Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Ruchika case

Ruchika Girhotra was a 14 year old girl (as of 1990) who committed suicide in 1993 allegedly due to sustained harassment by a senior police officer (Mr SPS Rathore) against whom she and her family had lodged a complaint of "outraging her modesty". A mostly factual account is present here.

Mr Rathore was sentenced to six months in prison in 2009. Dissatisfied with the verdict, her family and friends are seeking both a retrial as well as addition of new charges against Mr Rathore (attempt to murder Ruchika's brother, and abetment to Ruchika's suicide, among other charges).

Stung by public outcry over this whole affair, the Home Ministry and the Law Ministry have recently notified changes to police procedures which give more powers to the police (no right to bail for sexual offences) and to the complainants (every complaint describing a cognizable offence must be registered as a criminal case, sexual offences to go through a fast track trial with a right to appeal acquittal).

In my opinion, these steps are misguided and are knee-jerk reactions which ignore some deeper problems in our system which led to Ruchika's suicide:
  1. Misuse of power: A public servant cannot be easily prosecuted in India. Sometimes the approval for even chargesheeting a public servant has to be given by the highest authorities of the land (the Chief Minister of the state, or the Prime Minister of India). Certain categories of judges cannot be prosecuted or dismissed except by a motion in the Parliament (even though their appointment is not that public an affair). Moreover, the abuse of authority by public officials to evade conviction and punishment is legendary in India. There is no reform in the offing to make prosecution of public servants easier, and to introduce stringent deterrents for misuse of authority.

  2. Harassment through involvement: In India, mere involvement with the police and the courts is a punishing experience, as the police is highly corrupt and has scant respect for human rights, and because criminal trials take a long time. Moreoever, the police is usually not interested in gathering evidence and aiding the prosecution but is much more interested in harassment, unjustified arrests and torture. There is no reform in the offing for holding the police to a higher standard. Everybody knows that by filing an FIR, one subjects the accused to the prolonged misery of dealing with the police and public prosecutors in India. That was precisely the harassment that Ruchika's family underwent which led to Ruchika's suicide. The government, instead of reforming the criminal justice system, educating the police, and deterring misuse of the police apparatus, is giving more powers to the complainants and to the police. Mr Rathore misused the police by filing false complaints. What steps is the government taking to avoid such misuses? As for registration of FIRs (which Ruchika's family had trouble accomplishing), the Supreme Court has ruled long back that investigation must follow - and not precede - an FIR, yet there is daily contempt of the highest court of the land. What can another circular mandating the same do?

  3. Misuse of the Power to Arrest: The power to arrest someone and to restrict a person's movement must be justified and be used sparingly by the police even when it has the right to arrest (as per the Supreme Court of India). In practice, being accused of a non-bailable offence means getting arrested, whether or not one is guilty. This is a flagrant denial of the basic human right to liberty. This sort of harassment is ubiquitious in India and is viciously taken advantage of by both the police and by complainants, which are in many cases vindictive spouses. The long-awaited amendments to the CrPc, which take the power of arrest away from police for minor offences, have been only partially notified due to opposition by lawyers' associations (since the lawyers would lose their fees for filing bail applications).

  4. Inequality before Law: Even though equality before law is a fundamental right as per Article 14 of the Constitution of India, in practice that is hardly true. Filing of certain categories of complaints (e.g. domestic violence) is available only to women, prosecution of certain categories of elected and public officials requires approval (which enables such examples), and so on and so forth. There is not even a hint of reform in this area.

  5. Police Torture: Ruchika's brother was tortured in custody. When a policeman is convicted of using third-degree methods, he/she is merely suspended/transferred/dismissed. Such policepersons must be tried for criminal intimidation, and for physical assault. This problem can only be tackled by introducing stringent punishment for custodial torture and custodial deaths.

  6. Perjury and False Complaints: Even though CrPC and IPC provide punishment for bearing false witness, for perjury and for filing false complaints, these punishments are paltry and nobody is afraid of being prosecuted for them.

  7. The Moral Attitudes to Sex: I know this is controversial, but in my opinion most middle class Indians are extremely touchy as well as hypocritical about sex. While in males this results in repression and violence towards women, in women this leads to neuroses and a sanctimonious attitude to "modesty", "honour" and suchlike (which is there in society at large but is internalized during upbringing). Due to these attitudes, a girl/woman is afraid to come out with a complaint of sexual harassment (since this would taint and stigmatize her forever). And even though I am aware that many women in India are subject to ogling, eve-teasing, molestation, frotteurism, etc., I cannot but help observe that just as many men wrongly interpret a woman's openness and laughter, many women also have a heightened and vehement response to mild flirtation, especially by those men who they do not like to begin with (say, those who are below them in social status). I write about it in more detail here.

  8. Delay in Trial: If the system needs 15 years to come to a considered decision in a criminal case, it is going to be a miscarriage of justice to "fast track" a particular category of cases. How is a judge to ensure that a judgment is delivered in two months for a trial of a sexual offence when even summons to respondents or witnesses cannot usually be served in this period? Instead of treating certain offences (such as domestic violence, flirting) as deserving of a time-bound first response (which first response will anyway go through the lengthy appeals process, as provided), isn't it more important to overhaul the trial process itself?
Given that the masses in India are tired of being mistreated by the system, they are understandably baying for Mr Rathore's blood. However, it is far more important to strengthen the system and to streamline the processes. It is not enough, not by a long shot, to exult in the prosecution of a single individual, nor is it wise to introduce knee-jerk "reforms" in our criminal justice system.


Pankaj said...

very nice article. the ruchika case is more about systematic and blatant misuse of official power.

rehab said...

The fact that police officers use fake encounters to receive promotions is shocking too.
Ruchika's case is horrifying to say the least, but let's hope this sets the precedent for police reforms.