged with many cases; we faced threats as well. We feared that anything could happen if our children ventured out. My husband was forced to seek retirement and we started getting pension benefits after a protracted struggle. I used to get calls saying that my daughter had run away from her hostel. It was to depress us mentally. Criminal cases were filed against us in 1991. We have a defamation case also against us. There have been more than 400 hearings in this case, in Ambala, Patiala and now Chandigarh. After so many years, all that Rathore gets is six months imprisonment, and then he gets bail, she said.

The victims brother had as many as six cases of car theft registered against him, all of which were later dropped for lack of evidence. Madhu Prakash said that a Patiala court had ordered that he be given compensation, but Rathore got a restraining order from the Supreme Court. She said the State owed much more to the family of the victim, including compensation.

In an application to the Special Judicial Magistrate, CBI, Ambala, Madhu Prakash along with four others had stated that the teenager committed suicide because of continual harassment. For instance, her name was struck off from the rolls of Sacred Heart School, Chandigarh, on the grounds that she had not paid the school fees. As the role of the school came under the scanner, the administration of the Union Territory of Chandigarh ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident on December 29, 2009. After examining the statements of persons at present and formerly associated with the school, including Father Thomas Anchanikal, Vicar General and spokesperson of the Chandigarh, Shimla Diocese, the report concluded that the school had selectively followed the instructions/rules mentioned in the school diary and singled out the girl for striking off her name from the rolls.

The inquiry report, a copy of which is available with Frontline, noted:

This is, therefore, a case which clearly demonstrates beyond any manner of doubt that the school authorities acted in a mala fide, biased, arbitrary, indiscriminate and unwarranted manner while expelling [the teenager] from the school. It seems strange that the principle and practice of removing the name of the student from the rolls for non-payment of fees was applied only in the case of [her]. Sister Sebastinas statement that the decision of striking off the name of [the girl] from the school rolls was taken by her independently and that there was no pressure from any quarter that influenced her decision in this regard whatsoever cannot be believed in the face of telling circumstances of the case. From the discussions made herein above, it is amply evident that the school authorities did not act independently or impartially but under acute pressure in invoking Rule 35 of the Pupils Code of Conduct since the same rule has never been applied to any of the 135 similar cases dug out by the undersigned from the official records of the school. This act of the school authorities certainly would have contributed to mortifying the self-esteem, self-confidence, integrity and reputation of a young minor girl thereby traumatising and indelibly scarring her impressionable mind.

With regard to the allegation in the statement of [the girls father] that the school authorities expelled [the young girl] from the school at the behest of Sh. S.P.S. Rathore, although no direct evidence is available, it is quite probable in view of the strong circumstantial evidence to the effect that [the girls] expulsion was proximate in time and followed close on the heels of the incident of molestation. This aspect in my view requires an in-depth and thorough probe.

Madhu Prakash said slogans were raised in favour of Rathore and against the victims family in a demonstration outside their house by the residents of Rajiv Colony. The fact of the demonstration by some 200 people was corroborated by an inspector of Panchkula, Anil Dhawan. This was confirmed in R.R. Singhs report.

R.R. Singh also observed that Rathore wanted to prolong the inquiry on one pretext or the other. He noted: I am of the considered view that whatever a small girl of 15 years has stated about her molestation by Shri S.P.S. Rathore is based on true facts and I am of the considered opinion that a cognisable offence is made out. J.K. Duggal, who was Home Secretary from 1990 to 1992, told Frontline that he thoroughly agreed with R.R. Singhs report, which recommended the registration of an FIR.

Pankaj Bharadwaj, lawyer for the Prakash family, said that the victims brother was never examined though the CBI, which was handed over charge of the investigation in 1998 by an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, gave the implausible explanation that he had not made himself available for examination. He said the CBI had not even taken into account the victims post-mortem and inquest reports. In fact, the CBI, while concluding its investigation, maintained that no offences under Sections 306 and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) were made out.

The Special Judicial Magistrate, CBI, Ambala, Jagdev Singh Dhanjal, thought otherwise. He concluded on October 23, 2001, that a prima facie case existed for the addition of offence under Section 306 against Rathore. Rathore challenged this in the High Court. The CBI did not collect any evidence pertaining to Section 306. [The victims brothers] statement was never recorded. The fudged inquest report was not taken into account. Neither were the statements of [the father], Aradhana or her father taken, said Bharadwaj, who got involved in the case in 1996 after the Prakash family approached him. He said the victim was confined to her house as even going to the market was fraught with the possibility of harassment. He added that the boy, who was detained by the police for nearly two months, was released from police custody the day after his sister killed herself.

All attempts by the Prakashes to get Section 306 added to Section 354 were frustrated after a single-judge Bench of Justice R.C. Kathuria of the Punjab and Haryana High Court dismissed their application. It was established in the chemical examination report of February 21, 1994, that the girls death was a case of poisoning from consuming a chloro compound group of insecticides. The High Court quashed the Special Judicial Magistrates order of October 23, 2001, considering that the victim had not made a police statement during the investigation of the case or that she had not come in contact with Rathore after the incident of August 1990 until the time of her death, and that no grievance had been made with regard to the harassment faced by her or her state of mind until her death.

Soon after the girls suicide, the charges against Rathore were dropped. This was during the tenure of the Bhajan Lal government (1991 to 1996). In the same period, false cases of car theft were registered against her brother. In November 1994, the government promoted Rathore as Additional DGP. Between 1996 and 1999, when the Haryana Vikas Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition led by Bansi Lal was ruling the State, Rathore was made DGP. He was suspended briefly but was reinstated as Additional DGP.

The Om Prakash Chautala government, which took over in July 1999, ordered a departmental inquiry. But Rathore was exonerated in the molestation case and reinstated as DGP. Following the filing of a fresh charge sheet by the CBI on November 16, 2000, Rathore was sent on leave, and in two years, he retired from service.

The current Congress government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda seems to enjoy the discomfiture of the main Opposition party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), and its leader Om Prakash Chautala, who was indirectly responsible for delaying the prosecution of Rathore. Sampat Singh, now a Congress legislator, was the Home Minister of the INLD when Rathore was given a promotion.

At present, more than the Rathore case, it is the byelection of Ellenabad on January 20 that is worrying the mainstream parties in the State. The byelection follows the resignation of Chautala from the constituency after he won from both Ellenabad and Dariba Kalan in the Assembly elections. Both the Congress and the INLD are keen to win from here. Thus the sparring between the two parties over the degree of political patronage extended to Rathore has to do more with immediate political and electoral gains rather than any serious introspection of what went wrong.

What about the judiciary? Just as the police didnt do a good job and succumbed to political pressure, the judiciary did not do justice, said Manjeet Kaur, a lawyer of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Unfazed that she might be pulled up for her candid remarks, Manjeet Kaur told Frontline that the State could go in for appeal asking for two years imprisonment, which is the maximum in a case of molestation. We have seen how a Station House Officer or a Sub Inspector behaves even with us. With ordinary people, it is much worse. And a DGP is like an atomic weapon, she said.

Lawyer Rajvinder Singh Bains, too, of the High Court said that the State could take up the issue of false cases against the victims brother and take action against the police personnel who harassed him, a minor at that point, and against the doctors who falsified the inquest report. The High Court, he said, could order the recording of further evidence, reopen investigation and cancel Rathores bail.

The involvement of AIDWA and its State president Jagmati Sangwan has been notable. The organisation has consistently demanded for Rathores conviction and held demonstrations from time to time at various places, including Ambala, to press for the inclusion of the charge of abetment to suicide. Rathore said that we were naxalite women and that he feared for his life from us. He wanted the proceedings to be shifted from Ambala, Jagmati Sangwan told Frontline. She said the Rajput Sabha held demonstrations against AIDWA. Also, during Chautalas regime, the State Womens Commission issued a statement supporting Rathore and simultaneously decrying the activities of AIDWA.

In the teenagers case, it took 10 years for an FIR to be registered and 19 years for the molester to get a conviction. The larger issue is more about how women are treated in this country, and about the gap between the realities on ground and what is delivered in the name of justice.

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