The two weeks I was in India, I read the Times of India every day. The Times is the world’s largest English-language daily newspaper by circulation, with a readership of 13.3 million. It is of a decidedly progressive bent, and the stories are expressive, opinionated and don’t even pretend to be unbiased–in fact, many J-school profs would swoon at the blatant editorializing done in the news section. They are also not afraid to make use of their bully pulpit.
I give the Times of India a massive Harpy shout-out for their crusading on one story in particular. Under the heading “Justice for Ruchika”, the Times ran an article every single day of my two week stay about the now-infamous Ruchika Girhotra case. It was nearly always on the front page, often above the fold, always accompanied by a picture of the teenage Ruchika.
The Times coverage is so lengthy and constantly developing that there’s no one simple recap on their site, but there is an excellent summary of the Ruchika story in last week’s Sydney Morning Herald. It reads in part:
A Kafkaesque tale of crime, suicide and corruption has appalled India over the past week, causing outrage even in a country long accustomed to the transgressions of those in power.
The sexual assault of Ruchika Girhotra, 14 at the time of the crime, by a police officer in 1990 has shone a light on an alleged nexus of corruption with tentacles that reach through the police, bureaucracy and political class. What has disgusted observers, and led to a concerted “Justice for Ruchika” campaign, is the alleged scale of the abuse of power that is shaking already rock-bottom confidence in public institutions.
Nineteen years ago, S.P.S. Rathore, a senior police official in the northern state of Haryana, molested Girhotra after arranging to meet her at the local lawn tennis club, of which he was president. Girhotra, a middle class girl and promising tennis player, dared to lodge a complaint against Rathore, now 67, setting off a chain of events that are only now coming to light.
An internal police probe in 1990 into the assault recommended a case be filed but Rathore was promoted and his influence grew further when he was later named as the top police officer for the entire state.
Girhotra meanwhile was expelled from her prestigious [Catholic] private school within months of the attack. The expulsion, the family claims, was part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment designed to force the family to drop their complaint and prevent any prosecution of the policeman. Girhotra’s brother Ashu was accused of theft and then abused in jail at Rathore’s orders, according to the family.
Tormented by the stress she believed she had inflicted upon her family, Ruchika finally poisoned herself in 1993 at the age of 17. Her brother was released from jail soon after she died.
Nineteen years after the original assault – a long time even by Indian standards – a court last week found Rathore guilty of molestation and sentenced him to six months in jail and a 1,000-rupee [$21] fine.
Given that virtually all sexual predators are serial offenders, I think we can safely assume that Ruchika Girhotra was not SPS Rathore’s only victim–she was just the only one who dared to speak out. She was one of very, very few who do so; in the National Capital Region, where Ruchika and her family lived, sexual assault is so underreported as to be almost statistically non-existent. The Hindustan Times noted that in the NCR, only 506 cases of molestation were reported last year–this in a metropolitan area with a population of 15.9 million. I’m willing to believe that India’s conservative, patriarchial society has a lot to do with the non-reporting, but cases like Ruchika’s make it clear that Indian law enforcement is also to blame; even when a young victim and her family report the attack and actively pursue prosecution, the system is so stacked against them that the results can be as bad as the original crime. In fact, publicity from Ruchika’s case has empowered other women to report similar cases where they were ignored, humiliated or harrassed by the police and local officials when they reported assaults. In all those cases as well, the accused were older, more powerful men who conspired with local government or law enforcement to keep the victims quiet.
What’s worse, even if the victim did get the state to successfully prosecute her abuser, the penalties are a joke. After being convicted of molesting Ruchika, SPS Rathore was sentenced to only six months jail time and a fine of $21. The laws are also vague about what constitutes criminal molestation; currently, Section 524 of the Indian Penal Code defines molestation as “assault or use of criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty” (it’s generally interpreted as any sexual assault that falls short of penetrative rape). As a result of the Ruchika Girhotra case, the law ministry has drafted a new bill that gives a much clearer definition of molestation, does not permit bail in cases of molestation, and raises the maximum prison sentence from two years to five:
“Tough measures are required to deter sexual offences against women,” Law Minister M. Veerapa Moily told the Hindustan Times. “Following the shocking Ruchika case, it is clear that molestation needs to be treated as a serious sexual offence as rape.”
Five years seems like a light maximum sentence to me–in New York state, for example, sexual assault carries a maximum of 15 years–but it’s high time the government addressed the fact that the current laws do almost nothing to punish abusers, which virtually guarantees that their victims will not risk reporting the crime.
Even better, the unrelenting publicity and pressure from the media has forced prosecutors to file more charges against Ruchika’s attacker–charges her family has been requesting for years. The Times reported yesterday:
A fresh case was on Tuesday registered against former Haryana police chief SPS Rathore, who was charged with abetting the suicide of teenager Ruchika Girhotra three years after molesting her. Sources in the Haryana police said that Rathore could be arrested anytime now.
The fresh first information report (FIR) charges the former director general of police under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code for abetting the suicide of Ruchika in 1993, three years after he had molested her, police officials said.
The FIR has been filed after Ruchika’s brother Ashu had filed a fresh complaint last week seeking that Rathore be booked for abetment of suicide of his sister.
Rathore was last week booked by the Panchkula police in two different cases, charging him of attempt to murder, forging and tampering with evidence of Ruchika’s death, criminal conspiracy and wrongful confinement. Most of the charges slapped against him in both FIRs are non-bailable ones.
There’s no doubt the Times‘s “Justice for Ruchika” crusade has been successful, and proves once again the power of public opinion and an activist media. They were not above some back-patting in an editorial last week:
…public and media pressure have forced a relook at cases where the accused were powerful enough to subvert justice. The way these cases were handled is a blot on our investigating and judicial agencies.
…the heartening thing is that public pressure has succeeded in preventing the accused from getting away. This is of course not an answer to the ills plaguing the justice delivery system in India, but only a short-term remedy to making government agencies more responsive. But we can only hope–and what better time than the beginning of a new year–that those who commit crimes and then shamelessly use their influence to subvert justice will now think twice about it.
In response to the Times‘s editorializing about their editorials, a reader named A. Srikantaiah wrote a letter to the editor which pointed out one important reality–a no-brainer actually–which none of the media coverage I read ever mentioned:
With reference to the editorial ‘Justice Interrupted’, the media has been full of news on the Ruchika case for the last several days. Of course, SPS Rathore who molested her deserves severe punishment. There can be no dispute over that. But my question is, if Ruchika had belonged to a socio-economically deprived family, would the news channels have focused on the case so much?
Innumerable woman and minor girls have been subjected to molestation and rape by the rich and powerful over the last 60 years, but the media rarely takes serious note of these incidents. One cannot help but feel that this is because most of the victims belong to the poorer sections of society.
The Ruchika case, outrageous and disgusting as it is, appears to be the catalyst for a serious re-examination of how the Indian legal system prosecutes sex crimes, and how society treats victims of sex crimes (and their attackers). It’s also touched off a populist uprising about abuse of power by elected officials and law enforcement. Corruption is an unpleasant fact of life in India, and this story is an easy way for the press to tap into the suppressed rage a lot of Indians feel about their society’s not-so-level playing field.
Of course, because there’s no moral gray area in Ruchika’s story, it’s an easy one for the Times to champion. Ruchika’s death was so tragic, her attacker’s behavior so vile and the complicity of his powerful friends so undeniable it’s easy–and not inaccurate–to present it as a clear-cut showdown of good versus evil. Still, the Indian press, and the Times in particular, deserves a lot of credit–and respect–for keeping this case in the public eye and providing a platform to address critical issues like violence against women and police corruption. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the same in the United States.
*I ripped a number of these stories out of the newspapers themselves and carried them home in a file, so in some cases where I quote but don’t link, it’s because I’ve retyped text from the articles I saved.