Last Friday, when a Mumbai sessions court awarded the life sentence to four convicts in the gang rape of a telephone operator at the Shakti Mills compound in a trial that lasted seven months, we felt some sense of vindication.
The court on Monday accepted the prosecution’s application to frame charges for repeated offence against the accused who were also found guilty of the gang rape of a photojournalist at the same site and the quantum of punishment in that case will be pronounced today.
Two minors, one in each case, are being tried under the juvenile justice Act separately. But we cannot help but wonder whether the judicial swiftness that has been witnessed in these cases and in the case of the December 16 gang rape was not due in some part to the immense pressure from the public and the media. These cases sparked nationwide outrage and witnessed debates on social attitudes towards sexual violence.
They also took place in Delhi and Mumbai, where they got greater visibility than if they had taken place in a smaller town or city. But what about the thousands of rape cases pending in the courts for decades? Nearly 24,000 rape cases are in various high courts across the country. Under the new rape laws only the Delhi gang rape — the case that forced the amendment of the existing laws in the first place — has been taken to its logical conclusion.
The fact that the accused in the Shakti Mills cases were repeat offenders shows that they were operating with impunity in the area. This clearly highlights that in the absence of better policing and prosecution, stringent laws alone cannot guarantee justice. Moreover, in rape cases, forensic evidence is vital to ensure that cases do not fall apart in the courts.
In the Bhanwari Devi case, the medical examination was conducted 52 hours after the incident, weakening her case in the sessions court that acquitted the accused. The case, which gave the country the Visakha guidelines, was a case study in how not to investigate a rape case.
The Shakti Mills convictions have set the right precedent. The judiciary must fast track all rape trials and not just the high-profile ones. And it must also clear pending cases so that the victims do not have to relive their trauma every day.