Sex with girl on promise to marry will not constitute rape,” announced the apex court. An arresting headline no doubt and one which will prompt a sigh of relief to many a philanderer while women’s’ groups who deal with the victims will seethe.
A balanced view must of course prevail, using a combination of commonsense and justice. However, this does not take away from the strange judgment given a month ago by a Tamil Nadu judge who set aside the conviction of a rapist because he offered Rs 10 lakh as compensation to the victim. The conviction itself would come under scrutiny under the new declaration of the apex court, but that’s a different issue. Conviction implies guilt. Can a convicted rapist be let off the hook because he is rich? This is the question women’s groups are asking.
“Is Rs 10 lakh now the admissible price for rape?” ask outraged activists in Tamil Nadu. Strangely the landmark rape judgment, delivered a few weeks before the 60th year of Indian Independence celebrations commenced, has drawn little response and few public expressions of protest. <b1>
But first the facts. Tamil Actor Mansur Ali Khan, found guilty of rape by an additional sessions court, had been sentenced to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 3 lakh to be paid to the victim. According to the prosecution, the victim, who was the actor’s personal assistant, was raped on December 8, 1996. Khan appealed to the High Court and offered to pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
On July 23, 2007, Justice R. Reghupathy overturned the conviction of Khan by the lower court and acquitted him. Justice Reghupathy directed Khan to pay Rs.7 lakh– 3 lakhs having been paid already— within six weeks of the judgment. This begs the question: If the accused is not guilty of rape why a fine? How can one be acquitted and still be punished?
Peoples’ Watch Director Henri Tiphagne asks, “Is this not a total travesty of justice? A mockery of the judicial system in our country? How can a convicted rapist be acquitted because he agrees to pay compensation? Does that mean anyone with money can rape with impunity? We might as well dispense with trials, courts, lawyers and judges. Why bother with a legal system? Just put up the price list for rape.”
A demonstration condemning the high court judgment for letting off the actor was staged in front of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on July 26 this year by activists of several human rights organisations, including People’s Watch and the Citizens for Human Rights Movement under the leadership of C. J. Rajan, Shanmugavelu and. Kala Newton.
They pointed out that the acquittal of a rapist on paying compensation of Rs 10 lakh (or any sum of money) endangers the right to life and right to security of all women. “If Rs.10 lakh is the price for rape, then does it mean that the Indian Penal Code is not valid?” Asks Henri Tiphagne. “Tomorrow, if compensation is paid for caste violence and murder, will punishment be withdrawn?” queried another activist. “We want rule of Law and not rule of the market,” the placards said.
Kamla Bhasin, former Member, National Womens’ Commission, an activist who has fought for women’s rights for over 30 years, comments: “A crime is a crime. If a rich man pays Rs 7 lakh or Rs 7crore, to acquit him once he has been judged guilty is to ridicule the law and cause injury to the victim. It is allowing upper caste and upper class rich men to get away. Today if Sanjay Dutt offers 50 crore compensation will he be set free?”
Vasanthi Devi, former Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam University, Tirunelvi, and former Chairperson of Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women is stunned by the judgment. “It’s shocking that for a criminal offence a person could be let off lightly. How can it be justified? We are not supposed to pass judgment on judges but it is unbelievable that a lower court judgment can be bypassed in such a manner. It’s unprecedented.. It is immaterial if the victim signed a compensation agreement. That does not permit the legal system to allow a criminal to get away with impunity. I am also amazed that no one has picked it up. Apart from The Hindu report of July 24, I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, neither by the local papers nor women’s groups.”
Syeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission, special charge for women and children and former member, National Commission for Women, has travelled across the country documenting crime against women, both rural and urban. The Hindu spoke to her in far away Dibrugarh. “It revolts me. Utterly and completely. It’s sending out the signal that our women can be raped, murdered and the rapists or murderers can buy freedom. A woman from a poor family may need the money, the compensation..”
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a social activist who works with adivasis.