Guest Post by FORUM AGAINST OPPRESSION OF WOMEN
As a feminist collective that was formed in the aftermath of the historic Mathura rape case in 1980, in which two police men had sexually assaulted a tribal girl within the police station, two recent cases of sexual assault (in Mumbai) have become matters of grave concern for us. These were filed by women against medical professionals who had committed the crime within their clinic or hospital,
On May 17th 2013, a 26 year old woman had gone, accompanied by her husband, to meet Dr. Rustom Soonawala who had been treating her for TB and later infertility since August 2012. This was at around 6 pm as per appointment. Upon examination, the doctor told them that the TB was almost cured and then asked the husband to go out of the examination room, locked the room, and raped her while covering her mouth with his hand. The woman was in a state of complete shock. Once out of the clinic and on their way to the station, she informed her husband about the incident. He too was shocked. Later that evening, the couple along with a friend went to the Khar police station and filed an FIR against the doctor under Section 376. Following the FIR, the woman was sent for a medical examination to Nagpada Police Hospital. By the time all the procedures were complete it was 7 am on the 18th May, when the woman and her husband returned to their home. In the meantime, the police made no effort to trace the accused.
Around mid morning of the 18th, the couple received a call from Khar police station asking them to come to Dadar to identify the accused doctor. Accompanied by two policemen in a taxi paid for by the husband of the victim, they travelled to the doctor’s residence. Once the doctor was identified by the woman, the police asked him to accompany them to the Khar police station. The couple took a taxi to the police station, while the doctor, insisted that he take his own car. So the doctor accompanied by two policemen left for the police station in his car. But this entourage never reached the Khar police station, and from that moment onwards the doctor has been absconding, right under the nose of the policemen.
Activists of the Aam Aadmi Party, including Advocate Shakil Ahmed, and women activists Preeti Sharma and Anjali Damania have pursued the case and brought it media visibility. Various women’s groups, including ourselves, made representations to the Home Minister, the Women and Child Department and the Mumbai Police Commissioner demanding immediate action against the erring police men who allowed the doctor to abscond, and subverted procedures followed during investigation and arrest, thereby scuttling a fair trial.
The absconding doctor meanwhile filed for anticipatory bail in the Sessions Court twice, stating that he was willing to provide blood and DNA sample and there was no need for the police to get him into custody. Even while the matter was pending in the Sessions Court, on 29th May the doctor appealed to the High Court of Bombay. The vacation judge in the High Court granted the plea, saying that the said matter may be heard after the vacation on 11th June 2013. Various women’s groups submitted a memorandum in early June to the Chief Justice of the High Court, voicing their apprehension that the accused would be able to subvert the legal process. In fact under Sec 54 of the IPC, blood and DNA samples can only be obtained following arrest, and therefore it was a clear case of both the accused and the police thwarting the legal process in this matter. The High Court on 11 June, without taking into consideration the complicity of the police personnel and the fact that the doctor had gone absconding to evade the due legal process, granted him bail on a surety of Rs.1 lakh.
The judge completely ignored the fact that medical evidence is only a part of the evidence and the arrest is not to only secure the DNA or blood sample. The arrest of any accused in serious crimes also helps the victim or victims to come forward, while reducing the chances of the accused destroying any evidence.
The second incident of a doctor, Akshay Ahirrao, 28, accused of rape in July 2013 of a minor who had reposed trust in him as a healer, follows a similar script as the previous case, of absconding, and filing of anticipatory bail in the High Court even as the case is pending in the Sessions Court. The police try to ‘trace’ him at his residence, make enquiries with his relatives, and ultimately admit that he has absconded. It is quite likely that he too will be granted anticipatory bail, given the pattern in the earlier case.
This puts back several years of struggle of activists, lawyers, women’s organizations and individuals fighting for women’s rights who try and see that the law and its justice system is accessible to all marginalized sections of society. To make matters worse a well known human rights activist, relative of the accused stands up for his defense in court.
The victim in this instance is a woman standing up to the class, gender and social privileges of her assaulter. Coming from a small village, unfamiliar with the ways of the city, lacking self assurance and confidence, typical of many women we know in our families and neighbourhoods, she is unable to shout or scream or display marks of injury on herself to prove her resistance to attack. Shattered by the complete breach of trust by someone in whose custody and treatment she was, yet persistent enough to file a complaint seeking justice.
On the other hand the accused doctor is a man of social standing, one of “us,” who has been able to gather the support of the well known human rights lawyer, and collected character certificates from well known people. Adding to all this is his activism against street hawkers that it seems to be presumed that he need not be tried by the due process of law. As human rights defenders, we have no qualms letting him bribe the police and abscond, using his class privilege to escape the law. Does our analysis of class and gender privilege and the power that it gives to the accused, only manifest when the person is distant from us, and not when he is one of “us”?
It is often the case that, we take a distance from people related to us when we find their politics unpalatable or their actions opposed to our principles. But in this instance there was active support in court in defense of the accused, thereby declaring that in our vision of human rights, it is the woman complainant who is “guilty” without trial. Speculations on the woman’s motive too have not gone unreported. Her not being able to shout or resist the assault has also been interpreted in favour of the accused.
We seem to have come full circle from Mathura. We recall, in 1980 when we first launched the Anti-Rape campaign, at that time too there were allegations against the survivor that she did not shout or have perceivable injuries on her body. But then, we were united in our strong objection to this interpretation of consent and struggled for years to have the law amended. In fact some of us still continue to engage with these notions of consent and evidence as scholars and activists. Are we now trying to circumvent the same law for which we struggled so much and on what grounds – that the accused is related to one “human rights defender”?
Recounting this case and its denouement has indeed been a disturbing and painful reflection on what our understanding of this hierarchically structured society and injustice perpetuated within these structures are – where not gender but even class structures can breach the “comrade-rie” that we have built amongst “us”? Where is the legacy of the women’s movement reflected within us when we talk about and re-iterate the same aspersions against a woman who has the courage to register a police complaint? And why are the voices muffled that would otherwise fight against police atrocities, and political rights of common people seeking justice?
Finally, we need to ask ourselves, that when we demand justice in cases when the accused is not related to “us” or is not within our “trusted” circles are we using standards of “justice” different from a situation when the accused is one of “us”?