A little over six years ago, India had erupted in a howl of rage and anguish over the December 16 rape case. To assuage public sentiment, we ended up with tighter rape laws. Even then, I recall sounding a note of scepticism. As the twin tragedies unfolding in Kathua and Unnao show us, unhappily so, I may have been right.
Once again all of India has erupted in outrage. The haunting face of the eight-year-old from Kathua I will call Masoom, abducted, drugged, raped and killed with incomprehensible brutality, is a crime that is pure evil showing the depths of human nature. The accused are identified and arrested in the course of a painstaking investigation by my colleagues in the J&K Police. However, since the deceased is a Muslim girl and the accused are Hindus, the case gets caught up in the vortex of communal politics that fuels the separatist movement in the Valley and its response in Jammu. The protesters in Kathua are convinced that innocent Hindus have been framed by the cops owing allegiance to a Muslim majority government. Perhaps, the thought hasn’t occurred to them that before being labelled as Hindu or Muslim, police personnel are human beings too. For those of us who wear the uniform with pride, justice for Masoom matters above any politics. And almost on cue, UP police steps in with the case in Unnao, justifying the worst caricatures about the thana being little more than an outpost of thugs in uniform, who act as minions of the party in power.
In the Unnao incident, around eight months ago, a minor girl is allegedly lured by the promise of patronage and raped by the local MLA, said to be a baahubali of shifting loyalties, and currently from the ruling party. Her family runs from pillar to post trying to get a complaint registered. Then she goes missing, and a case of abduction is registered. She is recovered and gives a statement under 164 CrPC that doesn’t implicate the MLA. She and her family persist in alleging rape and begin to protest outside the CM’s residence in Lucknow. Thus far, it is a murky tale with no clear direction. Then political power asserts itself. Her father is first said to have been beaten up by the MLA’s brother and then, picked up by the local police and sent to jail, where he eventually dies in judicial custody. Finally, the government swings into action, the policemen involved in the arrest of the father are suspended, the case is transferred to the CBI and the MLA is arrested. The charges of rape may or may not be established, but the naked abuse of power is there for all to see.
Going by past experience, one can expect an eventual tapering off in the level of outrage. Masoom, too, will become an iconic figure like the December 16 rape victim. Once in a while, she will feature in discussions about rape and women’s safety. She is sure to become the subject of fanciful research papers in criminal psychology and sociology. But I am equally sure that the key issues around the lack of public trust in the police to do the right thing, to serve without fear or favour, to abide by due process, and to devote enough time and resources to heinous cases will once again remain unaddressed.
Amidst the outrage, we lose sight of a few basic facts. Anger and sentiment cannot be a substitute for due process. What does due process mean? First and foremost, it means that even those accused of the most horrific crimes are innocent until proven guilty. It also means that the police must be allowed to carry out investigations without undue pressures and influence. While the public has every right to express its anguish at delays or unconvincing narratives that come to light during police investigations, the public cannot respond with violent agitations and disruptions. That is not democracy, that is obstruction of justice. If any citizen has credible information, which they believe could have a bearing on the outcome of a police investigation, they should share it with the police or the local magistrate. The sight of protesters trying to prevent the police from filing the chargesheet in the Kathua case marks a new low in our vocabulary of democratic protest.
Of course, public sentiment matters in a democracy. But it cannot be a replacement for sensible policies and the rule of law. Who is to say that the trial courts will necessarily convict those accused in Kathua and Unnao. However, somebody needs to educate the mobs baying for blood that the toughest of laws and the strictest of enforcement cannot completely prevent crimes by obviously deranged minds like the perpetrators of the Kathua case. The best the police can do is investigate these cases properly and promptly and bring the perpetrators to justice. Any politician or policeman who promises you that such cases can be completely prevented is lying. Anyone who promises you that all such cases will be always solved and justice served is also lying. Sometimes the utmost efforts of the police are not good enough and the police leadership needs to honestly educate the public about the limitations of even honest and solid police work.
The Unnao case poses a different challenge. It is an inconvenient truth that our political class faces plenty of false and mischievous complaints too. And the rogues amongst them use these to cover their own misdeeds. There might have been genuine issues with the complaint of rape against the Unnao MLA. But nothing can justify the unprofessional way in which it was dealt with and the brutal and inhuman treatment that led to the custodial death of the complainant’s father.
Outrage alone is not going to show us the way forward. The way forward lies in painstaking investment in police resources. We have an abysmal police-population ratio. It needs to improve in quantity and quality. We need better trained investigators with vastly improved forensic facilities. We need programmes to protect crucial witnesses. We need a plea bargaining system so that minor cases don’t clog up our courts. We need a much healthier judge-to-population ratio. We need tougher laws against perjury, false complaints before the police, and for obstruction of justice. We need tough action against police personnel who fail to act without fear or favour. And this action cannot be confined to the junior ranks. Their supervisory officers, including IPS officers, must be held accountable when they fail to act.
The outrage brigade needs to gets its act together and start venting on these issues. Come election time, let every citizen ask their candidates about their proposals for improving the quality of policing. And in between elections, they must hold their elected representatives and the police leadership accountable for delivering on these proposals. It’s a lot harder to do than instant outrage. But there is no other way. If tears, candlelight marches and rants on social media were sufficient to ensure justice for December 16, baby Masoom would be alive and scampering around in some meadow today.