view: Ruchika Girhotra, Safia Bibi and Mukhtar Mai: any different?
What goes on all the time in rural India with regard to working women, especially from lower castes, hardly ever figures in media discussions. Such women are constantly harassed and molested by men of the superior castes
Some years ago, I met Indian human
rights activists in Delhi. A lively discussion followed without the usual rancour that India-Pakistan interactions are notorious for, because we were interested in the rights and dignity of human beings as human beings and not as Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs and so on. The exchange of views and notes ended with us being unable to decide whether the Indian or the Pakistani dominant classes were more ruthless and heartless. That both were identical in their inhumanity was probably the easier conclusion to draw.
Imagine what transpired recently in Haryana, India, once the easternmost part of the undivided Punjab. In 1990, a young girl, Ruchika Girhotra, 14, a budding tennis player and a fairly good student was sexually molested by senior police officer, SPS Rathore, who later became the Director General of Police of Haryana. Rathore used his influence to harass the family and kept on doing so for nearly 20 years. She was thrown out of school, a convent school with the perfect reputation for high moral standards supposedly upheld by sacred mothers and sisters, for alleged late payment of school fees; her brother who was also of school-going age was accused of theft over and over again and beaten up. At one point the persecution she and her family faced was so great that they all had to go into hiding, but Rathore kept on pursuing them. Unable to cope with constant harassment, Ruchika committed suicide.
After 19 years, a court finally found Rathore guilty, but sentenced him to mere six months in prison and imposed a fine of Rs 1000 (US$ 20)! All those years, he remained in service, received promotion and a medal for “exemplary conduct”. After the court announced the sentence, Rathore reportedly walked away smiling and unremorseful, as bail had been arranged before hand. Public anger and outcry for retrial compelled the Indian Law Minister Veerappa Moily to say that the molestation case of teenager Ruchika Girhotra needs to be “revisited” (Times of India 25 December 2009). Ruchika’s tragic story has moved many people, and now the Indian media and human rights activists are up in arms against the patently gross travesty of justice that has transpired. There are plans now to put Rathore on trial for “abetment to suicide”. Suddenly, the whole Indian establishment is very concerned that justice must be done.
However, what goes on all the time in rural India with regard to working women, especially from lower castes, hardly ever figures in media discussions. Such women are constantly harassed and molested by men of the superior castes. Very rarely are such cases taken up by the authorities and punishment of culprits is an exception and not the rule. Terrorisation of women and other poor people is therefore a reflection of systemic distortions in the penal and legal systems. Ruchika is no more now, but the fact that her case attracted so much attention is because at least in modern society the value system no longer considers it acceptable that a young girl should be driven to such desperate action as suicide.
All this sounds very familiar with the situation in Pakistan as well. In the early 1980s, Safia Bibi 13, a blind girl-servant was raped by her employers, a landlord from southern Punjab and his son. The case caught the limelight because a Pakistan court found her guilty of false accusation of rape because she could not produce, as required by the sharia, four pious Muslims who were witness to that outrage. She was first punished under hudood (offences for which the Quran is believed to have fixed punishments), which would have meant 100 lashes, but later the case was converted into a tazir (punishment decided on discretion of judge) offence and given a sentence of five years. On that occasion, Pakistani human rights activists and world opinion prevailed and she was ultimately released.
Then again in 2002, Mukhtar Mai from the Gujjar caste was gang-raped after a council of village elders comprising the dominant Baloch clan decided that she should be punished because her brother allegedly had illicit liaison with one of their girls. That case went through different court levels, but, shockingly, a judge from the Lahore High Court freed the accused men. The revulsion that such a verdict caused led to the men being arrested again. Since then, constant delays have occurred and the Supreme Court is yet to pass a verdict. Mukhtar Mai reported that in December 2008 a federal minister threatened her to drop the charges otherwise the judgment will go in favour of the men. It will be interesting to see what our very conscientious Supreme Court will do in such a situation.
Returning to the Indian situation, it is important to note the limitations of Indian democracy. Democracy without democratisation of social relations is always dependent on constant top-down management. What India could achieve under Jawaharlal Nehru in his 17-years of premiership was consolidation of political or procedural democracy: one person one vote, free and fair elections on a multiparty basis and the supremacy of the civilian government over other sections of the state. Such democracy is a necessary but not sufficient basis for the democratisation of society as a whole. And without democratisation of society, procedural democracy remains a ritual for reproducing and legitimising an unequal and hierarchical social order. Under the circumstances the question is: what can be done?
At the level of the state, it is imperative that a thorough overhaul of the laws and procedures is effected with the intention of establishing an administrative ethic that shows zero tolerance of abuse of office. Therefore, if a retrial of the Haryana police chief takes place and he is found guilty of wrecking the life of Ruchika, he must be punished severely and made an example for others. Deterrence is advisable in such circumstances.
At the level of society, empowerment of women must be facilitated at all levels of society. The first step in such a direction is education for all women and indeed men. I am convinced that even small cuts on defence spending can release enough resources that can eradicate illiteracy and thus empower the people in the real sense. All such measures may not suffice to prevent the victimisation of women but they can reduce them significantly.
Indian and Pakistani ruling elites have no problem in waxing eloquent about their ambitions to serve their people; the problem is innate insincerity when it comes to action.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also a Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org