Indian rape survivors and the endless wait for justice

Trigger warning/content warning: this article includes descriptions of scenes of rape against women and minors, and sexual violence by police.

At five o’clock on a warm March evening, Ranjini is sitting on her haunches deftly slicing gehu (wheat) stalks into thin fragments to ground into flour for her husband and his parents. She’s far away from a court, any court. Far from even a beaten track. Yet she’s never reasoned that that’s why her alleged rapist continues to live a kilometre away from where she does. 

Our phone conversation spills over from the conventional into the consequential; from the story of her little girl passing her eighth class exams and her older son making the college move to Indore, to the story of how she’s still thinking about him – and it – seven years later, almost to the day.

Ranjini (not her real name, the names of all survivors in this story have been changed) was raped on 12 March 2013.

Today, the man she accuses of rape roams free.

“Every day,” she responds immediately to a question about how often the thought of the incident occurs to her. 

The sound of her scythe swooping down on sheaves and sheaves of wheat stalks echoes rhythmically in the background. “Every time I see him, I think, why isn’t he in jail? I’ll worry for as long as he’s out. I’ll worry about him trying to finish me and my husband off.”

Ranjini and her family live in a tiny hamlet several kilometres from Indore, in India’s heartland state of Madhya Pradesh. She and her husband (and his family) identify as Korkus; the man she accuses of rape is a Gujjar – believed to be of a “higher order” than her family in the archaic four-fold Hindu system of ritual purity and pollution, called the caste system. 

Until 12 March of 2013 (the day before the Hindu festival of Holi, Ranjini clearly remembers), both she and her husband worked in fields owned by a Gujjar man, sowing, tilling and watering crops for him. On that night, she alleged, the owner of the fields lured her husband away late in the evening on an errand and then while he was away, arrived to their house, demanding that she do a chore for him too. 

When Ranjini refused, claiming it was too late and she needed to take care of her two children, she alleged he swooped down upon her. “Perhaps he was angry that I, a Dalit woman, had refused to comply,” she said. He raped her. Ranjini claims she was menstruating at the time but that this did not stop him. 

Ranjini says that she and her husband waited hours at the local police station before a First Information Report (FIR) was reluctantly filed. The fact that theirs was a Gujjar-dominated village permeated every step of the legal process, she says. Her Medico-Legal Certificate –a copy of which she shared with this reporter– says: “Lady is used to sexual intercourse and she is mother of 3 child (sic) so we cannot say rape”. 

She was also subjected to the now-banned horrifically intrusive two-finger test, whereby a couple of fingers are attempted to be inserted inside a woman’s vagina to determine laxity and conclude whether she is a virgin. Her Medico-Legal Certificate therefore, also states: “her vagina easily admits two fingers”.

Ranjini went on to lose her case in Dewas district court, a loss the NGO Jan Sahas attributed in part to casteist practices against her and an inadequate medical examination. Ranjini also speaks about how there were no witnesses to speak for her in court.

There still aren’t. Ranjini filed an appeal against the district court’s ruling in the state’s high court, but it’s been many, many months since she heard anything. She has heard nothing from the rest of the hamlet since her case started.

“They say, ‘if he really was the culprit, why isn’t he behind bars? You must have framed him.’ They are either of the same jaat (caste) or they need work on his land.”

What does Ranjini need now more than anything? “I want him punished, didi,” she told me, using the Hindi expression for older sister which also used loosely among women of all ages to address one another. “He still lives so close to us. Why do I have to keep seeing him? It’s been years….”

More fast-track courts for women survivors

Kranti Khode is a senior programme coordinator at Jan Sahas, an NGO that works to eliminate sexual violence against women and girls across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, among several others. Jan Sahas has accompanied Ranjini over the years that she has fought for justice. 

Bangalore protests following Delhi gang-rape in 2012. Photo by Photo by Jim Ankan, used under a creative commons license.

On International Women’s Day, Khode was at an event that was “one among many across states for survivors to come together to discuss what stakeholders should do, how they could bring about change in the after-rape processes for survivors….”

Over past years, Khode has organized innumerable marches and rallies and forums for rape survivors across India. There was an unprecedented ‘Dignity March’ a year ago that spanned two months, culminating in New Delhi on 8 March 2019. The Dignity March saw survivors shout out their rights and stories, walking from the southernmost tip of India to its northernmost. 

I asked Khode she thinks has changed in terms of how Women’s Day is commemorated in India over the past few years?

“Not much,” is her honest reply. “There’s been some sensitization in the case of sexual violence against children –particularly after the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012– but not so, in case of women. They’re still viewed with suspicion when they try to report their rape at local thanas (police stations). The system is still very patriarchal – right till the level of the courts. Evidence and witnesses aren’t easy to gather and the system largely thinks it’s the woman’s fault.”

According to the last-recorded data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), women reported almost 34,000 rapes in India in 2018. Just over 85 per cent led to charges being filed by police, and only 27 per cent led to convictions.

According to the same data, a rape is reported every 15 minutes in India.

In December 2012, following the gruesome gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi (who was posthumously called ‘Nirbhaya,’ which means fearless), India’s criminal justice system was overhauled almost overnight, and new laws on consent were introduced. A Nirbhaya Fund was also set up, which Khode believes isn’t being utilized for rehabilitation at districts and smaller units. 

In 2013 and in light of the death of Nirbhaya herself, the Government of India acted in haste to alleviate popular sentiment and set up the Nirbhaya Fund, allocating 10 billion Indian rupees “aimed at enhancing the safety and security of women in the country.” Under the fund, the Centre provides money to India’s many States and Union Territories for them to spend on women’s safety programmes.

However, the latest data furnished by the Women and Child Development Ministry in December 2019 shows that just about 20 per cent of funds have been used. While the Centre has been blaming the States for the poor show, the latter have complained that the Centre hasn’t released money or approved proposals they submitted to it.

As the arguments continue, women continue to feel less than safe and money rarely filters down to the districts. 

“There’s no money,” Khode says simply.

The #MeToo movement, despite having circulated widely online and among the educated echelons – driving many women to their brave reveals – hasn’t really filtered down to the local level, she says. Khode believes the one positive she views every Women’s Day, with hope, is the increasing number of women speaking up. She said:

For instance, less than a month ago, there was this 21-year-old woman who was raped in Indore… the cops pressured her not to file an FIR. Even the Circle Inspector (essentially the head of a police station in a rural area) asked her to reach an agreement with the boy simply because she had known him before. But she refused. It took eight days for her FIR to finally be registered. But I watched, amazed, as she withstood all the pressure and kept searching for someone else to support her – anyone to speak for her. I eventually accompanied her to the police station, but I was so impressed with how she just needed solidarity and didn’t succumb.

Kranti Khode wishes things weren’t made so hard for women who want to report their rapes. “In case of child survivors, at least you have POCSO where cases can be tried in fast-track courts. We need those for women. Otherwise, like in Ranjini’s case, things take 6-7…often 10 years… to get anywhere….”

This baby doesn’t have justice yet

Manju, the mother of an infant who was raped in January of 2018, would probably not agree. On Friday, March 20, 2020 she called me in frantic urgency. “Have you watched the news this morning?” she asks. I am unable to decipher her mood and wonder if it is to do with her baby. I confess that I haven’t. 

“They’ve hanged Nirbhaya’s rapists early at dawn,” she tells me. It marked the culmination of a seven-year-long story. Of the six men accused of gang raping and murdering that 23-year-old that 16th December, one had allegedly killed himself in jail before his conviction. Another, a juvenile, had been sentenced to three years (the maximum a minor can get), inciting uproar. The remaining four had been found guilty by the trial court, a year later (relatively early for a justice system rendered indolent by its backlog of cases) – and sentenced to death. That, amid a paraphernalia of ebbs and flows in the lives of Indian women since, with little to no improvements in their safety, we’d arrived here.

To here, to the hanging of four men. 

Does that please her? I want to know; I’m curious about the intricacies of capital punishment and its nuanced implications, if any, on her life. But it is not the act of hanging that concerns Manju; it is what it will mean for her little one. Don’t you see, she urges. This will mean they’ll expedite our trial too. I echo her sentiment, reposing hope in possibilities – not precedents. 

Manju’s daughter’s trial has already been on for two years. That trial is being conducted in a POCSO courtroom, aka a fast-track court. 

Manju, a domestic worker, lives with her husband and two little daughters (one almost three and the other four) in a tiny one-room flat in a northwest Delhi shanty. 

Her littlest was raped when she was an 8-month-old baby, on 28 January 2018. It might ring a bell – the horrific rape sparked headlines around the globe, not just the country, and ignited a tsunami of tumultuous outrage across India – that found expression in candlelight marches and demands for the government to tighten punishments for rapists of minors.

That Sunday morning, Manju left her home and her two children in the care of her relatives (who live on separate floors of the same house) and went to work. Her husband, a daily wage labourer, had already taken the bus to a construction site. When she returned, she was flagged in the streets by her husband’s 28-year-old nephew who asked why she kept leaving her kids at home since they cried once she left. Hearing her littlest one’s heart-rending shrieks, Manju ran upstairs – to find her baby lying in a pool of her own blood and excrement. 

The first person she confronted, she says, was her nephew. He acted shiftily, she says, and sidled away. In the subsequent days, she found herself blamed for having gone to work at all – with no similar accusations finding their way to her husband. She responded by quitting work completely – and now vows to return only when the duo are older and she’s won justice for her girl.

But she’s hard-pressed to find any.

“No one comes by anymore,” she says once, of the fickle attention and the disappearing media glare. She trundles to court once every three months when a court summons reaches them – and listens to the public prosecutor fight for her then eight month old, who is now almost three.

What does she wish for the most?

“My baby has grown up now. I don’t want her to have any memory of what happened – and I want it to be over before she actually grasps understanding of all this. When will it all be over?”

 Manju says there are still at least three court dates left that she knows of, according to what the public prosecutor’s team has told her.”Two will be for the doctors at each hospital that treated my baby (the latter suffered excessive injuries post the rape and needed three extensive surgeries in the next few months). The investigating officer (IO) at the local police station will testify at the last hearing.”

She’s hoping that’s the end of it.

She’s been hoping awhile.

Police, medical personnel, and courts obstacles to justices for survivors

The first stage in making a survivor comfortable enough in reporting her case is smoother police intervention.

In early 2019, Gayatri and her husband participated in the Dignity March that Khode’s organisation had constituted and walked the length and breadth of the country, speaking to various people vociferously about her minor daughter who had been raped by a man of a dominant caste in her village in MP.

When she returned home, however, she was greeted by a frightened daughter and family. The men of that very dominant caste, Thakurs to be more precise, had threatened her daughter to turn back the case. “The women of the village also heckled us when we returned and said that we had washed our dirty linen in public, and aired the village’s secrets.”

The police, Gayatri claimed, had been slow to file a FIR when they had first approached them. “Why don’t you settle it with the khap panchayat [the village self-governing unit, made up of people elected from within the village] instead?” The panchayat, Gayatri claims, reprimanded them on unnecessarily escalating the matter outside of the hamlet and simply made the accused apologize to her daughter, while advising the latter to forget about it. 

The family continue to live under a shroud of intimidation and fear, she relates.

The narrative is reiterated in a powerful report titled Everyone Blames Me: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India,” which released by Human Rights Watch in November 2017. The report found that sexual violence survivors often face humiliation at police stations and hospitals, noting that “In several cases, the police resisted filing the FIR or pressured the victim’s family to ‘settle’ or ‘compromise,’ particularly if the accused was from a powerful family or community.”

This is precisely what happened in the case of Gayatri and her minor daughter, as to Ranjini, both allegedly raped by Thakurs and Gujjars, dominant castes in their community.

HRW also recorded the lack of a witness protection law in India which could help survivors withstand the pressure of compromise. Eerily mirroring Gayatri’s story, the report found “… Khap Panchayats, unofficial village caste councils, often pressure Dalit and other so-called ‘low-caste’ families not to pursue a criminal case or to change their testimony if the accused is from the dominant caste.”

Yet another obstacle to justice for rape survivors and their families is the insensitivity of medical personnel in dealing with traumatized survivors.

HRW found that many still compel survivors into the conduction of the degrading “two-finger test.”  India’s Supreme Court, in May 2013, held that the two-finger test violates a woman’s right to privacy, and asked the government to provide better medical procedures to confirm sexual assault. At the time, Justices B. S. Chauhan and F. M. I. Kalifulla said: “Undoubtedly, the two-finger test and its interpretation violates the right of rape survivors to privacy, physical and mental integrity and dignity. Thus, this test, even if the report is affirmative, cannot ipso facto, be given rise to presumption of consent.”

Encouraged by the Supreme Court ruling, in 2014, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued guidelines for better medico-legal care for those who have been sexually assaulted. Yet – because healthcare is a State matter in India (which has a federal structure of government) – the States arenot legally bound to follow the Centre’s guidelines. States which didn’t adopt the 2014 Central govt guidelines do have their own guidelines, but they are nowhere near as detailed and sensitive as the 2014 ones.

Survivors also need sensitivity in courtrooms where defence lawyers continue to ask abrasive and intrusive questions to break the survivor’s morale. 

Smita, a 28-year-old woman in New Delhi who accused her former boss of raping her in early 2016, was summoned to court for her first hearing in only November 2018. She faced Saket District Court in December and screamed  out her testimony, often breaking into sobs. “I could not believe what they were asking me. (His) lawyer spoke about how I drink and smoke and therefore, one could not believe a woman like me. I was so horrified. Luckily, the judge was nice – she intervened,” Smita told Toward Freedom.

“Usually, the defence lawyer uses the ‘habituated to sex’ argument in a rape trial. In such a case, the prosecution counsel should argue using provisions of law in the various judgments,” Jyotica Kalra, the Advocate-on-Record in the Indian Supreme Court, told The Quint.

Such character assassination is often done by presiding judges themselves. 

In September 2017, a two-judge bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court awarded bail to three law students who had previously been convicted (by a lower court) of gang raping a female student. In its bail order, the court called the woman “promiscuous” and complained that “her narrative does not throw up gut wrenching violence that normally precede or accompany such incidents.”

This, despite the fact that in 2002, character assassination was prohibited through an amendment in the Indian Evidence (Amendment) Act, 2002: “It shall not be permissible to put questions in the cross- examination of the prosecutrix as to her general immoral character.”

The 2013 amendments after Nirbhaya’s rape and murder strictly sought to put an end to all such harassment of a rape survivor in courts and police stations – yet, by most accounts of survivors today that this reporter has spoken to, they continue.

Inaction under Modi’s government

Before Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister in 2014, he and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party he contests from, referred repeatedly to the Nirbhaya gang rape – insisting he would do better. In fact, when addressing the nation in his first Independence Day speech as PM in August 2014, he had made a rather unusual speech – referring to how parents could bring up better sons.  

Yet, in the years since, his silence on crimes committed against women became rather deafening. 

In 2018, a BJP MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) Kuldeep Singh Sengar was arrested on charges of having raped a 17-year-old girl from Unnao in UP in 2017. Sengar was, initially, in the months right after the arrest, merely suspended from the party, even as Modi remained conspicuously silent. It was only after public outrage grew and protests multiplied that Sengar was expelled – he was later also convicted for killing a number of the girl’s family members by conspiracy.

 In 2018, India was labelled the world’s most dangerous place for women by a Thomson Reuters poll, citing sexual violence, trafficking, among other causes. (The poll was loudly decried by the ruling party. This, despite the NCRB’s own data of rising rape cases as noted above.)

Swami Chinmayanand, another BJP leader and a self-proclaimed ‘seer,’ was arrested in September 2019 on charges of raping a law student. The student herself was arrested on charges of extortion and blackmailing. Perhaps learning from its mistakes in the Unnao case, the party quickly distanced itself from the seer and expelled him.

Accused of apathy after an 8-year-old girl in Kathua was raped (for days, where she kept cruelly in captivity) and then murdered, Modi acted swiftly to deflect criticism – and hastily introduced changes to the POCSO Act which protect children from sexual offences. However, in a tear-jerk motion, one of the amendments he proposed –and later approved– was the death penalty for those accused of raping a child below the age of 12. 

However, while the move was welcomed by many, it was also denounced by several experts who claimed it would further deter children from reporting rape. Statistics show that over 90 per cent of child rape is perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the survivor. How many children would voluntarily supply that information, knowing it could lead to death for said family member?

While the ruling party and its many arms and legs continue to de-prioritize sexual violence against women, acting only when prompted, and even then, by fostering strange, counter-productive narratives of harsher punishments for the perpetrator instead of rushing straight to the root, survivors continue to belabour the lack of sensitive ears and minds to listen.

What they (and women, here) need have been staring governments in the face for decades. In the labyrinthine corridors of police stations, where they shuffle uncomfortably, adjusting hem lengths or saree ends to meet the exacting criteria of police attention. On sterile benches of hospitals, where they suffer indifferent examinations. In courtrooms, where they endure the indignity of moral policing. But also, in the many schools and homes where sex education is still taboo. And in the society where it’s okay to think less of women (and eventually, even act on it). 

Coronavirus lockdown adds concern

At the time of reporting and writing this story, a number of countries –India included– have entered a government-enforced lockdown. This means that a lot of timelines have had to be pushed back as the world moves into isolation to protect itself. It is the first thing on Manju’s mind as she calls a few days post the hanging of Nirbhaya’s rapists. “Her [the baby’s] hearing is scheduled for 16 April (India’s lockdown extends till the 15th), but it doesn’t look probable. I don’t think we will be called anytime soon,” she says anxiously. 

This has also meant she has had to put the matter of sending her two girls to school on the back-burner. Admission dates have been pushed back. For Manju, the prospect of finally being able to send her children away from the place they inhabit –where one of them was raped– has been a source of comfort and courage for years. Instead, her family find succour in each other’s company as they huddle together to wait out the lockdown, in the context of another wait that has already been interminable.

Ranjini is faring as best she can with the news of the pandemic and its potential impact on her appeal. She says she hasn’t been summoned to court in months. 

For both these women and for many more, sexual violence in the context of the lockdown could mean a lot more suffering in silence, as the doors and windows shut to their possible duress. For those whose cases have reached the courts, the wait for justice may only test the limits of patience that a survivor must anyway arm herself with, in the quest for a conviction.

*Names changed and exact locations hidden to protect privacy.

Author bio: Urmi Bhattacheryya is an independent journalist, a feminist and chronic pain warrior, trashy-reality-TV-watcher (like you wouldn’t believe) and a reader of reads. She’s currently authoring a book on survivors of sexual violence in India.