Riya Gautam was stabbed by her stalker in early July, but the uncomfortable truth is that she had filed a complaint against him three months before, in April.
Could Riya have survived if a proper and institutionalized Witness Protection Program had been in place across the country?
Certainly, this is not the first time such an incident has taken place. Threats and attacks and repeated sexual assaults on women are common. The death threats and intimidation of the 16-year-old in the Asaram Bapu rape case as well as the repeated rape of a Dalit girl from Haryana, by the same convicts, are cases in point.
On July 2 in Lucknow, a gang rape survivor was subject to her fifth acid attack. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath visited the woman in hospital and announced a Rs 1 lakh compensation for her trauma. But the attacks show no signs of curbing.
The number of reported rapes in the country has leaped from 24,000 in 2012 to 34,000 in 2015, averaging to 93 rapes everyday. These rapes instigate further violence towards victims and witnesses. Acid attacks are also running at an all-time high, with 106 reported cases in 2012 versus 249 cases in 2015. Uttar Pradesh itself has witnessed 147 such attacks in the past 5 years, including the Lucknow gang rape survivor who was attacked four times in 8 years.
Around the same time as the acid attack, the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri, sought replies from Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat on a PIL demanding a National Witness Protection Program. Two of the four petitioners had been witnesses in former alleged rape cases.
Vrinda Grover, acclaimed lawyer and women’s rights activist, regards speediness in trial as the best kind of protection in such cases. “If bail is not granted to the accused till the victim’s statements and evidence are recorded, the woman will be able to depose fearlessly”, she said.
She pointed out that despite the fact that Riya Gautam had filed a complaint against her attacker, no action had been taken since April to provide her protection or arrest the assailant.
On the other hand, the woman in the Lucknow acid attack case was attacked despite being under round-the-clock police protection. This reveals two major loopholes in the current type of protection provided to sexual assault and stalking victims.
First, the woman was only given protection as a retroactive measure in view of the previous four attacks on her in the past eight years (including a stabbing and three acid attacks). Instead of a pre-emptive protection scheme which should have kicked in as soon as she filed the complaint, the state allowed the woman to suffer repeated attacks prior to providing her with protection.
A pre-emptive program is necessary because it would enable complainants to lodge FIRs without worrying about intimidation, threats, or attacks from the perpetrators or their allies. In Riya Gautam’s case, such pre-emptive protection may have prevented her murder.
Second, the protection measures undertaken by the state were clearly not enough in safeguarding the woman, thus revealing the potential for a tighter and broader protection scheme.
Subhashini Ali, CPI(M) Politburo member and President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, believes that it was a dereliction of duty on part of the officials who allowed the attack to occur. Kalyani Menon Sen, a prominent member of WSS (Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression) activist platform, adds “There are many cases where the policemen have actually passed on information about the people they are supposed to be protecting, to their assailants. Often, the police actually have more sympathy for the attackers than for the violated woman”.
Grover, however, regards police protection as an insufficient measure for witness protection. “Giving day-night police protection is not a robust enough program since there are more instances of threats and intimidation than physical attacks. The minute there is information about such a threat being made, the authorities must take immediate action. In the past, I’ve filed affidavits with information about such threats, but no action was taken”, added Grover.
A uniform national witness protection scheme would allow for more vigorous execution through other measures beyond police protection, such as call monitoring, change of address, etc.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court continues to wait for a reply from the four states on the PIL for Witness Protection filed 4 weeks ago.