This December, it will have been six years since Nirbhaya underwent the horrific gang rape in 2012 that resulted in her death. Six excruciatingly long years during which her parents have had to battle grief every moment; yet have pulled themselves together and bravely and steadfastly continued the quest to keep their promise to their dying daughter – of ensuring that the perpetrators are adequately punished.
During this period all the courts, from the lowest to the highest levels, unanimously awarded the death penalty to the rapists for their dastardly crime. A review petition was recently filed by the criminals in the Supreme Court and once again, the death sentence was upheld. Now no legal barriers remain to keep the punishment from being physically meted out to these rogues.
The aftermath of the rape proved to be a pivotal turning point in India’s history. The issue of sexual assault was brought to the spotlight as millions of Indians came out on the streets in a demonstration of solidarity. Empathy for the victim poured in from all parts of the globe. Laws were overhauled; some new ones were made on the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee.
The Verma committee report also reiterated the need for meaningful police reforms first advocated by Mr. Prakash Singh, IPS, in 2006 – in that year the Supreme Court, ruling in Mr. Singh’s favour, had directed all states to implement these much-needed reforms. The empowering atmosphere also enabled women to speak out about sexual assault in far greater numbers than before. They learnt to stop feeling responsible or guilty for the ills that had befallen them and blame was apportioned instead to molesters, where it rightfully lay.
Today, though there is reason to rejoice as some of the gender-related inequalities are swept away and celebrate the increased awareness of women’s rights and the collection of laws supporting them; we must take a long, hard look at the data and ground realities.
The reality is that gang rapes show no signs of abating: NCRB India data shows that the crime rate for rapes have been increasing drastically (12 per cent increase with respect to adults and 82 per cent increase in the case of children in just one year from 2015-2016 for example).
Likewise, convictions for those accused of sexual assault are steadily falling and in fact an all-time low rate was recently recorded (18.9 per cent in 2016) in this decade. Police reforms have not been implemented (12 years after the Supreme Court judgment) in their entirety in even one state in India as reported by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. This calls for immediate action.
As far as the grieving parents of Nirbhaya are concerned, they still await the fast-track justice so convincingly promised by each successive government. They have shown remarkable courage and patience. The parents have committed themselves to women’s safety and empowerment, supporting victims of sexual assault almost on a weekly basis. They organize a ‘Nirbhaya Chetna Divas’ every year on 16 December, where women’s rights and women related social issues are discussed.
Our elected representatives, however, are dragging their feet when it comes to providing them this promised relief. Nirbhaya’s parents have been compelled to carry their angst and grief with them in their hearts every day, as they can’t begin to put it behind them quite yet.
Mainly because the rapists are still alive and pursuing their goals in jail, being supported by infrastructural amenities and three meals a day by the government and taxpayers of the country. The Home ministry needs to take cognizance of their responsibility to go the last mile and execute the punishment. The police and courts have already played their role in shaping and directing the course of justice.
Apart from redressal of the anger and helplessness of Nirbhaya’s parents, there are social loose ends brought out by the case which need to be tied up, which will contribute to real progress with respect to citizens’ welfare and rights.
The focus must veer away from an emphasis on criminals’ rights to the prioritisation of the rights of honest, ordinary citizens. During the last few years, the juvenile rapist who was part of the gang committing this heinous crime was given full rehabilitative support; a great deal of money was spent in ensuring his safety and security; and his identity was protected.
In the debate on a rehabilitative versus retributive approach for juvenile delinquents, the popular consensus is rehabilitation. That may be the best approach but what is unacceptable is the lack of safety afforded to other unsuspecting children who the (unidentified) juvenile may be interacting with. The government’s responsibility for ensuring safety must extend to all citizens, given the high rates of recidivism.
As per information gained through an RTI filed by us (ID 2978/RTI dated 13.11.14), the Mukherjee Nagar juvenile home being one of the respondents apprised us officially that 84 juveniles escaped the reform home in the last five years prior to the filing of our request of which only 31 were restored. We also learnt that there had been five violent incidents in the preceding five years (they did not mention the specifics). There was also mention of one caretaker being arrested (FIR case 158/09).
There being ample reported and anecdotal evidence that child detention centres do not uniformly have streamlined processes or high-quality care, any delinquent coming out of a remand home needs to undergo thorough psychological assessments before being reintegrated with society. These evaluations must be conducted on more than one occasion with an interval in between. The safety of normal citizens must be the top priority and everything else aligned with that.
Another aspect relates to the judiciary. There was a gap of almost two years between the High Court judgment of Nirbhaya’s rapists and the hearings for the appeal lodged against the High court sentence in the Supreme Court. Well wishers and activists who questioned the delay (given the multiple assurances of a fast track path to justice) were given to understand there was a judicial ‘queue’ due to the backlog of cases. What was particularly demoralising at this time, however, was a famous actor getting early dates of bail hearings since he had many movie shooting dates scheduled. This trend was also observed with other high-profile cases.
Although our courts are renowned for their expertise and path-breaking judgments, the sequence of hearings needs better streamlining. Cases should be heard as per a transparent ‘first come, first served’ basis as far as feasible with exceptions for sexual offence cases which must be fast-tracked. The constitutional promise of equality before law must be visibly adhered to.
An ordinary citizen was cruelly raped and murdered six years ago. Our country wept; people rallied for justice. Many promises were made by those in power about taking steps to ensure that honest taxpaying citizens would not have to see this kind of brutality again. They reassured all that Nirbhaya’s case would be given the utmost attention it deserved and be dealt with in an exemplarily short time frame. It is high time that the rights of the citizens are prioritized. It is high time Nirbhaya’s parents’ anguished voices are finally heard.
The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner.