New Delhi: India has strengthened its rape laws, but what is it like to ask for legal justice for a rape complainant?
On 7 July, a 22-year-old young woman living in Araria, a rural district in North Bihar, filed a police complaint that four men raped and attacked her.
Three weeks on, none of the four men have been identified or arrested. But the rape survivor and two support workers from the Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan (JJSS) – a trade union working with rural, low-income workers in north Bihar on livelihood and social justice issues– who had accompanied her to a lower court to record her statement were booked under several offences, including assault or using criminal force against a public servant, which is a non-bailable offence, criminal conspiracy and contempt of court.
The arrests came after a disagreement they had with a magistrate, when they asked him for greater clarity before the complainant, who could not read, signed off on a statement that contained her account of the rape.
The rape survivor spent eight days in a prison in Samastipur, 240 km from her home. While another lower court granted her bail on 17 July, it refused to do so for her support workers, even though they were named in identical offences.
The Justice Verma Committee, a three-member commission that reviewed laws on sexual crimes, recognised how the process of recording evidence often turns out to be an ordeal for the victim. It warned that a rape complainant is sometimes put through considerable mental harassment owing to “insensitive handling of the situation by courts and lawyers”. The commission recognised the role of support persons and trained health workers throughout a rape trial.
Yet, the court denied bail to the survivor’s support workers, Kalyani and Tanmay, relying only on another court worker’s accusations that they tried to “snatch away the recorded statement and tried to tear it down (sic)”, and created “unusual pressure for the court”, both accusations that the rape survivor, who witnessed the events, denied in her interview to Article 14.
With bail denied by the lower court and the Patna High Court partially shut till 6 August because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is not clear how long Kalyani and Tanmay may stay in jail.
Here is the victim’s account:
I am 22-years-old. I have worked as a domestic worker, and for the past year or so have taken part in activities and demonstrations with JJSS in Araria, North Bihar.
My mother passed away when I was a child. I attended school on and off till class five and I cannot read fluently. But I always wished to learn. I always wanted to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. A friend had offered to teach me. Some days after work he would teach me how to ride a motorcycle.
On 6 July, after work, I went for another lesson. That evening after teaching me for some time on a school ground, instead of dropping me back home, he took the motorcycle towards another more desolate road. There, four men accosted us, they raped and assaulted me.
I made a police complaint the next day on 7 July. On 10 July, my friends and colleagues from the sangthan came with me when I was called to record my statement in a judicial magistrate’s court.
[Note: Under Criminal Amendment Act, 2013’s section 164(5A)(a), a police officer is bound to take a rape complainant to the nearest magistrate and the magistrate is bound to record the statement of the rape victim, as a measure to help the complainant record her evidence speedily, and strengthen her legal fight.]
After waiting for four hours, at 4:30 pm on 10 July, I entered the First Judicial Magistrate Mustafa Shahi’s chamber. He was wearing a handkerchief around his mouth which he was using as a mask. The first questions he asked me were my name, my father’s name and my mother’s name. I shared this information. After that, he asked me to narrate what had happened that day. I told him the sequence of how four men had raped and assaulted me.
Then the magistrate told me to sign a document which was my statement. “First read it out to me please,” I requested him. He read it out. I understood some of it, but not all. I said, “Sir, I cannot understand, please read it out again, I cannot understand it fully, please untie the handkerchief mask on your face. I am unable to understand everything you stated.”
He did not untie the handkerchief and continued to speak through his face cover. I wondered if he might have missed something while writing, and even that I may have made a mistake while giving my statement. I thought to myself, if he reads it out again, I will be able to get him to add details I might have missed. This is why I repeated: “Please read it out.”
Now, the judge simply instructed me again to sign the document. “You have to sign. I have written only what you have narrated to me,” he told me. I hesitated. I told him, “How can I sign just like that? Until I understand what my full statement is, I cannot sign it.”
“Do you trust me?” he asked. I replied, “Yes, I trust you.”
I tried to explain again that I could not understand everything that he had read out. “I cannot sign on the document until I understand what is stated in it fully,” I repeated. I told the judge, “Sir, I cannot understand it fully. My Kalyani didi [an activist with the Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghathan, Kalyani uses only one name] is sitting outside, maybe you can call her in for a few minutes?”
The judge said, “If you trust me, you have to sign it.” I said again, “No, I cannot sign until I understand what is written in it.”
He then asked me who Kalyani was, and why she was waiting outside. He had asked me twice whether I trusted him, and instructed me to sign again and again. I said “No” once again.
At this, the magistrate stood up from his chair in anger. He berated me as being insane. “Pagal, badtameez ladki. Tumhe kisi ne tameez nahi sikhaya hai (You crazy, ill-mannered woman. Nobody has taught you any manners),” he said. He was furious. I felt fear. I felt rattled. I signed the document and stepped out. Only the magistrate and I were present in the office chambers when I signed my statement.
I came out of his chambers and told Kalyani who was waiting in the corridor the whole sequence; that I had not understood everything and the magistrate had still insisted that I sign; that I had asked him to read it a second time as I had not understood what that piece of paper finally stated. When Kalyani didi heard me out, she too got anxious.
Kalyani and Tanmay [another activist with JJSS] who was also waiting in the corridor accompanied me back inside the judge’s chamber. Kalyani was stressed. She addressed the magistrate, “Sir, what has happened?” The magistrate rang an office bell. Two policewomen entered and all of the magistrate’s staff – eight or nine men – came in as well. The magistrate addressed the policewoman asking them who we were and who had allowed us in.
Kalyani tried to address him, explaining that I had not understood the document I had been asked to sign. She too said that the statement could be read out again if I had asked that. “She has come to us feeling very agitated,” she told the judge. At this point, the policewoman explained to the magistrate that the three of us were members of sangathan, a union, and Kalyani and Tanmay had accompanied me to court. “Who called them here?” the judge wanted to know.
He was angry at Kalyani: “Tameez nahi sikhayi isko, badtameez ladki ko (Have you not taught this girl any manners)?” This was the second time he described me as an ill-mannered, impolite woman. I was worried by now that the situation was tense and escalating. I started apologizing to the judicial magistrate. He instructed his staff, “Make a video recording of all of them.” An argument ensued. They were not even letting us speak. Neither I nor Kalyani nor Tanmay could get a sentence in. The magistrate and his staff were speaking to us. They are bade aadmi, powerful officials, they are used to asserting themselves, and being heard. Why would they listen to us when we were ordinary citizens?
Finally, the judge said to the other officials present there: “All three have been arguing with me for the last five minutes. Arrest them.”
Not Willing To Listen
After I was released on bail on 18 July, I found out that the officials have claimed that we got angry with them and that Kalyani and I tried to tear the statement. But this is not what happened. If it was so, how is my signed statement still in the court’s possession? If she or I had torn it, how can my Section 164 statement still exist in government records? If they are saying so, it’s an absolute lie. We did not even try to access it from them after going in. The magistrate had my statement with him already. They were not even listening. They listened only to each other.
They are aware of their own power. They are so powerful and 10 of them were there, including the magistrate, the police, the court staff while we were still trying to grasp what was happening. What could we have done? Would they have listened to the three of us?
I tried to apologise to the judge and his staff in the chambers multiple times, “Sir, aap log toh padhe likhe hain, aap samajhdaar hain, samajhne ka koshish kijiye (Sir, you all are very educated and literate, please try and understand),” I pleaded with them. If the magistrate had tried, he would have understood that we were all very worried, we were under immense stress. Instead of listening to us, he ordered our arrest and sent us to prison.
It was degrading and hurtful how none of them even tried to listen. I felt sad and anxious at what happened. It was all very sudden. I thought that even though I was apologizing to them, the judge was still not willing to listen. He would not let me get a word in. I said ‘sorry’ to him so many times. They were recording and yet, they only kept speaking at us. The magistrate and his staff spoke the entire time at us, we barely got a word in to say what we thought.
An Ordeal In Prison
I stayed captive in prison for eight days, from 10-18 July. The first night after all this took place in court on 10 July, Kalyani, Tanmay and I were kept in the mahila thana women’s station in Araria overnight. Then, we were transported to Dalsinghsarai prison, 250 km away from my home.
Being locked up in jail is very difficult. It is painful. The three of us would wonder inside prison when we would be let off; when would we get our freedom back. Now I think to myself my companions are still in prison. The court granted bail only to me, even though three of us were imprisoned in the same case. On the way back from prison, I thought about Tanmay and Kalyani inside. I told them that if all three of us cannot get bail together, I would stay back in prison with them. Kalyani tried to help me think through: “Only when you are released and speak up will perhaps there be a way for us to come out of imprisonment too,” she said.
I have gone through an ordeal in prison, and now they continue to face this ordeal. All of us would sometimes break into tears. Both of them may still be in tears even now.
Dalsinghsarai prison conditions are very harsh. During the coronavirus epidemic, the prison conditions may cause a severe outbreak. There are no clean facilities even for going to the toilet or bathing. I used to not even feel like eating. I missed eating at home. The prison blankets were not cleaned and it was hard to sleep initially. Later, we were able to get our own sheets sent from home.
I will not feel relief till those four men [the alleged rapists] are punished for what they did. But instead my friends have been put in prison. When I came out of prison, I resolved that I would get Tanmay and Kalyani out. I hope they too get released on bail soon.
I am free now but my friends remain captive. It is very hard to process. All this was going on in my mind on the 240 km journey back from prison – will those men [who raped me] be punished? I knew the person who led me to the site, but not the men who raped me that night. Will they ever be brought to justice and punished?
Now I am back in Araria, where the three of us spent time together and took part in organizing. It is hard to find peace till Tanmay and Kalyani get released. Their release is also crucial to catch the four men who attacked me. Kalyani didi was the first person I had called after the attack. Tanmay and she were the ones I first sought help from that night. They accompanied me the next day when I had decided to make a police complaint and to the doctor’s examination.
Hardship And Solidarities
Inside prison, in those few days, I exchanged thoughts and had discussions with other inmates. Twenty to 25 women stay in one ward. Many of them spoke of their hardships, they used to break down while speaking of it. A few of them were worried because they had very young children growing up alone in their absence. In some instances their spouses had also been jailed and there was no one to look after the children, no one to get them legal relief. They were stressed out and worried – what do we do, how?
One morning in prison, Tanmay, Kalyani and I were discussing what a challenge it was to even use the toilet. It was so filthy, God knows those latrines have not been cleaned for years. It is so bad. They are blocked with objects thrown in, like discarded paint tins. They stink and you have to block your nose with a scarf even to be there for a few seconds. Kalyani declared: “Let’s clean the toilets!” I was very amused. Those toilets have not been cleaned for ages, I told them, there was no way we would succeed. “You don’t do it then, we will still try,” both teamed up and retorted. I told them, “Go on then. Let us see what you can do.”
This is how we tried to spend the difficult hours inside prison, talking, being together, pecking at the meals, walking within the cells’ boundaries when we could. Through that time, we wondered when we would be released and when the men who attacked and raped me would be put in jail instead.
(Anumeha Yadav is an independent journalist reporting on rural and labour policy.)
Previously on Article 14: