Crime

Brutal country for women

Print edition : January 03, 2020

At a flash mob protest against rape and violence against women, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on December 7. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Family members and relatives carry the mortal remains of the Unnao rape victim for cremation under tight security at Unnao on December 8. Photo: Nand Kumar/PTI

At the site where the burnt body of the 27-year-old woman was found by a passer-by in Shadnagar near Hyderabad on December 6. Photo: Mahesh Kumar A./AP

The recent incidents of rape and murder in Hyderabad and Unnao highlight the alarming rise in violent crimes against women in a country that celebrates hyper-masculine nationalism and vows to protect the honour of Mother India.

A series of horrifying incidents in the months of November and December reiterate what a terrible time it is to be a woman in India. From Unnao in Uttar Pradesh to Hyderabad in Telangana, the convulsions of violence against women are ubiquitous, making women’s safety a matter of grave concern.

On a cold winter day in Unnao, a 23-year-old backward caste woman was beaten up, stabbed and set ablaze by five upper-caste men, two of whom—Shubham Trivedi (25) and Shivam Trivedi (24)—she had accused of raping her on December 12, 2018. Shivam Trivedi, who was behind bars in connection with the rape case for two and a half months, was released on bail on November 30. Immediately after coming out, he started to follow and threaten her. The girl, along with her family, visited the police station close to Sindupur village several times but the police did not take any action.

On December 5, she was on her way to the court when the two accused, along with their fathers Harishankar Trivedi, and Ram Kishore Trivedi respectively and an associate, Umesh Bajpai, accosted her. She was set aflame and she ran for almost a kilometre screaming before people rushed to her help and took her to a community health centre nearby. According to eyewitness reports, she called a helpline number from somebody’s mobile phone and informed the police about the incident. It is only after receiving her call that an ambulance and the police response vehicle arrived at the scene.

Given the nature of her burns, she was shifted to the district hospital and from there to Syama Prasad Mukherjee Hospital in Lucknow before being air-lifted to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, where she breathed her last. She had suffered 90 per cent burn injuries.

Dying statement

Before dying, she gave a statement to Sub-Divisional Magistrate Dayashankar Pathak stating that she was attacked when she reached Gaura near her home en route the court, and named the five perpetrators. All of them were arrested and are currently behind bars.

Reportedly, the girl and the main accused had known each other since their school days. In December 2018, Shivam and Shubham Trivedi had abducted and raped her at gunpoint in a field. But a first information report (FIR) could be lodged only in March 2019 after dogged pursuance of the case by the girl and her family. As per the FIR, Shivam Trivedi had raped her multiple times subsequently under the promise of marriage and also threatened to make public the video of the act that he had allegedly filmed.

During the hearing of the case, Harishankar Trivedi had produced a medical registration slip along with a writ petition to the High Court showing that his son had been admitted to the local primary health centre on December 10, 2018, for five days and therefore could not have committed the rape. The health centre staff denied to the media that Shubham was admitted as a patient on those dates and declared the slip as fake. Earlier, Harishankar Trivedi had given an affidavit to the police stating that Shubham Trivedi was in Lucknow for a competitive examination on the day of the alleged rape. Faced with contradictory claims, none of which the family could substantiate properly, the High Court dismissed their petition for removing Shubham Trivedi’s name from the FIR.

The girl’s remains were buried next to her grandparents in a field belonging to her family amidst tight security and heavy police presence. The family refused to let the administration build a memorial in her name as the administration had not agreed to their demands, including a meeting with the Chief Minister.

Her death triggered nationwide uproar, forcing Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to issue a statement saying he would expedite the trial of rape cases and cases registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act by writing to the Chief Ministers of the States and Chief Justices of High Courts. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, too, ordered the fast-tracking of rape cases, with a call for stringent action against perpetrators of such crimes. But their assurances ring hollow in the face of repeated disregard of the law by the authorities who are supposed to uphold the rights and dignity of citizens. Besides, promises by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators have little credibility given that the party has the largest number of MPs and MLAs with cases of crimes against women in 2018 as per a study by the Association for Democratic Reforms.

The rape and murder of the girl in Unnao is a reflection of the fact that U.P. is a mafia State. Before this atrocity, Unnao was known as the place where the BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar had raped a girl and allegedly attempted to murder her when she refused to withdraw the case against him. A story of power, intrigue and multiple murders, the case provoked national outrage, but despite tall promises by politicians, it is yet to see its logical end.

Swami Chinmayanand, another BJP leader, was accused of sexually exploiting a 23-year-old student. He allegedly filmed her while taking bath at a hostel and then raped her after blackmailing her with the video. She was also allegedly brought to his room at gunpoint and forced to give him massages.

On August 24, she became untraceable after putting up a Facebook post without naming the politician. Swami Chinmayanand filed an extortion case against her, after which the U.P. police tracked her down and arrested her. While Swami Chinmayanand was arrested on September 20, the student could get bail only after spending two and a half months in jail for bailable offences. The charges against Swami Chinmayanand, meanwhile, were watered down from rape to “misusing authority for sexual intercourse”, which carries a punishment of 5-10 years in jail with a fine as against a seven-year jail term extending to life sentence if convicted for rape.

Even as news of the death of the girl in Unnao were coming in, the police in Unnao refused to register another complaint of attempted rape, asking the woman to come only after the rape was committed. Three men had allegedly attempted to rape her some months previously when she was on her way to buy medicines, and were threatening her thereafter. Despite multiple visits to the police station, the police refused to entertain her complaint.

Around the same time, in Muzaffarnagar, four men threw acid at a 30-year-old woman for refusing to withdraw a complaint of rape against them. She suffered 30 per cent burns and was undergoing treatment at a hospital in Meerut.

The increasing prevalence of sexual assaults in the country must be seen in conjunction with the BJP government’s hyper-masculine nationalism that vows to protect the honour of Mother India on the one hand while reducing the bodies of women to arenas of violent struggle. The failure of the state machinery to respond appropriately to such crimes adds to the human rights violations.

Gruesome incident

On November 27, a veterinary doctor was gang-raped and murdered in Shamshabad, outside Hyderabad. According to the police, she parked her two-wheeler near a toll plaza and took a taxi. When she returned, she noticed that the tyres of her scooter had been deflated and she called her sister from her mobile phone. Some truck drivers, meanwhile, offered her assistance and under the pretext of helping her, dragged her behind the bushes nearby. They took turns to brutalise her and then smothered her.

According to the police, they then loaded her body onto the truck and tried to burn it after dousing it with petrol under a bridge on the Outer Ring Road in Hyderabad. Her charred remains were found the next day.

This gruesome rape and murder outraged the nation, reminiscent of the “Nirbhaya” case of Delhi in 2012. Protest marches and candlelight vigils were held in Hyderabad, Delhi and elsewhere. The pressure to act on the Telangana authorities was immense. Within 24 hours, the police claimed to have cracked the case and arrested four individuals—Mohammad Ali, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen Kumar and Chintakunta Chenna Keshavulu.

Some protesters gathered outside the Shadnagar police station and demanded that the police either hang or shoot the accused. The Executive Magistrate had to come to the police station and he sent the accused to 14 days of judicial custody. As they were being transported to the prison, the bloodthirsty crowd pelted stones at the vehicles and wanted the accused to be handed over to it.

It is to be noted that mob lynching has become the order of the day under the Narendra Modi regime. In the initial period of BJP rule, Muslims and Dalits were murdered by mobs under the garb of protecting cows. Gradually, the bloodlust has spread through the entire nation, with people demanding instant justice.

On December 6, at 3.30 a.m., the four accused were killed in an “encounter” by the police under a bridge on the Hyderabad-Bengaluru national highway. According to the Cyberabad police, they had taken the accused to the spot for a reconstruction of the crime scene when they tried to snatch the policemen’s guns and run away. The police was left with no choice but to kill them, said Prakash Reddy, Deputy Commissioner of Shamshabad Police.

The Cyberabad police chief, V.C. Sajjanar, who led the operation, was involved in an uncannily similar encounter in Warangal when he was a Superintendent of Police in 2008. His police team killed three men accused of acid attack on two women engineering students. Just like the Hyderabad encounter, they had gone with the accused to the scene of the crime to collect evidence. However, Sajjanar later said that the accused tried to attack the police with crude bombs and they had no choice but to fire in self-defence. Though human rights organisations had condemned the encounter, Sajjanar became a local hero.

Shocking statements

This time too, as news of the encounter spread, people rejoiced, with the demand for the death penalty for rapists getting shriller. Women Members of Parliament made shocking and controversial statements. Jaya Bachchan, Samajwadi Party M.P., welcomed the killing and said “der aaye durust aaye” [better late than never]. Earlier, she had said that perhaps lynching, though too extreme, would be the only way to put an end once and for all to such crimes against women. “If you have not been able to provide security then leave it to the public to give judgment. Those who failed to provide security and those who committed the crime should be exposed in public, and then let people decide,” she had said.

Raising the issue during zero hour, BJP member Meenakshi Lekhi said in the Lok Sabha that the police had not been given weapons as a show piece, and had to use them when the accused tried to flee.

But outside Parliament, saner voices countered this blood lust and called for restraint. The Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee (CLMC) condemned the encounter and termed it a “daylight murder of the rule of law which shows that State police is leading the society towards mobocracy. It is sham if the police wants the public to believe that justice has been served to Disha [the name given to the woman to mask her identity], as this extra-judicial killing will only go on to cast shadows on the arrest and involvement of the alleged perpetrators. Only a full-fledged trial before the court of law and its judgment could have honoured the victim.”

Lateef Mohammed Khan of the CLMC said that it was unfortunate that publicity-hungry police officers with the aim of scoring brownie points became judge, jury and executioner and transgressed the limitations set up by the Constitution. “This horrendous daylight murder of the rule of law sets a very bad and disastrous precedent and is a blot on civil society. Encounter killing in the name of instant justice can never be a replacement for punishment through procedures established by the law,” he said.

The civil rights activist Kirity Roy of Masum (Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha) called for an independent judicial inquiry into the encounter. He appealed to the State authorities to refrain from closing the investigation without evidence that the four who were killed were the actual perpetrators of the crime. Senior advocate Vrinda Grover termed it unacceptable and said these killings distracted the public and saved the police and the state from accountability.

Another senior advocate and criminal defence lawyer, Rebecca Mammen John, said, “How easily we celebrate mob justice! A police force that no one ever trusts kills four unarmed men in the dead of night. Why? Because they didn’t matter. Unlikely that the Delhi police would have done this to men with connections who lived in Jor Bagh or Maharani Bagh. Did we even have enough evidence to suggest they committed the crime? Had any court seen that evidence? Had any court pronounced guilt? And even assuming they had committed the crime, there is a process to be followed. If that is abdicated, you could be the next.”

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) deputed a seven-member team to investigate the killings. Challenging the police version of the events, advocate G.S. Mani, Pradeep Kumar Yadav, and advocate M.L. Sharma filed separate public interest litigation (PIL) petitions in the Supreme Court. Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde agreed to an urgent hearing in the matter. The apex court said it was inclined to appoint a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate the matter and asked the State government and the petitioners to propose names. The Telangana High Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident and directed the government to preserve the bodies of the accused until December 13, the day of the hearing.

Encounter killings, or extra-judicial killings, have been castigated numerous times by the courts. A Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice R.M. Lodha and Justice R.F. Nariman, in the 2014 People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs State of Maharashtra pertaining to over 90 encounter killings by the Mumbai Police between 1995 and 1997, explicitly said that no authority had the right to violate the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. They said encounter killings must be investigated as they impacted the rule of law. Subsequently, guidelines were framed for the investigation of encounter killings.

It is now mandatory to conduct a magisterial inquiry under Section 176 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in all cases of death which occur in the course of police firing and a report thereof must be sent to the judicial magistrate having jurisdiction under Section 190 of the CrPC. If the death is caused by a firearm, then an FIR needs to be registered and forwarded to the court under Section 157 of the CrPC. If it is found that death had occurred by use of firearms amounting to an offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), disciplinary action against such officer(s) must be promptly initiated and they be placed under suspension, state the guidelines.

The NHRC states: “If a police officer kills someone in an encounter, he/she must prove that the death was caused either in the legitimate exercise of the right of private defence or in the use of force, proportional to the resistance offered, while arresting a person accused of an offence punishable with death or life imprisonment. This can only be ascertained by a proper investigation and not otherwise.”

In order to effectively counter the rape culture, a lot more than ensuring punishment for rapists is needed. Mobocracy can only be detrimental to the protection of women’s rights.

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