A Requiem for Ruchika
The official and unofficial networks of sexism, corruption, and prejudice that drove a 14-year old to the most desperate solution cannot be wiped out by rewriting a few articles of the Indian Penal Code.
Rini Bhattacharya Mehta
“I learnt from the greatest son of India (Jawaharlal Nehru) to smile when in adversity … I will smile more”
– Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, former Director-General of Police of Haryana, who molested
an 11-year old Ruchika Girhotra in 1993, drove her to suicide, tortured her brother, and then relentlessly harassed the Girhotras, reacting to the media outrage against his 6-month prison term.
Rathore was not kidding. He is smiling, with his wife by his side. Variations of a photograph that was available on the news websites after the court verdict in December 2009 showed a smug, smirking couple – SPS Rathore and his wife (who is also his lawyer) – almost enjoying their day in the media spotlight, and confident in their unwavering faith in a broken system. And they have continued to smile, as the Punjab and Haryana High Court gave an early Republic Day gift to every angry Indian who is not a sexual predator: interim bail for an already convicted molester. The photographs and videos of the arrogant public servant, his deluded comparison of himself with Nehru, and the protests and outrages that have touched all but those who have the power to turn the wheels of justice represent the paradox called post-global India. A convicted criminal has the right to speak freely, has the access to due process, and this too in front of the camera! And how can we not feel admiration for the lovely Mrs. Rathore – representative of the rapidly shrinking half of Haryana and Punjab’s population – fearlessly defending a convicted criminal in court. Welcome to the cow-belt.
To all who have ever seen India’s police and courts in action, and have not been comatose for the past 30 years, the sordid saga of injustice and persecution that Ruchika Girhotra and her family have experienced lacks, or should lack, the element of surprise. Who are the people who expected justice to be served? Are they naïve or just indefatigable optimists? Do they also believe in Santa Claus and the WTO? And while we are on the topic of surprises: was the unethical, illegal expulsion of Ruchika from Sacred Heart School really that shocking? All my friends who went to Catholic schools in India describe the men and women of the cloth who teach in these schools as inspired less by Mathew and more by Marquis de Sade. And it is unfair to expect compassion or good sense from zealots in general. So, let us shed our childlike sense of wonder and face the hard facts: Rathore is smiling, simply because he can. The school kicked Ruchika out, simply because it could.
The official and unofficial networks of sexism, corruption, and prejudice that drove a 14-year old to the most desperate solution cannot be wiped out by rewriting a few articles of the Indian Penal Code. More than ever, mainstream media in the past few weeks have clamoured for a systemic change and comprehensive reforms in the area of justice and human rights. Whether that systemic change can happen without rethinking many of post-global India’s economic and political choices is another matter altogether. Can human rights and justice coexist with the SEZs, the dams, the steroidal growth of the nouveau bourgeoisie? The Indian Penal Code (IPC) was instituted by the British to protect the interests of an empire that inherited the loot and exploits of a multinational company. Thomas Babington Macaulay – who was to India’s middle-class what God was to Adam – chaired the Commission that wrote it. The independent nation-state of India inherited the Code from the British – not through Revolution or Reform – but through a bloody Partition and Acquisition that left more losers than winners in its wake. Successive democratically elected governments of India have used the IPC, the almost unchanged colonial bureaucracy, and the police forces to protect and project a certain semblance of order. The reforms that did not happen in the era of less corporate influence and fewer discordant political voices certainly face more hurdles now. The post-global modernity that renders the new middle-class access to news-channels and websites does not have an existential relationship with equal development; the former turns us into spectators and consumers, and does little to alleviate our everyday existence on the ground.
It is perhaps more practical to talk less about a radical shift in the political paradigm and more about gender justice, which is a different animal. Ruchika’s story unfolded in a region which has the lowest sex ratio in India (Haryana with 861 women every 100 men, as compared with the overall Indian average of 927 women for 1000 men). In the last 20 years in India selective abortion and calculated negligence have significantly brought the national average down, and Punjab and Haryana have emerged as toppers on this list, and major contenders in the officially recorded dowry deaths as well. An entire demography that has deemed female life as easily expendable simply cannot be expected to show the empathy and sensitivity that victims of sexual violence require. Which is why perhaps it was easy for Sacred Heart to expel Ruchika, and it has remained easy for Punjab and Haryana High Court to continue giving Rathore a free pass. Haryana’s dismal record in gender issues and Rathore’s smirk may be separate and unrelated phenomena, or not.
It is time the elected leaders of world’s most populous democracy asked a strategic question: is it or is it not politically expedient to initiate and enforce gender justice swiftly with political intervention? With the amount of anger brewing right now and with the reasonable political security that the current government possesses, it cannot be too hard to pass a Bill in the Parliament that protects children (and adults) from sexual predators, suspends pension and other benefits for the ‘molesters/rapists in uniform’ and makes the PNDT Act of 1994 foolproof. Politics has trumped the law in India in the past; Rajiv Gandhi had used political power to turn the clock back in the Shah Bano case in 1986. Turning the clock forward will not be that easy, but it is a good political bargain for the moment: India gets to keep its SEZs, sell all the Bauxite it wants, get all the herbs and weeds patented, and strive towards more gender equality and emerge as the leader it wants to be. India has nothing to lose but the Eurocentric euphemisms it has acquired over the centuries. It has all the political capital at home and in the world to gain.
Rini Bhattacharya Mehta teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA