Silence in the courtroom

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

Out of order: The actions of the judge attracted widespread criticism from women’s groups   -  ISTOCK.COM

In a curious turn of events during a rape case hearing in Bihar, the judge ordered the arrest of the plaintiff — angry and vocal — and two NGO workers assisting her

* The denial of bail is now so common that all counteraction is forced to focus on this one thing: To get the unjustly accused person out of jail. We have not even begun to think of what will happen to the lives of these NGO workers, and many others like them, once they are “free”

* Young lives need more than just political solidarity

A 22-year-old woman is gang raped in Bihar. Four of the five accused get away. A case is filed and it goes to court. At the hearing, the young woman is traumatised as she comes face-to-face with the fifth accused. It is indeed one of the worst situations for a person who has survived rape — having to recount the experience in detail over and over again. If the court in Araria is anything like other courts in the country, it doesn’t take much to imagine how difficult this must be.

She asks for two friends — members of a local NGO — to be allowed inside the courtroom for the moral support she badly needs during the proceedings. She wants them to read the statement she is signing. In her condition, both physical and mental, reading and comprehending an official document is difficult.

The NGO workers come in to help. The survivor is traumatised, perhaps she protests loudly and even breaks down. None of this is unusual. What is unusual is that the judge slaps a case of contempt on her and her two friends, and orders their arrest. The rapist is still free. The case against him fades into the background. The three women are sent to jail.

Five days pass by. They do not get bail because the hearing is not held. Then, after huge pressure has been put by women’s groups and lawyers and activists (no one else seems to be bothered), the CJM court in Araria holds a special session, and grants bail to the survivor. The two activists, arrested on similar charges, are denied bail. No one can understand the logic behind the court order.

How do the ‘protectors’ of law live with their conscience when they make such blatantly unjust decisions? Or do they just think women have no business to be shouting in court, especially not after they’ve been raped? This is not the expected “zinda laash” behaviour.

Added to the trauma of rape and the court case, the survivor now has to live with the knowledge that her so-called objectionable behaviour has incarcerated her two supporters. What about them? How are they faring in jail? No one knows the answer. Their bail applications can’t be heard because an order dated July 15 suspended the functioning of district courts until further notice.

Will the two activists be able to or be willing to continue the kind of work they were doing, given how dangerous it seems? No one knows this answer either. But perhaps that is the intention — to frighten women and the marginalised into silence.

In 2013, the Justice Verma Committee made a number of recommendations to the government on dealing with cases of sexual violence. Regarding rape trials, the committee held that “whether the entire enquiry and trial is conducted in camera or not... in any case the victim must have a member of the women’s organisation inside to offer support”. Perhaps this is what the activists were trying to draw the attention of the judge to when they were accused of speaking in raised voices and obstructing court proceedings.

Rape is a crime against the State. But where is the State in this situation? Had she perhaps had a supportive, sympathetic State presence in the court, and not “just two women”, the situation may have been different. Although it’s difficult to say, because these days there is no such thing as a sympathetic State presence where women are concerned.

The actions of the judge have drawn widespread criticism from women’s groups. Sixty-three organisations and 7,050 individuals, among them a group of lawyers and over 3,500 sex workers, have come together under the umbrella of the National Network of Sex Workers. And yet, at the time of writing, the activists are still in detention. Knowing our justice system , these young activists — Kalyani and Tanmay — may languish in jail for a long time without a trial.

The denial of bail is now so common that all counteraction is forced to focus on this one thing: To get the unjustly accused person out of jail. We have not even begun to think of what will happen to the lives of these NGO workers, and many others like them, once they are “free”.

Perhaps the only thing they can be sure of is the support of women’s groups and their allies from across the board. But while this may be encouraging, it is by no means enough. Young lives need more than just political solidarity. Our failure as a society is that this is all we seem to have.

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, writer and director of Zubaan


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Published on July 24, 2020
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