Mumbai, Majlis Team , March 31,, 2013
As fourteen year old Priya had not been getting her periods for some months, her mother took her to Shatabdi, a public Hospital in the nearby area, for a check up. During examination it came to light that the child was five months pregnant! A case was not filed, but Priya and her mother were referred to the hospital’s counselling centre where two very young social work students were placed. The students knew about Majlis’ Socio Legal Support for Survivors of Sexual Assault programme.
So, it was by sheer luck that Priya and her mother Anju reached our office. I was one of the first people to speak to Priya after she discovered she was pregnant. With large fluid eyes and a scared look on her face, she revealed that she and her friends would often go to a Pramuk’s (leader) house to help his wife with house work. About six months ago, when his wife was not at home, this 50 year old man raped her. He threatened her that if she ever spoke to anyone about it, he would kill her. She had no idea about the consequences which might befall on her, and hence kept silent, and did not even confide in her mother. It was poignant to watch the child, who had just realised that she was pregnant, trying to cover her stomach with her dupatta.
Anju is an illiterate single mother trying desperately to manage her family by earning a meagre amount as a domestic maid. She is extremely naïve and had never stepped out of her local area. She, and her mother before her, have lived in the same slum their entire lifetime. When faced with the news, Anju’s only concern was how to quietly get an abortion and end the story. She was extremely afraid that if her son found out all hell would break loose. The pramukh was influential and she did not want any hassles with the police. We tried our best to assure her that if she wanted to complain we would support her in her pursuit of justice… but these words did not make any sense to her.
We asked her to think about what she wanted to do and promised to meet her the next day at the hospital (she did not want us to come home). But the next day Anju did not turn up. Our team were rid with fear at what she would have done with her daughter in order to cover up the incident. Priya’s pregnancy was well past the statutory limit permitting an abortion and we were scared about the danger to her life. There was no way of contacting Anju as she had not given us a number or an address.
Then three days later Anju contacted us. All hell had broken loose as her son found out. The police was informed and an FIR was lodged. The accused was taken into custody, required medical tests were done and statements were recorded. Priya was produced before the Child Welfare Committee and was taken to a shelter home.
Our first challenge was to ensure Priya’s health and well being were being taken care of in the shelter home. We would accompany Anju every week to visit Priya in the shelter home. We counselled Priya to cope with her situation. Priya was not comfortable at the government shelter home, so we requested the CWC to move her to a home for unwed mothers run by Christian Missionary Sisters in the Western suburbs. The request was granted.
We also counselled Anju and her son to help them cope with the situation. When Priya delivered her baby we were there. Anju could not reach the hospital as she could not travel alone late in the night. Anju still feels bad that she would not be with her daughter during her delivery. Given Priya’s tender age and Anju’s financial condition, there was no question of keeping the baby. We had to repeatedly remind the police to collect the blood samples of the baby, so that the child could be put up for adoption.
Priya returned home and Anju was keen to care for her daughter. But she soon realised that due to sniggering and humiliation from neighbours it was impossible to keep her daughter with her. Everything had changed. Priyas was forced to live in the village where poverty was worse and she was not even given basic nutrition. Anju was desperately trying to collect money to move to another slum. Multiple vulnerabilities were at play here. Since we do not have a financial assistance project and the State Victim Compensation Scheme was not in place, we could not offer any financial support to the family.
But on the other hand, the case was progressing smoothly. We followed up with the police to ensure that the investigation was on track and the charge sheet filed in a timely manner. Within two and half months of the incident the charge sheet was filed and the matter was committed to the Sessions Court. This was an open and shut case, we were confident of a conviction. This was one of the few cases we have come across where the statements were recorded by the police without any loopholes, DNA proof was there…. So imagine our shock and utter dismay when the DNA report came negative.
The blood samples of the accused did not match that of the child. The police called Anju to the Police Station and shouted and abused her for two-three hours. We rushed to the Police Station and impressed upon the officer that his duty was only to submit the DNA report to the court and not pass any value judgment.
We met Priya and tried to probe if there was any other person. But Priya, all of fourteen and having gone through the ordeal, with utmost conviction reassured us, that he alone was the culprit. We believed her.
The Public Prosecutor (PP) accused Priya of having a boyfriend. You cannot trust these teenaged girls, I think this case is ‘fishy’, she said. Her entire approach towards the case changed dramatically after the DNA report. But if Priya had a boyfriend, the news would have spread as this is a thickly populated slum with huts adjacent to each other. Nothing misses the keenly watchful eyes of the neighbours.
We were extremely worried how the PP, whose job is to defend Priya would conduct the trial. We watched the PP like hawks on every date to ensure she was doing her job.
Priya was brilliant in her examination and cross. We were there by her side to support her. The PP ofcourse did not even bother to meet her before the trial and prepare her.
The defence lawyer used all kinds of underhand tactics during Anju’s cross. He accused her of being a woman of loose character and being greedy and wanting to extract money from the accused. But before he could ask any more embarrassing questions, the presiding officer, a sensitive lady judge, stopped him. This judge is known to follow Sakshi Guidelines, not allow unnecessary questions and most of all, she makes the witness comfortable in court. All this helps bring the best evidence before the Court.
The final arguments were a disaster. The PP argued with absolute lack of interest (She may not have even argued if we were not there). She submitted the case laws and the written arguments that we had prepared, because we insisted. The Defence Counsel argued at length about how the DNA Report was negative and therefore it was clear that the accused had been framed to take revenge because the victim’s mother was not allocated a tenement under the slum rehabilitation scheme.
Judgment: “Not guilty, the prosecution has failed to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt”. The judge also commented that the plea of the defence about revenge appears to be probable!
Immediately after passing the judgement, in an informal tone, the Judge asked our lawyer whether we take up all cases or only ‘genuine’ cases. Before we could recover from the absurdity of this question, the PP replied “Oh, they take up any case that comes to them”.
We would have liked to answer that “not proving a case beyond reasonable doubt does not amount to a ‘false’ case.” We would also liked to have responded to the PP, “it is not your job to be judge… just do your best to prove your case, like you would if you were defending the accused in a murder trial, as a private lawyer.” But we kept silent as we have many other rape cases which are pending trial in this court.
We had the difficult task of informing Anju about the judgement. She was calm and took it in her stride. She told us that she was not interested in filing an appeal. She had changed her residence, Priya was back at school and they were making every attempt to get over this trauma. We felt that despite the set back in court, we had empowered them to cope with the system and move on without leaving deep scars of revictimisation upon their psyche. This, in itself, was a victory! After all, conviction or acquittal is not in our hands. We are here to ensure that fair trial process has been followed.
Ideally, this narrative must end here, but it has a postscript. A few days later, a visibly shattered Anju came to our office. There was a story in the newspaper accusing Anju of filing a false case to frame the accused to get a tenement in the SRA scheme. It is this incident that broke Anju. She wanted to file a case against the lawyer and the newspaper. But since no names were mentioned there was nothing we could do. Anju told us that Priya had threatened to commit suicide after seeing the newspaper article. The society finally had its revenge.
The questions that haunt us at the end of this case are – yes, the case could not be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But it is also beyond doubt that a 14 year old vulnerable child had been violated and had to undergo the ordeal of childbirth and of giving up the child in adoption. Does the responsibility of the state end with the acquittal, or is there a responsibility beyond, to ensure the well being of this child. Can state institutions entrusted with the responsibility of protecting children, brand her as ‘a liar’ and wash their hands off her, leaving her to deal with her fate, within the confines of her own vulnerabilities? We find no answers to these disturbing questions within the criminal legal system.
State of Maharashtra v. Ramesh Dawle Session Case No. 349 of 2012
The matter was concluded within a year.
Majlis Legal Centre
A 4/2 Golden Valley, Kalina Kurla Road, Santacruz E, Mumbai 98
Tel: 022 26661252 / 26662394