Monthly Archives: May 2012

Trials, errors and the art of compromise – AMAN SETHI (The Hindu)

A tragic case of sexual violence pits two young women against each other, but the needle of suspicion points to familiar villains: policemen and patriarchy

One dawn in January last year, a young woman slipped out of her house, walked down to the Gandhi Nagar station and stepped into the path of an oncoming train.

She survived, but lost her left leg and all sensation below her waist. Last Wednesday, the woman, Pushpa*, was brought before the Special Judge for Women Atrocities and Dowry Cases to identify the three policemen who, she alleged, had sexually tortured her to the point of suicide. Also in court was Shweta*, a 20-year-old known to Pushpa, who claimed that Pushpa and her cohorts had drugged, raped and blackmailed her in December 2010.

The two women had been friends, meeting occasionally in Pushpa’s room to gossip, experiment with cigarettes and alcohol and on one occasion photographed themselves kissing. In many ways, their twin trials document the contradictory impulses of the small Indian town grown big, where tech-savvy youth shun the contractual new economy for the security of the bureaucracy, the government school, and the government bank, and the sheher’s liberatory promise is tempered by the lingering claustrophobia of the samaj.

The education bazaar

Beyond Jaipur’s pink city of heritage havelis and palaces lies an urban agglomerate of exposed brick walls slathered with advertisements for India’s most enduring asset bubble, “Education.” Each day, thousands of students flock to tuition centres offering fresher, refresher and crash courses to help aspirants crack an array of acronymic entrance examinations: RAS, IAS, MAT, CAT, SLAT, NET, BCA, BBA. Some specialise in subjects: “English, Physics, Maths, Engg”; others peddle redemption, “Failed XI? Pass XII.”

In December 2010, Pushpa, 24, and Shweta, 20, met at Ramanujam Mathuria Coaching classes where they studied Maths, English, Reasoning and Computers to qualify to become clerks in a nationalised bank.

“Who was this girl, who talked so much in class?” wrote Pushpa, in her diary, “Mamta told me she was an orphan…from abroad…with 50 crore worth of property in her name.” Pushpa, the daughter of a policeman in the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary, lived on rent with two boys from her native village near Bharatpur, while Shweta lived with her parents who were from Allahabad, not “Hong Kong,” as she told another friend.

On January 18, 2011, Shweta left her house in Pratap Nagar for her tuition centre and didn’t return. Two days later, her father filed a missing person’s report at the police station. On January 22, Head Constable Lalchand Meena arrived at Pushpa’s house to ask about Shweta’s disappearance. According to her statement before a magistrate, Pushpa was interrogated in a locked room in her house, while her roommates were taken to the Pratap Nagar police station and brutalised. The next day, the police summoned them for further interrogation.

The Pratap Nagar police station functions out of a complex of 12 residential apartments built for middle-ranked police officers. The station house officer sits in a living room; one of the two bedrooms serves as a lock-up. As her father waited in the station below, Pushpa alleges, constable Lalchand Meena took her to an empty apartment upstairs where he abused, beat, threatened and sexually molested her in the presence of Ramniwas Bishnoi, the SHO. “Today you have come in jeans,” Lalchand allegedly said, before sending Pushpa home, “Come tomorrow in a black skirt. That will make it easier.”

Early next morning, Pushpa threw herself in front of a train. “Lalchand Meena performed such an obscene act on me that my body was unable to bear it,” she wrote in a suicide note. “I am taking my life of my own volition as I have fallen in the eyes of my father.”


Pushpa’s case made headlines: a police constable’s daughter assaulted inside a police station. Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan’s Chief Minister, announced a grant of Rs.10 lakh as compensation. Lalchand Meena, Ramniwas Bishnoi and a third police constable were arrested. Aditi Mehta, Principal Secretary for Social Justice and Empowerment, conducted an exhaustive inquiry in which she concluded that Pushpa was physically, mentally and sexually tortured inside the police station.

The policemen denied the charges. SHO Bishnoi said he never met Pushpa, though his cell phone location records indicated otherwise. A policeman toldThe Hindu that Lalchand Meena found a laptop with photographs of Pushpa and Shweta kissing. “He showed the photos to her father; the girl started crying, her father was shocked. That’s probably why she tried to kill herself,” he said.

In May 2011, Shweta, who had now been “missing” for four months, reappeared in Jaipur. In a statement before a magistrate, Shweta claimed that in December 2010, Pushpa and her friends had drugged her, raped her and filmed the act. Pushpa then allegedly blackmailed Shweta, and forced her to have sex with at least three men for money.

This is the account Shweta gave of what had happened to her: On January 18, 2011, she said, she was abducted and injected with an unknown substance before she regained consciousness on a Pune bound train. En route, she met a group of truck drivers, including Bunty Tomar who, she says, took her home to his village in Mathura, confined her against her will for four months, raped her and forced her to have an abortion. Pushpa “is responsible for all my sufferings. She devastated my life,” said Shweta in her statement.

Yet, Shweta’s account of her disappearance is riddled with contradictions; the police claim to have evidence proving that Shweta accompanied men to hotel rooms in Jaipur on three occasions in December 2010. But the police are yet to produce the central piece of evidence: the supposed video clip that Pushpa allegedly recorded. “The clip was deleted,” said Investigating Officer Yogesh Dadich, “Data recovery was not possible.”

In Jadongaon, where Shweta was allegedly confined, villagers insisted she came to Bunty Tomar’s house of her own accord. Bunty’s father, Sauran Tomar, said Shweta introduced herself as “Kashish,” a doctor with an MBBS degree who had run away from home. “I begged her to go home, but she said she would jump into the Yamuna if I forced her to leave,” he said.

Tomar, and other residents, claimed that Shweta/Kashish had fully adapted to village life when the police “rescued” her in May that year.

“But she came back soon after,” said Gopal Singh, a village elder, “and so finally her parents came and solemnised her marriage to Bunty in front of the whole village.”

Yet no one in Jadongaon could produce photographs or documents to prove that Bunty and Shweta did marry or that Shweta’s parents visited the village. The only remaining trace of Shweta is an incongruous blackboard in a cowshed. “She said she wanted to open a school and teach,” Tomar said, “So we made this classroom.”

On searching Tomar’s house, the police found a visiting card in the name of Shweta Tomar, a Marketing Manager for Empire Edusoft, an Agra-based firm. An Edusoft manager said that Shweta worked for them for two weeks during her disappearance and had a work cellphone. Yet, Shweta declined to contact her family.

Earlier this year, the Rajasthan High Court ordered the arrest of all those connected with Shweta’s abduction. On February 29, Pushpa, paralysed and incontinent, was arrested and detained in a city hospital. The Supreme Court was forced to intervene when the district and High Court refused her bail. Seven men, including Bunty Tomar, are still imprisoned in the same case.

Express samjhauta

A month later, the Jaipur police filed a charge sheet accusing Pushpa of conspiring to drug, abduct and gang rape Shweta. Simultaneously, Pushpa’s family told the press that she was under pressure to recant her accusations against the policemen.

Shweta, it turned out, used to coach the children of Ramniwas Bishnoi, the SHO accused of assaulting Pushpa, and the disgraced policeman was acquainted with her family. The activists who took up Pushpa’s case suspect the abduction and rape charge against her was made in order to get her to drop her own complaint against the police.

Though the police deny this, community leaders from Pushpa’s village recently suggested a samjhauta, or compromise where both girls refuse to recognise their tormentors. Both cases would then collapse, and the jailed men would ultimately walk free.

On May 21 this year, Pushpa’s father texted Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who had helped take her petition for bail to the Supreme Court. “I don’t want to compromise my self-respect…[but] understand my obligations. I cannot bear any more troubles in my family. If Shweta’s testimony is in our favour, I too am obliged.” That evening, Srivastava and Lad Kumari Jain, Chairperson of the Rajasthan State Commission for Women, visited Pushpa, who told them she was under tremendous pressure to change her statement. In an email, Ms. Jain quoted Pushpa’s mother as saying, “There was a meeting of our community and they told my father-in-law that they must save the boys that Shweta had accused of rape.”

Pushpa’s father initially refused to comment except to say, “We have been humiliated in front of the world. Everyone has obligations, everyone has to live in a community.” Speaking of his situation, he said, “A man feels like a puppet, someone tugs you one way, then another.” Pushpa refused to speak at all.

Shweta and her parents didn’t meet this correspondent. A person close to the family denied any external pressure from the police, but said they were exhausted by the prospect of a prolonged and intrusive trial.

Two days later, on May 23, the girls were presented in court. Despite naming her attackers in her statements, suicide notes and diaries, Pushpa said she was sexually assaulted in the Pratap Nagar police station, but could not recognise the perpetrators.

Shweta denied ever accusing anyone of blackmailing, drugging or raping her. She said she left home because an unknown person, calling from an unknown number, claimed to have recorded an obscene video clip of hers.

According to a local news report, she said she didn’t recognise any of the accused brought before her. Not even Pushpa.

(*Name changed to protect her identity.)




Satyamev Jayate’s Ardh Satya – FARAH NAQVI (The Hindu)

Aamir Khan’s ‘truths’ on sex-selective abortion showcased mothers who fought the practice but he missed the point that reproductive decisions are rarely made by women

In a media-saturated age, stars must use their celebrity status to draw attention to things that get ignored. Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate — a 360° swing away from the muscle flexing normally associated with Bollywood men — has sealed his image as a socially conscious star. The Sunday morning slot, the unprecedented tie-up between private television and Doordarshan, the ‘touch your heart’ approach, and the inaugural issue itself — ‘saving the girl child’, a guaranteed winner — made for good television. The studio audience was practically bawling by the time Swanand Kirkire belted out his soulful ode to the girl child at the end (O Ri Chiraiya). So why does the bee in my bonnet refuse to settle down?

For one, Aamir Khan has taken a huge leap from raising awareness to being expert, interlocutor and activist all rolled into one. The show goes beyond talk show journalism, which at least pretends to allow different shades of opinion to argue, disagree (and the better shows do not attempt a final resolution). This show is unabashed ‘truth-telling’ — Satyamev Jayate — and is structured to appropriate for its lead star the power of being the truth-fountain. The concern is that he presents both a populist and one-dimensional truth’ on an enormously complex social issue with a dangerous authority that only his kind of stardom can muster.

Sex selection is certainly something this nation needs to talk about. And if this show gets us talking, that’s welcome. I only wish Aamir had started a different conversation, taking us beyond the ‘beti bachao’ discourse that has failed to dent sex selection one iota for over 20 years. Everybody loves to “bachao betis” — politicians regularly pose with little girls as they launch cash-transfer schemes for them (called things like kanyadaan or bhagyalaxmi). The ‘girl child’ has become a de-contextualised object for us to ‘save,’ like a cute little bunny rabbit. Overall concerns of gender equity are not a central part of the discussion, but they have to be. Because the problem is not with innocent, pig-tailed little girls. The problem this country has is with its women (that is what pig-tailed girls grow into, remember?) And until we make gender justice and equity central to this framework, we will struggle in vain against the tide.

The show started with testimonies of three brave mothers who had saved their female foetuses against tremendous odds. I salute them. But this showcasing, serving largely to place the onus for saving female foetuses on ‘brave motherhood’ misses the point that reproductive decisions in India are not made solely, or chiefly, by women.

Then the language — ‘female foeticide’, ‘killing of girls,’ ‘murder in the womb’ — dents not the practice of sex selection but women’s reproductive rights by stigmatising all abortion. After all, the very act of abortion is a ‘foeticide.’ Scores of women’s rights groups have been battling this regressive language, preferring the more accurate descriptor ‘sex selection.’ Research should have told the show’s producers about the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which gives Indian women (some) legal rights to access safe abortion. Yet, abortion services are dismal, and lakhs of desperate women undergo perfectly legitimate, non-sex selective abortions in unsafe backrooms. Some bleed to death in the process. Even as we seek to urgently end sex selective abortions, we need to simultaneously ensure that we do not create an environment that compromises our commitment to expanding safe, legal abortion services for all women.

‘The’ solution

Aamir Khan’s also presented ‘the’ solution, to this complex problem. He will work with the Government of Rajasthan to fast track cases of violation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT). On Wednesday, he pressed this point and got an assurance from Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. I agree India has shamefully abdicated implementation of this law. Medical ethics must be foregrounded; the extremely powerful medical lobby held criminally accountable. But in a demand-supply paradigm, especially on an issue like this, law alone cannot be the centrepiece of the solution.

The PCPNDT Act can only stem the supply of ultrasound technology that enables sex determination. We need to put equal energy on the demand side, by asking the complex, deeper questions. Why, as India heads towards modernity, are families increasingly averse to daughters? Is the source of aversion the same as it always was? We know sex selection is motivated by socially accepted devaluation of females, perpetuated by traditional gender roles, but what else is going on? With immense social change taking place in India, we need to identify fault lines and zones of social conflict where this devaluation can be challenged. In an age of unbridled consumerism, is the ‘girl’ just another ‘inconvenient object’? In this same economic landscape how can we build on the fact that more women are entering the workforce, but with lower pay than men? Can the struggle for equal wages be one piece of the solution?

How are modern aspirations colliding with traditional social relations? Why do fathers-to-be fear what lies in store for them if they have a daughter? Is it still dowry? Is it also fear of violence against women? Is it fear of women’s sexual promiscuity, fuelled by the surfeit of sexually-explicit media images? Why is this fear not offset by her possible economic contribution to her family? Well, to earn, she might need to venture into the big bad world where her chastity will need protection; her sexuality controlled. Let us talk about these attitudes and fears, Aamir, instead of shouting ‘criminal’ and ‘paapi‘ at every would-be-parent who contemplates sex selection.

Which population cohort would be most open to questioning and challenging gender roles (as ‘essentially’ wives and mothers); has the greatest stake in mounting a challenge to sex selection; and may be amenable to change? Is it young women? Let’s talk to them and their families. Which cohort might oppose social realignment? Is it the older generation? Young men? Well, let’s talk to them as well.

Aamir Khan is a youth icon. And these are the conversations I wish he had started. They would have made great television, and serious progress on a social issue. It’s like Anna’s anti-corruption movement and the Jan Lokpal Bill. Populist rhetoric does not generate nuanced solutions. On sex selection,Satyamev Jayate chose a populist ‘truth’; and failed to push the envelope on the difficult, deeper, much needed conversation with a changing India.

(The author is a writer and activist, and member of the National Advisory Council. Views expressed here are personal)


Response from Press Council of India

Response from Press Council of India for the complaint against Vodafone Advertisment