On a balmy May morning in 2008, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar woke up to find the brutally murdered body of their only daughter lying in her room. After discovering the body of the ‘prime suspect’, Hemraj, lying on the roof of the house a day later, the police were left scrambling to find the real culprits. Media reporters were seen sending live updates from the Talwar residence and the roof where Hemraj’s body was discovered mere minutes after the gruesome discoveries. To say that the scenes of the crime were hopelessly compromised is the understatement of the millennium. As the case garnered unprecedented media attention due to the brutality of the crime committed in a supposedly upper middle class safe neighbourhood with no indications of robbery-gone-wrong or disgruntled lovers being the cause, the police and then India’s premier intelligence agency the CBI managed to ‘lose’ evidence, blame her parents, blame Hemraj and friends, carry out ‘definite’ narco tests, disregard narco tests and, in fact, do their utmost to cover up the fact of their incompetence in collecting crucial evidence from the crime scene on the morning of the murder.
On a freezing December night in 2012, once again in New Delhi, a young woman was beaten, raped, grievously harmed and then dumped naked along the side of the road along with her male companion. According to the distraught boy, the policemen who arrived first on the scene did nothing but argue about jurisdiction while standing around the injured couple for almost an hour. Repeated pleas for a blanket to cover the bleeding, unconscious girl against the freezing winter night fell on deaf ears, until some nearby shopkeepers took pity and donated some sheets to cover the couple. If only the police car had carried the basic utilities of a first-aid kit and blankets and our policemen had an inkling of the necessity of fighting off shock and the rudiments of first aid, then maybe the chances of that brave young woman’s survival could have increased by a few precious percent.
In August 2013, a young woman, a photojournalist by profession, was gang-raped by five men in an abandoned mill and threatened by the possibility of having the pictures displayed on the internet to deter her going to the authorities. The police spurred on their efforts by a media shocked by what it perceived to be an attack on one of its own caught the culprits within days of the incident. What is shocking is that after being referred to as the ‘young woman’ to protect her privacy according to the Indian justice system, the victim was however required to identify her assaulters in a line-up by going up to them and placing a hand on their shoulders!
And on 17th January, 2014, Sunanda Pushkar wife of the very suave Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was found dead in her seven-star Delhi hotel room. As the police scrambled to declare it a suicide and even an accidental death caused by ingestion of too much coconut water, there were murmurs of dissent suspecting foul play from a handful of friends of the lady, whom she had called with allegations of her husband’s alleged affair with a Pakistani journalist and his not-so-honest dealings in the IPL scam within the 24 hours preceding her death. Almost a year after the incident, her death has finally been declared a murder on the basis of injuries deducted during autopsy – an autopsy that also occurred immediately after her death. Whether this is due to changes at the political helm of the country or a genuine result of slow-moving investigative procedures, it is an unconscionable occurrence nonetheless that the results of an autopsy report take one year to process, even for the wife of a powerful politician (or maybe in this case because she was a wife of a powerful politician).
Many would argue that paying attention only to all these high profile or so-called elite cases of crimes committed against women is unfair to all those cases that go unnoticed or ‘celebrated’. Yet, the point remains that in each of the above cases, the complete lack of professionalism when dealing with a woman who has been a victim of a fatal crime such as murder leads to botched and unnecessarily prolonged investigations. If the woman survives the assault on herself, as in rape, acid attacks and sexual molestation, the complete lack of empathy and compassion from those responsible for bringing her justice only serves to exacerbate the psychological impact of the crime. If these well-connected, economically prosperous women and their families were unable to garner justice for the crimes committed against them, how in the world can a poor landless labourer or a jhugi dweller ever expect to get anything resembling a fair investigation and compassionate treatment?
It is irresponsible to say that all these shortcomings are a result of corruption and political pressures exerted by powerful accused parties on the police and not a lack of vigilance on their part. After almost 70 years of independence if the police force of a democratic nation cannot be trained and skilled enough in the simple procedures of securing crime scenes and gathering evidence then it sends a poor message to those who trust the state to look after its most vulnerable members – women and children. And if in the same period we have produced only a handful of honest and driven officers and constables then it is even more mortifying for us. Why must a girl/woman feel it is better to keep quiet than to ask for help from the police who are bound to ask her demeaning and degrading questions, with little or zero tact?
The outrage at the justice meted out to women who have been victims of any sort of crime in the country is also due to the inevitable references to the character of any woman who falls foul of the vagaries of fate. Fear of a judgmental society thus leads to several crimes going unreported, like the uninfluential victims of the UBER cab driver in his own village who refused to testify against him for fear of reprisal. The table above can thus in no way be considered a complete tally of the crimes against women occurring in the country.
And what happens when the media, who are supposed to be the guardians of the society, choose sides and top journalists like Manu Joseph try to defend a rape accused, after a supposed careful study of the surveillance tapes of the incident, stating that the victim and accused were in the elevator for a mere 100 seconds and that she seemed normal on exiting the elevator. Does he realize that it takes about 0.5 seconds for a determined man to wink at or pinch a girl, rub against her or even throw acid on her face, all classified as sexual assaults? And that there is a third adjunct to the ‘fight or flight’ reaction – ‘freeze’ – which is common enough in cases of extreme panic or turmoil in many normal human beings.
So, while Aarushi was branded as having an affair with the manservant, Sunanda Pushkar was labelled as a money-loving, hysterical, suicidal, socialite housewife, the young woman assaulted by Tarun Tajpal was accused of asking for his attentions, the blame is almost always subtly shifted onto the head of the woman who has suffered at the hands of the society that nurtured them.
What we forget as we conduct public trials on Facebook and twitter for a week or so after being bombarded by sound bytes from the media, is the reality of the years of battle lying ahead of the victims and their families in the unsympathetic and soul-crushing criminal courts of our country. Young men become grandfathers, the most sympathetic of witnesses renege, evidence is lost or misplaced, lawyers die and, as in the Jessica Lal case, even after being incarcerated, the accused is allowed parole to party with friends. Although, the Supreme Court verdict of 2012, following the Delhi gang rape and murder case, says that the rape trials must end within 2 months as stipulated under law, it still leaves many other crimes against women to languish on for years.
So, for the sake of the Aarushi’s, the countless unnamed ‘young women’ and the Sunanda’s of this country it is imperative for the Modi government to work towards getting our judiciary on track to deliver faster judgments in cases presented to them and being aware of the psychological health of a woman beaten or raped or sexually harassed in order to train the members of investigative agencies who are first on the scene to deal with empathy and compassion with the victim. It is a herculean task and requires a man of mettle at the helm, and, with Narendra Modi as PM, who knows maybe one day we will see justice delivered within a year to women and their families who are victims of brutal crimes, thus allowing them to move on with their lives.