Behind Rohtak Gang-Rape, a Systemic Callousness Towards the Survivor

In order for things to change, say women's rights activists, a social and legal overhaul is needed – where the focus is the woman rather than the accused.

A Dalit student in Rohtak was gang-raped last week by the same five men who had raped her three years ago. The five had been been booked for the crime in 2013 after the woman filed a police complaint, but two were out on bail and the other three had not been arrested, her family said.

The 2013 incident took place in Bhiwani, after which the girl’s family was forced to move to Rohtak since the accused continued to threaten them, trying to convince them to agree to an out-of-court settlement.

On Wednesday, the same five men abducted the 21-year-old, currently doing a master’s from Rohtak’s MD University, from near her college, drove her somewhere nearby and gang-raped her. They then left her in some bushes. She was found by a passerby — unconscious, with her clothes torn – who took her to hospital.

The woman’s family said they had tried to take action in the face of the threats they were receiving from the accused. “We had filed a case in court for the arrest of the remaining three and re-arrest of the two on bail. We were getting constant threats from the accused for an out-of-court settlement, but we remained firm,” her brother told The Times of India.

Rohtak deputy superintendent of police and supervising officer in the second gang-rape case, Pushpa Khatri, said on Tuesday that the case was being investigated under various sections of the Indian Penal Code  as well as the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) act. Of the five accused, three are being interrogated, she was quoted as saying in a Business Standard report.

“Out of five accused we are interrogating three of them. Family members of the accused have given some CCTV footage. So, some contradictions are coming up and we are verifying them. The case was first registered in Bhiwani before and now that it is under our jurisdiction  we are taking it very seriously. We also saw the old files. Two of them were earlier arrested with the previous gang rape case,” she added.

According to a News18 report, two of the men were arrested later in the day.

The Haryana Women Commission on Tuesday also recorded the woman’s statement, while expressing hope that such a crime would never take place again, Business Standard reported.

Not only were the accused known to the police and the courts, but the authorities also knew of the threats they were making to the victim’s family. How, then, does something like this happen?

“There have been similar incidents to this before, in the recent past, in West Bengal as well in Uttar Pradesh,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told The Wire. “If we can accept that the rape accused tend to pressurise and intimidate for a compromise, then as a part of that intimidation another rape is not unimaginable.”

Unfair investigations and the importance of power

“The police investigation into the first gang-rape should have been done in a proper and careful manner, then the accused would not have been granted bail,” said women’s rights activist Jagmati Sangwan. “Because they got bail, the woman’s family was threatened on a regular basis, so much so, that they had to leave Bhiwani and move to Rohtak. Even after all that being out in the open, this incident has occurred. Look at the price the woman and the family had to pay, for other people’s negligence.”

It’s not by chance that this negligence occurred, Sangwan alleged. “The police’s corruption meant that the accused could influence the investigation,” Sangwan said. “That’s what happened in this case. The victim is from a poor, Dalit family, while the accused are from economically better-off backgrounds. They also have political and social connections. So it seems that they managed to hire good lawyers and get bail no matter what. These are the circumstances that have caused this second case.”

The environment in Haryana has also changed in recent years, said the activist, who has been working in the state for more than 30 years. “Something like this has happened in Haryana for the first time. The fearlessness of people [accused in such cases] has really been increasing, it is almost unimaginable that the accused would have the confidence not only to threaten and scare, but also carry out the very same act again.”

Systemic caste violence

This increased fearlessness has been visible in several recent cases, she said, particularly for Dalit women, who face sexual violence on an almost routine basis. “Just in the last two weeks, a five-year-old Dalit girl was also raped, as was a Dalit domestic servant, who was also mutilated and killed. Nobody has been arrested in any of these cases, so you see how all the accused will be feeling very over-confident and fearless. They have political protection, it seems. In the case of the domestic servant, for instance, the accused is from a powerful family which switches allegiance every time power changes hands in the state,” Sangwan said. “The administrative machinery is also not working. They are creating a power structure that is encouraging this environment, especially against the weaker sections of society.”

“We cannot see this rape in isolation,” said lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover. “Nor can we simply see it as the rape of a woman. We have to look at it in the context of caste atrocities that are committed. When caste and patriarchy join hands, this is the lethal consequence of that. the victim’s access to justice is obstructed not only because she is a woman, but it is almost impossible because of her caste.”

“Incidents of atrocity are also increasing because Dalit women are asserting themselves,” Grover told The Wire. “This is also a backlash to that. Like in this case, reports say the men said they were ‘punishing’ her because she refused to compromise. She was questioning their complete control over the bodies of Dalit women, which has traditionally been how caste has worked. She asserted her right to justice.”

“The non-inclusion of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in the first case is in itself a big problem,” Grover continued. “It shows how the system continues to be blind to the caste element in these rape cases. As we saw during the Jat agitation, the Punjab and Haryana high court has now said that rapes occurred. But the Haryana government was in complete denial about this. The dominance of the Jat community over others is glaring in these circumstances. That’s why it’s not surprising that they re-raped her – it’s a loud statement that a Dalit woman has no rights and the state apparatus is complicit in that.

“This is a very standard case of a dominant community asserting itself in Haryana,” said Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan. “Unfortunately not many cases get reported and even those reported often don’t reach a trial case or the accused somehow get away, as they did in the first case.”

“Often cases like this don’t get lodged, even if victims approach the police,” Grover added. We saw that in the Bhagana case. When this woman continued to assert her right to justice, it was a clear break from the caste system.”

The woman’s family is feeling extremely vulnerable, Yadav said after speaking to her mother. “She is terrified,” he told The Wire. “They feel it is only a matter of time before the boys come out again.”

No support for survivors

“The basic problem that I see is that the survivor or the woman who complains about sexual violence is left in the lurch by the system completely,” Krishnan said. “The direction in which the debate on this incident is being taken by certain media channels, who have earlier campaigned for the death penalty, is to say that no rape accused should be granted bail. I think that is the wrong road to take, precisely because we’re again not talking about the survivor or what she needs. We are talking about all kinds of hard measures or final solutions relating to the rape accused, but we are not talking about what the survivor needs, which is a sense of support. Moral support, but also material support, education, a job, help with coping the consequences of having complained – which are enormous – everything from social ostracisation, to having to leave where you live, to threats and the lack of security.”

Women rights lawyer Flavia Agnes agrees that the justice system as a whole seems to ignore the survivor. “This incident brings to the fore the issue that our entire criminal justice system talks only about punishment for the accused,” Agnes told The Wire. “There is very little talk of support for the victim. Nobody is talking about what the victim needs, how she can be rehabilitated after the incident. We are just happy that a criminal case is filed.”

That’s far from enough to ensure the safety of the woman filing the complaint, Agnes continued. “We had a case in Bombay – a child with a disability was raped in a shelter home. She was then put in a rehab programme, where she was raped again by another person,” she said. “The most important factor for me is the security for victims. How do you protect a woman after a case is filed? Protecting the woman is not an integral part of our criminal justice system. I think that is one of the major problems.”

So what are the changes needed? “What needs to be done actually is to think about what the survivor is going through,” said Krishnan. “Somebody needs to be listening and talking to her throughout. Rather than saying things like every rape accused must never get bail, we should be asking about why rape trials are not speeded up, why compromises in rape cases are so common that it seems perfectly acceptable to the courts and the police. In cases where there is the perception that intimidation is happening, from the accused’s family or supporters, in those cases bail should be denied. But these are things that need to be assessed.”

“This case also shows the complete ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system,” Yadav said. “The first thing to be done is to make sure investigations are carried through fairly and proper evidence is collected at the time, and ensure that their is access to good prosecutors. Otherwise perpetrators will continue to get away – this is how the dominant community gets away with murder. And unless their is major political will to change this, I don’t see anything major happening.”