Mumbai: On July 10, a 23-year-old gang rape survivor walked into the Araria district magistrate court to have her statement recorded. The woman, who had suffered the ordeal just four days before, demanded that the two social activists who had accompanied her to the court be present while her statement was recorded. The court denied permission. The woman, who was already distraught, then spoke sternly with the magistrate and refused to sign the documents without having the activists read the documents.
The magistrate Mustafa Shahi instead found her in contempt then sent her and the two social activists to Dalsinghsarai jail in Samastipur district – 250 km away from Araria.
Following pressure from human rights lawyers and activists, the Patna high court had sought a report from the Araria district judge and has now scheduled the hearing on July 16. The matter will be heard by Justice Dinesh Kumar Singh from his residence through video conferencing.
It has been five days since and the survivor and the two social activists – Kalyani Badola and Tanmay Nivedita – of the Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS), a non-profit organisation, continue to be in jail. The Araria women’s police station has booked all three under several sections of the Indian Penal Code for preventing public servants from carrying out their duty, as well as sections of the Contempt of Courts Act.
The FIR was registered following a complaint letter signed and sent by judicial officer Rajiv Ranjan Sinha. The letter was issued on the behalf of Shahi, who has accused Kalyani and Tanmay of trying to tear the statement papers and of abusing the magistrate and the investigating officer.
The organisation has denied the charge and have accused the court of insensitivity towards a gang rape survivor and her support team.
Ashish Ranjan of JJSS told The Wire that even though they have moved a bail application today, the survivor, Badola and Tanmay would have to spend at least a week more in the jail.
Bihar is under an extended lockdown presently and on July 13, the Patna district and sessions court issued an official order to shut down all courts in the district for a week. “Lockdown has been imposed once again in Bihar and district courts will not be functional for a week. The case will come up for hearing only then,” Ranjan said.
Turn of events
The woman’s trauma began on July 6 when she was allegedly raped by four men in Araria. After the incident, the woman had contacted Kalyani, Tanmay and another person, Sohini (who also works at the organisation), and had been living with them ever since. The organisation had extended her the required support and accompanied her to the police station. On July 7, the survivor underwent a medical examination and only then was her complaint registered.
JJSS has pointed out that the hospital did not make the survivor take a COVID-19 infection test even though she was sexually assaulted by multiple men.
Sohini says that the survivor was distraught and shaken. “She hadn’t overcome the trauma and needed someone to be with her to assure her at the time of recording her statement. Her concerns and fear were understood wrongly by the court and she was detained,” Sohini says.
JJSS, in its official account says that even hours after their detention, the police did not clarify if the survivor and other two had been arrested. Until July 11 morning, the organisation was only told that “they are not formally booked but detained on orders of the learned magistrate”.
Only later in the afternoon, two persons from the organisation who had visited the police station were informed about the formal arrest. Along with the IPC sections, the police have also invoked sections under the Contempt of the Court Act, the powers to invoke this statue lies only with the higher court.
After the incident, the police also allegedly leaked exaggerated information of the incident to newspapers like Hindustan and Prabhat Khabar, who not only reported the police version but also revealed the identity of the survivor. Revealing the sexual assault survivor’s identity is a criminal offence under section 228A of the IPC.
Investigation in the gang rape incident
While the Araria police has shown great enthusiasm in sending the victim to jail, it has made very little progress in the actual complaint. The police have so far arrested only one person who has been accused of abetting the crime. The four unidentified men accused of raping her are still absconding.
The survivor, who has had a troubled relationship with her father, had been reluctant to return home after the incident. She had moved in with the activists of JJSS to avoid further trauma. But the police, JJSS activists allege, had still visited her residence and had inquired about her not just with the family but also with others in the area she lived. “One of the officers revealed her identity and narrated the entire incident to the survivors’ neighbours,” JJSS has claimed.
Since the police’s attention was shifted to the contempt accusations, the investigation in the gang rape allegation has derailed. The police have not made any further breakthrough in the incident, Sohini said.
Legal fraternity in support of the survivor
Since the incident came to light, several senior lawyers from across the country have written to the chief justice and other judges of the Patna high court seeking immediate intervention in the matter.
The letter, signed by several lawyers including Indira Jaisingh, Prashant Bhushan, Rebecca John among others, has sought “an urgent and systemic changes in the treatment of survivors of the violent sexual crimes”.
“We submit that the remand into judicial custody is excessive and harsh given the circumstance. The survivor’s emotional state is extremely fragile and we feat that separation from her caregivers and incarceration will have an adverse effect on her health,” the lawyers have said.