Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, a state police inspector general, was convicted of molesting Ruchika Girhotra, a rising tennis star, in 1990. On December 21, the court handed down a sentence of just six months jail time and a $25 fine.
What many in India feel is a miscarriage of justice has prompted a re-evaluation of the widely held belief that India, while it lags behind China by many other parameters, remains morally superior to its economic rival not only because it is a functioning democracy but also because it sees itself as a society governed by the rule of law.
The rape trial follows close on the heels of a similar breakdown of the legal system involving the murder of fashion model Jessica Lal.
Her killer, the son of a prominent politician, was acquitted in 2006, only to be retried and sentenced to life imprisonment after intense public pressure. The Ruchika case has been splashed across the front pages here since the first verdict was delivered on December 21.
“It shows deep infirmities in our system, which is supposed to bring justice to victims,” said member of parliament Brinda Karat, who is vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. “It highlights a systemic failure.” Under intense public pressure, this week the state of Haryana, where the original incident occurred, registered fresh charges against Rathore that allege he abused his power to scuttle the original investigation, delay his prosecution and harass the victim’s family, eventually driving Ruchika herself to commit suicide. But as television channels and newspapers continue to throw light onto more and more incidents in which police, politicians and other powerful people allegedly used money and influence to subvert justice, the citizenry’s faith in the country’s brilliantly penned, but poorly enforced, laws is at an all-time low. Molested by Rathore, who was both the inspector general of the Haryana state police and the head of the state tennis association at the time, 14-year-old tennis player Ruchika Girhotra sought to punish him by lodging an official complaint.
Investigations stagnated for years after the complaint was filed, during which time Girhotra’s family allegedly suffered constant police harassment, according to new charges levelled by the family on January 5. Rathore allegedly hired goons to vandalise the Girhotras’ home, pressured Ruchika’s school to have her expelled, and got his police cronies to arrest her brother for car theft, according to Pankaj Bhardwaj, the Girhotras’ lawyer. After just three years of this treatment, Ruchika killed herself. She was 17 years old.
“(Rathore) was the person who was driving everybody,” Bhardwaj said. “He was the mastermind behind the total conspiracy.”
But the punishment wasn’t over for the victim’s family. Rathore apparently suffered no difficulties because of the criminal charges pending against him. Though technically under investigation for molesting a minor, Rathore was promoted to director general of police in 1994. And over the next 15 years, the Girhotras alleged that Rathore used his position to corrupt the inquest into Ruchika’s death and attempted to bribe the country’s main investigative agency.
In what Bhardwaj says is a first for India, a former joint director in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has publicly accused Rathore of trying to corrupt the probe into the crime. “He used to come to my chamber and even call up at my residence. He used to offer me favours at various joints. He also tried to influence my investigation team,” R. M. Singh, who headed the probe, told reporters at a recent press conference. When Rathore was convicted, the victim’s family, and the whole country, was outraged by the short duration of the sentence — and Rathore’s beaming smile as he exited the court. But the worst tragedy is that Ruchika’s fate is stunningly common — and the problem appears to be growing worse.
A 19-year delay is nothing to India’s supposed rule of law. At last count, there were nearly 4 million cases pending in India’s 21 high courts, a backlog that means thousands of perpetrators roam free for years and others who are denied bail rot away behind bars — sometimes for longer than the maximum sentence possible for their alleged crimes.
For the fairer sex, it’s even less fair. According to official statistics, crimes against women are rising faster than other offenses, while police continue to go slow in investigating them. “There is 100 per cent negligence by the police in cases where women go to them to report an abuse,” said Yasmeen Abrar, a member of India’s National Commission for Women.
Official records show that it takes the police more than a year to begin investigating nine out of 10 sexual harassment cases, eight out of 10 cases of molestation or cruelty by husbands and relatives, and seven out of 10 rapes and dowry deaths. According to Supreme Court lawyer Mayank Misra, these delays often give the accused the opportunity to intimidate witnesses, harass his accuser, call in political favors and eventually quash the case entirely. Especially, when the perpetrator occupies a position of power.
“There is a nexus between criminals, politicians and the police and bureaucrats,” said Ashok Agarwal, president of the Delhi unit of the All India Lawyers’ Union. In many instances, the police refuse to register cases against politicians, police officials and even powerful criminals, says Agarwal, a prominent public interest litigator. Complainants and witnesses are threatened. Medical evidence is tampered with. Statements of witnesses are wrongly recorded. Cases are delayed in courts, and relevant witnesses are prevented from appearing. All this in the name of the supposed rule of law. Thanks to a crusading media and an outraged public, Ruchika may, in the end, get justice of sorts. The fresh case filed against Rathore on Jan. 5 reintroduces the charge that Rathore abetted Ruchika’s suicide by harassing her and her family — an offence that carries a much more serious penalty than molestation. But even if he has been convicted of molestation, Rathore — who says his accusers are using the media to harass him — has rights, too. And this arbitrary solution is as much an indictment of the system as the court’s original judgment. It is not the rule of law, but rather another subversion of the legal process — this time by the media, the voters, and politicians.
The shame is that the last ditch move to render justice at the expense of the law may just convince India’s outraged citizens that they can continue to muddle along.
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