Tightrope walk to justice
SOON after an incident of
alleged rape on the campus of Delhi University in the last week of July
came another incident of molestation and sexual harassment. On August
4, a police constable sexually harassed a student. In the latter case,
we know a few things. First, the student was harassed near the gates
of a university campus hostel. Second, we know who the perpetrator was.
Most significantly, the student went across to a police patrol car in
the vicinity to report the incident. But the police refused to register
Undeterred, she went to the
station house officer at the university police station, and insisted
on filing a formal complaint. She also demanded that her complaint be
registered as a First Information Report (FIR).
The two incidents are linked
in terms of timing, and the way the established facts of the second
case allow us to decipher elements of the first. From the tenor of the
newspaper reports, in the incident of harassment, it appears that the
student provided the information herself. Now consider the reports about
the rape. A close reading of newspaper reports makes it seem that the
only source of information available is the police. But there are people
in Delhi University who know that the victim was raped earlier, and
that this was a second rape. However, the newspapers (or the police)
tell us that the earlier rape in April was not reported, and there is
no FIR or complaint.
of the first rape is being interpreted in a variety of ways. The most
appalling one casts doubts on whether the second rape happened at all.
This rests on the principal "fact" that the girl did not file
a complaint the first time. A second is that the police may well have
refused to believe her. And she, in her traumatised state, did not go
all the way up the procrastinating hierarchy within the hostile space
of the police station and insist on her complaint being recorded. The
likelihood of this scenario is given credence by the dismissive behaviour
of the police in connection with the second case.
At this point, we cannot
be certain how and when the first case happened. The victim is reluctant
to make herself the object of public enquiry. Her right to do this must
be unconditionally respected. But an issue that must be tackled
with or without her account is whether molestation remains "unreported"
in this, or in any other case. First, we need to understand that abuse
is not followed by complete silence from the victim. This is a myth.
Those who have sat on committees to examine reported and registered
complaints of harassment or molestation know and understand that the
victim does, in fact, break the silence almost immediately.
What is the nature of the
"information"? First, it is unlikely to be a complaint. It
is also highly unlikely that the victim will rush off to make a formal
complaint and go through all the processes entailed in the formal record
of rape or sexual harassment. In some senses, the student who insisted
on filing a complaint within minutes of being harassed by the constable
is an exception, not the rule. A formal complaint is usually a "climatic"
event and is preceded by the victim sharing the information with friends,
or relatives. And then, perhaps, with colleagues or those in positions
of some formal (though not necessarily legal) authority.
Only then is the complainant
finally registered as a formal case in available forums employers,
heads of institutions, the police, and so on. However, most people treat
this as the "first complaint". This interpretation is a mistake
because it takes no cognisance of the earlier attempts to make the abuse
In almost every case of sexual
harassment, there is a history to the abuse that needs to be uncovered.
This is essential because neither the abuse nor the "complaint"
is a one-off event. Abuse and "complaint" by way of
sharing experience or trauma with friends are a continuous pattern
of behaviour that happen over a period of time.
The reason the victim does
not share her trauma immediately (sometimes not even with close friends)
is because she also participates in the common perception of abusive
behaviour he misread the signals; or he will stop when he realises
"no means no"; and so on. She will possibly adopt a series
of soft stances that will, in all likelihood, go against her.
The belief that abuse is
a case of misinterpreted signals is very strong. Often the first thing
a victim is asked is how long she has known the perpetrator, and why
she took so long to come forward with the complaint. Her irresolution
is used or misused to disbelieve her, and to cast doubts on whether
the incident happened.
Understanding the nature
of complaints has come through a process of engagement with issues that
swamp sexual harassment. The Delhi University Forum Against Sexual Harassment
(FASH) is one group that has addressed these questions.
At the most practical level,
FASH has been struggling to get the University to institute a policy
against sexual harassment in consonance with the 1997 Supreme Court
guidelines. Members of FASH have sat on committees, both within and
outside the University, which have examined cases of harassment.
FASH has also been battling
an insidious war with the attitude that sees formal and hence
actionable complaints as a "weapon" in the hands of
women who, in all irresponsibility, will misuse it. I know of no case
of sexual harassment or rape, on which the first public response hasn't
been a curled lip of disbelief.
Unfortunately for women,
there are not many groups like FASH. Also there are not many people
who think that the ability to walk to work safely is as critical and
substantitive a right as the right to vote. Walking safe on a public
street may seem a small freedom, but as the two cases demonstrate, it
has enormous consequences for women.