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Remember Mathura?

columns Updated: Dec 26, 2012 18:40 IST
Sujata Anandan

I wonder if anybody remembers Mathura anymore? Her name is part of the annals of Indian jurisprudence and the Mathura rape case, which happened nearly 30 years ago, had led to the last major and truly reformative process in laws relating to women.

Mathura was a young 14-year-old tribal girl from the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra who had been gangraped by three constables in the toilet of the police station where she went to register a complaint against her brother who was harassing her for her relationship with her boyfriend. The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court had, on her appeal against a lower court verdict, convicted the policemen for criminal misuse of their authority but that was not why she became the catalyst for change. When the suspended policemen appealed against the court verdict, Mathura did not even know why the Supreme Court (SC) reversed the high court judgment upholding the lower court verdict that had earlier given the constables the benefit of the doubt, going one step further in its arguments for holding her, and not the rapists, guilty for her own rape.

The matter might have ended there had not some SC lawyers been looking up the records in the interest of a case they were fighting before the apex court. They were horrified to discover that the judge hearing the appeal in the highest court in the land had acquitted the policemen simply because Mathura had not been a virgin at the time of her rape.

"Because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops (they were drunk on duty) to have intercourse with her,'' the judge had said. By then Mathura was in her 20s and had married her boyfriend. Her brother had made peace with her husband and they were living happily in their village in Chandrapur when the national media, much less invasive at the time, descended on her village in search of the girl who had begun to cause national outrage at the antediluvian attitude of both the magistrate at Chandrapur and then the SC judge.

Mathura had got on with life but her interviews to the media led the government to reconsider the law regarding interrogation of women at police stations. By that time I was a journalist and among my first assignments was to talk to NGOs to discover if the amendments that required a woman to be interrogated in the presence of her relatives and as far as possible not at a police station and never at night was making a difference to women.

What I discovered instead was a little five-year-old girl raped by her 15-year-old neighbour - activists of the NGO I had been speaking to were rushing to the police station where the girl and her mother had been called in by the police in a Bombay suburb, on International Women's Day. These policemen were clearly not yet gender-sensitised and were attempting to persuade the mother not to complain against the rapist because that would 'spoil' the lives of both the little girl and the boy who had violated her dignity.

I kept up with the NGO and I know it took them long years to get the police to listen. Now with things getting out of hand in Delhi over the gangrape of a young medical student, I was glad to see that at least Bombay's police force is being gender-sensitised by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. The CM held a late-night meeting on Monday to demand some preventive measures like helplines and expediting the existing cases. The city's top policemen seem to have swung into action to put systems in place should such an incident happen or get reported anywhere in Maharashtra. There are 13,000 rape cases pending in various courts in the state and this year there have been nearly 1,500 reported rapes.

Now as the issue of rape becomes a finger-pointing game by various political parties, with the BJP saying Delhi is not safe for women and the Congress in turn pointing to the record in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and other BJP-ruled states, I believe it is not just tighter laws and the fast-track courts (which took another national outrage over another millionth rape to accomplish) that will make India safer for its women.

It is the mindset of men, in authority and out of it, like that SC judge way back in the 1980s, which needs to change. Sadly not much changed in 30 years since Mathura and I wonder if it ever will.