You probably wouldn’t notice Subhash Chander Girhotra in a crowded room. Not until you look at his face. His deep-set eyes have become a place where tragedy and outrage met to become fellow travellers on a 19-year journey of courage. Loneliness, fear and hope have ravaged the part of his face that once knew how to smile. When he talks, his voice alternates between a soft-spoken helplessness and a sudden aggression, as if he is reminding himself that no matter what, he has to keep going, has to keep fighting.
Subhash is Ruchika’s father. When I met him this week, he kept returning to a single thought. “That man’s smile; it has to go,” he said, “Why is he smiling?” And then, he said, his voice dropping, “When I saw that smile, I wept, and wept.”
We should all be weeping. If a police officer can molest a 14-year-old child, rise up the ranks to become Director-General of Police (DGP), harass her family with criminal intimidation, drive her to suicide, and then walk out of court with a creepy swagger and a creepier smile plastered across his smug face, we should all weep. S.P.S. Rathore has no business being out on bail. And the fact that he smiles, while Ruchika’s father collapses in tears of helplessness, is our collective failure as a country.
Ruchika and her friend Aradhana were tennis buffs. The teenage girls had just seen a Steffi Graf-Monica Seles face-off on TV and were itching to ape the serves and volleys. Rathore, then an Inspector-General of police (IG), and also the head of the Haryana Lawn Tennis Federation, summoned Ruchika into his office, and then began groping and pawing her. Aradhana walked into the room just in time for Ruchika to disentangle herself.
Ruchika, 14 at the time, turned to Aradhana’s mother for support — her own mother was no longer alive. Aradhana’s family helped Ruchika and her father take on the might of the IG. An internal police inquiry found Rathore guilty within two weeks of the incident. But no FIR was ever registered against Rathore. Haryana’s former Home secretary J.K. Duggal now says that though the inquiry was specific in its conclusion of guilt, “political pressure” prevented an FIR from being lodged. In other words, he never got the permission from the then Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala to proceed against Rathore.
In a pathetic game of political finger-pointing, Chautala now says it was Bhajan Lal’s government that promoted Rathore to the post of DGP. But he doesn’t explain why the FIR was not allowed to be filed. Nor does he give a cogent explanation for how a child-molester was recommended for a President’s Medal by his government.
Ruchika’s father has a bone-chilling question. If the FIR had been registered on time, would Ruchika still have been alive today? Instead a child — we forget, don’t we, that she was just a child — watched her world crumble. Rathore’s daughter was in the same school as her; so soon she was thrown out of swish Sacred Heart Convent. Her brother Ashu was slapped with half a dozen fabricated cases of car thefts. Goons were deployed to trail Ruchika and Aradhana’s families. Men would stand outside their homes and pelt stones at them.
All this while, Rathore kept rising up the ranks of the police force. Finally, when her brother was arrested, Ruchika could not take it any longer. She drank poison and killed herself. Her father explains that she thought she had placed her family in all this trouble. In other words, the victim embraced the guilt the perpetrator should have.
The verdict — that has come 19 years too late — is a joke. The judge talks about factoring in the “length of the trial and the age of the convict” while explaining his six-month sentence. Did he forget Ruchika’s age? It’s bewildering why the judge did not even deliver the two-year sentence that is the maximum punishment for molestation.
But the fact is that Rathore’s crime goes way beyond molestation. He drove a child to death and harassed a family with criminal intimidation. Why were these charges not part of the case built against him? What stops the present Congress government in Haryana from filing an appeal against the case? If they can’t do that, let them start with stripping Rathore of his pensions and medals and government benefits. Why can’t the high court make a suo-moto intervention and hand over the case to an amicus curae? And while the probe is on, they need to go beyond Rathore and must include everyone — bureaucrats and politicians — who facilitated the horrendous cover-up. Rathore smiles today because they made it possible.
Otherwise in this country — where women getting pawed and mauled — is almost treated as a rites of passage, our bizarre level of tolerance for sexual abuse will continue as is. Bottom-pinchers get to be great cops, without anyone blinking an eye. Instead, I would argue, when custodians of the law subvert the legal system, they should get double the punishment.
When I saw Rathore strutting out of court smiling last week, I felt sick in my stomach. More so, when I saw his wife by his side, wearing the same expression of smugness. Their daughter must be Ruchika’s age. Would they be smiling, if she had been molested by a sick, old, powerful man?
Subhash Girhotra is right. That smile has to go. And we have to make it happen.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal.