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Predators in uniform

chandigarh Updated: Dec 22, 2013 11:23 IST
Aarish Chhabra

If ever there was a pointer towards the unsafe environment for women even in the relatively modern Chandigarh and its satellites, the arrest of five young cops for the rape of a 17-year-old girl has once again exposed an ugly reality. As it turns out, it’s only coincidental, but gravely symbolic, that the matter has come to light barely a week after the first anniversary of the Delhi 16/12 gangrape-murder.

But more than being just a sign of saviours having turned tormenters, the incident has once again spotlighted the larger, exploitative streak of our male society. There may be murmurs of initial consent leading into exploitation, how one of the cops had befriended her at first, and how it was ‘her mistake too’ to ‘get involved’ at such a young age of 17. But the fact of the matter remains that the cop she was probably friendly with broke her trust. And that’s not all. Worse, he is alleged to have turned what might have been a casual, consensual affair into assault carried out repeatedly by himself and his friends.

On a general level, there has been much talk of how the number of cases of crime against women has seen a spike largely due to increased awareness after the Nirbhaya case. That granted, one also needs to see how many women actually approach the cops if they face sexual harassment or assault. The HT-IDC survey carried out in October — coincidentally, again, around the time when the alleged exploitation of the Khuda Lahora girl had started but was not yet reported — flagged how barely 7% women in the tricity of Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali thought going to the police was a good idea.

Observers even within newsrooms have repeatedly pointed towards awareness drives being conducted by the police — especially led by the previous Chandigarh SSP, Naunihal Singh — to show how the challan-friendly police of the UT are more sensitive than their counterparts elsewhere. Such generalisation of the overtly disciplined Chandigarh brushes aside incidents of police excesses, including staring with shameless judgment at women outside nightclubs and asking uncomfortable questions from rape victims, as aberrations. The cops involved are seen as black sheep, not as a sign of an inherent abusive trait found in most power-wielding institutions in our feudal society.

The Khuda Lahora incident was not a sudden act of brutality. It appears to be a contemplated, planned
ct of misuse of power, and cannot be termed an exception. What underlines the institutional malice is how the police sought to downplay the incident to begin with. There was talk of pressing milder charges against three of the five accused who harassed her but did not allegedly commit rape as such. There were even suggestions that the cop who started it all was ‘ready to marry her’. Yes, there is a need to look at holes in the girl’s statements — finding out who raped and where; and whether she invited them over or they indeed took her to secluded places in official vehicles — but the consent holds little meaning.

Even if there was consent, the policemen ought to have known the consequences of their actions as the victim was a minor. There was, apparently, no fear of the law even to those who are supposed to instill that fear in potentially criminal minds. And even if the consent of a 17-year-old was somehow admissible in court to exonerate the alleged rapists, the emotional blackmail and predatory nature of the older males involved is on display here.

That is why the hue and cry being drummed up by the BJP in this case deserves not to be dismissed as a means to gain political currency. The party cadres certainly went overboard in creating a ruckus at the hospital; but it certainly did its job of backing the people when they needed it.

The ball, however, is in the police department’s court, not only for an honest investigation and fast-track prosecution in this case, but also to learn a moral lesson and conduct some introspection. Yes, policemen are also bred in the same society that breeds rapists who are not policemen. But before they pat their backs for the record number of challans and other such acts of valour, police officers need to understand why allegations of sexual assault by members of the force are more disgusting than shocking.