As Ruchika molestation case drags on in court, the collective indignity should, in the meantime, give new momentum and direction to legal reform processes to protect the vulnerable of this country
Shaweta Anand Delhi
The noose of law tightened its grip around the neck of former Haryana DGP SPS Rathore as the Chandigarh district court sentenced him to 18 months imprisonment last week for molesting 14-year old Ruchika Girhotra, who later committed suicide. The case is still going on.
Even though his advocate wife Abha Rathore immediately filed for bail in the High Court citing Rathore's age and his physical health as conditions deserving sympathy from the court, many human rights groups feel that the court did the right thing by enhancing Rathore's prison-term while some feel it is too little done too late.
"In Ruchika's case, the man was a high-ranking police officer while the victim was a mere child. The court has only looked at the molestation part of the crime and given Rathore this punishment, though less than the possible term of full two years," said Madhu Mehra, director, Partners for Law in Development while in conversation with this reporter.
"The Court has responded in a tokenistic way by not looking at the continuum of crime of harassment of the entire family, when a whole system closed in on them, hounding them out of the city," she added.
Pamela Philipose, director of Women's Feature Service, Delhi, feels more upbeat about the judgement. "Looking at the positive side of Rathore's conviction, however inadequate, is that it made public what used to happen (and still happens) privately. Young girls usually think of sexual harassment as a normal, acceptable part of social interaction, so much so, that they are unable to identify it or prevent it. This case also highlights the spirit of two teenage girls, who had the courage to call Rathore's behaviour 'sexual harassment' and decided to speak up against it," she said.
"Rathore's case gives a message to officialdom that they cannot misuse their power or cross certain lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour while dealing with women in public spaces," she emphasised.
When asked how inspiring this case is for a mounting brigade of working women who wear western clothes to office and also attend office parties, and are often held responsible for 'inviting harassment', she said, "Women need to know that the right to bodily integrity is their basic right and no woman can be harassed because of the way she dresses. It's a non-negotiable principle." During the proceedings of Ruchika's case, one argument made against her was that she wore skirts and mingled with boys and in that sense, she couldn't be possibly 'harassed' when Rathore molested her.
"Hopefully, the other serious charges of abetment to suicide and torturing Ruchika's family members would also get included in the court's judgement against Rathore because there seems to be a considerable amount of evidence for it," said Mary E John, director, Centre for Women's Development Studies, Delhi.
In a similar vein, Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) said, "This case reveals so many weaknesses inherent in the Indian judicial system. We demand that the harassment and assault of children be taken seriously by the court so that such malafide actions against Ruchika and her family get appropriately punished. Not just that, we also demand an overhaul of the assault law in this country so that harsher punishment against such crimes can be institutionalised.”
"While women's groups have been working for about 30 years towards this but Ruchika's case has added fresh blood to our demand for passage of the Sexual Assault Bill that should be comprehensive, gender-neutral and should bring in the purview of law actions of grave violence (rape, mutilation etc) to the not-so-grave ones (catcalling etc) against women, gay and transvestite people, people in custody, children and so on." John was responding to a question posed by this reporter regarding the apparent 'anti-men' character of the proposed bill.